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Technological progress

Debating consequences

by Jan Peter Schemmel, Saskia Nagel

In depth

Many Africans use mobile phones for banking purposes

Many Africans use mobile phones for banking purposes

Innovative technologies can solve many development problems – but not all are sustainable. The international community should do more to assess the potential pros and cons of innovations. By Jan Peter Schemmel and Saskia Nagel

New technologies, for example in medicine or climate protection, are being developed around the world at a breakneck pace. Many are blessings. They increase standards of living and help dreams come true. An up and coming Chinese company has given itself the programmatic name BYD, short for Build Your Dreams.

Technology excites people with its promises of progress and prosperity. It also triggers fear and anxiety, however, because its consequences are often not well understood. This is a well-known phenomenon, and the recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima was a striking example of a powerful technology having an undesired impact. People tend to harbour doubts about ­genetic engineering, nanotechnology and other high-tech sectors too. Technological change will only serve society well if it fits with its values and respects the principles of sustainable development. Political leaders must steer the development of technologies and their application. In our era of globalisation, such responsibilities do not stop at national borders.

For this reason, we need something like a foreign policy on technology to address the opportunities and risks that go along with innovation. Both desired and un­desired consequences need to be assessed. Humankind should internationalise existing forecasting procedures and impact ­assessments for this purpose. We need an international community of practice.

So far, only a small number of nations have been technology leaders. This is changing, however, since emerging-market countries have become relevant actors. Their innovative products and procedures are spreading fast. Africans frequently use mobile phones to transfer money – which, to most Germans, still seems strange. This is an example of a new technology giving rise to new applications that can change a country’s course of development, deviating from the rich world’s established patterns.

In the field of technological innovation, the relative importance of industrialised nations is set to decline, both in regard to high-tech appliances and their sale to masses of customers. Western competitors kept a watchful eye on BYD as this former battery producer began manufacturing electric vehicles. Today, the German auto-giant Daimler is cooperating with this aspiring Chinese partner. Other emerging-market countries such as India or Brazil are also playing increasingly important roles in the development of technology and new applications.

But not every new development means real progress. The rich world lost sight of the big picture in the promotion of biofuels, for example. In 2003, the European Union passed regulation on gasoline, requiring producers to add biofuels. The idea was to create a new market where farmers would earn money without depending on subsidies.

It turned out that biofuel production was so expensive that Germany, for instance, began to import commodities from developing countries, where crops were often grown in an unsustainable manner. EU regulation was contributing to tropical deforestation. This policy not only failed to protect the climate, it even had the opposite effect. It pushed up food prices too.

In the end, the EU had to back-pedal and define sustainability standards, and compliance with these standards became a precondition for imports. EU politicians could have prevented this mess if they had thoroughly considered the international consequences of their action.

Many European countries have institutions for assessing the impacts of new technologies. The goal is to understand the range of consequences a technology will have – including social, economic, legal, political, cultural and environmental aspects. Policymakers as well as the public in general must know all options and understand where they may lead. Technology assessments can ward off problems and prevent conflict.

In Germany, we have the Office of Technology Assessment (Büro für Technik­folgen-Abschätzung – TAB for short) at the Bun­destag, the federal parliament. The TAB’s job is to assess the competitiveness of innovative technologies as well as their risks. Within the EU, the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment Network (EPTA) serves a similar function. It is composed of 14 national and regional institutions that assist policymakers, civil servants and the public in general. Outside Europe, however, technology assessment is still a largely unfamiliar idea. This must change since issues of global relevance are at stake.

Foreign advice

National institutions are well-advised to involve foreign experts in their assessments. Not all possible impacts become obvious to theoretical panderers, after all. It is essential to involve all parties concerned. Doing so leads to important information and makes it more likely, that the concerned will accept the results. Broad-based participation across borders serves realistic results.

The internationalisation of technology assessment will require specialised institutions and procedures in emerging-market and developing nations. This has already been spelled out in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The same is true of the Rotterdam Convention on hazardous chem­icals. Both treaties emphasise the principle of prior informed consent before a government allows imports of biological or chemical products into its country.

This principle obviously implies that governments understand opportunities as well as risks. In countries with limited capacities, this cannot be taken for granted however. Development agencies can contribute to making responsible foreign policy on technology happen. They should
– demand more policy space for developing countries in international negotiations and
– contribute to boosting the capacities needed for technology assessments in partner countries.

This strategy is not just pertinent in cooperation with the poorest countries. On the contrary, Germany has an interest in such capacities being developed in emerging-market countries since these nations are increasingly becoming technology providers. Germany should take advantage of its scientific and technological know-how to contribute to a global culture of assessment, of weighting advantages and disadvantages of innovative technologies. One way of doing so would be the exchange between national technological assessment institutions. Transnational, know­ledge-based expert networks can support policymakers in meaningful ways. It equally matters to firmly establish technology assessment institutionally and to ensure that results are taken into account. Even in risk-averse countries like Germany, however, pointing out risks tends to fall on deaf ears. Still, such failure may have dramatic consequences, as became evident in Fukushima where tsunami impacts were dramatically underestimated.

This plea for technology assessment may seem somewhat dirigiste. Governments, however, are not particularly competent on innovation. They only provide policy frameworks for technology development. Innovations are typically based on scientific discoveries and turned into marketable products or procedures by private-sector companies.

Society as a whole makes use of technology, takes advantage of its blessings and suffers its unintended consequences. It would not make sense to assess a technology without taking all relevant dimensions into account. Narrow-minded bureaucratic approaches are counterproductive. Instead, we need a willingness to comprehensively review the potential effects of any given invention – and draw the appropriate conclusions.

At an international level, Germany should work towards ensuring that technology assessment procedures – such as those embedded in the Cartagena Protocol or Rotterdam Convention – become standard ­everywhere around the world. Germany can help to shape international progress towards a new policy environment – and thus help turn technology development into ­sustainable development.