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Developments in science and technology are fundamentally altering the way people live, connect, communicate and transact, with profound effects on economic development. To promote tech advance, developing countries should invest in quality education for youth, and continuous skills training for workers and managers.
Science and technology are key drivers to development, because technological and scientific revolutions underpin economic advances, improvements in health systems, education and infrastructure.
The technological revolutions of the 21st century are emerging from entirely new sectors, based on micro-processors, tele-communications, bio-technology and nano-technology. Products are transforming business practices across the economy, as well as the lives of all who have access to their effects. The most remarkable breakthroughs will come from the interaction of insights and applications arising when these technologies converge.
Through breakthroughs in health services and education, these technologies have the power to better the lives of poor people in developing countries. Eradicating malaria, a scourge of the African continent for centuries, is now possible. Cures for other diseases which are endemic in developing countries are also now possible, allowing people with debilitating conditions to live healthy and productive lives.
Access and application are critical. Service and technology are the differentiators between countries that are able to tackle poverty effectively by growing and developing their economies, and those that are not. The extent to which developing economies emerge as economic powerhouses depends on their ability to grasp and apply insights from science and technology and use them creatively. Innovation is the primary driver of technological growth and drives higher living standards.
As an engine of growth, the potential of technology is endless, and still largely untapped in Africa and other developing world regions across the globe. Less developed countries not only lack skilled labour and capital, but also use these less efficiently. Inputs account for less than half of the differences in per capita income across nations. The rest is due to the inability to adopt and adapt technologies to raise productivity.
Computing for example, through unlocking infrastructure backlogs and managing integrated supply chains, can transform economic performance by enabling affordable and accessible services in education and healthcare. The combination of computers and the Internet, and mobile devices and the “cloud”, has transformed human experience, empowering individuals through access to knowledge and markets, changing the relationship between citizens and those in authority, as well as allowing new communities to emerge in virtual worlds that span the globe.
According to the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (UN-ITU), by the end of 2010 there were an estimated 5.3 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide, including 940 million subscriptions to 3g services. About 90 percent of the world’s population can access mobile networks, with three-quarters of mobile subscribers living in developing economies. Cellular technology has allowed Africa to leapfrog the age of fixed line telephony, bringing affordable access to millions of people.
However, the continued and equitable expansion of Information Communication Technology (ICT) depends on electricity. The real divide over the next 20 years will be between those who have access to reliable electricity to power these devices and those who do not.
Other technologies under development are interventions for cognitive enhancement, proton cancer therapy and genetic engineering. Revolutionary inventions include small underground nuclear power units called nuclear batteries that will be ultra-safe and maintenance-free; new types of photo-voltaics that will make electricity from sunlight cheaper than that from coal; and myriad nano-technologies, some of which lower the cost and increase the reliability of many products – even in the poorest areas of the developing world.
Managing technological revolutions poses challenges. Certain innovations and discoveries will raise fraught bio-ethical issues, as genetic modification of food crops and cloning of human embryos has already done. There is a risk that their cost, particularly in the early stages of development, will worsen the present inequality by limiting access to wealthy individuals. This already happens in health care in certain G7 countries, where the demand for very high-cost diagnostic equipment and surgical interventions enabling longevity and better quality of life for older wealthy people overstretches public health care budgets, and lowers service quality in poor neighborhoods. Finally, resource-intensive technologies, focused on satisfying high consumption demand, like holidays abroad in costal resorts, wilderness areas, or iconic cities, increase carbon emissions and environmental damage.
To promote technological advances, developing countries should invest in quality education for youth, continuous skills training for workers and managers, and should ensure that knowledge is shared as widely as possible across society.
In a world in which the Internet makes information ubiquitous, what counts is the ability to use knowledge intelligently. Knowledge is the systemically integrated information that allows a citizen, a worker, a manager, or a finance minister to act purposefully and intelligently in a complex and demanding world. The only form of investment that allows for increasing returns is in building the stocks and flows of knowledge that a country or organization needs, an in encouraging new insights and techniques.
Adopting appropriate technologies leads directly to higher productivity, which is the key to growth. In societies that have large stock and flows of knowledge, virtuous circles that encourage widespread creativity and technological innovation emerge naturally, and allow sustained growth over long periods. In societies with limited stocks of knowledge, bright and creative people feel stifled and emigrate as soon as they can, creating a vicious circle that traps those who remain in a more impoverished space. Such societies stay mired in poverty and dependency.
The investment climate is crucial, as are the right incentive structures, to guide the allocation of resources, and to encourage research and development.
Successful countries have grown their ability to innovate and learn by doing, by investing public funding to help finance research and development in critical areas. Everyone is involved – big and small, public and private, rich and poor.
The benefits that are certain to flow from technological revolution in an increasingly connected world and knowledge-intensive world will be seized by those countries and companies that are alive to the rapidly changing environment, and nimble enough to take advantage of the opportunities. Those that succeed will make substantial advances in reducing poverty and inequality.
Lee-Roy Chetty holds a masters degree in media studies from the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A two-time recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, he is currently completing his PhD at UCT and an economics degree with Unisa.
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