It’s the end of this years Summit on the Global Agenda, the annual World Economic Forum Meeting in Dubai where Andrew Maynard and I have spent the last twenty four hours trying to find the right home for emerging technologies in a world dominated by policy issues.
The problem at almost any high level meeting is that technology becomes somewhat marginalised and while it is easy to discuss boiling issues such as Climate Change or the Global Financial System, things that are highly visible, technology requires special treatment. As one participant put it “you can’t just concentrate on the things you can understand and ignore everything else” and for most policy makers technology fits into the latter category This lack of understanding engenders a belief that technology just happens, and that anyone who wants to find a solution to a pressing problem should merely walk into a tecnology orchard and pluck the required technologies from the trees.
But the problem is that the way society uses technology is very inefficient. While technologies do make it from the lab into the real world, it is a very inefficient process, dependent on someone making the connection between a technology and a need at the right time and managing to find a way to get the solution funded. While some do manage to struggle through there are plenty of other technological solutions that are wasted because no one makes the link at the right time, or even because policy makers give equal weight to NGOs and science which can render whole swathes of technology off limits, and proving that something is 100% safe is much harder than highlighting potential risks. There is of course the argument that this is merely natural selection, but if we have urgent issues such as climate change or pandemics, should we let nature take its rather inefficient course or should we be looking at ways to speed up the production of technology driven solutions?
Of course we should, but when we are dealing with global policy it can be hard to find a home for emerging technologies as they cut across so many issues and don;t fit into any neat policy area. This week I have had discussions with groups looking at sustainable building, urban planning, biodiversity, food security, water security, illicit trade, transportation, chronic diseases and wellness and even fragile states, and found not only common ground with all of them, but also a burning desire for technology to come up with solutions, and pronto!
So how do we make this process more efficient? The solution is twofold. Firstly within organisations such as the WEF emerging technologies need to be grouped with the issues that are demanding solutions. This year we were together with groups looking at risk management which was less than ideal, but a greater emphasis needs to be put on the benefits of technology rather than simply looking at the risks, so that policy makers can get a balanced impartial view and take the right decisions. Secondly we need to be able to direct emerging technologies to address major issues and bottlenecks, and this is dependent on policy makers being able to articulate what really needs to be done, and when.
It’s nice to have an evening off after three very intense days, but next week the real work starts again, that is to deliver on the ideas and proposals debated over the weekend, and to make sure that emerging technologies are not only used to improve the quality of life for everyone on the planet, which they can, but that they are also seen as part of the solution by those setting the global agenda so that they can be effectively deployed with a real science based understanding of the risks and the rewards.
After all, the biggest risk to our future is spending the next ten years discussing, mapping and regulating existing problems without attempting to find any solutions.