What Are Emerging Technologies For?

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and re evaluate what we are doing and why, something my good friend Doug Mather of the Creation Company has been urging people to do for years. It is very easy, whether in science or in business to develop myopia or tunnel vision, concentrating so hard on one particular task or goal that the rest of the world slips by almost unnoticed.

I find my release from the pressures of keeping up with science and running a number of businesses by hill walking – getting blown around on the top of Pen-y-Ghent or picking my way through the granite pillars of the Sierra de Guadarrama allows me to switch off from email and phone calls for long enough to ponder the big issues rather than picking through the daily list of to do’s.

Part of this big picture thinking led to the publication by the World Economic Forum yesterday of a new paper I authored with Andrew Maynard where we set out how we see the Role of Technology Innovation in an Increasingly Interdependent, Complex and Resource-constrained World.

You can download the full paper here, but in summary we are asking a very simple question – How can technology be best used to improve the lives of everyone on the planet?

While there have been some recent backlashes against technologies recently, and at many meetings of NGOs I attend there is some deep suspicion that technology is the result of  a sinister conspiracy by governments and businesses, technology has almost always been a force for good.

Obvious examples are the harnessing of fire, and the invention of agriculture, which started the transition of humans from hunter-gatherers to philosophers and Internet addicts. But perhaps the most startling transformation over the past fifty years has been in medicine, with many diseases that were killers being irradiated or, in the case of an increasing number, becoming chronic conditions.  One hundred years ago few people who went into an operating theatre came out alive, now it’s the vast majority.

But that is all in the past, and while we often think that technology is chugging along quite nicely as we browse Facebook on our iPads, we have to take that steep back and wonder whether technology is capable of addressing the big issues? Can an iPad help with meeting the energy demands of an increasingly wealthy world, or help avert wars over scarce resources such as water?

The vision that we set out in the paper is one where we take a longer term view of emerging technologies and their uses. To enable the increasing range of emerging technologies to be harnessed for good of everyone requires some new thinking about why and how we develop technologies, as we explain over at the World Economic Forum’s blog.

Through the work of the World Economic Forums Global Agenda Councils, we are developing and deepening inter linkages between emerging technologies and groups looking at other global issues, from climate change to innovation.  In the scientific community we are preaching to the converted, but it is now time to take the message to the politicians and business leaders, the people who make the real decisions.

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