Our Common Future Under Climate Change

International Scientific Conference 7-10 JULY 2015 Paris, France

Crown copyright/flickr

Crown copyright/flickr

Time for technology in international policy processes?


By Adrian Ely, University of Sussex

As everyone is pointing out, 2015 is a crucial year for sustainable development, with three critical international meetings in the calendar starting this month. But what role do science, technology and innovation play in these processes? 

Many of the discussions in the run-up to the forthcoming international meetings in Addis Ababa, New York and Paris mirror earlier debates in the United Nations, but they also offer hope that technology to be taken more seriously than in the past.

The Millennium project invested effort directly in understanding the role of science, technology and innovation through a dedicated task force.  Technological change will arguably be even more crucial in realising the SDGs (which require dramatic shifts in patterns of development in wealthier and poorer countries) than it was in the MDGs, when the focus was on poorer nations. What is happening this time around?

The UN has been working for at least fifty years in the areas of science, technology and innovation.  There have always been debates over whether technology should be treated as a focus for debate in its own right or remain a cross-cutting issue, to be integrated into the full range of sector-specific activities. I find it interesting how these debates – and some of the options for how to deal with technology explicitly – seem to come and go.

In 2013, the UN General Assembly requested that the Secretary General undertake a “joint gap and capacity analysis on a priority basis by 2013, with the aim of establishing a technology bank and science, technology and innovation supporting mechanism dedicated to the least developed countries, building on existing international initiatives”. The resultant report (A/68/217) laid out ideas for a ‘Technology Bank’ serving the Least Developed Countries.  

The first time this idea of such a “bank” was mentioned – to my knowledge – was in the ‘Sussex Manifesto’ that colleagues from SPRU and IDS came up with in 1970:
“Thirdly, there are problems of communication and access which need specific solution. On the one hand, the scientific and technological effort of the advanced and developing countries must be “coupled.”  On the other hand, the problem of access to technology must be solved. On this latter point, it is suggested that an international technology transfer bank may be a valuable if partial solution.

Other recommendations around “policies towards technology transfer” in the Sussex Manifesto remained under-specified, but debates in this area have continued in the intervening forty-five years.  The UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (under UNCTAD) has been one UN body that has focussed on technology transfer, but with relatively low levels of activity and resources, and without a clear mandate to facilitate technology transfer explicitly.

Up till a year ago some groups were still arguing that there should be a dedicated SDG related to technology, however this has not emerged. The nearest thing seems to be Goal 9 “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”, which includes a specific sub-goal to enhance scientific research and upgrade the technological capabilities but no technology assessment component.  

However, technology does seem to be being addressed more concretely as a cross-cutting issue.  Over the past two years there have been structured consultations on a ‘technology facilitation mechanism’ (to be discussed at the Financing for Development conference in July), that could focus on promoting access to new technologies associated with specific SDGs.  In late May of this year, the UN Division on Sustainable Development released a document entitled "Food for thought paper on a possible Technology Facilitation Mechanism” in which it outlined a number of possible components to such a “TFM”:
- An “online knowledge hub and information-sharing platform”
- An “annual (or biennial) forum on science, technology and innovation for the SDGs”
- A “UN system interagency working group on STI for the SDGs”
- A “coordinated STI capacity building programme”

Co-ordination in the area of science, technology and innovation (read “technology” for shorthand) appears to be back in vogue.  Commenting on the “food for thought” document and in particular the need for sharing IP, knowledge and technology, Felix Dodds, previously (1992-2012) Executive Director of the 20 years the Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, said “I have argued that would be best done with putting knowledge banks under the relevant UN Agency or Programme.” 

My colleagues and I argued for a co-ordinating body (a Global Innovation Commission) under a UN umbrella in the STEPS Centre’s ‘New Manifesto’, which drew on discussions in this area with our partners around the world. Wider in its scope, this included aspects of technology assessment, which was has also been raised as an important UN function within the structured dialogues.

At a conference in Paris next week, I will be discussing the role of international organisations in fostering not just the transfer of technology, but the build-up of related capabilities in developing countries.  

STEPS Centre colleagues Rob Byrne, Dave Ockwell and I (who have been discussing these issues in the area of low carbon energy for years) have a paper entitled 'Building pro-poor, low carbon innovation systems through international and indigenous efforts', which we will be presenting in a parallel session that I'm convening with Heleen de Coninck (Radboud University Nijmegen)(lead convenor) and Elena Verdolini (Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei): 4413(a) - Technology, transformations and capabilities in developing countries) - UPMC Jussieu - ROOM 309 - Block 24/34 Wednesday 17.30-19.00.

This relates to efforts under the UNFCCC to develop the Climate Technology Centre and Network (including advisory services providing ‘needs assessments’ to LDCs, which my colleagues have argued need to be linked much more strongly to national systems of innovation, their creation and support.  But could it go further? 

Is it possible that this year, with the alignment of donor interests (see section G of the current zero draft outcome document for the ‘Financing For Development’ conference) and the discussions in the United Nations, the question of technology and how it will be used and controlled will move to a more central stage, at least with regard to the broad ‘sustainable development’ agenda?
Adrian Ely is Deputy Director (Impact) at the STEPS Centre and a research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex.

This is part of a blog series profiling climate scientists, economists, social scientists and civil society members who are presenting and discussing innovative climate science at Our Common Future. For more follow @ClimatParis2015 and #CFCC15 on Twitter.

Share this article

Further Information