“A new system is inevitable. The question is whether we will build that system on a foundation of justice and equity or whether we will build that system using the very same tools that landed us in this disaster in the first place.” The words of Shalanda H. Baker, Joe Biden’s recently appointed deputy director for energy justice at the US Department of Energy, in her new book: Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition. While they speak of the energy transition, they could just as easily be referring to the global adoption of frontier technologies.

In its new Technology and Innovation Report: Catching technological waves: Innovation with equity – released today – the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) focuses on this question and issues a global call to action for governments to put equity at the heart of the technological revolution transforming our world. Because though it highlights that frontier technologies are ‘essential for sustainable development’ and to achieve the UN Global Goals, it warns ‘they could also accentuate initial inequalities’.

“Technologies are not deterministic. We can shape their pathways for good. And we have an obligation to do it,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, director of UNCTAD’s division on technology and logistics.

Progress at a cost

The industrial revolution accelerated inequality and was the start of the chasm that now exists between countries. It left millions living in abject poverty: used and abused by a system which grew exponentially richer on the back of their hardships. In turn establishing the corrosive intergenerational transmission of inequalities that saw the contribution of between-country inequality to global inequality rise from 28% to 85% between 1820 and 2002.

Preventing a repeat of these inequalities being hardwired into the frontier technologies transition must be a top priority for governments worldwide. Key to this, the report states, will be robust national policies, with UNCTAD arguing that developing countries can ‘catch up and forge ahead’ by adopting these technologies and diversifying ‘their production bases by mastering many existing technologies’. And it calls for a strengthening of innovation systems within these countries, which for too long have been ‘weak and prone to systemic failures and structural deficiencies’.

To support governments implement policies that fit their circumstances the report provides a ‘country readiness index’ of 158 countries. Which ‘assesses the progress of countries in using frontier technologies, considering their national capacities related to physical investment, human capital and technological effort’.

“Governments and other development actors will need to prepare fast. Developing countries, particularly the least developed ones, can’t afford to miss this new wave of rapid technological change,” continued Ms. Sirimanne. “A whole-of-government approach is needed to absorb these technologies, as opposed to working in silos.”

Ms. Sirimanne also wants developing countries to ‘align science, technology and innovation (STI) policies with industrial policies’, adding that: “new technologies can re-invigorate traditional production sectors and speed up industrialization and economic structural transformation.”

The goal of the report is to ‘ensure innovation is done with equity in mind’ through effective national and international governance of STI policies, and the social activism of people and organisations.

On the Inside Ideas podcast with Marc Buckley, Shalanda H. Baker said: “equity must be central to the [renewable energy] transition”. Governments should now make that their guiding principle in rolling out frontier technologies – and citizens should demand that they do.

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