On the one hand, our natural stock of resources has been depleting. In addition to it, we are reaching the limit of air, water, and soil to absorb and recycle waste produced by our productive activities. On the other hand, we need to meet the growing consumption of our fellow human beings. Therefore, our sustainable development agenda hinges on our capability of producing increasingly more Wealth from depleting natural resource stock, while producing less waste. Some of the challenges cited in the UN’s sustainable development goals include i. double agricultural productivity, ii. halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents, iii. double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and iv. decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. These challenges highly matter indeed for addressing sustainable development. But what are our means to attain them? Of course, we need enabling technologies for sustainable development.
The first challenge is how to access enabling technologies. The subsequent challenge is to figure out ways to exploit them. It has been found that the unfolding of technology solutions as a creative wave of destructions through market force is the most effective form. For example, profit-making competition has been the underlying force to offer energy-efficient LED light bulbs, while destroying energy-hungry light bulbs. We need profit-making competition for harnessing enabling technologies to offer us successive versions of products to get our purposes met better while consuming fewer resources and causing less harm to air, water, and soil. Moreover, enabling technologies should power the megatrend of transformation for offering better alternatives. Such reality challenges the agenda of technologies for sustainable development.
Paul Romer’s theory and the Market Economy
Professor Paul Romer has articulated economic production as a function of ideas and objects. Objects include natural resources, labor, energy, and all other inputs, except ideas. We use ideas to max inputs to produce economic output. Some of the economic outputs could microwave oven and a loaf of bread. In addition to objects, our ideas determine the quality of those economic outputs, how many resources we consume, and the waste we produce. Our challenge is to keep increasing the role of ideas to meet our sustainable development agenda so that we succeed in producing better quality economic output while consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. Consequently, we will be able to meet growing consumption with depleting resources sustainably. Therefore, the focus has been on ideas. The profit-making incentive is vital for risking investment for generating and trading them as product as process features.
In ancient philosophical writings, Carl Marx observed humans’ natural tendency of leveraging ideas in serving purpose increasingly better. To leverage, the market economy adopted principles to encourage profit-making competition out of ideas. These competitions often unfold as creative destruction. Products delivered by the next wave often destroy products, jobs, and firms associated with the previous wave. Prof. Schumpeter termed it as creative destruction. Such a creative destruction process is vital to leverage enabling technologies to produce more value from less or the same resources while producing less wastage. Some of the enabling technologies are explained below.
Robotics technologies for sustainable development
Robots are no longer limited in doing dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. They are now capable of performing production tasks more precisely and safely while producing less wastage. For example, robots in the food processes perform meat extraction jobs far more accurately than humans. As a result, there is growth in meat extraction, causing less wastage. Moreover, due to the reduction of human touch and presence, food is less contaminated than before. But to make robots perform productive jobs better than before, there is a need for investment in R&D, often over a prolonged period. There is also a high risk of reaching a profitable return.
For example, Honda, upon conducting R&D for 30 years over Humanoid ASIMO, could not profitably roll out the product. On the other hand, there is a job loss issue. Particularly, should developing countries buy robotics solutions from advanced countries to make progress in sustainable development?
The autonomous vehicle is a key technology for sustainable development
A high road accident rate is a growing issue. We lose about 3 percent of global GDP to road accidents. Human error is the primary cause. R&D is progressing to develop autonomous driving capacity. Once the envisioned technology is fully matured, roads will be safer, leading to less wastage of resources. On the other hand, the same road network will be able to handle more automobiles, resulting in ion further progress in sustainable development. Despite such possibilities, there has been a high need and risk in R&D investment. Upon having more than $80 billion investment, we are witnessing saturation in technology growth before it becomes a better alternative than a human driver. On the other hand, the rolling out of autonomous cars will have high job loss consequences at the bottom of the pyramid.
Electric vehicles and renewable energy
The electric vehicle is an emerging option to contribute to the agenda of decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation. Over the last more than 100 years, the gasoline engine has been progressing to power automobiles. Unfortunately, emission is an issue. Recent studies indicate that economic loss from the emission caused by the global transportation sector is about $1.5 trillion. Therefore, there is an urgency to reduce it. A serious measure started in the mid-1990s. The initial approach was to replace the gasoline engine with fuel cells to produce emission-free energy from hydrogen. Subsequently, test buses powered by fuel cells started plying in the late 1990s in Vancouver and Seattle. Before becoming a better option, it started showing signs of saturation.
In the meantime, lithium-ion batteries started showing potential, which led to the formation of Tesla. Despite the progress made over the last two decades, the electric battery is still far from being better and a cheaper alternative to the gasoline engine. Consequentially, we run a technology risk to find a sustainable emission-free propulsion system. The energy storage issue is also strongly coupled with the intermittence issue of renewable energy. Until and unless we solve the storage issue, renewable energy will not keep growing to offer us sustainable energy.
Precision farming & UAV technologies for sustainable development
We need to double our agricultural productivity by 2030. What are our options? Should we increase the use of fertilizer or other farming inputs? Unfortunately, there is no linear correlation. Another option is to for genetically modified food. But there are issues. Fortunately, precision farming offers us the opportunity of reducing wastage of farming inputs and increasing yield simultaneously. The recent commoditization of unmanned aerial vehicles has become a useful tool to fit with the necessary sensors, software, and spraying nozzles. Progress in a lithium-ion battery is also contributing to the payload capacity. Unfortunately, some countries are following stringent regulatory measures hindering the exploitation of UAVs for precision farming.
Light emitting diode
Of course, Thomas Alpha Edison did a great job by inventing the filament-based electric bulb. Nonetheless, it has wasted a significant amount of energy in producing light. After the proliferation of filament light bulbs, scientists started working on the idea of solid-state emission. It took more than 100 years to mature this technology to succeed in mass adoption. However, scientific discoveries for perfecting LED-based lighting also won a Nobel Prize. Of course, it has been making a significant contribution to the sustainable development agenda. It has been a long journey indeed. It took 100 years to develop a technology to power Innovation to take over energy-wasting solutions.
As high as 30 percent of energy in the industrial sector is wasted. Moreover, we waste more than 80 percent of energy while burning biomass in clay cooking stoves. Waste thermal energy harvesting has a huge potential to contribute to sustainable development goals. The journey of using thermoelectric technology started almost 70 years ago. Nonetheless, progress is slow. The energy harvesting efficiency is as low as 5 percent. It needs to make further progress in offering an economically feasible means of extracting wasted thermal energy. Or, we need to look for alternative technology core to create another wave of innovation. Due to the possibility of harvesting waste heat, it is an important technology for sustainable development.
Science and technology policy for leveraging technologies for sustainable Development
Of course, we need science and technology to find better means to produce increasing economic outputs from depleting resources, while causing less harm to the environment. Despite the necessity, there appears to be no easy option. Knowing or having access to technology does not do much good. Often it’s a long journey to develop alternative technology core to fuel the innovation wave. The next wave of innovation to offer us the desired better alternative. Such a journey not only takes a huge investment; most importantly, there is a high risk on the return on investment. On the other hand, the profit-making incentive is the key to harnessing the power of competition to leverage ideas for contributing to suitable development through technology. The technological challenge demands public investment in R&D to expand the flow of knowledge and ideas to fuel the innovation wave.
Although there has been a call for investment in R & D, visible signs, particularly in developing countries, have yet to show up. It’s time to have a far greater focus on public policy for harnessing ideas from S&T to fuel one after another creative wave of innovation for accelerating progress towards sustainable development.