Tucked into the middle of this list is a section on “Technology transfer, science and innovation for development.” Since the subtheme of the Global Solutions Summit was “Technology Deployment for Emerging Markets,” I was especially interested to see what the G-77 had to say on the closely related issue of technology transfer for development. Alas, the two discussions couldn’t be further apart in tone and substance.
The GSS focused on private sector mechanisms to finance, organize, and manage the deployment of proven technologies for renewable energy, clean drinking water, food security, and low cost, high quality health care delivery. The main thrust of the G-77 Declaration, by comparison, is a call for governments and new supranational “mechanisms” to organize, manage, and support technology transfer to developing countries. “We call on developed countries to implement their commitments to transfer technology to developing countries and provide access to technology on favourable terms, including concessional and preferential terms, to enable the developing countries to shift to a more sustainable development path….We call for the early establishment by the United Nations system of a technology facilitation mechanism that promotes the development, transfer and dissemination of clean and environmentally sound technologies, including cleaner fossil fuel technologies.” (Paragraphs 159-160)
These polar opposite emphases represent more than a clash of ideologies. They represent divergent views about technology transfer: who actually transfers technology, the pragmatic nuts and bolts of how this happens, what obstacles are currently impeding the smoother flow of technology, and which organizations, institutions, and “mechanisms” are best placed to address these issues and handle these tasks. Despite the call for intensified government action, the G-77, for example, never explains what specifically developed countries should do to transfer technology “on favourable terms. More importantly, the G-77 never explains who the developed countries would transfer this technology to and how the recipients would use this technology to produce and deliver clean energy, clean drinking water, etc.
In short, this portion of the G-77 Declaration displays a profound misunderstanding of how technology is transferred – from whom, to whom, and in what form -- the limited role of developed country governments in this process (with the possible exception of certain pharmaceuticals and vaccines), the role of the private sector, or any of the financing, technology deployment and business model issues that we discussed at the GSS.
To cite just one critically important fact of life, developed country governments rarely own the technology (photovoltaic cells, conversion of waste to energy technologies, smart electronics and battery packs needed to reduce diesel fuel consumption in diesel generators, wind turbines, nano filters for water purification, etc.) that developed countries need to address such pressing development needs as enhancing access to sustainable energy and clean drinking water. Calling on developed countries to “transfer technology” without specifying who owns the technology, to whom the technology will be transferred, how the technology transfer process will function, and how the transferred technology will solve real development problems makes for good rhetoric but ineffective policy.
Take the case of off-grid, distributed energy which figures prominently in the UN's Sustainable Energy for All initiative and President Obama's Power Africa initiative. Virtually all the items and technologies that would be needed to set up a network of rural or peri-urban solar micro-grids -- solar panels, inverters, meters, etc. -- can be purchased off-the-shelf from electrical supply stores on every continent. Each of these items may contain bundles of embedded IP, but that is no different from my laptop, e-reader, and printer. Seen from this vantage point, technology transfer in the case of both rural micro-grids and consumer electronics is primarily a matter of going to the store, knowing what to purchase, purchasing it, and organizing all the parts into a coherent system.
If that's the case and if everything is so easy, why don’t rural micro-grids spring up across the G-77, much like McDonalds hamburger franchises sprang up across the US several decades ago? I would argue that the answer has less to do with technical and bureaucratic impediments to technology transfer per se and much more to do with putting in place appropriate organizational, financial, and business mechanisms to facilitate the transfer of readily available technology. More specifically, someone has to buy the equipment, organize the microgrid, finance the equipment purchase, install the equipment, develop billing and payment mechanisms, maintain the grid, establish sales and customer service mechanisms, and scale up the business from one village to several hundred villages.
A similar argument can be made in the case of clean drinking water. There is no shortage of innovative, reasonably priced water filters fabricated from everything ranging from high tech nano materials to lower tech mixtures of clay and powdered rice husks. But simply purchasing a filter from one of the many vendors active in the market is not the same as putting in place a financially and organizationally sustainable mechanism for distributing clean drinking water to millions of customers. Once again, the binding constraint has less to do with technology transfer in the narrow sense of the terms and much more to do with financial, organizational and business arrangements.
There is no shortage of interesting, innovative technologies and business solutions which can go a long way toward addressing many of the development challenges outlined in the G-77 Declaration and new technologies are coming online at an accelerating pace. With the exception of some vaccines, we are generally not technology constrained, as a quick perusal of the solutions generated by USAID's Grand Challenges for Development, USAID’s Development Innovative Ventures program, the innovative ventures incubated at the Unreasonable Institute, the "moonshots supported by Solve for X, the social entrepreneurs incubated at Santa Clara University’s Global Social Benefit Incubator, and the companies featured in the Artemis Water Tech Top 50, the Global Cleatech Cluster Association's Global Top 10 Winners, and the US Department of Energy and US Navy's Energy Excelerator program, among others will bear out. What’s needed are effective mechanisms to scale (i.e., transfer) those technologies and solutions so that they impact a 100 million or more people in the short to medium term. Simply transferring technology from developed to developing countries and establishing a new supranational mechanism as the G-77 advocates, won't begin to address the real obstacles impeding effective technology transfer.
In the next installment of this blog, I’ll discuss some of these real obstacles and possible ways to surmount them.