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New report: 50 sci-tech advances for sustainable development

50-breakthroughsWhen the Millennium Development Goals were launched in 2000, the rallying cry was around the need for more development aid. As international institutions coalesce around the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, it is likely there will be a heavy emphasis on the role of science and technology in achieving them.

Through the post-WWII history of efforts to alleviate global poverty, a small number of breakthrough technologies have had transformative impact: the polio vaccine has all but eradicated a disease that was leading to life-long paralysis in millions of people around the world; new seed varieties developed by Norman Borlaug launched the Asian Green Revolution, which led to agricultural self-sufficiency through much of Asia; insecticide-treated bed-nets have led to remarkable successes in malaria control; and antiretroviral drugs appear to have rendered HIV/AIDS a chronic and manageable disease. More recently, the mobile phone revolution has led to innovations like the M-PESA mobile money platform, which has become the primary means of payment for low-income populations in Kenya.

Such major breakthroughs, however, are rare. One reason, we found, is that there is limited broad understanding of the underlying issues, and the role that technology can play. While deep knowledge rests among a small number of topic-specific experts, the nature of the international development sector is that a large number of the decision makers—donors, social impact investors, program officers, employees in government agencies, practitioners working in NGOs or international institutions—often make their decisions based on limited information and analysis. As a result, far too much of the effort n the technology-for-development space is focused on incremental technologies, which—despite compelling narratives, significant funding, and considerable media hype—fail to reach any reasonable scale or impact.

To be sure, technology is not essential to solving many of the problems surrounding global poverty. Tremendous progress can be made through institutional reform, infrastructure development, education, access to user finance, behavior change, and other policy and social interventions. Indeed, even when technology is necessary, it cannot achieve meaningful impact on its own.

This study focuses on problems for which new technologies are critical. By definition, these breakthroughs do not currently exist, at least not in the right configuration of cost and usability. Typically, there is no need for them in industrialized countries, and the private sector likely does not see enough profits to invest in creating them for developing world markets. They represent breakthroughs because they have to be dramatically different from existing technologies in industrialized settings: available at a fraction of the cost, requiring only a fraction of the energy, significantly less reliant on technical skills to operate, not needing elaborate infrastructure, and being generally robust and maintenance-free.

These breakthroughs are decidedly not ‘low-tech’, in that they cannot be achieved by backyard hobbyists or part-time volunteers inspired by humanitarian objectives. They require serious science, robust engineering, and inventive business models for distribution, scale and sustainability. These breakthroughs have to be part of a new paradigm of technologies for a new set of users. Unlike in past decades, the proliferation of new off-grid energy and communication platforms offers unprecedented opportunities to create leapfrog technologies, some of which may even be valuable in industrialized countries.

Reprinted with permission from the introduction to a new report from the Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

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