On realizing the full potential of technology

On realizing the full potential of technology
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First Published: Thu, Dec 03 2009. 11 04 PM IST

Updated: Thu, Dec 03 2009. 11 04 PM IST
The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is notable not only because it made a forceful and convincing case for action on climate change, but because it also pointed out what needs to be done to address the challenge, and in particular the role of technology in doing so.
In this respect, it is unfortunate that while the importance of technology has been recognized, little has been achieved under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process for delivering on the technology agenda. Discussions related to technology transfer have usually ranged from the arcane to the irrelevant. It was not until the 13th Conference of Parties in Bali that countries agreed to include technology transfer under the agenda of the subsidiary body for implementation, in belated recognition of the fact that technology transfer was not just a matter of assessment and information sharing, but that without effective financing and implementation mechanisms, little progress was possible.
The recognition of technology as one the pillars of the Bali Action Plan is another acknowledgement of its centrality, and it is now clear that an ambitious and meaningful package on technology will need to be an essential part of the outcome at Copenhagen. But there is still considerable lack of clarity on what exactly this means, and how the general objective may be translated into a workable mechanism with the right financing and institutional arrangements.
In order to realize the full potential of technology, it will be important to realize that the challenge is to accelerate the entire technology cycle— from idea to concept to early adoption and, finally, widespread diffusion. While the focus so far has been on the transfer of mature, commercialized technology, it will have to be broadened to address all the three key initial stages of the technology cycle—research, development and early adoption, and the financing instruments and mechanisms that are put in place will need to match the varied requirements of each of these stages.
Research: There is need to drastically increase the scale and scope of public-funded research in relevant sectors, particularly energy. While this will typically take place through domestic actions, the UNFCCC process could help by internationalizing these efforts. For example, multilateral funds could support the participation of developing country entities in research and development (R&D) projects, with suitable IPR (intellectual property right) sharing. They could also support placing certain research outputs in the public domain (by “buying out” the IPR, for example), and also support open platforms and open source approaches for development. Platforms such as SourceForge.net have proved to be an important resource for collaborative, open source software development—similar platforms may be created and supported with regard to low carbon technologies and adaptation technologies.
Development: Technology development is a distinct and different stage in the technology cycle, characterized by increasing private sector involvement, increased attention towards IP creation, and moving from lab or bench scale to pilot plants or from proof-of-concept to product prototypes that are getting “manufacture-ready”. Technology risk is still quite high, and there is a sound rationale for public support of technologies. Just as in the case of research, multilateral funds could support the internationalization of this stage; for example, by supporting developing country entities to participate in consortia projects, or by supporting joint, collaborative technology development between public and private partners in developed and developing countries.
Market entry and early adoption: In the case of many technologies—consumer electronics, for example—“early adopters” play a critical role in enabling market entry of technologies that are new, relatively unproven and more costly, as these users are driven by novelty and features rather than price, and are willing to accept higher levels of technology risk/uncertainty.
In the case of the energy sector, where affordability and access are key requirements and the final consumer only sees the energy service rather than the technologies themselves, it is usually the state that has to serve as the “early adopter”. For this reason, there is an important role for public funds to help move technologies quicker along the learning curve for cost reduction and for demonstrating and validating technologies to address the concerns of technology risk and viability. Public-private partnerships, demonstration projects and the provision of risk capital are all mechanisms that have been used in this stage. A key question will be whether this movement along the learning curve can happen in developing countries—supported and enabled by multilateral funds.
Unfortunately, none of the existing financing mechanisms and arrangements address these early stages of the technology cycle. CDM (clean development mechanism), as an offset mechanism, works only for technologies for which cost and performance baselines are known at scales being proposed, and there is little or no technology risk. The Global Environment Facility, which is also a source of financing, has, unfortunately, moved steadily away from the early-stage technology space. In such a situation, there is an even greater onus on Copenhagen to deliver a suitable institutional mechanism backed by finance that will promote technological advances and their commercialization.
Anand Patwardhan is a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and former executive director of the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council. Respond to this column at feedback@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Dec 03 2009. 11 04 PM IST