The paradoxes of technology – and how to avoid them

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

Few people would doubt the key role that technology has to play in alleviating poverty. But, as Pierre Rossel of the EPFL reminded us in a session on technology and innovation, paradoxes abound – and it is essential to be aware of them if we are to successfully harness technology as a tool for development.

Rossel presented three paradoxes that researchers and practitioners must cope with.

With an uptake of technology – leading to increased productivity and poverty reduction –  emerges the risk of an increased divide between the poor and the extremely poor.

Local innovation is just as important as state-of-the-art technology. Credit: Flickr/joanofarctan

“New divides are reinforced as not everyone has the chance to take up, or learn how to benefit from, the [technology],” said Rossel. “Accompanying measures need to be put in place for broader uptake opportunities.”

The development of local science is often seen as a luxury in poverty-stricken areas and is viewed as difficult to maintain, particularly because it is highly expensive to sustain – but not doing anything is worse. “Basic science training and research capabilities should always be sought after  … even at high cost,” he said.

Thirdly, aid, whether technology-centred or not, is continually is competition with a more entrepreneurial approach to development. At the same time, this entrepreneurial mindset is a fundamental dimension of both the uptake and effective deployment of technology.

Rossel suggested measures for dealing with these paradoxes.

Firstly, he said, researchers and practitioners must be prepared to do several things at the same time. “Even when it seem obvious that technology will solve the problem, several co-factors have to be taken care of, such as continuity, expertise, and social uptake and balance.”

He also urged technology implementers to think beyond imitation. “Local players have their own innovation capabilities, building on local peculiarities or working with scarce resources.” He said that doing it “one’s own way” is always best, and that might mean by-passing or leapfrogging technology to avoid pitfalls.

“Local technology is an important as international state-of-the-art technology.”

Any technology drives must be anchored in receptive and multiplicative contexts, he said. Undoubtedly the first candidates will be cities – however they have concerns of their own and their improvements must not occur in isolation from their surrounding environments.

He added that the costs of technology transfer, knowledge, sharing and more should also be taken into consideration, as well as provisioning for longer-term impacts.

“Technology indeed can work – there is no intrinsic evil in it,” Rossel said. “But there is no such thing as an absolutely appropriate technology. Low tech and high tech features and devices can be mingled and recombined at will.”

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 

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