New technologies can reinvigorate traditional production sectors and speed up industrialisation and economic structural transformation, says United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) technology and logistics division director Shamika Sirimanne.
She adds that developing countries are also able to catch up to developed nations and forge ahead by adopting frontier technologies, while continuing to diversify their production bases by mastering many existing technologies.
Frontier technologies are those that take advantage of digitalisation and connectivity, and include artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, big data, blockchain, fifth-generation telecommunications, three-dimensional printing, robotics, drones, gene editing, nanotechnology and solar photovoltaic, Unctad's 'Technology and Innovation Report 2021' shows.
"Developing countries should also align science, technology and innovation (STI) policies with industrial policies. These countries need to strengthen their innovation systems, as most of them are weak and prone to systemic failures and structural deficiencies," says Sirimanne.
Despite some negative realities associated with these technologies, such as their potential to worsen inequality, widen the digital divide and disrupt sociopolitical cohesion, frontier technologies could be transformative in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“A whole-of-government approach is needed to absorb these technologies, as opposed to working in silos,” she advises.
"Unctad calls on governments to draw in various actors who can help build synergies between STI and other economic policies – industrial, trade, fiscal, monetary and educational. The State, industry and labour unions should work together to optimise the potential of these technologies for faster productivity."
The report also urges policymakers to help people acquire the necessary digital skills and competencies to adopt and adapt frontier technologies into their countries’ existing production bases.
Recent developments in frontier technologies, including AI, robotics and biotechnology, have shown tremendous potential for sustainable development, but also risk increasing inequalities by exacerbating and creating new digital divides, UN secretary-general António Guterres states in the report's foreword.
The report shows that frontier technologies already represent a $350-billion market, which could grow to $3.2-trillion by 2025. This offers great opportunities for those ready to catch this technological wave. But many countries, especially the least developed and those in sub-Saharan Africa, are unprepared to equitably use, adopt and adapt to the ongoing technological revolution, he says.
"It is time to ask how we can take full profit from the current technological revolution to reduce gaps that hold back truly inclusive and sustainable development. The Unctad 'Technology and Innovation Report 2021' examines the likelihood of frontier technologies widening existing inequalities and creating new ones. It also addresses the national and international policies, instruments and institutional reforms that are needed to create a more equal world of opportunity for all, leaving no one behind."
The 'Technology and Innovation Report 2021' urges all developing nations to prepare for a period of deep and rapid technological change that will profoundly affect markets and societies.