UNCTAD15: Policies are critical to harnessing frontier technologies for good

08 October 2021

Good policy choices and actions will make the difference in steering technological change towards economic recovery and development outcomes that leave no one behind.

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Without key enabling and supportive government policies, the real benefits of new and frontier technology will remain locked away.

This was the message from science, technology and innovation (STI) ministers and experts who spoke at UNCTAD’s 15th quadrennial conference (UNCTAD15) on why policy is crucial to ensuring new technologies and data are harnessed in ways that boost economic recovery, reduce inequality and foster sustainable development.

Panellists of the conference’s fourth ministerial round-table discussion held on 7 October outlined actions that governments, development partners and civil society actors can take to harness the true potential of technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, drones and gene editing, while minimizing their potential harms.

“The impact of technology on the quality of economic, social and environmental outcomes is not deterministic,“ said UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant, who opened the discussion.

Policies can influence the tech trajectory

“The trajectory of technological change can be influenced by policy choices, and sometimes by the absence of any informed choice,” Ms. Durant said, adding that governments had a key role in shaping the impacts of frontier technologies.

She related how cutting-edge technologies had on one hand enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines at an unprecedented rate, “but on the other hand, we see appalling inequality in access to these same vaccines.”

She urged the international community to note that while everyone in the world is affected by technological change, not all countries and social groups can make their voices heard and have their interests considered when the course of technological change is decided.

Ms. Durant said UNCTAD’s two flagship publications released this year, the Digital Economy Report and the Technology and Innovation Report, offered strong, evidence-based messages to policymakers on how to craft inclusive responses to the issues raised by rapid technological change.

An unmissable opportunity

Developing countries can’t afford to miss the current technological revolution as they had missed others in the past, said Douglas Letsholathebe, Botswana’s minister of tertiary education, research, science and technology.

He said the failure to catch previous technological waves had contributed to the existing inequalities between developed and developing countries.

Mr. Letsholathebe urged developing countries to better harness frontier technologies by raising their productive capacities and boosting structural economic transformation, while addressing social and environmental challenges.

“What we need is the widespread upgrading of science, technology and innovation capacity across the developing world that will promote global development and benefit all of mankind,” he said.

“Becoming ready requires active policy design and implementation,” he added, calling for stronger policy efforts at the national level in developing countries to build research and development, technological and innovation capacity.

Digital readiness crucial

“In the process of digital transformation, digital readiness is a pre-requisite to maximize the benefits of the digital economy,” said Pan Sorasak, Cambodia’s minister of commerce.

Mr. Pan said an eTrade readiness assessment conducted in Cambodia in 2017, UNCTAD’s first evaluation of a country’s e-commerce ecosystem, had been critical in helping the country boost its digital readiness and harness new technologies.

He outlined various policies, laws and regulations designed by his government to steer the impacts of technological change towards shared prosperity, sustainability and sustainable development.

They include measures governing e-commerce activities, promoting the development of e-commerce ecosystem, and addressing potential risks related to data protection, cyber security, cybercrime, consumer protection and competition.

Building digital skills is key

The Dominican Republic’s minister of higher education, science and technology, Franklin Garcia Fermin, underlined the importance of building digital skills to keep pace with rapid technological change.

He said the pandemic had accelerated digitalization, making it necessary to “think and rethink everything related to education and digital skills to guarantee sustainable development and social prosperity.”

Mr. Fermin called for more international collaboration to bridge digital divides (including the gender gap), reduce technological gaps between countries, tackle ethical questions and develop normative frameworks to guide a fair, transparent and accountable development of frontier technologies.

Small digital businesses need help

UNCTAD eTrade for Women advocate Clarisse Iribagiza from Rwanda urged stakeholders to tackle hurdles that hinder small and medium-size digital businesses, especially those owned by women, from growing.

These include limited access to growth capital for early-stage and women-led digital businesses. For example, she said $3 billion in funding had been raised in 2021 by over 500 African digital entrepreneurs, but only 6% had gone to women-led businesses.

Ms. Iribagiza highlighted the need to bridge the digital skills gap and make the business environment less risky for digital entrepreneurs.

She also called for more investment in demand-driven capacity-building programmes that target women digital entrepreneurs, such as UNCTAD’s e-Trade for Women masterclasses, co-designed with women entrepreneurs to meet their needs such as building networks and engaging with role models.


Watch the UNCTAD15 Ministerial Roundtable IV