PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
To date, the technological innovation that has driven the Fourth Industrial Revolution is shaped by the commercial prospects of small or large firms in the market. After all, one definition of “innovation” is the commercial application of invention. As an example, investment in alternative energy R&D fluctuates depending on oil prices, just as demand for hybrid or electric vehicles become more or less attractive depending on gasoline prices. What if, instead of being driven solely by commercial returns, we could focus the Fourth Industrial Revolution more directly on the big problems our world faces? What if we could prioritize technological advances that have the most beneficial impact to society? The world has recently defined its problems very clearly in a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, that were adopted by all countries last year to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all”. The goals cover poverty, hunger and food security, health, education, energy, and water and sanitation – to name a few. A successor list to the earlier Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals get quite specific. Take Goal 3 as an example: “Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.” This goal is linked to 12 targets, including these
- By 2030: Reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births.
- By 2030: End preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births.
- By 2030: End the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne
diseases and other communicable diseases.
Of course, technological advancement is not the only solution to all Sustainable Development Goals – there is much more to do – but it is likely one of the major contributors. As the world thinks through how to harness the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we think it is worth questioning which technologies we should be prioritizing to meet these Sustainable Development Goals. How do we draft policies and create economic incentives to encourage the right types of technology advances? What should governments and the private sector do differently to focus technology on addressing these goals? How do we direct the energy and creativity of millions of entrepreneurs towards improving the state of the world? The world’s innovation system is powerful and has generally worked well. However, it could use a guiding hand to nudge it in a direction that will benefit the planet beyond the incentives of commercial returns. Expanding our criteria for importance to solving areas of global need is not an inherently anti-capitalist idea. But it is one that would channel capitalism in the best direction for humanity as a whole.