Nanotechnology and the G20 emergency summit

Do emerging technologies have a place at the table?

As world leaders congregate in Washington DC this weekend for the G20 summit on the global financial crisis, discussions will be informed in part by what has been described as the “biggest brainstorming on the global agenda that has ever taken place.”  I mention this because a small but nevertheless significant part of that brainstorm involved nanotechnology.

The brainstorm in question was the inaugural Summit on the Global Agenda, organized by the World Economic Forum and held in Dubai last weekend.  The summit brought together “the 700 most knowledgeable people related to 68 global challenges” (WEF’s words) to address two questions…

  • What is the state of the world on this issue and how is the economic crisis impacting this issue?  And
  • What should be done to improve the state of the world on this issue/region/industry and by whom?

68 councils were convened to address global challenges as diverse as financial empowerment to faith, and global climate change to gerontology.  And as well as discussions within these councils, there were ample opportunities to interact between the groups—leading to sometimes bizarre but always stimulating and thought-provoking conversations (imagine morphing discussions on the challenges of gerontology with empowering youth, or economic imbalances with the future of mobility, and you begin to understand why this has been described as a 700 person-strong brainstorming session!)

And there in the mix was the Council on Challenges of Nanotechnology—the only council directly addressing an emerging technology.

A common theme through the summit was the need for technology-based solutions to global challenges (including alternative energies, climate change, water security, and many other issues), and the importance of sustaining the “innovation pipeline” through the current economic downturn.  And not surprisingly, discussions in the Nanotechnology Council revolved around the technology’s contribution to these challenges—as well as the potential pitfalls in developing the technology without forethought.

These discussions are reflected in the summit’s highlights [downloadable here. PDF, 176 KB]:

“On Nanotechnology, the science and technology of the nanoscale are critical drivers of innovation. The resulting “nanotechnologies” have the potential to underpin solutions to a broad range of global challenges beyond what conventional technologies are able to achieve. Major global challenges that will be impacted by nanotechnologies include energy security (alternative energies), healthcare, microelectronics and quantum computing, and water provision (clean water and desalination even on a small scale). The successful implementation of nanotechnologies could be impacted by a lack of strategic funding, poor education of practitioners and decision-makers, limited engagement of key communities, outmoded business models and unresponsive approaches to risk assessment, management and oversight.”

Nanotechnology may not be the most pressing issue on the minds of the G20 leaders meeting in Washington DC as I type this.  But as the summit in Dubai made clear, nanotech—along with other emerging technologies—will provide critical knowledge and skills to help address global challenges that will still be with us long after the current financial crisis is over.

And more likely than not, a failure to invest now in the long-term sustainable development of nanotechnology and other emerging technologies will only store up problems for the future—with interest.

Something to ponder over as solutions to the more immediate crisis are hashed out.

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Notes

Further details of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils can be found here.

Responses to the two questions above from the Council on Challenges of Nanotechnology can be downloaded here [PDF, 56 KB].  This reflects work that is still in progress. It will continue to be updated and revised.

Key points made by the nanotechnology council include:

What is the state of the world on this issue and how is the economic crisis impacting it?

The science and technology of the nanoscale are critical drivers of innovation. The resulting “nanotechnologies” have the potential to underpin solutions to a broad range of global challenges beyond what conventional technologies are able to achieve. Major global challenges that will be impacted by nanotechnologies include energy security(alternative energies), healthcare, microelectronics and quantum computing, and water provision(clean water and desalination even on a small scale).

Many emerging nanotechnologies (21st-Century technologies) represent a radical departure from conventional (past) technologies in terms of their development, their use, and their potential to lead to unconventional adverse impacts. As a consequence, non-conventional (21st century) approaches are needed for their development, commercialization and oversight, in order to foster sustainable innovation.

In particular, nanotechnology belongs at the interface between areas of expertise, bringing new challenges to interdisciplinary collaboration, and cross-disciplinary decision-making.

The successful implementation of nanotechnologies could be impacted by a lack of strategic funding, poor education of practitioners and decision-makers, limited engagement of key communities, outmoded business models and unresponsive approaches to risk assessment, management and oversight.

Nanotechnology transcends global boundaries, and will require innovative approaches to global governance to underpin its long-term success.

What should be done to improve the state of the world on this issue and by whom?

Resolving confusion between nanotechnology, and the outcomes of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is a toolkit, or a way of doing things, that is stimulating innovation.  In contrast, the outcomes of nanotechnology are processes, materials and products that exploit the added value that results from engineering matter at the nanoscale.

Educating developers and users of nanotechnology. New skill-sets are needed to develop and exploit the benefits of nanotechnology. These primarily involve bridging the gap between deep knowledge and broad knowledge, and enabling people to interface across very different disciplines. There is also a need to provide investors and users with an understanding of what the technology is, and what it can do. Education is needed to avoid misconceptions surrounding the technology, both in terms of its potential uses and its potential impacts.

Enabling effective engagement between stakeholders (including academics, policy makers, industry and citizens). Dialogues need to be established that facilitate an exchange of information between stakeholders, and enable informed decision-making. Transparency over how and where nanotechnology is being used is essential for investor and user confidence. A key goal is to stimulate a culture of curiosity amongst potential investors in, developers of and users of nanotechnology.

Developing innovative business, policy and financing models for the 21st Century. Going from basic research to market in nanotechnology generally requires more time and capital than in other technology areas, while also posing more risk. Conventional financing structures and start-up business models are ill-matched to these challenges, as attested to by limited returns from venture-backed nanotech start-ups to date. Meeting these challenges will require new financing approaches including incubator funds, participation from strategic investors, and staggered exits to liquidity. It will also require start-up companies and large corporations to consider new, cooperative business models that jointly develop technology applications and share risk and reward across the value chain from materials through to end products.

Enabling effective risk assessment and management. New nanotechnologies will come with new risks to human health and the environment.  In some cases, these may involve risks that lie outside conventional understanding of how materials and products might cause harm. Ensuring that risks remain acceptably low will entail new research into understanding and addressing how nanotechnology-based materials and products cause harm, and how this harm may be avoided and/or controlled.

Ensuring oversight clarity.
Clarity is needed on how existing oversight mechanisms (including hard mechanisms such as regulation and soft mechanisms such as voluntary codes –some of which exist but limited knowledge of these highlight the lack of effective engagement between key stakeholders) apply to new nanotechnology-based materials and products.  Where existing oversight mechanisms are of limited applicability, new mechanisms are needed that minimize potential harm associated with nanotechnology-based products and materials, and that provide businesses with a clear regulatory framework within which to operate.

As might be inferred from this piece, and in the interests of full disclosure, I am a member of the Council on Challenges of Nanotechnology.

One Response to Nanotechnology and the G20 emergency summit

  1. Andrew Maynard says:

    For another perspective on nanotech solutions to global challenges through the eyes of the World Economic Forum, check out Scott Rickert’s latest column at Industry Week:

    http://www.industryweek.com/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=17834&SectionID=1

    Andrew Maynard

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