Technology Innovation for Sustainable Development (2011-present)


Meeting sustainable development goals will require action on a number of fronts, including harnessing and maximizing the potential of technological innovation. Examples of such technologies include carbon capture and storage systems, more efficient irrigation methods, essential medicines, household water purification devices, and manufacturing processes that minimize waste and pollution. While some needed innovations can be fostered through existing public and private mechanisms at the national level, such efforts have proven inadequate to meet global sustainability goals, particularly with regard to meeting the needs of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable or marginalized in current and future generations. Too often, technologies are either not developed at all for lack of a sufficiently profitable market, or if developed, are not accessible or well-adapted to end-user needs. This Program initiative seeks to advance knowledge and understanding of how to equitably improve the functioning of the “global innovation system” for sustainable development technologies. We are conducting a comparative study of how well the system functions to meet five sustainable development needs (food, energy, health, manufactured goods, and water), with a special focus on equity. The initiative is examining specific cases of “system interventions” (e.g., policy interventions, institutional innovations, new approaches to shaping the innovation process) intended to strengthen the global innovation system, with the broader aim of developing policy recommendations that draw from, and are generalizable across, multiple sectors. The findings will contribute to realizing the potential of science and technology to meet the most pressing sustainable development challenges.


The sustainable development problem

The existing global innovation system fails to meet the need for innovation and access to technologies required for meeting sustainable development goals. In addressing these shortfalls, we adopt Harvey Brooks’ (1980) definition of technology as "knowledge of how to fulfill certain human purposes in a specifiable and reproducible way." We use the term "innovation" broadly to encompass not only the processes by which new technologies are invented, but also the processes by which a pool of inventions gets narrowed down for further development, produced, initially adopted, transitioned into sustained use, and then becomes either adapted so that they are better-suited to end-user needs or retired in favor of another technology. In general, for systems of innovation to support sustainable development, they must do more than promote invention. Technologies and their benefits must be also accessible and well-adapted, particularly for use by the poorest or most vulnerable, and they must ultimately be integrated into local contexts that will vary economically, politically and culturally.

Institutions at the global, national and local levels all play a role in shaping the extent to which technological innovation actually delivers improvements in well-being. We treat institutions as sets of formal and informal rules, norms, decision-making procedures, beliefs and expectations that govern interactions between actors (North 1990; Ostrom 2005). In the past, innovation has been fostered through public and private mechanisms (such as patent laws, public research grants, subsidies for end-users, and research networks), primarily operating at the national level in a handful of industrialized countries and a few international organizations (Amsden 2003; Nelson 1993). Such efforts have had widely varying levels of success in terms of meeting global sustainability needs, but have proven inadequate overall for the purpose of advancing sustainable development (Juma and Yee-Cheong 2005; InterAcademy Council 2004).

This pattern of uneven and insufficient innovation is due in part to several distinct dynamics. First, many technologies provide positive externalities that transcend the control of firms or individual nation states, and are therefore subject to free-rider problems that lead to under-production by both markets and national innovation systems. Second, in comparison to industrialized countries, developing countries tend to offer smaller market incentives to private inventors and have weaker national innovation systems to encourage domestic invention, leading to fewer or poorly-adapted technologies for use in such countries. Third, incentive systems for innovation can reward inventors, but at the cost of end-user access—for example, high prices for inventions can impede access for the populations most in need of new technologies, such as medicines, off-grid energy supply or water purification devices.

Addressing these problems requires effective institutional arrangements at local, national and global levels. In recent years, these challenges of harnessing technological innovation for sustainable development have begun to be addressed through a variety of "interventions" in the global innovation system. Examples include financing arrangements, networks of scientific researchers, priority-setting processes, measures to facilitate sustained use and widespread access to a technology, international aid and trade agreements, and feedback loops connecting end-users and inventors/adapters. In general, these interventions have altered the rules, norms, resources or organizational configurations that shape the behavior of major actors, including governments, private firms, researchers and end-users. While the past decade has seen a number of new system interventions piloted in a wide range of sectors, they are generally poorly described, little known beyond their respective sectors and therefore not contributing as much as they might to understanding or strengthening the global innovation system for sustainable development. Knowledge of what is most likely to work is either insufficient, or fragmented across different sectors, such that the global system of technological innovation continues to underperform relative to its potential or the scope of sustainability needs.

Research questions

How can the potential of science and technology be maximized to help reach sustainable development goals? How can the need to incentivize and reward innovation be balanced with the need to ensure widespread, equitable access to sustainable development technologies? How can the global innovation system be strengthened to facilitate sharing of information and knowledge, accelerate the invention process, and ensure that research efforts serve the needs of all? How can innovation of individual technologies be integrated to facilitate sector- and region-wide transitions toward sustainability?

Solving a practical problem of sustainable development

The Program seeks to help guide the development of policies that can facilitate the technology innovation needed to meet sustainability goals, and that can ensure equitable access to such technologies, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable. It does so by carrying out systematic research across a broad array of technologies relevant to sustainable development (paying due regard to variation in the characteristics of the technology, of the area of need, and of local contexts), constructing a coherent unified conceptual framework that helps to illuminate why we are collectively failing to maximize the potential of science and technology for sustainability, and extracting from this research concrete policy recommendations to strengthen the global system. The practical outcome of these efforts may be that more and better technologies are developed to meet sustainable development needs, that such technologies are better adapted for use in the contexts in which they are required, and that widespread equitable access is ensured to those technologies and their related benefits. Down the line, in more practical terms, a strengthened global innovation system may mean that more people are healthier; that the negative health and environmental effects of manufacturing are reduced for current and future generations, and that food security, access to potable water and clean energy is enhanced.

Research strategy

The Program is carrying out its inquiry through several parallel lines of inquiry:

First, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the current state of the global innovation system requires a more "legible" system – that is, a detailed description of what the global innovation system in sector X (or for technology Y) looks like. The legibility of the global innovation system varies widely by area of technology, with some relatively well-studied and understood (e.g., pharmaceuticals, seeds), and others much less so (e.g., household water purification devices). In some areas, there is a relatively well-developed "global system" characterized by dense networks of actors, rapid information flows, sizeable resources, wide-ranging collaborations, and a set of widely-shared norms governing actor behavior. In others, the "global system" may barely resemble a system at all, with a fragmented set of actors and institutions with few or no networks, limited information flows, extremely scarce resources, and diffuse divergent or conflicting norms. In describing the global innovation system, key questions include: who are the most important actors, and what are the most relevant institutions? How much is invested globally in R&D for a given area of technology, who is investing, who is inventing, how successful is the invention process, and what impact on sustainable development is ultimately achieved? What are the major information and data needs and gaps?

Our second line of work is diagnosing why the global innovation system is not functioning as it should. What are the most important weaknesses or "choke points" in the system? At which of the various stages of the innovation process (invention, selection, production, initial use, sustained use, adaptation, retirement) do they occur? What are the root causes underlying these systemic weaknesses?

Our third stream of work seeks to determine what interventions in the system seem most promising to strengthen the systemic weaknesses or ease the identified ‘choke points’? Such interventions could include the articulation of shared norms and goals, national or international policies, changes in institutional arrangements (such as collaborative agreements), changes to or the creation of new national laws or international treaties, financing commitments and investment strategies, or any other intervention in the current functioning of the system.

Work in the Program was organized around a core integrated project on “Innovation and access to technologies for sustainable development,” and supplemented by a number of focused studies on particular technologies in particular contexts.

To initiate the Program, we launched in the fall of 2011 an open research seminar on “Innovation for Sustainability” (available here), drawing on a wide range of faculty and students from the greater Boston area.  Building on that seminar, our research in the first year (Academic Year 2011-12) developed an initial conceptual framework, initiated work on the first two strands of work described above, identified research collaborators, and selected an initial round of promising case studies. We convened a Working Group of researchers to develop a unified conceptual framework to facilitate the study of innovation systems for sustainable development technologies across multiple sectors. The Working Group included lead investigators across five focus areas of human needs (water, food, health, energy, manufactured goods), supported by sub-groups of specialists in each sector, who met bi-weekly to discuss concepts, needs, and problems across sectoral and disciplinary lines. This work resulted in a refinement of the project scope and goals, a draft conceptual framework, the development of background papers on each sector that begin to describe and diagnose weaknesses in the system, and the selection of an initial set of cases. The first set of cases examined: carbon capture and storage systems, indoor cookstoves, micro-drip irrigation, the system of rice intensification, household water purification technologies, drugs for cancer treatment, a global subsidy on malaria medicines, and industrial symbiosis.

This first set of case studies allowed us to challenge our initial conceptual framework, resulting in a refinement of both our descriptions and diagnoses, and in selection of a broader second round of cases. Simultaneously, we conducted background surveys of literature on technical innovation relevant to sustainable development in each of the key sectors noted above.  These were posted on the Program web site in 2013 and widely circulated for comment by the broader community.   By 2014 we had prepared an initial synthesis of findings across the cases and across sectors, together with draft policy recommendations (Anadon et al. 2014). These were presented to a workshop of international leaders in innovation studies held at Harvard in the spring of that year (see report here).  Feedback from the workshop resulted in a subsequent round of revisions to our emerging framework and to additional field work.   The revised program findings were in turn vetted at a second workshop held at University College London in the spring of 2016 (results here).  The final outcome of the Program will be reported in a series of journal articles, the first of which was published as an invited Perspective in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title “Making technological innovation work for sustainable development” (Anadon et al. 2016).   Other papers reporting on detailed findings and recommendations of the Program will be reported on its web site as they become available. 

The next stage of the Program, now taking shape, will seek to build on the results to date to help explore the policy challenges of integrating multiple innovations to promote integrated sectoral and regional transitions toward sustainability (e.g. Geels and Schot 2010).


Amsden, Alice H. 2003. The Rise of "The Rest": Challenges to the West from Late-Industrializing Economies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Anadon, Laura Diaz, Gabriel Chan,  Alicia G. Harley,  Kira Matus, Suerie Moon, Sharmila L. Murthy, and William C. Clark. 2016. Making technological innovation work for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early edition, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/08/11/1525004113.

Anadon, Laura Diaz, Kira Matus, Suerie Moon, Gabriel Chan, Alicia Harley, Sharmila Murthy, Vanessa Timmer, Ahmed Abdel Latif, Kathleen Araujo, Kayje Booker, Hyundo Choi, Kristian Dubrawski, Lonia Friedlander, Christina Ingersoll, Erin Kempster, Laura Pereira, Jennie Stephens, Lee Vinsel, and William C. Clark. 2014. Innovation and access to technologies for sustainable development: Diagnosing weaknesses and identifying interventions in the transnational arena. Sustainability Science Program Working Paper 2014-01. Sustainability Science Program and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Brooks, Harvey. 1980. Technology, evolution, and purpose. Daedalus, 109(1):65–81.

Geels, Frank W. and J. Schot. 2010. The dynamics of transitions: A socio-technical perspective -- A multi-level perspective on transitions. In J. Grin, J. Rotmans and J. Schot (Eds.), Transitions to Sustainable Development (pp. 18-28). New York: Routledge.

InterAcademy Council. 2004. Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology. Amsterdam: InterAcademy Council.

Juma, Calestous and Lee Yee-Cheong, UN Millennium Project Task Force. 2005. Innovation: Applying Knowledge in Development. London: Earthscan.

Nelson, Richard R. 1993. National Innovation Systems: A Comparative Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

North, Douglas C. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 2005. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.