Technology Innovation for Sustainable Development (2011-present)

Innovation and Access to Technologies for Sustainable Development

Laura Diaz Anadon (Harvard Kennedy School), Kira Matus (University College London), Suerie Moon (Harvard School of Public Health)

2012 Collaborative Research Grant of $275,000 

Sustainable development – improving human well-being across present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – is a central challenge for the 21st century. Technological innovation can play an important role in moving society toward sustainable development. However, poor, marginalized, and future populations often do not fully benefit from innovation due to their lack of market or political power to influence innovation processes. As a result, current innovation systems fail to contribute as much as they might to meeting sustainable development goals.

The project seeks to advance understanding of how to improve the functioning of the “global innovation system” for technologies to support sustainable development.   “Innovation” is broadly conceived 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.  “Technologies” are treated as "knowledge of how to fulfill certain human purposes in a specifiable and reproducible way." And “sustainable development” is defined as human use of the earth in which the well-being of people integrated across places and generations does not decline.

This project has involved parallel, interacting strands of theory development and empirical field work.   On the theory side, we have attempted to move beyond dominant models of corporate or national innovation systems and to integrate concepts from various fields.  On the empirical side, our work has been comparative, both across countries and across sectors.  In particular, we have focused on innovations to meet needs for food, energy, health, manufactured goods, and water though 18 different case studies.   Our early empirical work informed our theorizing, which in turn reshaped and empirical protocols and case development, which in turn reshaped our theory, and so on.

Preliminary findings of the Initiative were reviewed by a cross-section of top innovation scholars from around the world at a workshop hosted and funded by Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs in in May 2014.

The Project is co-directed by Laura Diaz Anadon (HKS), Kira Matus (University College London), and Suerie Moon (Harvard School of Public Health). In addition to the core leadership team, there is an additional group of three members that have contributed enormously to the overall project and particular sections since the start. Alicia Harley (HKS) has led the agriculture work, Sharmila Murthy (Suffolk Law School) has led the water work, and Gabriel Chan (HKS) has  made major contributions to the energy work. Over the past three years, about a total of 30 multidisciplinary researchers (including lawyers, engineers, economists, political scientists, etc.) from the Sustainability Science Program and the Science, Technology and Public Policy program from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs have worked together on various aspects of the project.