Calestous Juma on Technology, Innovation, and Development

Interviewed July 19, 2011, by Doug Gavel

Leveraging the benefits of innovation to improve the human condition is the inspiration behind much of Professor Calestous Juma’s writing and research. Juma is professor of the practice of international development and also serves as director of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His work is focused on the intersection of science, technology, innovation and development.

Q: Please discuss some of the most promising opportunities and challenges for developing economies vis-à-vis science and technology.

Juma: The most important opportunity for developing countries today is the abundance of scientific and technical knowledge. The opportunity is provided by exponential growth in scientific and technical knowledge which allows innovators to come up with new solutions that address social and economic problems. It is estimated now that scientific and technical knowledge doubles every 24 months. So the challenge is in fact harnessing the large quantities of scientific and technical knowledge, the bulk of which is available in the public domain.

In the past the challenge for developing countries was generating their own technologies. Today, the main task is being able to search, identify and select technologies for integration into the economy. So it is a very different scenario in terms of the opportunities, but also it raises new policy questions. This scenario suggests that providing incentives to turn existing knowledge into new businesses may be more important that funding new basic research.

Q: Is part of the challenge having the trained workforce in place to leverage scientific and technical knowledge for the betterment of society?

Juma: It takes three categories of technical expertise. The first is engineering: having people who are able to look at technologies and determine what they can be used for. This requires increased investment in the engineering sciences and allied fields. Secondly, it requires considerable legal and policy expertise to be able to negotiate for the best contractual arrangements when trying to acquire available technologies. And the third area of expertise needed is entrepreneurship – taking available ideas and turning them into viable businesses. It is enterprises that drive economic growth. Enterprises are efficient mechanisms for translating knowledge into goods and services.

Q: What role do international institutions and regional cooperation play in this area?

Juma: I think most of them have fallen behind, especially post-World War II international institutions. They are still stuck in the old age of thinking about the challenge as generating new technologies whereas the real task right now is searching, identifying and domesticating available technologies. So what you are starting to see is a divergence between emerging regional bodies, particularly in Africa, that are focused on this searching, identifying and domesticating, and the traditional international institutions that still think in terms of “barriers to technology transfer.” The shift in thinking is illustrated by the Grand Challenges for Development program launched by the US Agency for International Development, Grand Challenges Canada, and the Government of Norway. The initiative focuses on identifying existing technologies and exploring how to integrate them into developing country economies. The World Bank, on the other hand, has made all its reports and databases available to the public. This is an important step in availing knowledge that could yield new solutions to economic problems. But these are special cases; they are not the dominant approaches among international organizations. A new vision that assumes technological abundance rather than scarcity has yet to take root in most international organizations.

Q: You teach a course on technology and sustainability. What are the lessons learned in relation to climate change and development?

Juma: I think the most important lesson that we've learned in the area of climate change and development is that a large part of the debate has focused on identifying sources of global warming and mapping emerging trends. However, little attention has been paid to identifying solutions and applying them in a timely manner. There is a growing gap between what the scientific community can do in identifying problems and what the engineering community can do in offering solutions. A large part of what I do in my class is to try to get the students to think about how to identify solutions and explore how to apply them in the real world.

The other challenge that we have identified – at least when we have these discussions in class – is initial skepticism about the role of technology in solving climate change problems. This is because historically technologies have been associated with ecological degradation. There is a pervasive view, especially in the environmental movement, that limiting the use of certain technologies will help protect the environment. It is difficult to get people to start thinking about technology as also offering a solution. This is why we focus on green technologies such as renewable energy sources. The general trend is to lump all technologies together and identify them as the source of pollution, and then you get a lot of resistance to even thinking about technology as a possible solution to climate change.

Q: Your latest book, “The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa,” analyzes the ways in which the continent can maximize its farming outputs at minimal costs. Please discuss some of the concepts you explore in the book.

Juma: The main observation that we make in the book is that producing food is not just limited to plant breeders and agriculturalists. It involves the participation of a large number of constituencies and actors. These include players who provide infrastructure services, train farmers, run enterprises and provide subsidies to farmers. That led us to the conclusion that it's not just a matter that should be left to the Minister of Agriculture. The coordination challenges involved require a high level of engagement, particularly by presidents and prime ministers. So what the book really conveys is that agriculture is not simply a technical matter of producing food. It is in fact a high-level public policy challenge. It is fundamentally a leadership issue and less a technical matter.

Q: As you think about technology, development and the future, is there any particular technology that makes you especially excited as you think about the developing world?

Juma: The way I think about technology – and this is based on observing trends over the last two decades – is to distinguish between platform technologies and individual applications and devices.

If you look at, say, advances in information and communication technologies, you can divide them into two very clear sections – those that relate to devices, mobile phones for example. But if we look at the underlying base, which is the knowledge base, which is information and communication as a platform technology it has a huge impact on a very wide range of sectors. It affects the way we provide medical care, the way we monitor changes in the environment. It affects every aspect of our lives, but much of the focus has been on the devices, and then it gets reduced to kind of singular applications.

So if you look at it in terms of platform technologies, we've already seen the benefit of the information and communications technologies that are not being debated anymore. But the next frontier is really going to be genomics, our advanced understanding in the way organisms function, and being able to decode basically the software behind living organisms and get to a point where we can start to make adjustments and modifications in that software to solve human needs and to solve environmental problems.

So the combination between information and communication technologies and advances in genomics is going to create huge opportunities for developing countries, in fact leapfrogging many of the challenges they have today, whether they are challenges related to the production of food or challenges related to the management of the environment.

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