HKS Authors

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Harvey Brooks Research Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development


Sustainable development requires harnessing technological innovation to improve human well-being in current and future generations. However, poor, marginalized, and unborn populations too often lack the economic or political power to shape innovation processes to meet their needs. Issues arise at all stages of innovation, from invention of a technology through its selection, production, adaptation, adoption, and retirement. Three insights should inform efforts to intervene in innovation systems for sustainable development. First, innovation is not a linear process but rather a complex adaptive system involving many actors and institutions operating simultaneously from local to global levels; interventions must take this complexity into account. Second, there has been significant experimentation in mobilizing technology for sustainable development in the health, energy, and agriculture sectors, among others, but learning from past experience requires structured cross-sectoral comparisons and recognition of the socio-technical nature of innovation. Third, the current constellation of rules, norms, and incentives shaping innovation is not always aligned towards sustainable development. Past experience demonstrates that it is possible to reform these institutions, and the imperative of harnessing innovation for sustainable development makes it necessary to do so. Many actors have the power to re-orient innovation systems towards sustainable development through research, advocacy, training, convening, policymaking, and financing. We offer three proposals to begin: mobilizing global financing to invest in inventing suitable and affordable technologies to meet sustainable development objectives; developing measures to engage marginalized populations systematically through all stages of the innovation process; and establishing channels for regularized learning across domains of practice.


Anadon, Laura Diaz, Gabriel Chan, Alicia Harley, Kira Matus, Suerie Moon, Sharmila L. Murthy, and William C. Clark. "Making Technological Innovation Work for Sustainable Development." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP15-079, December 2015.