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Issue Overview

Technology is a powerful tool for change. The Arab Spring clearly demonstrated that many governments are still unsure how to grasp and respond to technologies such as Facebook and Twitter. The protests also highlighted the risks these governments run of being powerless in the face of science-based technological change.

In the past, the Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies provided insight into the risk management associated with emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology. Over time, however, the Council has shifted its focus from treating emerging technologies simply as a risk to identifying how they can be used to enable sustainable development and mitigate other global risks.

During 2011-2012, the work of the Council has focused on:

  • Defining emerging technologies and evaluating which ones are most likely to have an impact
  • Developing new business models to enable more efficient technological innovation
  • Using emerging technologies to address global issues

Defining Emerging Technologies and Evaluating Their Impact

Emerging technologies cover a wide range of technologies. Many are still at the research stage and therefore off the radar of policy-makers, but will in time have transformative effects ranging from the emergence of new industries, by disruption of current value chains, to major societal changes in the fields of healthcare and communications.

Following the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda 2010, in Dubai, emerging technologies were defined as:

  • Technologies which arise from new knowledge, or the innovative application of existing knowledge
  • Those that lead to the rapid development of new capabilities
  • Those that are projected to have significant systemic and long-lasting economic, social and political impacts
  • Those that create new opportunities for and challenges to addressing global issues
  • Technologies that have the potential to disrupt or create entire industries

Expanding on this definition and scope, the Summit on the Global Agenda 2011, in Abu Dhabi, led to the compilation of a list of the Top 10 Emerging Technologies with the greatest potential to provide solutions to the most compelling social, economic and environmental challenges.

1.     Informatics for Adding Value to Information The quantity of information now available to individuals and organizations is unprecedented in human history, and the rate of information generation continues to grow exponentially. Yet, the sheer volume of information is in danger of creating more noise than value, and as a result limiting its effective use. Innovations in how information is organized, mined and processed hold the key to filtering out the noise and using the growing wealth of global information to address emerging challenges.

2.     Synthetic Biology and Metabolic Engineering The natural world is a testament to the vast potential inherent in the genetic code at the core of all living organisms. Rapid advances in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are allowing biologists and engineers to tap into this potential in unprecedented ways, enabling the development of new biological processes and organisms that are designed to serve specific purposes – whether converting biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials, producing new therapeutic drugs or protecting the body against harm.

3.     Green Revolution 2.0 – Technologies for Increased Food and Biomass Artificial fertilizers are one of the main achievements of modern chemistry, enabling unprecedented increases in crop production yield. Yet, the growing global demand for healthy and nutritious food is threatening to outstrip energy, water and land resources. By integrating advances across the biological and physical sciences, the new green revolution holds the promise of further increasing crop production yields, minimizing environmental impact, reducing energy and water dependence, and decreasing the carbon footprint.

4.     Nanoscale Design of Materials The increasing demand on natural resources requires unprecedented gains in efficiency. Nanostructured materials with tailored properties, designed and engineered at the molecular scale are already showing novel and unique features that will usher in the next clean energy revolution, reduce our dependence on depleting natural resources, and increase atom-efficiency manufacturing and processing.

5.     Systems Biology and Computational Modeling/ Simulation of Chemical and Biological Systems For improved healthcare and bio-based manufacturing, it is essential to understand how biology and chemistry work together. Systems biology and computational modelling and simulation are playing increasingly important roles in designing therapeutics, materials and processes that are highly efficient in achieving their design goals, while minimally impacting on human health and the environment.

6.     Using Carbon Dioxide as a Resource Carbon is at the heart of all life on earth. Yet, managing carbon dioxide releases is one of the greatest social, political and economic challenges of our time. An emerging innovative approach to carbon dioxide management involves transforming it from a liability to a resource. Novel catalysts, based on nanostructured materials, can potentially transform carbon dioxide to high value hydrocarbons and other carbon-containing molecules. These could be used as new building blocks for the chemical industry as cleaner and more sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals.

7.     Wireless Power Society is deeply reliant on electrically-powered devices. Yet, a significant limitation in their continued development and use is the need to be attached to the electricity grid by wire – either permanently or through frequent battery recharging. Emerging approaches to wireless power transmission will free electrical devices from being physically plugged in, and are poised to have as significant an impact on personal electronics as Wi-Fi had on Internet use.

8.     High Energy Density Power Systems Better batteries are essential if the next generation of clean energy technologies are to be realized. A number of emerging technologies are coming together to lay the foundation for advanced electrical energy storage and use, including the development of nanostructured electrodes, solid electrolysis, and rapid-power delivery from novel supercapacitors based on carbon-based nanomaterials. These technologies will provide the energy density and power needed to supercharge the next generation of clean energy technologies.

9.     Personalized Medicine, Nutrition and Disease Prevention As the global population exceeds 7 billion people – all hoping for a long and healthy life – conventional approaches to ensuring good health are becoming less and less tenable, spurred on by growing demands, dwindling resources and increasing costs. Advances in areas such as genomics, proteomics and metabolomics are now opening up the possibility of tailoring medicine nutrition and disease prevention to the individual. Together with emerging technologies like synthetic biology and nanotechnology, they are laying the foundation for a revolution in healthcare and well-being that will be less resource intensive and more targeted to individual needs.

10.   Enhanced Education Technology New approaches are needed to meet the challenge of educating a growing young population and providing the skills that are essential to the knowledge economy. This is especially the case in today’s rapidly evolving and hyperconnected globalized society. Personalized IT-based approaches to education are emerging that allow learner-centred education, critical thinking development and creativity. Rapid developments in social media, open courseware and ubiquitous access to the Internet are facilitating outside classroom and continuous education.

The list of the Top 10 Emerging Technologies for 2012 was published on the Forum:Blog on 15 February 2012, in addition to The Washington Post and cited and tweeted about in tens of other publications. It has generated considerable visibility and positive feedback for the Council, with significant interest in the role of emerging technologies as an engine for job creation.

The publication of the Top 10 has also initiated an extended web-based debate on the importance and the use of emerging technologies and provided a base starting point for programming technology-related events at the Forum.

At the Forum’s Annual Meeting 2012, the Council’s recommendations were welcomed by Partners of the Chemical Industry who would like to see them translated into opportunities for creating new industries fostering sustainable growth and employment.

Developing New Models to Enable Technological Innovation

Current models for using technological innovation to support economic and social progress are falling short of the challenges presented by an increasingly complex and resource-constrained world. As financial systems and companies become ever more risk averse, there is a risk of missing the opportunities created by the accelerating pace of technological progress.

Although a time of unprecedented technological innovation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to translate innovation into products that provide the tools to address the growing number of global challenges. The world does not have the resources for developing economies to replicate the 20th-century consumption patterns of the West. If corporations and governments are to ensure sustainable economic and social development and a healthy environment over the coming decades, a new model for investing in, developing and using technology innovation is urgently required.

Up-front investment in resources, knowledge and people leads to a significant reduction in future liabilities. For example, recent oil spills have shown that a US$ 400 million investment over 10 years by the industry could have prevented recurring costs. These include insured and uninsured losses – and the less quantifiable but enormous environmental impacts when the inevitable major oil spill occurs costing as much as US$ 30 billion every 10 years. This amount is, however, insignificant when compared to the economic costs of drought, famine and scarcity of resources. Unless a model is found to allow investment in technologies that will provide the sustainable growth and consumption required by 10 billion people, the economic and social consequences will be dire.

The Council has developed a new model called “Technology Investing for Sustainable Growth and Consumption”, which provides an overarching concept for developing context-specific approaches to emerging challenges. It does not dictate what technologies should be developed, who develops them and how they are used. Rather, it guides the formation of business strategies, investment policies, and partnerships that help close the gap between technology innovations and social needs, while supporting sustainable business strategies and policies.

This new concept encourages proactive investment in social well-being through sustainable investment models. It is notionally based on the conventional concept of insurance as a low level up-front outlay to protect against future large-scale liabilities. At its core is the recognition that in today’s globalized society, fully integrating a social perspective into why and how much to invest in technological innovation is key to long-term business success.

Using Emerging Technologies to Address Global Issues

The world is facing a number of resource-related issues as a result of increasing population and an increasingly affluent population. This requires the world to make better use of existing resources, and look for the replacement of finite ones. Vital resources including some chemical elements such as helium, phosphorous and rare earths are facing supply constraints that may limit the ability to harness renewable energy. At the same time, issues such as energy and water supplies that may lead to regional conflicts are under increased pressure. The Council has therefore identified technology trends ranging from new IT for the big data era to synthetic biology and materials by design, which can play major roles in mitigating these risks and offer a solution to global challenges.

Raising awareness of job creation opportunities presented by emerging technologies has been a constant activity for Council members during the year, particularly at the Forum’s Annual Meeting 2012.

To understand how emerging technologies can mitigate the constellation of global risks, the Forum’s Risk Response Network (RRN) will explore these trends in collaboration with the Council. Selected members were interviewed by the RRN team to help shape the annual Global Risks Report, and their contributions on risks of emerging technologies are highlighted in the report.

The Council has also held on-going discussions and shared ideas through conference calls and the TopLink platform. It is acknowledged to be one of the most active Councils in using this online tool provided by the Forum. Members have established cross-Council interaction, especially with the Global Agenda Council on New Energy Architecture, and are supporting the initiative on Collaborative Innovation for the Framework on Industrial Biorefineries and Energy Harnessing.

Technology is often seen as something that develops on its own with no policy intervention, and available for use whenever it is required. However, with emerging technologies taking anywhere from 10 to 30 years to have an impact, and an increasing range of technologies available, some direction is required to ensure that technology is focused on the big issues, and not just as a form of scientific entertainment.

Another big obstacle is overcoming the perception that emerging technologies are somehow inherently harmful. The work performed on governance of nanotechnologies and synthetic biology has gone some way to overcoming this hurdle, but lingering suspicion remains with policy-makers often focusing on the risks while excluding the opportunities.




The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council, and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.