Microchip (NASA)
Role of Technology in Development

We wish to learn:

  • How has information technology advanced in recent history, and what is the role of these technologies in squandering and/or saving our natural resources? 
  • What conditions Optimize Invention and Innovation and Facilitate the Acquisition of Technology?
  • What are some of the negatives associated with technological change?
  • What are the recommended roles for government, the private sector, and the scientific, research, and development communities?

Jump to:[Introduction] [Growth and Impact of Information Technologies] [Factors Influencing Technological Change] [Priorities for Development][Success Stories ]


Format for printing


For decades, environmentalists have been warning that human economic activity is exceeding the planet's limits. Of course we keep pushing those limits back with clever new technologies; yet living systems are undeniably in decline. These trends need not be in conflict—in fact, there are fortunes to be made in reconciling them.

The book, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, explores the opportunities for businesses in an era of approaching environmental limits. Natural capital refers to the natural resources and ecosystem services that make possible all economic activity, indeed all life. These services are of immense economic value; some are literally priceless, since they have no known substitutes. Yet current business practices typically fail to take into account the value of these assets—which is rising with their scarcity. As a result, natural capital is being degraded and liquidated by the wasteful use of such resources as energy, materials, water, fiber, and topsoil.

The first of natural capitalism's four interlinked principles, therefore, is radically increased resource productivity. Implementing just this first principle can significantly improve a firm's bottom line, and can also help finance the other three. They are: redesigning industry on biological models with closed loops and zero waste; shifting from the sale of goods (for example, light bulbs) to the provision of services (illumination); and reinvesting in the natural capital that is the basis of future prosperity.


Growth of Information Technologies

The recent growth of technologies, such as information technology (IT), has been astounding. The implications of this global revolution may both threaten and protect the future of our planet.  Here we will examine the rapid growth of modern technologies, some of the implications of those technologies for global change, and how we may best guide our technological growth and development for the betterment of our planet.

Consider these facts:

  • Between 1990 and 1996, international telephone traffic more than doubled from 33 billion to 70 billion minutes per year
  • # of computers worldwide tripled in the ‘90s (now over 400 million)
  • People using Geographic Information Systems increases roughly 20% each year
  • In the last 3 decades, the computing power of a single computer chip has increased by a factor of 64,000.
  • At a given instant, all of North America’s long distance telephone traffic could theoretically be carried on a single pair of optical fibers, each the thickness of a human hair.
  • Wireless technologies promise to serve the most remote locations e.g. Mountain farmers in yak caravans in Laos and Myanmar now use cell phones to find the best route to market during the rainy season.

What is the role of these technologies in squandering and saving our natural resources?

Bad News

Electronics Manufacturing
One semiconductor manufacturing plant can use as much electrical power and water as a small city.

In 1993 it was estimated that manufacturing a typical computer workstation weighing 25 kilograms, generated 63 kilograms of waste, 22 of them toxic.

Used Electronics
Computers and telephones present a major waste disposal issue as new models quickly become obsolete. Recycling computers and other electronics is difficult and time consuming, and rarely cost effective.


Paper Consumption
Use of computers should save paper. Right? Wrong. From 1988-1998 average per capita paper use of printing and writing paper in industrial countries rose by 24%. Decreases in newspaper and advertising uses are more than supplemented by increased use of office paper and paper in packaging.

telecommunication technology may encourage people to live farther apart, encourage us to travel further to shop or recreate. Travel time becomes more productive with cell phones, laptops and wireless technology. No communications revolution in history has ever been associated with a net reduction in travel.


Good News

High tech companies are getting better at dealing with pollution and waste, publishing environmental health and safety reports, showing progress toward decreased pollution and resource consumption in manufacturing.

Improved technologies allow improved monitoring and dissemination of pollution information (Fig. 2)

Europe is leading the way in responsible manufacturing, disposal and recycling of electronics by forcing prohibiting the use of some toxins in manufacturing, requiring the producer to institute collection systems, and distributors to accept old electronic devices when selling new. 

Up and coming e-book and e-paper technology promises to make electronic media easier to read, perhaps replacing much of the paper that runs through the office printer.

Telecommuting and videoconferencing should reduce transportation needs. An innovative program at AT&T has led the way in working remotely. The company claims that over the past year, the telework program (established in 1992) avoided 110 million miles of commuting, saving approximately 50,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 5.1 million gallons of gasoline, 220,000 tons of hydrocarbons, 1.7 million tons of carbon monoxide, and 110,000 tons of nitrous oxide.


Factors Influencing Technological Change

The World Bank and the National Research Council brought together members of the international community for an assessment of the impact of technological innovation on developing countries. The findings of this symposium are found in "Marshaling Technology for Development: Proceedings of a Symposium", published in 1995. This is one of the primary resources used in the preparation of these notes.

Conditions that Encourage Invention and Innovation and Facilitate the Acquisition of Technology
  • An educational system that encourages creativity and the pursuit of scientific and technological knowledge
  • An educated and skilled workforce
  • A network of capable research laboratories, linked together and able to gain access to scientific and technological information from the outside world
  • Facilities for product development and quality control, including testing and standards laboratories responding to international standards
  • Critical technical resources, including machine shops, precision foundries, and computational facilities
  • An industrial structure that will sustain a productive "industrial ecology", in which small, technically oriented and potentially innovative suppliers serve larger that have access to markets and resources
  • Institutions or programs that link researchers and inventors to the potential users of the knowledge they generate, as well as to investors
  • A legal system to protect technological innovation (indigenous or imported)
  • An economic policy environment that encourages research and development and investment in innovation
  • A reliable electric power network with good frequency and amplitude control
  • An adequate transport, communications, and telecommunications infrastructure

Source: Marshaling Technology for Development, National Academy Press, 1995.

Negative Impacts of New Technology
Technological innovations often make critical industrial or agricultural products uncompetitive or obsolete. This puts countries that have failed to anticipate change or whose economy relies heavily on a few traditional products at risk.

Those countries where manufacturing is an important sourced of employment for uneducated workers face difficult educational and political challenges associated with the transition to manufacturing practices that are more knowledge-based and specialized.

Exposure to new technologies and to international culture and fashions may weaken long-standing traditions and practices.
New technologies in some cases can assist in the preservation or exploration of local culture, but developing countries will need to make such preservation an active focus.

There is potential for the convergence of developed and developing economies over the long term. This can result in a decrease in independence for developing countries.

A widening gap between technology "haves" and "have nots" may develop across countries and across socioeconomic groups within countries. Such equity issues – different rates of investment and development in different regions – can create unrest and led to the persistence of poverty. The distinction may change from "developed vs developing countries" to "populations that are technologically adept and those that are not and between populations that are plugged into rapidly changing knowledge and those that are not.

Source: Marshaling Technology for Development, National Academy Press, 1995.

Opportunities and Strategies by Sector

Symposium participants concluded that the demand for food will increase by more than a factor of two, that a considerable increase in economic investment will be needed to provide plants, equipment, and jobs, that energy consumption will significantly increase, that increased prices of some nonrenewable resources, fuels, and materials will not hinder their availability to developing countries, that many developing countries will not be able to provide for the increasing needs for education, basic health and protective services. They acknowledged that telecommunications, biotechnology, and materials science and technology are expected to create new industries, new products, and new jobs, and that new fuels and new technologies for energy conversion will address some of the increased energy demand.

Agriculture is seen as the sector that is most dependent on innovation and new technology to meet increasing demands. Increased food production is therefore dependent upon new technologies that increase yield.

"Because the world is facing a shrinking land base and growing demand for agricultural products, the output per unit area of the food and feedgrains, as well as starchy vegetables, must more than double over the next 25 years. While there is considerable scope for increasing yields within the existing genetic potential, scientific breakthroughs will be needed to fully achieve the needed yields."

- Richard R. Harwood, Michigan State University

Manufacturing and Services
These two sectors have been highly affected by radical innovations in telecommunications and computers.

The electronic industry has generated much of the new technology and is expect to be that most transformed by advances in these areas. Data-entry, translation, and financial services have frequently been exported from developed countries, but it is expected that many of these services will be replaced with effective voice-recognition technologies.

"Among the so-called services, a country’s ability to manage and use information will be the single determinant of its rate of development."- Jordan J. Baruch, Jordan J. Baruch Associates

The Environment and Energy
Symposium participants conclude that the Earth’s environment cannot sustain the energy use, resource waste, and pollution that supported developed countries’ industrialization to present levels of consumption. Previously, negative environmental impacts were seen to be the inevitable consequences of development. The primary goal was increased production, and environmental problems were either ignored or addressed separately. Currently, manufacturers incorporate "green technologies" and environmental considerations as an integral part of the design process. Informatic technologies, computer-aided design, and computer-controlled manufacturing are used to decrease pollution and make products that are more readily recycled. New technologies have increased the efficiency of power plants and electrical devices, and modular and macro-electronic technologies are changing the nature of power generation and distribution. In some respects, the energy industry may be following a similar pattern as that taken by the computer industry (mainframes -> desktops -> laptops -> networks of small units). However, renewable energy sources (solar, wind, biomass) provide the only long-term option for sustainable development. These sources are not currently economically competitive but are expected to become so in the near future. Photovoltaic technologies include small, modular components that can be readily transported to and assembled in remote locations. Solar thermal generators do not yet compete successfully with cheaper and more efficient fossil fuel combustion turbines but may be viable options in tropical regions where coal or gas are scarce. Wind turbines are in use in areas with persistent winds and costs are decreasing rapidly for this technology. Of course, solar and wind technologies only produce energy under favorable weather conditions, which does not always match periods of peak use. Improvements in storage technologies will make these technologies more competitive with advanced turbine technologies. Biotechnologies that yield higher productivity of fuel crops and more efficient conversion of biomass to energy are expected to make commercial use of biomass energy sources, biotechnologies more attractive.

"The present great wave of new technologies and technological concepts collectively represents a new environmental technological offensive. Properly directed and financed, this offensive could open pathways to an environmentally sustainable future as well as restore damaged environments. Technological innovation by itself is a necessary, but insufficient, means to that end."

- Robert M. White, National Academy of Engineering

Symposium participants concluded that research and development in the health industry do not yield technologies that are useful to developing countries, largely because such needs do not currently involve lucrative markets, despite the large number of people affected. The good news is that two significant advances provide services to large populations at reduced costs and can be used by both developed and developing countries. Many procedures that previously required significant periods of hospitalization can now be performed in outpatient clinics with access to information resources ,and the length of hospital stays continues to decrease rapidly, which decreases costs and risks of infection. As well, telemedicine, wherein a central facility staffed by physicians can diagnose and treat patients in remove locations, allows doctors to "examine" patients through interactive video and communications equipment that allows viewing and reception of diagnostic data and x-rays.

Health Sector Research and Development Needs

Reproductive health technologies. Developing countries especially need contraceptive technologies for men and women, as well as methods that simultaneously protect women from infection since they bear the heaviest burden from sexually transmitted diseases.

Micronutrient supplementation. Cost-effective delivery systems are needed for providing vitamin A and other essential diet supplements to children, whose health is the most vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies.

Vaccines. Immunizations will protect children against the most common childhood diseases and against diseases that carry large burdens of morbidity or mortality in the tropics.

Primary health care. Expanded facilities are needed for primary and outpatient clinical care, including the use of cost-effective diagnostic and treatment technologies through telemedicine.

Chronic diseases. Cost-effective interventions are required to control the growing prevalence of chronic illness – heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease, and diabetes – and to reduce the use of tobacco, which exacerbates these illnesses.

Information and surveillance technologies. Such systems could anticipate the emergence and spread of little-known or local diseases and drug resistance in common diseases.

HIV. Research could tackle the problem of behavior modification to prevent the spread of the disease and monitor new strains of HIV and different transmission patterns to complement the large research programs of the advanced countries.

Source: Marshaling Technology for Development, National Academy Press, 1995

Information Infrastructure - Health Issues

Phenomenon Information Feedback Channels Mechanisms to Receive Information Mechanisms to Act on Information
HIV Insufficient Strong Strong in some countries. Weak in some LDCs Strong-to-weak
Cancer Insufficient Strong Strong (medical establish-ment, mass media, general public) Strong (medical establishment) to weak (prevention)
Cholera Sufficient Strong Strong-to-weak Strong-to-weak (e.g.,MDCs vs Rwanda)
Famine Sufficient Generally Strong Strong (international agencies) to weak (some LDCs) Often weak and uncoordinated
Health Effects of Environmental Degradation Middling Strong in developed countries (popular cause) Strong in MDCs (often very politicized) Generally slow
Strong-to-weak in LDcs

LDC = Less-Developed Country; MDC = More-Developed Country


Symposium participants found that the per capita expenditure on education in developing countries is about 50% that of countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In most developing countries modern technology is scarcely used, and many teachers assert new technologies wouldn’t work due to poorly prepared, overworked teachers and poorly equipped, crowded classes, and should, therefore, not be introduced. This is a sort of catch 22 as competent science teaching, required for technological literacy, requires knowledgeable teachers and appropriate laboratory equipment. As well, because education is highly sensitive to local culture and language, tools and technologies borrowed from outside typically must be redesigned for viable integration with the knowledge base. However, soft technologies (e.g., theories of learning, educational standards and translation and voice recognition programs) can contribute significantly, and universities in some developed countries are partnering with schools in developing countries to teach students the importance of the world wide web while equipping them with skills that will allow them to be innovative and resourceful when using it (e.g., the MIT African Internet Technology Initiative).

Priorities for Developing Countries and the International Development Community

Symposium participants point out that many of the countries that most need to rely on new technologies to address pressures on food supplies, health and education services and the environment are not in a position to benefit from the telecommunications/computer revolution in the short term because they don’t have the necessary levels of capital, infrastructure, human resource capability, basic services, and/or technological awareness. They conclude that it cannot be assumed that the transfer of current or future technologies will be appropriate for such countries, and, thus, the international development community must continue to focus on the needs of these least-developed countries.

Meeting the demands associated with increasing population will only be possible if all sectors of the world community participate in problem solving. Experts assert that new roles for government, the private sector, and the broader community must be assumed to meet such demands.

Symposium Participants’ Recommendations for Institutional Roles


  • Maintain awareness of the profound influence that technological changes may have on the global economy. Initiate a planning process involving all social sectors to create a vision of the country’s role in the new global market and take steps to implement that vision.
  • Create a legal and economic policy framework that encourages innovation and provides firms and individuals with the ability to respond to technical change in an agile way. New Technical and information-oriented institutions and technical assistance programs, especially related to quality management, may be vital. Provide incentives to the productive sector to respond to opportunities for small, technically oriented companies.
  • Invest in the physical and technological infrastructure, especially communications and transport, needed to enable the productive sector to acquire and put to use the most appropriate and effective technologies, seeking private sector participation where possible.
  • Bring technology to bear in the provision of public services, in particular to reduce the cost and increase the quality and coverage of educational and health services. Consider investments in new technologies for energy generation that are more efficient and less polluting and in technologies for cleaning up the environment.

Private Sector

  • Maintain awareness of technological advances in industry and acquire the most effective production methods and products through research and development, international agreements, joint ventures, and imported technology. Gain the capability to access knowledge through international networks. Be aware of quality management requirements in international markets and reorganize procedures and facilities to achieve quality standards.
  • Adopt organizational changes to better manage intellectual assets, invest in innovative activity, and improve quality control. Because most technical change comes from incremental innovations on the factory floor, be open to employee-initiated changes.
  • Recognize the importance of employee training to incorporating new technologies and converting knowledge to value. Be prepared to join forces with the government and other private firms to leverage resources for employee training.

Scientific and Research Community

  • Take a leading a role in advising developing country governments and the development community of new technologies and their implications for developing countries. Participate in information clearinghouses on the Internet to assist researchers and producers in developing countries.
  • Identify research priorities for regional and national research centers, addressing the needs of developing countries. Assist and encourage research and development on the local level to encourage the application and adaptation of new technologies in specific developing country contexts.
  • Form partnerships with research institutions in developing countries and encourage research partnerships across developing countries.

Development Community

  • Put technology issues at the forefront of individual country development assistance strategies. Help the least-developed countries adapt to the changes brought on by the new telecommunications and computer technologies.
  • Raise the awareness of developing country governments and other donors of the opportunities and challenges offered by new technologies – for example, by supporting seminars and studies on the implications of technological change for developing countries.
  • Play a connector role, forging partnerships between developing countries and the scientific and research community to increase access to knowledge and apply it to developing country problems.
  • Help to make information on technologies more widely and easily available to developing countries. Explore options for providing information facilities – for example, on energy and environmental technologies – via networks such as Internet.
  • Provide honest broker services, an advisory role that could be performed in conjunction with national scientific academies or other scientific organizations, to assist governments to evaluate different technologies.
  • Finance pilot or demonstration projects that apply new technologies in specific developing country circumstances.
  • Assist developing countries in managing the negative impacts of change brought by the technology revolution.

Source: Marshaling Technology for Development, National Academy Press, 1995


Success Stories - Putting Technology into Practice

GIS empowers citizens
As technology improves and large amounts of information become easier to manage, the price of accessing information drops and spatial data may be utilized by an increasing number of people.

In New York City, the New York Public Interest Research Group has shown how maps can empower local citizens. The organization has created interactive maps for the city to facilitate their mission to develop an accessible information system that helps enhance the stewardship of open space so these areas are linked, diverse and sustainable for the benefit of NYC.

Perhaps the greatest promise for positive environmental change as a result of technological innovations in computing and communications lies in the potential to network.

Television and radio provide the means to disseminate information around the globe, but the internet provides the potential to exchange information and data – a powerful distinction as governments, NGO’s, business, and scientists strive to move forward.

One good example of this collaboration is the Global Forest Watch program. In 1999 the World Resources Institute, in an attempt to give the general public a clearer picture of the threats to the world's forests, initiated the Global Forest Watch program, combining satellite imagery, GIS, the Internet and on-the-ground observation.


The top image depicts the original frontier forests of the globe and the lower photo depicts the frontier forests still remaining today.

See Other Success Stories

Suggested Readings and References:

  • Marshaling Technology for Development: Proceedings of a Symposium, National Academy Press, 1995.
  • State of the World 2000, The Worldwatch Institute, especially Chapter 7. Harnessing Information Technologies for the Environment by Molly O'Meara
  • Flavin, Christopher. 1998. WIND POWER SETS NEW RECORD IN 1998 FASTEST GROWING ENERGY SOURCE. Worldwatch Institute.
  • Taking a Byte Out of Carbon: Electronics Innovation for Climate Protection. World Resources Institute, the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA), and the International Cooperative for Environmental Leadership (ICEL). 1998, 60 pages, ISBN Number: 1-56973-265-5.
  • Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins (http://www.natcap.org/sitepages/pid5.php)

All materials © 2001 by the University of Michigan.