Campus & Community

Technology for the poor as well as the rich

3 min read

Kennedy School symposium asks tough questions

For the world’s poor, technology is something other people have, a tool for the rich to help them get richer.

For world development officials, however, technology holds the promise of being something different. Properly applied, modern technology can help less-developed countries compete, help educate the poor, help narrow the gap between rich and poor.

But applying technology to narrow – not broaden – the gap between rich and poor is the hard part. That’s why it was the subject of an international conference sponsored by the Kennedy School of Government’s Center for International Development (CID), the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the Asia Programs at the Center for Business and Government.

“The view is that, so far, the way [technology] has been applied has widened the gap. But we’re arguing that [that result] is not inherent to technology, but to the way it’s being applied,” said Calestous Juma, professor and director of the CID’s Science, Technology and Innovation Program.

Juma, one of the conference organizers, said the conference, held Monday and Tuesday (Sept. 23 and 24) at the Gutman Conference Center at the Graduate School of Education, is an effort to begin figuring out how policies can be used to make technology an ally for those working to help developing countries.

“It is a difficult issue that requires detailed analytic input, but also partnership [among many different parties],” Juma said.

The conference, the “International Conference on Science, Technology and Innovation,” attracted about 200 people from a variety of academic, governmental, and business settings around the world. Over the two days, attendees heard presentations from more than 40 people working on a wide variety of projects involving technology and development. Rubens Ricupero, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which is based in Geneva, delivered the keynote speech Monday night.

Some of the first presentations looked at connections between science and technology and income inequality, the evidence that science spurs economic development, and some of the latest innovative approaches in Scotland.

“We don’t think we’re going to get to equality [between developed and developing nations] in our lifetime, but the direction is quite important,” said Susan Cozzens, professor at the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, during a presentation on income inequality.

Juma said he hopes the conference serves multiple purposes. He wants it not only to present information to those in the audience, but also to help establish global networks of people interested in the issue. In addition, Juma said, issues identified as important during the conference will help him set the agenda of a UN task force he is heading on the use of technology in development.

“It’s difficult and it’s a major issue that will take considerable intellectual resources not just to bring clarity but also to make it work,” Juma said. “We’re using the conference to create an agenda [for action on the issue] and to create a global network of scholars.”