Thursday, 27 November 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

An update on our Veterinary Science, Transboundary Animal Diseases and Markets comes from William Wolmer who gave a presentation at a Botswana workshop earlier this month. The presentation explores achieving compatibility between the Transfrontier Conservation Area concept and international standards for the management of Transboundary Animal Diseases. Have a read here or download from our Slideshare page.

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Monday, 17 November 2008



A recent report by the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) on nanomaterials - reported extensively in the media - illustrates the challenges of governing innovation in emergent technologies.

The RCEP recommend a system of adaptive innovation governance for dealing with the uncertain consequences of nanomaterial innovation and other emerging technologies. This raises some difficult issues, discussed below, about the relationship between adaptability and path dependency in innovation, and about the institutions, processes and tools for guiding the direction of innovation.

It is common to see three broad classes of technology in the national science, technology and innovation strategies of many countries, whether developed or developing: information and communication technologies, biotechnologies, and nanotechnologies.

However, the governance of these innovation endeavours is incomplete unless promotional policies are accompanied by regulatory initiatives to ensure the safe and sustainable development of these new technologies.

Too often, these two faces to innovation governance are considered separately and sequentially, which tends to build extra conflict into governance arrangements. But integrating the promotional and regulatory aspects of innovation is far from straightforward. The RCEP report illustrates and grapples with some of the challenges.

Members of the STEPS Centre – Paul Nightingale and ourselves - with Ismael Rafols and Molly Morgan from SPRU, were commissioned by the RCEP to provide a background report (and shorter paper) on the innovation of nanomaterials and their governance. Here, two members two of us of that team reflect on the RCEP’s recommendations.

Catching up?

For even the wealthiest countries, let alone resource poor nations, the creation of sufficient regulatory capacity to manage emergent technologies such as nanomaterials poses an enormous challenge.

As highlighted by the RCEP report, innovation in nanomaterials is running far ahead of issues surrounding those innovations: ahead of the creation of regulatory institutions and legal controls, public knowledge of their industrial uses and, the ability to detect and monitor the presence and pathways of nanomaterials in the environment; ahead of, the development of test protocols and, the training of scientific staff; , and even ahead of a basic understanding of the intrinsic hazard properties of nanomaterials, and of their behaviour in organisms and the environment and potential risks.

But the challenge is more severe than one of regulatory capacity per se. As the RCEP recognise, we typically lack knowledge about the kinds of technological pathways that innovation will give rise to, and for any such pathways, the likely impacts positive as well as negative, and social and political as well as physical.

Such pathways, however, have a strong tendency to lock in, as material investments, infrastructure, institutional commitments, and consumer habits develop around that technological pathway, all. This happens well before our understanding of the environmental, human health, and broader social impacts are anything like satisfactory.

Thus, in the early stages of a technology we don’t know enough to establish the most appropriate controls for managing it. But if problems subsequently arise, the technology is usually too entrenched to be changed without major disruptions.

The proposed solution to this control dilemma is to move from a system of ‘governance of risk’ to ‘governance of innovation’. That is, governance efforts need to extend beyond the issues of risk and risk management to include questions about the direction, application and control of innovation.

Furthermore, innovation governance has to rely on adaptive management systems. The RCEP say, ‘Such a regime, while encouraging appropriate innovation, would seek to avoid technological inflexibility, would be vigilant, and would be capable of intervening selectively but decisively when developments threatened humans or the non-human environment.’

These recommendations are laudable but they raise at least two difficult issues.

Technology path dependencies and reversibility

Adaptive management implies an experimental approach to technology development and diffusion. A prerequisite is that the technologies developed are flexible enough to be withdrawn, should problems arise, but without leaving too many stranded investments as a result. Stranded assets dent business confidence in the technology, and make future investment harder to achieve. Indeed, a generation of innovation studies has recognised how many technologies generate path dependencies that make reversibility difficult to attain.

The creation of path dependence is often an ingredient in the success of a technology, as more and more commitments build around the technology, thereby making it indispensable. The question with nanomaterials and other emergent technologies is whether innovation governance can guide their development and use in ways that do permit their deployment in monitored ways, and that hold open the possibility of their withdrawal.

The RCEP propose several indicators of inflexibility that, if present, suggest we should be cautious in committing ourselves to adoption of a technological development. Those indicators are: long lead times from idea to application; capital intensity (such as investment in large plant and costly equipment); large scale of production units; major infrastructure requirements; closure or resistance to criticism; exaggerated claims about performance and benefits; hubris; and irreversibility, in the form of widespread and uncontrolled release of substances into the environment.

We share these aspirations, but a crucial question this raises is how many potential technological pathways are free of these qualities? With the exception of the ‘widespread and uncontrolled release of substances into the environment’ indicator, are the remainder not inherent features of successful technologies and successful technological sectors? Empirical research is needed into the relative flexibilities of technologies, and into the contexts that make some forms more flexible than others.

Institutions, processes and tools for guiding the direction of innovation

The RCEP argue that a key element of an innovation governance regime would be a deliberative forum, capable of exploring normative questions about the purpose, direction and control of innovation, as well as issues of risk and regulation. Linking questions about the direction of innovation with those concerning its regulation raises intriguing questions.

If development trajectories are recognized as inherently uncertain, in terms of potential risks, then might a reasonable response be to commit only to technological pathways that promise to deliver broad social benefits, rather than just sectional economic interests?

Importantly, the RCEP stress that the results of a deliberative forum should directly inform government thinking and policy. We certainly share this aspiration but wish to ask what government might do in response to the outputs of a deliberative forum? Presumably, those outputs might suggest that certain kinds of technological developments should be encouraged and others discouraged. But what policy levers are available, and how would they work?

In most countries promotional policies are concerned not with picking ‘winners’, or halting ‘losers’, but with general improvements in research infrastructure, and in research and industrial capacity-building. The aim is to increase the overall rate of innovation, rather than encourage and discourage particular directions of innovation.

Yet many kinds of policy lever might be utilised to direct innovation: funding of targeted research; training of scientific and engineering staff in specific skills and applications; investment in procurement, support for specific technological niches; facilitating supplier-firm user interactions; creating favourable regulatory environments; and developing fiscal policies. Another would be the promotion of ‘softer’ measures that contribute to a climate of opinion within relevant industrial sectors over which directions for commercial exploitation are deemed appropriate and socially legitimate, and which directions are not.

Innovation governance under this adaptive view has to think of forms of innovation that can transcend or manage path dependency issues, and that can be steered towards socially desirable ends. This is an agenda that STEPS and others are working towards.
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Thursday, 13 November 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

The rapid expansion of peri-urban areas presents opportunities and challenges for urban and rural activities, institutions and sustainability. No longer soley seen in spatial terms, the peri-urban interface is increasingly recognised in terms of dynamic flows of commodities, capital, natural resources, people and pollution. Although often seen as a transition zone, peri-urban areas are expanding rather than

Today’s landfills become tomorrow’s housing estates for urban migrants in an era of rapid change. Conflicts - over land, water and tenure; siting of polluting industries, waste disposal, mining, construction or commercial cash crops - are now competing with small-scale agriculture, common lands or conservation areas.

The ambiguous peri-urban interface, split between urban and rural jurisdictional boundaries, presents significant governance challenges. Contradictory or absent regulatory frameworks and technology arrangements, poor health, water and sanitation service provision and haphazard planned and unplanned operations abound. These are coupled with intense pollution, land degradation, poor public health and sanitation, changing disease ecologies and a competitive labour market. Meanwhile discrimination is rife and social capital is falling.

The STEPS Centre's new project - the peri-urban interface and sustainability of South Asian cities - is based on the expanding fringes of Delhi are indicative of the conditions that a growing proportion of the world's poor and marginalised citizens will inhabit in decades to come.

The project uses water conflicts as a lens through which to explore the technological and environmental sustainability challenges in peri-urban areas. A full-length overview of the project and a one-page flyer, as well as lots more information is available on the STEPS website.

And you can read what the UNFPA's latest thinking on peri-urbanisation in its 2007 state of the world population report, entitled Unleasing the Potential of Urban Growth.

The report said: "While the world’s urban population grew very rapidly (from 220 million to 2.8 billion) over the 20th century, the next few decades will see an unprecedented scale of urban growth in the developing world. This will be particularly notable in Africa and Asia where the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030: That is, the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation. By 2030, the towns and cities of the developing world will make up 80 per cent of urban humanity."
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Monday, 10 November 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

A week ago the western world felt like a different place. ‘Change’ and ‘hope’ were still slogans. Now, as the embers of Tuesday’s historic celebrations in Chicago’s Grant Park finally begin to die down, US president-elect Barack Obama is throwing himself into the nitty-gritty of forming a new government. But what will an Obama-led Democratic government in the US mean for international development and environmental sustainabiity?

The world has already begun speculating. Every sector of civil society and industry is attempting to decode what Obama’s election promises will mean for their area of interest and expertise.

As he prepares to visit the White House today to undergo what is being billed as a ‘psychological transfer’ from George W Bush, speculation is rife that the president elect intends to move swiftly to unpick many of the Bush administrations laws. He is expected to use his executive authority to force through rapid change without having to wait for congressional action.

But will Obama’s foreign policy commitments be anywhere near the top of his ‘to do’ list? Fighting poverty in Africa was one of the mainstays of the Obama-Biden plan. The pair promised: “To double our annual investment in foreign assistance from $25 billion in 2008 to $50 billion by the end of his first term and make the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015, America's goals. They will fully fund debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries in order to provide sustainable debt relief and invest at least $50 billion by 2013 for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, including our fair share of the Global Fund.”

You can listen to Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies talking about what Obama’s win might mean for international development issues.

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