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New and emerging technologies such as information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology — the development of small-scale structures — have a central role in promoting sustainable development, according to Nitin Desai, Secretary-General of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

Desai, who is also UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, told a forum held in Beijing on 15 April that one of the main tasks facing the WSSD was to identify the practical steps needed “to realise the potential of these technologies for sustainable development”.

An additional task was to come up with specific ideas on the types of partnerships which would lead to such an outcome.

In his opening address to the forum, Desai emphasised that the nature of technological change in the areas of ‘infotech’, ‘biotech’ and ‘nanotech’ were very different from the technological transformations of the earlier industrial revolutions.

“Those were technologies that were developed quite often from the shop floor by working engineers,” he said. “These are technologies where the connection between basic science and technology is much deeper.”

As a result, it was unrealistic to expect to develop expertise in such technologies only through their industrial applications. “You also have to worry about how related areas of basic science developed in your environment in your country.”

A second important aspect was the increasingly important role of such technology in the economy of individual nations. “A larger and larger proportion of the economy is dependent on the degree of success that you achieve in mastering the application, at least, of these technologies,” he said.

“In this knowledge economy, success will come to those societies which have the capacity to foster creativity and innovation, and which have the infrastructure of education, communication, and venture capital funding which will support these.”

Finally, the consequence of high entry costs, combined with a high cost and risk of failure, meant that, paradoxically, there was a growing concentration of economic power over these technologies. This concentration occurred both at the corporate level, and at a geographical level between and within countries.

“I come from India, which is doing exceptionally well in infotech,” he said. “But within India, there is a tremendous geographical concentration of where these infotech capacities and the infotech potential are being realised. And if you look at it at a global level, these concentrations become even more obvious and greater.”

The challenge facing the WSSD, said Desai, was to generate a vision of how science and technology, particularly the new and emerging technologies of infotech, biotech and nanotech, can contribute to sustainability.

If this could be achieved, Desai said, he was optimistic that the Johannesburg meeting could generate “a real sense that we have in this century brought nearer the prospect of a world that is more sustainable, more stable and more equitable.”

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