Innovation and inclusion: Keys to achieving equitable, sustainable development- by Rasha Salman, UNIC Beirut National Information Officer (Featured in Jordan Times)

The changing economic development landscape in the world today forces policymakers to think in ever-more creative ways to harness growth potential. The Millennium Development Goals were able to provide a push for some economic growth, but they did not adequately address equality in development or its sustainability. While GDP increased in many countries, gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural increased, including in many countries in the Arab region. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development came with a vision to address such discrepancies: achieving numerical growth is no longer enough, this growth has to be inclusive and sustainable. In view of financial crises, festering conflicts in many parts of the world and natural environment challenges, countries must find ways to accelerate growth in ways that ensure “no one is left behind”.

The Sustainable Development Goals offer a map of action for policymakers to lead on global growth, with many touching upon inclusive growth, sustainability and innovation. One goal in particular, Goal 9, prioritises “resilient infrastructure”, “inclusive and sustainable industrialisation” and “innovation”. While manufacturing remains a principal driver of economic growth and job creation, innovation expands the technological capabilities of industrial sectors and leads to the development of new skills.  This means that past models of growth must be augmented with tools of today and must take into consideration the conditions of today’s people and planet.

Industrialisation is still a key driver in economic growth. Worldwide manufacturing value added as a share of GDP increased from 15.3 per cent in 2005 to 16.2 per cent in 2016. But manufacturing is increasingly shifting towards more technologically complex products, hence the call for investing in innovation and technology. In 2014, investments in research and development stood at 1.7 per cent of global GDP, up from 1.5 per cent in 2000. 

Mobile-cellular services have spread rapidly and have allowed people living in previously unconnected areas to join the global information society. In 2016, 95 per cent of the world’s population and 85 per cent of people in the least developed countries were covered by a mobile-cellular signal.  As a result, the world of today is much more connected than that of yesterday. In addition, according to the World Economic Forum, the Internet “has changed the way we work, interact, ideate, learn, create and share. One estimate shows that extending internet access to the levels of today’s developed countries could build long-term productivity by as much as 25 per cent”. 

In fact, we stand on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, wrote World known German engineer and economist Klaus Schwab in Foreign Affairs in 2015, a revolution that is “characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”.  According to him, the interconnectedness of the world today, through the Internet and mobile devices with  “unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge,” increases people’s potential exponentially. Hence the new “way of things” forces us to employ new models of harnessing potential and investing: an inclusive, innovative way facilitated by communication. More and more people are connected, and more have access to, and have become producers of knowledge and new technologies. 

Arab countries still have a lot to achieve in terms of capitalising on the importance of innovation to accelerate industrialisation and economic growth. According to UNESCO , with over 40 per cent of job seekers in Muslim countries being youth, lack of knowledge and innovation engender lax economic growth, low job-creation and hence create crises. This is due to low interest in driving innovation, for example the same report says the Arab world contributed just 1 per cent of global spending on research and development (R&D) in 2013, compared to 6 per cent of GDP. Tunisia and Morocco, the highest “spenders” on R&D in the Arab world, both devote more than 1 per cent of GDP to higher education, while Qatar and the United Arab Emirates devote just under 0.5 per cent of GDP to research and Kuwait about 0.3 per cent. 

However, many Arab countries are quickly realising the importance of this and swiftly “jumping on the wagon”.  Several governments are now developing observatories of science, technology and innovation — including in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia. One example is Jordan, which, over the past decade, has invested heavily in the construction of the region’s first particle accelerator, the Synchrotron — light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, which was inaugurated in May 2017. Synchrotrons have become an indispensable tool for modern science. They work by accelerating electrons around a circular tube at high speed, during which time excess energy is given off in the form of light. The light source acts like a super X-ray machine and can be used by researchers to study everything from viruses and new drugs to novel materials and archaeological artefacts. 

New technologies, such as e-governance, also offer tremendous opportunities to deliver public services, including healthcare, education and basic infrastructure to more people at lower cost, hence facilitating inclusion. 

A strong commitment to inclusion in new development policies is the way to create growth that is more stable and more fairly distributed across the globe, and innovation offers the opportunity to achieve it. The SDGs focus on participatory processes and participatory growth outcomes: “Participatory processes will allow stakeholders to give voice to the needs and interests of the people they represent, enabling better-planned and better-informed initiatives.”

The writer, Rasha Salman, is national information officer at the UN Information Centre in Beirut and has an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.