As the Rio+20 Issues Brief on Science and Technology points out, technological progress has helped to address many problems in the last 20 years, writes Jane Fiona Cumming. And over the same period, we have also seen the beginnings of a two-way traffic in technology transfers. It is no longer entirely from the developed world to the developing. Particularly in the area of clean technology, there is now some traffic travelling in the opposite direction.
But one trend in particular is blocking the path to the full realisation of the benefits that could accrue to some of the planet’s most impoverished people from the open sharing of scientific and technological advances. The rise of strategic patenting. And legislative changes in many parts of the world are actually making it easier for large companies to exploit their IPR [Intellectual Property Rights] in what some might describe as a highly defensive manner.
Moreover, the developing world is catching on fast to what has traditionally been a developed world practice. According to the Issues Brief, China’s patent office is expected to become the world’s largest in the very near future. India features in the top five countries for solar PV patents, and Brazil and Mexico share the top two positions in the hydro/marine sector.
Nobody is seriously arguing that companies should lose the right to profit from their investment in R & D, but I would argue that if they are truly committed to the principles of sustainable development, they should be thinking seriously about the implications of their IPR strategies. And they could start by taking a look at the ‘social movement’ phenomenon.
With a little imagination, many companies could undoubtedly identify opportunities for creating a social movement around one of their own technological developments that could be used to address a critical social issue in one or more of the poorest regions of the world. How about, for example, the use of a clean technology (or technologies) to launch a community-based approach to building sustainable homes? It could represent an exciting double-hit – achieving a sustainability objective by using an approach rooted in sustainability thinking.
The point is that rather than searching for ever more ingenious ways of limiting the benefits of technological development to the few, governments and corporations should be trying to find ways of cascading those benefits to the many.