Asia looks to innovation to achieve sustainability

Innovation in the fields of renewable energy, food production, water conservation, education and health will be crucial for the developing economies of Asia to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are slated to expire in 2015, are aimed at fostering economic growth, environmental protection and ending poverty by 2030.

“As economic growth rises in Asia, more concentration is going into value addition and innovation is the principle vehicle for that,” Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) Dr. Francis Gurry tells IPS.

The Asian Development Outlook (ADO) Supplement, released late July, maintains the ADB’s April forecast of 6.2 per cent growth in 2014 and 6.4 per cent in 2015 for the region’s 45 developing economies.

“Clearly, there is a priority to make innovation work for sustainable development in these economies,” Gurry says.

Leading innovation performers in Asia include Japan, South Korea and Singapore, with China rapidly climbing up. Malaysia tops the middle-income countries’ category for innovation performance.

Indeed, renewable energy is the Holy Grail in Asia and countries in the region will need to invest significantly in renewable energy technologies to meet the urgency of the climate change challenge

Amongst the other large Asian countries, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam have the potential to move up the ladder of innovation, according to the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2014.

Co-author of the GII and executive director of INSEAD Global Indices, Bruno Lanvin, says, “It is a good sign that innovation is taking a front seat in the design and hopefully the implementation of the SDGs.

“Many Asian countries have already become surprising contenders, for instance, China has emerged as one of the main innovators in sectors like drones, civil aviation, biotechnology and telecommunications,” he tells IPS.

However, Lanvin warns that in these countries with large populations, “if innovation doesn’t translate into improving the lives of its people, it is failing somehow.”

Given the region’s dichotomies such as rapid urbanisation with large rural agricultural populations and extreme vulnerabilities to climate change with growing resource intensities, experts say that innovation must occur right across the economy, if it is to meet the SDGs.

For instance, slum populations in the developing world mushroomed from 650 million in 1990 to 863 million in 2012. More than half of these slum dwellers reside in Asia.

This situation is set to worsen, with Asia home to 56 per cent of the world’s biggest cities, including seven of the top 10 ‘megacities’, defined as urban centres with over 10 million residents.

“Our attention has to be on the ‘bottom of pyramid’ populations, both urban and rural, and innovations in technology and systems design have to cater to that segment,” New Delhi-based Zeenat Niazi,vice president of Development Alternatives Group and co-chair of Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA), tells IPS.

“The challenges will be to reach to the geographically spread-out populations with informal and inconsistent income streams; and attract the private sector to partner with governments and community groups to invest in sustainable growth,” she added.

The Asian region is today fast becoming the hot bed of innovation on and off the field. Lanvin cites Tata’s Nano car in India as a good example of localised, affordable innovation, which Asia is going to need.

In his opinion, in the next decade the Nano will be regarded a success in terms of adapting manufactured equipment to specific conditions and bringing down the cost of production.

But he says, “If you want to be a successful innovator in the Asian region, you have to be a very large company like Tata or Huawei. If Asian countries could give themselves the means to allow successful small enterprises to bring innovation to the market, we would see a lot of frugal, path breaking innovation, especially in the field of renewable energy.”

Indeed, renewable energy is the Holy Grail in Asia and countries in the region will need to invest significantly in renewable energy technologies to meet the urgency of the climate change challenge – for instance, Asia-Pacific countries absorbed 80 per cent of the 366 billion dollars in damages caused by climate change in 2011, and many countries in the region are poised to absorb major food and energy shocks as a result of extreme weather patterns in the coming decade.

A new analysis by the market research company Frost & Sullivan entitled ‘Global Solar Power Markets’ estimates that the world solar photovoltaic (PV) market will be worth 137.02 billion dollars in 2020.

This year, global solar PV demand is dominated by the Asia-Pacific, which will account for approximately 46 percent of annual installed solar PV capacity. China, Japan, India and Australia will continue to be the top four countries driving regional demand.

With panel prices coming down drastically, Asian manufacturers are now looking at value chain integration and technical efficiencies to differentiate their products from other suppliers in the market, the analysis adds.

Increasing scarcity of water will also drive innovation in sustainable irrigation, water filtration and water recycling techniques.

“In Asia and the Pacific, where almost two billion people live on less than 2.50 dollars a day, innovation is essential for identifying solutions to persistent development challenges,” Caitlin Wiesen, manager of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) regional centre in Bangkok, tells IPS.

To help countries achieve development goals, the UNDP has put in place a system for rapid prototyping and testing of potential solutions. Currently, it is testing 16 new ideas across Asia and the Pacific.

One such prototype is being tested in Bhutan. Jigme Dorji, acting head of the Poverty and MDG Unit at UNDP-Bhutan, is working with US-based Emerson College’s Engagement Lab, local techies and youth leaders to generate the content and develop an outreach strategy to maximise youth participation in a game that would engage all the stakeholders in a constructive dialogue about youth unemployment.

“We will evaluate the results of these prototypes and assist countries in turning the successful ones so they can achieve impact at scale,” Wiesen adds.

China, Vietnam, India, Malaysia and Thailand, are demonstrating rising levels of innovation because of improvements in institutional frameworks, a skilled labour force with expanded tertiary education, better innovation infrastructure, a deeper integration with global credit investment and trade markets, and a sophisticated business community – even though progress on these dimensions is not uniform across their economies, according to the GII report.

Many successful Asians, working as entrepreneurs with major global corporations and universities, are beginning to return to their home countries to nurture the next wave of innovations and create local jobs.

Adam Bumpus, assistant professor of Environment, Innovation and Development at the University of Melbourne, says, “There are a number of initiatives that are directly contributing to SDGs by increasingly linking countries in research and technology development. For example, the University of Melbourne is working on initiatives that link Australia, China, India and the US on innovation and climate change.”

“Secondly, there are opportunities to piggyback sustainable development initiatives by using existing technology in new innovative ways. In the Pacific we have been looking at the role of mobile phones for sustainable development priorities like climate change,” Bumpus tells IPS.

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