Theme 5

Will techno-optimism
make us

Technologies like synthetic biology or quantum computing offer the chance of tackling global problems like climate change, disease or pollution. Energy microgrids or urban farming can alleviate pressure on resources in dense cities. But does “techno-optimism” risk weakening the drive for radical change in current policies and behaviours, as we reassure ourselves that tech has all the answers?


A fusion reaction [61]produced more energy than was used to trigger it.  Science magazine named AI-powered protein prediction [62]its 2021 Breakthrough of the Year for its potential to speed biological research and help understand and fight disease.  AI and machine learning promise to make drug development [63] dramatically faster and cheaper, predict crop yields [64] and improve food security.  

Arizona State University in the US is testing prototype artificial trees [65] – carbon-absorbing columns – that suck up carbon dioxide a thousand times more effectively than real trees.  Researchers at Sichuan University, China, designed a self-propelled robo-fish [66] that can absorb microplastics from oceans and rivers.  Abu Dhabi-based startup Manhat is developing a floating solar-powered desalination device [67], while an Indian company is mechanizing ocean farming [68] with its “Sea Combine,” a catamaran that simultaneously harvests and replants seaweed in the ocean.  

Signals are popping up worldwide of cheap(er) renewable energy, from solar microgrids [69] providing electricity to remote Indonesian islands or women’s enterprises in India [70], to micro-turbines [71] in Singapore that harvest power from light breezes.  Firefighters in China are using big data to predict fires [72]

  • Boom in breakthrough tech

  • Inequitable distribution of tech persists

  • Distributed energy solutions proliferate


Illustrative Signals
  • A fusion reaction produced more energy than was used to trigger it

  • Prototype artificial trees suck up carbon dioxide 1000x more effectively than real trees

  • Abu Dhabi-based startup Manhat is developing a floating solar-powered desalination device

  • China designed a self-propelled robo-fish that can absorb microplastics from oceans

So what for development

Technology could be falsely reassuring if used to address the symptoms, not the causes, of a challenge like climate change (eg Tuvalu’s creation of its own digital twin [73] in the metaverse so it could continue to function as a sovereign state, even if its people were forced by climate change to live somewhere else).  Weather modification can alleviate some symptoms of global warming, but without addressing its root causes.  Should we introduce solar radiation modification [74] when countries continue to fall short on their promise to deliver $100bn per year for climate action in developing countries?

More localized applications of technology, grounded in local knowledge and needs (like energy microgrids or vertical farming) might enable them to deliver more resilient solutions (especially pertinent if national systems are lacking).  But in the rush to tech-powered solutions, might people get left behind?  Over-reliance on tech might marginalize local or indigenous knowledge, indispensable for that context – and likely harder to recover once lost.  

Technology offers tremendous opportunities to tackle global development challenges at scale, and open source science is surfacing development solutions more efficiently. But the benefits are still not equitably distributed.  Women, for example, are 25% less likely [75] than men to know how to use digital tech for basic purposes, depriving them of opportunities and making them less likely to be heard in conversations around tech governance. 


Women hold only 20% of roles creating bots [76] in major tech companies, a discrepancy that will perpetuate biases against women.

Public investment and incentives can help create and shape markets in the public interest (eg for electric vehicles). But parallel policy changes may be needed to take account of second-order impacts of such change; for example, as American cars became more fuel-efficient in the 2010’s, potential environmental gains were lost [77] as US consumers simply switched to bigger cars.  Rather than complacently accepting (and consuming) the gains of tech, how do we invest them in sustainable ways that don’t compound the original problems we are trying to solve?


Imagining the future

What might our world look like in 2040? 
Fictional snippets from a possible future!

Screenshot of a fictional tweet from UNDP Country Office in Ruritania and its government partner in 2040: “Great results from our digital twin experiment!  We ran a gender project in our digital twin CO and partner ministry – and it increased by 25% the number of Ruritanian women attending university.  Next stop: real life implementation!”