Innovation begins at home

Why developed nations can learn from the emerging world when it comes to coping with future challenges.

Read time 6min 10sec

1.9 trillion. That's about 18 times the number of people that have ever lived. It's also the amount of money that will be needed every year until 2050 to keep this generation alive. $1 900 000 000 000, every year, for the next four decades.

The United Nations doesn't mince words in its latest World Economic and Social Survey, released last week, which says during the next 40 years, humankind will have to more or less overhaul its entire system of production, worldwide.

It calls for nothing less than a “green technological transformation”, and the staggering 13-decimal annual sum for incremental investments in green technologies, to help end poverty and avert the likely catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Not surprisingly, at least half of the required amount will need to be invested in developing countries, to meet their rapidly growing food and energy demands. Major financial injections are needed to develop and scale up clean energy technologies, sustainable farming and forestry techniques, climate-proofing for infrastructure, and processes for reducing non-biodegradable waste.

Groups with deep pockets don't have a great record when it comes to funding green development, however. In the past two years, climate change funds managed by the World Bank paid out about $20 billion, a sliver of the chunk needed for emerging economies to build up green technologies.

There was also the famous pledge after the 2009 Copenhagen summit, to spend $30 billion from 2010 to 2012, and $100 billion a year by 2020, to fund mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries. These sums are far from being realised, with the International Institute for Environment and Development stating that only $3 billion has been allocated for adaptation by November last year.

If previous trends continue, the developing world is not going to manage to stave off hunger and slow environmental degradation by depending on support from developed nations. Luckily, they've already started on Plan B and C, a whole alphabet of alternatives really, by adopting innovative approaches to tackling everyday challenges.

Communities got involved in 'green technology' long before it became a buzzword.

Lezette Engelbrecht, online features editor, ITWeb

The word “challenges” is also a somewhat tired term for the numerous and significant struggles faced daily by nearly half the world's people. As the UN notes, about 40% of humanity rely on fuels such as wood, dung and charcoal for their energy needs. A fifth of the global population has no access to electricity whatsoever.

If you want to see true innovation at work, you needn't travel to the hi-tech labs of MIT or Google. There are thousands of inspired, sustainable initiatives happening in communities in SA, greater Africa and emerging economies in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Communities got involved in “green technology” long before it became a buzzword, finding various ways to leverage available resources and local strengths to cope with changing circumstances.

These groups are testament to the adage “necessity is the mother of invention”, and there is plenty of need to fuel inventive thinking. This is a welcome driver for the economic progress needed to uplift the 1.4 billion still living in extreme poverty, and the extra two billion people set to join the global population by 2050.

Lighting the way

The UN places technological innovation at the heart of economic and social development, but it also acknowledges that technology transfer is about more than simply importing hardware. Innovation exists just as much in sharing knowledge and adapting technologies to meet local conditions. It comes about not only through transformative breakthroughs, but through small, continuous improvements of existing technologies, which improve processes.

And this is where developing nations excel. While there's no doubt they need funding, they're not waiting around for the developed world to eventually part with a few billion dollars. Countries ranging from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso have been driving changes and creating “green technologies” of their own. Emerging superpowers China and India have already showed their mettle in industries such as solar photovoltaic panels, in which China is the world leader, and wind turbines.

In Kenya, solar technology has taken off, driven by unsubsidised market demand and local entrepreneurs. Much of Kenya's electricity is generated by expensive hydropower, meaning only a fraction of households can access grid power. Solar offers a relatively low-cost alternative, reduces environmental damage, and uplifts both residents and local enterprises.

Joseph Nganga, for example, who heads up the Solarlanterns initiative, is working on replacing one million kerosene lanterns (the fume-emitting lights are used by two-thirds of the population), with one million solar lamps. He's also consulting with the World Bank to drive clean technology innovation in East Africa.

Then there's engineer Evans Wadongo, who initially created a solar-powered LED lamp from scrap metal and cast-off solar equipment, to help his grandmother. He has since distributed 15 000 lamps to Kenyans living in poor communities, and plans to increase this to 100 000 by 2015.

Some inspired minds on home soil came up with the IziWasha - a handheld laundry device that takes the intense labour out of hand-washing clothes, saves water, and doesn't require electricity. It's set to be manufactured and sold in SA, as well as by women micro entrepreneurs across Africa.

And to squeeze in a final example, the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative was born out of the realisation that Ghana's abundant bamboo (which grows fast and sucks up a fair amount of CO2) makes an excellent raw material for custom bikes that can handle rugged local roads. Assembling the bikes creates jobs, provides light and affordable transport, and drives a growing local bike industry.

A distinguishing factor of these projects is their multi-level benefits. An understanding of how society, its various components, and natural resources depend on one another means innovators take on a holistic approach that encompasses people, planet and profit. They often shake up conventional models of sustainable development because their hands-on experience results in continuous learning and improving.

The point is, those who have learned how to work around obstacles to basic needs, who have found clever ways of protecting the environment while supporting growth, in many ways have a better grasp of which solutions will be effective in tackling future challenges. The developed world could learn much about adapting to upcoming changes by studying successful ideas in nations where constrained resources, careful consumption and recycling form part of everyday life.

The trillions that developing countries will need going forward was created by the very systems that are now proving unsustainable - rampant spending, exploiting natural ecosystems and squandering resources. These behaviours may have hoisted the developed world to the top, but in funding developing nations' efforts, they will realise that the bottom of the pyramid holds key insights for how we'll all have to live in future.

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