Emerging technologies: A solution to the unemployment puzzle

February 16, 2012

Javier Garcia Martinez is vice-chair of the The Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies of The World Economic Forum, Professor at the University of Alicante (Spain) and founder of Rive Technology, an MIT spin-off commercializing nanomaterials for energy applications. Sang Yup Lee is chair of the Emerging Technologies Global Agenda Council of the World Economic Forum, Distinguished Professor and Dean at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

World leaders across the political spectrum insist that innovation is the path to creating more, better-paying jobs. Unfortunately, they are delivering this message even as their countries are cutting back on public financing for research and development. In a recent editorial, the journal Nature argued that Greece, Italy, and Spain – three countries that are drastically reducing their public R&D funding – could, benefit from doing the exact opposite.

Public funding for R&D often provides the seed money for foundational innovations at the heart of some of the world’s leading companies. After all, Google started with NSF, NASA and DARPA support. The Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies of the World Economic Forum, in consultation with the over 700 members of the over 80 councils from a wide range of disciplines, has identified the top ten emerging technologies that have the greatest potential to create new industries and impact existing ones. From nanotechnology to synthetic biology, these technologies are beginning to show their potential in the lab if not already in the market whether in sun block, planes or sports equipment. These innovations could fuel discoveries that fundamentally change our understanding of what is technologically possible, while providing a much needed boost to the global job market.

The field of nanotechnology is a particularly good example, since nanomaterials can reveal unique properties that impact a variety of economic sectors, from energy production and storage and the diagnosis and treatment of cancer to water and food consumption. Beyond that, and even more importantly, this new technology will create the need for new factories where materials for other industries such as construction and transportation, will be produced with minimal waste and greater efficiency.

Rapid advances in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are allowing biologists and engineers to tap into the potential of both of these emerging technologies in unprecedented ways. We can now develop new biological processes and organisms designed to serve specific purposes, including the conversion of renewable biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials, producing new therapeutic drugs, or protecting the body against infectious diseases. The biotech industry, already a worldwide job-creator, will greatly benefit from advances in synthetic biology, metabolic engineering, and modelling of complex biological systems.

Organizing information in a structured, useful way through advances in computation, data visualization and intuitive communication has the potential to extract knowledge from what was once considered noise in order to create solutions to emerging challenges. Companies will become more efficient, using added-valued information, and information processing and visualization software and hardware will lead to job creation.

Emerging technologies play an important role in addressing our major mega-challenges such as energy, water, food and health for the world’s growing population. Integrating these emerging technologies within existing industries presents not only a major challenge but an opportunity. The energy industry, for example, stands to benefit from emerging technologies. Bio-engineering microorganisms is allowing for the enzymatic degradation of cellulose, making possible the transformation of agricultural waste — instead of food — into biofuels. Nanomaterials embedded in polymers are being used in a new generation of flexible, lighter and more efficient solar cells free of costly silicon. These are just a few examples of how a large and fairly traditional industry is already benefiting from disruptive innovations, although some major challenges such as cost, scalability, and reliability remain greatly unsolved.

The development of great technologies is not enough.

Commercialization is key to creating new jobs. Once a discovery has been made, the first challenge is harnessing the entrepreneurial drive of the discoverer. In too many cases, groundbreaking discoveries with great commercial potential end in a scientific publication or a patent without a product prototype. This happens because entrepreneurship is not top of mind for most world-class scientists.

The second challenge, once the technology has been validated and a business plan has been created, is to transition an invention from the lab to the marketplace. The lack of private funding to grow small companies into successful and sustainable ones is a major challenge. This is especially true in the fields of energy and health where massive and sustained funding is needed.

Before we can adequately address either of these challenges, however, the appropriate talent needs to be there. Education systems will need to be revised to equip future generations to be able to refine and develop the technologies and make themselves employable in the employment opportunities created.

There are no shortcuts on the path from emerging technologies to new industries. In most cases, the best recipe is to promote innovation and entrepreneurship to accelerate the time to failure and favor a Darwinian selection of the “fittest” ideas.

Today, the United States is the best ecosystem to start successful companies that commercialize new technologies. However, the world’s emerging economies are becoming well-aware of technology’s job-creating potential, and, as a result, they are investing heavily in education, world-class research and supporting their new high-tech companies. With large populations of highly-motivated young people, it is likely that many of these new industries will begin to flourish in emerging economies that invest in R&D, higher education and entrepreneurship.

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