Innovation and Global Development

International Conference on Technology and Innovation for Global Development

June 4th-5th, 2012

The Harvard Kennedy School of Government


In early June 2012, a diverse group of scientists, engineers, and policymakers convened at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for the inaugural “International Conference on Technology and Innovation for Global Development.”  The meeting was the brainchild of Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.  The goal of the conference was to explore the contributions of technical innovations to global economies, particularly in the developing world.  The conference drew attendees from both developing and developed nations, including Slovenia, Tanzania, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The conference was philosophically motivated by the work of Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), an Austrian economist and political scientist considered to be one of the greatest economic thinkers of the twentieth century.  Schumpeter argued that technological innovation is critical to the capitalist enterprise, and is potentially the most powerful driver of economic transformation.  Schumpeter developed a theory of entrepreneurial innovation and economic development, in which he defined entrepreneurship as “the carrying out of new combinations.”  Specifically, Schumpeter argued that an economic situation is a combination of products, production methods, raw material sources, markets, and organizational structures.  Innovation and development are the result of new combinations of these components.  Five main types of innovations contribute to novel combinations: new products, new methods of production, new markets, new sources of raw materials, and new organizational structures.  Schumpeter’s theory recognizes the centrality of engineering innovations for economic development.  Interestingly, many leaders of developing countries embrace the importance of innovation in economic development without realizing that these ideas are based in Schumpeter’s intellectual legacy.

With Schumpeter’s theory as a starting point, the conference participants at the Harvard Kennedy School sought to apply these ideas to contemporary technological innovations for global development.  Just as the conference maintained a geographic focus on the developing world, it also maintained a technical focus on innovations in polymer science.  Polymers are large molecules consisting of a large number of smaller, similar repeating units bonded together; these macromolecules may be either naturally-occurring compounds such as proteins and nucleic acids, or synthetic compounds such as plastics.  Polymers were chosen as the technological center of this policymaking conference due to their ubiquitous presence in medical, industrial, and consumer products, as well as the constantly evolving production methods and raw material sources for them.  In Schumpeter’s framework, polymers thus represent a rich source of new combinations and a ripe opportunity for entrepreneurship.

The conference was held over two days, and kicked off with a keynote speech from the President of the Republic of Slovenia, Dr. Danilo Türk.  “We believe that optimization of development is possible,” stated President Türk, “and that any optimization starts with science, technology, and innovation… We have to re-ignite scientific optimism, because it is science that shows us the way forward.”  A welcoming speech was then delivered by Dr. Venkatesh Narayanamurti, Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy and Professor of Physics at Harvard University.  Narayanamurti, a former dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, asserted that long-term investments in research and development are essential for technological innovation and progress. 

The first day of the conference focused on specific examples of Schumpeter’s ideas in practice in developing countries.  Panels deliberated on innovations in systems and institutions, production chains, and policies; specific examples were drawn from the agricultural, healthcare, biotech, and education sectors.  For instance Marcia Villasana, a researcher with the Institute of Development and Public Policy at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, discussed methods for fostering university-industry interactions at a regional level in a developing nation.  Julia Fan Li, a researcher at the Centre for Technology Management at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, described methods for catalyzing the “ecosystem” for entrepreneurship and global health.  Her research examines public-private partnerships as a mechanism for stimulating entrepreneurship and drawing in stakeholders to contribute to the innovation value chain.

The second day of the conference was dedicated to polymer technologies and materials.  My talk focused on innovations in bio-based polymers for applications in biomedical materials.  A new class of implantable medical materials, constructed from naturally-derived and renewably-sourced polymers, is poised to transform clinical medicine by providing materials with improved performance and versatility.  Biochemical engineering and biomedical engineering, both of which fall under the broad category of biological engineering, are being brought to bear for the development of bio-based polymers as biomedical materials.   Research in biochemical engineering is increasingly devoted to the development of renewably sourced materials, such as bio-polymers and bio-composites derived from biomass and obtained from agricultural resources or microbial production.  At the same time, innovators in biomedical engineering are seeking novel materials for implantable medical devices which will be optimally compatible with the human body.  Such optimized materials will have properties of biocompatibility and mechanical tunability that maximize the clinical benefits of the implant; this means that the materials perform their desired function without adverse effects, and the mechanical properties of the materials can be adapted for various clinical targets.  A natural intersect exists between these two areas of emerging research: naturally-sourced polymers may be ideal for the design of new biomedical devices, as such polymers can effectively interface with human cells and tissues.  Moreover, naturally-derived polymers can allow developing nations to join in the biomedical revolution in ways that were not previously possible.  Bio-based polymers can empower developing countries to leverage their own agricultural capabilities to enter the biomedical revolution.  My talk discussed the emerging field of bio-based polymers as biomedical implants, and described examples of success stories in wound closure, tissue repair, and tissue regeneration.

Overall, the conference was a tremendous triumph.  It was inspirational to witness individuals from diverse specialties and diverse countries sharing their visions for the potential of science and technology to impact global development.  Because of the success of this inaugural meeting, a “Second International Conference on Technology and Innovation for Global Development” is already planned for June 24-25th, 2013 at the Harvard Kennedy School.