OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society

In this post I would like to offer some take-aways and personal thoughts on the recent OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society, held on the 6th and 7th of December 2021.

Innovating Well for Inclusive Transitions

The conference rationale was Innovating Well for Inclusive Transitions, based upon the arguments that the world faces unprecedented challenges in health, food, climate change and biodiversity, solutions for which will require system transition or transformation. The technologies involved may bring fear of negative consequences and problems with public acceptance, as well as raise real issues of social justice (primarily of equal access, thinking today about covid vaccination inequalities as an obvious starting point).

Good governance and ethics will therefore be necessary to harness technology for the common good.

Towards a framework for the responsible development of emerging technologies

The following is taken from the rationale page of the conference website:

The conference will explore values, design principles, and mechanisms that operate upstream and at different stages of the innovation value chain. Certain policy design principles are increasingly gaining traction in responsible innovation policies, and provide an organising structure for the panels in the conference:  

Inclusivity, diversity and stakeholder engagement

Stakeholder and broader public engagement can be means to align science and technology with societal values, goals and needs. This includes the involvement of stakeholders, citizens, and actors typically excluded from the innovation process (e.g. small firms, remote regions, certain social groups, e.g. minorities etc.). The private sector too has a critical role to play in governance. 

Goal orientation

Policy can play a role in better aligning research, commercialisation and societal needs. This implies investing in public and private sector research and development (R&D) and promoting “mission-oriented” technological transformations that better connect innovation impacts to public policy needs. At the same time, such innovation and industrial policies need to be transparent, open and well-designed so they foster deliberation, produce value for money, and do not distort competition.

Anticipatory governance

From an innovation perspective, governance approaches that engage at a late stage of the innovation process can be inflexible, inadequate and even stifling. More anticipatory kinds of governance — like new technology assessment methods, foresight strategies and ethics-by-design – can enhance the capacity to govern well.

The conference included round-table and panel events alongside institutional presentations, introductions and scene setting as well as wrap-ups. Video of each event is available via the conference website, supported by an introduction paragraph and series of questions.

One of the roundtables I attended may be of particular interest to Technology Bloggers readers as it was all about carbon neutrality:

Realising Net Carbon Neutrality: The Role of Carbon Management Technologies

Description

Reaching net carbon neutrality is one of the central global challenges we face, and technological development will play a key role. A carbon transition will necessitate policies that promote sustainable management of the carbon stored in biomass, but not exclusively so: technology is increasingly making it possible to recycle industrial sources of carbon, thus making them renewable. The idea of “carbon management” may capture the different facets of the answer: reduce the demand for carbon; reuse and recycle the carbon in the bio- and technosphere; and remove carbon from the atmosphere. But a reliance on technologies for carbon capture and usage (CCU) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) may present barriers for other more radical transformations.

● What knowledge is necessary to better guide national and international policy communities as they manage emerging technology portfolios for carbon management?

● What can more holistic approaches to carbon management offer for developing technology pathways to net carbon neutrality?

● What policies could ensure that one technology is not a barrier for implementation of another?

I took a lot of notes, including the following points:

What kind of technology and knowledge is necessary when steering the development of emerging technology?

There are both opportunities and challenges for finding the right mix between technology and policy

Carbon capture alone will not be viable, we have to reduce emissions

The energy transition will have to be dramatic but there is no international agreement on the phasing out of carbon fuels

There is an immediate need for investment, social acceptance and political will

Use technology that is available today rather than using language about innovation

Policy-makers have to see a whole picture, just cutting carbon from some of the big emitters will not be enough

Real structural change is necessary

The old economic sectors and the poor should not be those who pay

Success requires not only information, but communication

The truth about both economic and social costs should be available

Why not watch the video here? It’s just over an hour long.

Plastic Recycling in the Netherlands

Last week I put my plastic, can and carton recycling wheelie bin out for collection for the last time. The Cities of Utrecht and Amsterdam have decided to let us put our plastic etc in the regular waste, rather than separating it and putting it into its own special bin.

This might sound strange, a backward step, but that is not the case. Over the last 2 years, the Utrecht City Council has conducted a study into plastic waste recycling and discovered something unexpected: they can improve recycling percentages mechanically.

The research found that when the population is asked to separate plastic, cans and cartons from their household waste, the recycling percentage sits at about 26%, but if the process is conducted mechanically on all household waste, this rises to 51%.

I should add at this point that paper, glass and organics will still be collected separately.

There is a huge plastic separation system currently in operation in Rotterdam, take a look at this video. It’s impressive, although it does depart from already home divided materials. And of note to me is that it is transported by boat.

The system uses magnets and infrared cameras to determine and separate the different types of materials, and appears to be so precise that it can be used with regular nondifferentiated waste as described in this video (in Dutch).

I would also like to add that here plastic bottles have a tax that is returnable in the supermarket. 25 cents is added to the price of your water or cola, and you take the bottle back to the supermarket and feed it into a machine (along with your glass). The machine prints you out a receipt and it comes off the shopping bill. As the photo at the top of this post shows, such an approach seems to work. Less bottles are left on the streets, and less are thrown away.

I first came across this idea in Norway more than a decade ago. Collecting bottles that tourists had thrown away in the city centres was a good source of income for the University students.

Art in Responsible Innovation, Maurizio Montalti in Conversation

Long ago, back in February of 2015, I wrote this post about Maurizio Montalti and his work with fungus.

Montalti produces various materials in what he calls a collaboration between living organisms, compostable materials that can be used to replace plastics and chemical based products.

Since I first met him he has begun to produce a host of materials on an industrial scale with the foundation of his company MOGU, and earlier this summer I was fortunate enough to catch up with him again and record the video interview you find below, part of my Art in Responsible Innovation series for the Bassetti Foundation.

Maurizio is a designer, scientist and artist whose works is extremely innovative, research and experiment based and perched on the border between art, design and biology.  He has been active in promoting responsibility within innovation throughout his career, with lots of ideas around sustainability and science communication and the role of science in society.

Learn more about this intriguing character and his work through the video and podcast below.