Wednesday, October 28, 2015

New directions in Technology Transfer

by Jeffery Atik

There continues to be a flow of academic writing and field studies concerning technology transfer, but there are no great breakthroughs to report. That said, there is an observable tiring with neoliberal approaches (which have failed to unlock the puzzle of incentivizing technology transfer). Moving the discussion to more public (if not statist) approaches to technology transfer might restore promise to what has been a disappointing field.

Collaborations do appear to be a promising institutional response; they have been reportedly successfully deployed in achieving advances in approaches to neglected diseases (such as Ebola) and climate change technologies. Collaborations are inherently public-private and can be structured to include (as full research partners) LDC institutions. These collaborations may feature government entities from the developed world, specialized development agencies, NGOs (who often coordinate), and university and state laboratories. They include private firms that carry out much of the focused technological development. As such, the success of a collaboration (as measured by innovation outcomes) depends on an effective design of incentives. Market-based financial rewards (licensing, sale of firms, IPOs) are replaced by funded contract research (similar to what occurs in defense fields) and/or prizes. Disengaging from the market permits research targeting - the ability to focus the collaboration on LDC needs and circumstances. For technology transfer to result, there must be meaningful inclusion of LDC institutions and personnel in the collaboration. LDC collaborators should not be mere observers; they make important contributions, particularly with regard to molding innovation to match the LDC environment where the technology will be deployed.
Sectoral approaches are more promising than broader (and more vague) technology transfer initiatives. There is not a single technology gap that separates an LDC from advanced economies; rather, there are identifiable technology gaps, of lesser and greater extent, corresponding to any given technology field. Moreover, absorption capacities may be greater for a particular LDC in certain sectors, making those sectors more promising, at least in the shorter term, for successful technology transfer initiatives. And technology transfer in particular sectors may throw off greater development benefits, such as enhanced employment, public health, empowerment of women.

Technology transfer successes should not be viewed as a threat to the interests of advanced economies. It may be precisely in those low-return and no-return areas found throughout the developing world, where markets fail and human needs are ignored, that technology transfer is most promising. But if this is so, non-market solutions are needed.

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