By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

Guangzhou, in South China, is one of the cities at the forefront of the country’s “ economic miracle”. The skyline is characterised as much by cranes and construction sites as by the high-rise towers which are already home to its thriving commerce. To what extent are Guangzhou’s innovators factoring the environment into this outstanding growth? (photo of Guangzhou skyline)

On September 3rd I was invited to join James Wilsdon of the London think-tank Demos in addressing the Guangzhou Association of Science and Technology (you can read James’ blog from the event here). The theme of the day was “Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development”, a subject of growing interest in China as well as the rest of the world. The event was attended by academics, industry representatives and the local media.

After welcomes from the hosts (Guangzhou Association of Science and Technology) and sponsors (the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office), James presented the findings of the first phase of the Atlas of Ideas project. The report, published in February 2007, describes how the global centres of science technology and innovation – previously concentrated within the USA, Western Europe and Japan – are now shifting to include a whole host of new emerging economies.

Of specific interest to our audience that day, Atlas of Ideas describes the growing pace of innovation in China and outlines some of the Chinese government’s policies in relation to promoting “indigenous innovation” or “zizhu chuangxin”.

Based on two years of research in China as well as parallel investigations in India and South Korea, Demos makes a powerful argument for what it terms “cosmopolitan innovation”. Science and technology will progress faster and benefit more people, they argue, if these emerging economies can work cooperatively and transparently with more established knowledge centres (e.g. the UK) to address global challenges than if they “go it alone”. The message has resonated strongly within UK policy circles.

My own talk followed on very neatly from James’s, taking some of the ideas that he had introduced, such as the importance of considering the direction of innovation as well as its pace, and linking them to the existing approach and forthcoming research of the STEPS Centre.

I described the Centre’s desire to bridge the natural and social sciences and discussed the importance of social and political change, as well as the introduction of new technologies, in the response to global challenges. Guangdong Province (of which Guangzhou is the capital) has already implemented policies around energy saving and decreased emissions, forcing the adoption of cleaner technologies and some behaviour change, especially in energy-intensive sectors. Improvements have therefore been made, but it remains to be seen whether top-down policies, largely reflecting those formulated in Beijing, are enough to bring about the transitions that the city and province require.

Questions from the floor reflected a surprisingly critical view towards new technologies and industrial development. One attendant pointed to the environmental impacts of disposable household objects, while another suggested that technological innovation could lead to unemployment and only benefited a small proportion of the population.

I suggested that similar concerns had been voiced in the West since the industrial revolutions, and argued that education and empowerment of those affected was necessary if they were to benefit from China’s shift towards a more knowledge-intensive economy. Some technologies, or the ways in which they are introduced, might be able to avoid these problems, but it was unlikely that these would emerge under current conditions. Maybe the shift towards a form of development that could put environmental and equity issues at its forefront required social, as much as technological, change.