BY IAN SCOONES, co-director of the STEPS Centre

A set of new reports from Demos, a London-based think-tank, argue that there is a new geography of science and innovation emerging, with China, India and South Korea at the forefront of a new global knowledge economy. But many unanswered questions are raised.

While showing different patterns and trends, the reports demonstrate the importance of an increasingly networked pattern of science and innovation, with links fostered by research and development centres of multi-national companies and global universities and peopled by a growing circulation of skilled Asian diaspora talent. The growth of knowledge-based industries – whether in software, biotechnology or nanotechnology – is transforming economies and becoming an engine of growth and development in Asia. This revolution in turn has major implications for developed countries, like the UK, who once were seen as both the source and destination of most science and innovation.

But many unanswered questions are raised. Innovation of what, for whom? What are the distributional effects of such rapid technology-led growth? What are the down-side consequences of the knowledge industry boom? What new politics of exclusion and disenfranchisement are generated? Will recent trends be projected into the future? Some of these issues were debated during the sessions of the launch conference held in London this week.

For example, on questions of innovation, while a globally networked pattern of science and innovation – a new geography – is undoubtedly emerging, is this one that, as Dr R. Mashelkar, former head of India’s CSIR suggested, uses “Indian IQ for foreign IP” or one that genuinely results in innovations which deliver dividends for local economies and societies? For a growth-oriented, science-led innovation system, led by multi-national companies through networks of out-sourced contract research, may well produce export revenues and employment for a small number of the skilled elite and returnee migrants, but its broader benefits may well be constrained both geographically and socially.

The expectation and hype about the Asian knowledge economy is certainly fuelled by media hyperbole, venture capital speculation and policy spin, but what are the obstacles? Can it be sustained? Some of these were discussed. For example, with intellectual property rights often tied up by multi-national companies based in the north, there are some, but relatively few, options for local start-ups and businesses to move up the value chain.

And innovation systems in India and China for example – where private and public basic research is linked to business and market applications – remain, as the reports concede, weak and uncoordinated. It must be asked: is the public or private commitment and resources really there to really make these systems the lead innovators in a global economy?

The race to the top in the global economy is an alluring goal – and the successes of India and China are seen as models for many poorer nations – but will these pathways of development result in broad based growth and the reduction of poverty for hundreds of millions of people? Are there not other pathways which need a look in, where science and technology and locally-rooted innovation systems respond to the more immediate livelihood needs of poorer people?

Such a ‘slow race to citizens’ solutions’ is often not given the limelight – and is largely off the radar in much policy debate – but, as argued in another recent Demos paper, needs much greater attention: not only in Africa where the issues of poverty and deprivation are so stark, but also in Asia, where poverty and inequality remain a major block on human well-being and development.