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Nanotechnology and the Developing World

Image Courtesy DOE/NRELThe Meridian Institute, a strategic solutions consultancy, is running the Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor, a project intended to trigger a conversation about the ways in which nanotechnology can be applied to the problems of development and poverty. Anyone may participate, and I encourage WorldChanging readers to do so. Meridian has prepared a short (29 page) document outlining the key issues in some detail. The Global Dialogue project would prefer if you signed up for the questionnaire prior to downloading the document, but the paper itself encourages broad distribution.

The Global Dialogue project is very much a WorldChanging-style discussion:

The goals of the GDNP are to:
  • Raise awareness about the implications of nanotechnology for the poor;
  • Close the gaps within and between sectors of society to develop an action plan that addresses opportunities and risks; and
  • Identify ways that science and technology can play an appropriate role in the development process.
  • The Global Dialogue will feed into a large-scale, multi-stakeholder meeting in April to address the issues raised. SciDev.net is also covering the Dialogue, and has prepared an excellent intro to the question of whether nanotechnology can be applied to development issues. For me, however, the answer is already crystal clear:

    Nanotech may be the ultimate leapfrog technology.

    This is, in part, because it's still a nascent technological pathway -- while nanomaterials are starting to see some commercial applications, nanoassembly (also known as molecular manufacturing) is still a decade or two away. It's also partly because nanotechnology (in either variation) doesn't require a big, widespread industrial base to flourish, and its development is predicated more upon education and knowledge instead of money and power: nanotech is more software engineering than auto manufacturing.

    But nanotech is potentially a leapfrog enabler largely because it has such clear application to the issues of the developing world. Nanotechnology has applications in the world of medicine and health management. Progress is already evident in nanotechnology-enabled systems for water purification. Nanotech has applications in energy, from improved battery technologies and power-conducting polymers to highly-efficient solar panels and hydrogen production. It enables a new generation of accurate sensors of all types. Nanotech has applications for environmental monitoring and cleanup. It can even be used to improve food production, both via more precise agricultural biotechnology (which would be less likely to have unforeseen results) and better ability to monitor farmland conditions. Ultimately, perhaps as soon as the next ten to twenty years, material production processes will be completely transformed by the advent of molecular manufacturing.

    This doesn't mean that nanotechnology is without its challenges. Questions remain about health and environmental risks; an approach to the continued development of nanotechnology rooted in the precautionary principle seems warranted. There's also the serious potential for intellectual property and patent fights -- imagine an IP regime combining the worst of both Big Pharma and the RIAA. An open source approach, along with abundant South-South scientific collaboration, could go a long way to reducing the scale of the IP problem. Lastly, a potential drawback to molecular manufacturing is the question of how developing nations, which largely have economies based on resource extraction, would weather a rapid transition away from end of mass-resource-based economics.

    You'll note that the majority of the links provided go to research which is well-underway or already moving from the lab to the village. The primary point of speculation here is the timeline for molecular manufacturing; even if that takes far longer than is currently considered likely, the ongoing evolution of nanomaterials, nanosensors and the like will reshape the world. In the West, this may manifest primarily as razor blades that stay sharp, stain-free nanopants and bouncier tennis balls; in the developing world, however, nanotechnology may be the trigger for a leapfrog well past the Millennium Development Goals and into a healthy and prosperous future.

    Comments (1)

    The idea of "nanopants" sounds kind of insulting!
    I assure you it's "macropants" all the way!


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