The tyranny of technology: Time to change old systems to align with new realities

In order to achieve the SDGs, it is time to re-evaluate the global patents regime. India and other developing countries need to explore policies and practices for creating a culture and system that encourages innovation.

In September this year, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed upon by world leaders in New York and this month, countries will attempt to agree on a global deal to combat climate change in Paris. The actual success (going beyond the symbolic consensus) of both the SDGs and a potential climate agreement is contingent on technology and the extent to which it is shared, adopted and dispersed successfully.

Technology innovation, development and transfer are key to eradicating poverty, striving for equity in global lifestyles, and avoiding dangerous levels of climate change. For technology to be effectively applied to the global development and climate agenda, however, a few systemic flaws and some new realities need to be acknowledged and then responded to. A technology-centric response to the problems of the 21st century will require formulation of policies that reflect the changing nature of global technology flows, production and consumption paradigms.

The regimes of technology innovation and transfer currently in use are from a period when developed countries were both producing and consuming the products of technology innovation. This meant innovation led to increased purchasing power in the local community and the extended neighbourhood. It was therefore easier for people to absorb such innovation and pay for it. These structures are incongruous with the consumption realities of today, underpinned by globalisation. Technology innovation and production still occur in developed countries but the largest group of consumers are now in developing countries.

The scale of consumption in Asia in particular is creating new markets for corporations from the OECD countries. This trend is going to become a new reality in coming years. The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that nearly half of the economic growth between 2010 and 2025 will come from 440 cities in emerging markets. China and India will naturally lead this new consumption paradigm. And Asia will soon be joined by Africa in the shopping aisle.

Alongside these new consumers is another nuance that must be factored into the debate around technology. The largest economies of tomorrow will comprise large numbers of low income and poor households. Big economies will remain poor societies for some time to come in this century. Therefore, technology and royalty regimes around technology must cohere with development assistance paradigm and the global development agenda that seek to improve the lives of the poor.

Developed countries have provided Official Development Assistance (ODA) (defined as financial flows administered by governments towards economic development and welfare of developing countries) of about 0.29% of their own gross national products. However, what would be interesting to uncover is the amount of returns that have been repatriated to the rich economies by way of royalties that allow technology access for the developing world. For example, as per figures from the World Bank, India received US$2.4 billion in ‘net official development assistance and official aid’ in 2013. To put such figures in context, Merck, a global pharmaceutical giant, reported pre-tax profits of just under $1.6 billion in 2014. The contribution of technology royalties earned from the developing world to that figure needs to be calculated. Imagine 500 such companies which are leaders in their domain, and it is easy to see why the developmental aid flowing to parts of Asia and Africa simply does not match the scale of the money flowing out to pay for access to technology. The OECD countries, their corporations and institutions are giving with one hand and taking back with both.

A recent example of the burden of technology access are the Nokia royalty payments that flowed from India to Finland. Between 2006 and 2014, Nokia’s Indian subsidiary paid over INR 20,000 crore to its Finnish parent as royalties for the technology used in its manufacturing facility in Tamil Nadu. In 2013, Indian authorities alleged that Nokia owed over INR 2,000 crores to India on tax on the royalty payments. While this tax dispute continues, the outflow of $3 billion as royalty for handsets made by Indian factory workers — that Nokia was selling to lower and middle class Indian consumers – clearly demonstrates the profit motive of the parent is supreme.

Since royalty outflows far outweigh inflows from developmental assistance, it might make more sense for developed countries to subsidise technology diffusion in developing countries by paying their own corporations, to allow for open access to technology in developing country markets. That would perhaps deliver a better return on the money being spent by Western nations to support development in the global south, particularly given the increasing linkages between technology access and economic development.

In order to achieve the SDGs, it is also time to re-evaluate the global patents regime. For instance, Michele Boldrin and David K Levine, two economists from Washington University, St. Louis, have pointed out that the current patent/copyright system discourages inventions from actually entering the market. They opine the intellectual property rights (IPR) system only helps large corporations and multinational corporations rake up profits, noting that the majority of patents are registered by corporations rather than individual innovators. Boldrin labels intellectual property ‘intellectual monopoly’, arguing that it hinders innovation and wealth creation.

All of this does not mean that India and other developing countries do not need to look inwards and explore policies and practices for creating a culture and system that encourages innovation. The demographic dividend offers these countries a chance to develop a generation of technologists innovating for the bottom of pyramid needs. At the same time, real cooperation with the OECD countries on joint R&D will enable a blending of product innovation capabilities of the developed world and process innovation that some of the developing countries have excelled in. India’s position is that technology transfer is not enough in itself, just like Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Domestication and indigenisation of technology are prerequisites to development as well as for a non-liner growth trajectory.

Joseph Stiglitz has noted that the most defining innovations of our time were not motivated by profit but rather by the quest for knowledge. The patent system was created to reward innovators but is now stifling innovation, feeding the hunger for profits and perpetuating the north-south divide. In order to support the development agenda, combat climate change, achieve parity in global lifestyles and shape an equitable planet, the tyranny of technology must be replaced by the technology panacea.

Governmental resources and policies must be directed towards encouraging open innovation so as to avoid the incumbent’s monopoly on the current system, which is compromising the ability of developing countries to fight poverty and guarantee the right to life. There is a need for studies that examine the impact of the IPR regime on economic activity in specific sectors that will demonstrate where IPR can stimulate innovation and where it does not. The SDG and climate agendas, perhaps the defining themes of the next few decades, cannot be held hostage to the ability to pay, for a perceived entitlement to profit perversely. It is time to examine the economic distortions that have altered the founding principles of patent and intellectual property right regimes. And it is absolutely the time to re-price innovation, to deliver for the bottom of the pyramid.

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

A longer version of this article appeared in Global Policy.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).




Samir Saran

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