Accelerating technological change (GMT 4) — European Environment Agency

Source: Accelerating technological change (GMT 4) — European Environment Agency

The pace of technological change, particularly in the fields of information, communication, nano- and bio-technologies, is unprecedented. This provides opportunities to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment and reliance on non-renewable natural resources, while improving lifestyles, stimulating innovation and green growth.

The risks and uncertainties associated with technological innovation can be managed using regulatory frameworks and the precautionary principle. By recalibrating its institutions, policies and environmental knowledge base, Europe can support better risk management, while enhancing innovation and the diffusion of new technologies.


Communication, collaboration and access to information all drive the acceleration of global technological change. Mass acceptance of technological change is also speeding up – electricity took almost half a century to reach 25 % of the US population but the World Wide Web and smartphones took fewer than 10 years to achieve similar market penetration [1]

The growth of developing region economies (GMT 6), driven in part by an increasing middle class (GMT 5), is creating new centres of innovation, heightening competition and shortening product innovation cycles. The prospect of significant returns on investment, particularly in emerging sectors, is also incentivising increased research and development (R&D).

Rising levels of education, particularly in developing regions [2], are boosting the human capital that underpins innovation (GMT 1). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects that, in coming decades, the number of young people with a tertiary education will be higher and grow fastest in such non-OECD G20 countries as Brazil, China and India [3]

Urbanisation also drives innovation, facilitating the interactions needed to trigger and sustain it. This, however, depends on such factors as city planning and investment in infrastructure – as well as attracting skilled workers and engaging citizens.

Increasing scarcity of resources, from fossil fuels to critical raw materials, alongside concerns about climate impacts, is also likely to both incentivise investment and shape technological and market developments. Past and current decisions, too, drive the direction of innovation, as inventions and technological change build on previous development [4]. This path-dependency can constrain options and close down development, including innovation that might offer promising or useful solutions to societal challenges or needs [5]


Cycles of technology-induced societal and economic change have accelerated in past decades, and are very likely to accelerate further. Indeed, there is evidence of exponential rather than linear growth for some technological progress (Box 1).

Box 1: ICT's exponential increase
The central functions of information and communication technologies (ICTs) — processing, storing and transferring information — have all shown exponential increases in performance relative to costs. One megabyte of computer memory cost almost USD 1 million in 1970, but this dropped to well under USD 100 in 1990 and USD 0.01 in 2010. The number of transistors that can be squeezed on to a given chip continues to double in a period of less than two years, as it has done since the invention of integrated circuits in the late-1950s. In just a few years this has translated into enormous increases in processing power [6]

Innovation is becoming more global. Europe trails the US and Japan in terms of global innovation performance, but remains ahead of others, although South Korea and China are developing rapidly [7]. North America and Europe will remain important centres of R&D, but there is a shift in the technological centre of gravity to fast-growing countries of Asia and Latin America [8]. India, South Korea and particularly China are already increasing their share of patent filings, simultaneously providing markets for new products [9]

Many observers agree that much of the next long-term wave of innovation and growthwill be formed by a cluster of rapidly emerging nanosciences and nanotechnologies, biotechnologies and life-sciences, ICTs, cognitive sciences and neurotechnologies — the NBIC cluster (Box 2) [10][11]

Although the acceleration of innovation and technological change is stable, its direction is uncertain. Besides technological constraints – many NBIC technologies are still in the laboratory – key uncertainties relate to R&D funding and public policy development. Intellectual property regimes and the way they may shape development are also a major concern across new technologies [4]

Box 2: The NBIC cluster
The NBIC cluster is moving rapidly from development to application [10]
Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular and supramolecular scales to produce nanomaterials with desirable properties such as greater reactivity, unusual electrical properties or enormous strength per unit of weight.
Biotechnology refers, broadly, to the application of science and technology to living organisms [12], in particular their genomes, including synthetic biology. Biotechnology has contributed to a broad range of existing applications including agriculture and food, medicines, health diagnostics and treatments, and enzymes for a variety of industrial applications [13]
Information and communication technology (ICT) has become pervasive, affecting a huge number of sectors and transforming the process of technological development itself.
These technologies allow citizens across the world to collaborate and provide access to unprecedented amounts of data and information.Together with developments in cognitive sciences and neuro-technologies these technologies give raise to a range of applications such as prosthetics limbs, brain-machine communication and artificial intelligence.

Biotechnology is already addressing treatments for such conditions as dementia, and could yield drugs to enhance natural capacities [4]; genetic research is looking to regrow organs and even improve them; while genetic screening could contribute to disease prevention. Agricultural biotechnology, including genetically modified crops, has been applied globally, raising societal issues regarding food security, human and animal health, and ethics.

By 2040–2050, nano- and biotechnologies will be pervasive, diverse and integrated into all aspects of life. This may have far-reaching implications for such areas as the control of matter and genes, human-computer interactions, food production, healthcare, and the environment [14]


New technologies bring new opportunities and risks for both people and the environment – particularly evident for the NBIC cluster in terms of the environment and health [4][11]. Nanotechnologies, for example, provide an ability to innovate at atomic and molecular scales, potentially, for example, enhancing the detection and remediation of illnesses or environmental deterioration or the production of better materials at lower cost.

Risks associated with technological advances are, however, often underestimated or ignored, resulting in considerable social and economic costs [15][16]. Furthermore, technologies and resource uses that rely on substantial investment in infrastructure and materials are often difficult to reverse. The development of more integrative risk assessment frameworks that acknowledge and address critical uncertainties, and the indirect benefits and cost of adoption, are critical for informed decision-making. Where technologies carry uncertain but socially acceptable risk, public and corporate management regimes are of critical importance [17]. Emphasis on the precautionary principle as a science-based approach for coping with uncertainty could help avoid irreversible social and environmental impacts.

As the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment is unknown, their application is likely to raise concerns. Nanoparticles’ rapid transformation could, for example, render traditional approaches to describing, measuring and monitoring air or water quality inadequate [18]. Biotechnology also raises profound issues regarding the value of life and the extent to which living organisms should be manipulated [19]. Potential applications include developing biofuels, vaccines and antibodies; understanding cancer; minimising carbon footprints; and improving crops. But biotechnology could produce both intended threats – bioweapons – and unintended ones from its use in medicine or food production.

Social acceptance will play an important role in shaping the use and regulation of new technologies. As low levels of public acceptance can slow or stop innovation, new governance and institutional arrangements that accommodate different perceptions of risk and societal views are needed. Some tools are emerging, emphasising responsible research and innovation serving socially desirable needs [5]

Figure 1: Environment-related patent applications to the European Patent Office, 1980–2010. Source: OECD StatExtracts – Patent Statistics. Note: Please read the additional information in reference [23]
New technologies have a part to play in the shift towards resource-efficient, low-carbon economies [20]. Examples include nanotechnologies for energy conversion and storage; replacement of toxic materials; new, lighter materials; and environmental remediation [21], as well as the use of enzymes in renewable energy production. Since the early 1990s, environment-related applications to the European Patent Office have steadily increased, with those targeting emission mitigation and energy showing significant growth (Figure 1).

Efficiency gains can fail to reduce resource use, however, as products become cheaper, increasing consumer appeal. Reducing environmental pressures therefore requires complementary measures that also address consumption [24]

Technological advances that enable machines to perform human tasks could have societal implications, in particular in shaping financial inequality. The increasing use of machines may depress wages for some, while boosting demand for highly skilled labour and low-skilled service-sector work. The resulting polarisation of job opportunities could contribute to greater earnings inequality [25][26]

By reducing demand for labour relative to machinery, new technologies can also mean that returns to production increasingly accrue to the owners of physical capital. In most countries and industries, labour’s share in national income has declined significantly since the early-1980s and this has been linked to advances in ICT [27]. While many NBIC technologies are still in the laboratory, others, such as 3D printing (Box 3), are already on available or close to large scale roll-out and are bound to have major economic and environmental impacts.

Box 3:  Additive manufacturing
Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a process for making three-dimensional solid objects from digital models. Future advances in layering techniques and materials are expected to enable increasingly complex goods to be printed at lower costs. Such goods could include genetically engineered bio-materials. 3D printers are increasingly being used to produce objects ranging from the nano-scale to large items such as car prototypes. Mass uptake in coming years is likely to have disruptive impacts on a range of sectors, including retail, logistics and freight transport at the global and local levels [28]
Opportunities for mass customisation of goods are also likely to affect consumption patterns [29]. The widespread use of 3D printing could help enhance the efficiency in terms of energy and resource use. However, the possible delivery of raw materials to the final consumer could counteract this effect. Moreover, home printing of personalised foods or other goods, including toys, electrical fittings, medicines or weapons, that pose risks to life, health or the environment could create serious risks.[30] The highly decentralised nature of 3D printing may make the design and enforcement of regulations to manage such risks a sobering challenge.

As much new technology with the potential to being disruptive is already available, preventive and proactive responses to deal with emerging problems and changing socio-political and environmental landscapes should become a priority, both in Europe and the rest of the world. The precautionary principle should help shape innovation towards societal utility, environmental desirability and sustainability. When considering options, societal problems can also be viewed as opportunities. This approach fosters new ideas that may stimulate innovation and ways of thinking, including the types of institutions and policies that can best support innovation and its use.

Vulnerabilities are created when policies do not keep up with the opportunities and threats of unfolding dynamics, conditions and realities of socio-technological systems. Thus, a key consideration for innovation governance is an ability to react, learn and adapt. New governance paradigms that emphasise reflexivity create capacities for adaptive decision-making – interventions essential for coping with emerging impacts.

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[22] OECD (2014), OECD.StatExtracts – Patents Statistics – Patents by Technology – Patents in Environment-related Technologies, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, France (accessed 28 October 2014).
[23] The graph shows the development in total patent applications (direct and patent cooperation treaty national phase entries); to the European Patent Office (EPO).
A) Technologies specific to propulsion using internal combustion engine (ICE) (e.g. conventional petrol/diesel vehicle, hybrid vehicle with ICE); technologies specific to propulsion using electric motor (e.g. electric vehicle, hybrid vehicle); technologies specific to hybrid propulsion (e.g. hybrid vehicle propelled by electric motor and internal combustion engine); fuel efficiency-improving vehicle design (e.g. streamlining)
B) Energy storage; hydrogen production (from non-carbon sources), distribution, storage; fuel cells.
C) Air pollution abatement (from stationary sources); water pollution abatement; waste management; soil remediation; environmental monitoring.
D) Insulation (including thermal insulation, double-glazing); heating (including water and space heating; air-conditioning); lighting (including compact fluorescent lamps, light-emitting diodes).
E) Capture, storage, sequestration or disposal of greenhouse gases.
F) Technologies for improved output efficiency (Combined combustion); technologies for improved input efficiency (Efficient combustion or heat usage)
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