Dealing with the “wicked” problem of technology in the sustainable development goals

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By Ashwani Vasishth, Director of the Center for Sustainability, Ramapo College of New Jersey

Technology and nature

Technology can be both an obstacle in the path to a sustainable future and the bearer of the promise for a new world. For instance, the report by the UN Secretary-General's Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development, points to technology as one of the roots of current forms of unsustainable development, but at the same time holds technology up as having the strong potential to show us the way forward.

How can this be?  Well, perhaps because technology is not a singularity, but rather embodies multiple realities, all at the same time.

Rittel & Webber, in their seminal article, Dilemmas in A General Theory of Planning, posit that planners face two kinds of problems in this world – what they call "tame" problems, and "wicked" problems. Tame problems are the sorts of problems that can be definitively solved, and for which there can be agreement about the point at which these problems can be said to have been solved. Wicked problems, on the other hand, are the sorts of problems a) that can always be explained in more than one way; b) for which there is no definitive formulation; c) for which there is no "stopping rule" (that is to say, no rule by which one can know that the problem has been solved); d) for which there is no enumerable set of solutions; and e) for which there is no singular test of a proposed solution.

In short, wicked problems need to be treated as complex adaptive systems –embodying multiple realities, and requiring holistic management rather than singular solution.

The problem with technology is that it is both panacea and problem, simultaneously. For instance, the SDSN Report - which surveys the policy landscape and makes recommendations for a potential set of ten Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - points to "fracking" (or hydraulic fracturing) and other cutting-edge extractive technologies as an example of technology that stands in the way of a sustainable future. And, at the same time, the report correctly outlines some of the ways in which technology may play a role in moving the world toward a more sustainable future:

"New technologies also offer tremendous opportunities to deliver public services, including healthcare, education and basic infrastructure, to more people at a much lower cost and with a much lower use of primary resources."
The duality of technology can be traced in two ways: first, in cases where one sort of technology is a solution and another sort of technology is an impediment to sustainable development; and second, in cases where the same type of technology is simultaneously both a solution and an impediment to sustainable development.

As an example of the first, consider the set of information technologies embodied by the cellular telephone and the internet, on the one hand, and "fracking" on the other.

In fields as diverse as agriculture, commerce and healthcare, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) provide the backbone to the deployment of low-cost, information-rich and locally-relevant assistive infrastructure, allowing advanced communication systems, working through broadband internet networks, to be used to facilitate the flow of critical and useful information that can be turned into a valuable commodity for the poor.

Innovations in extractive technology such as fracking and the exploitation of tar sands, on the other hand, are a threat to sustainability in at least two ways.  Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, fracking extends our reach into the world of fossil fuels, enabling us to extract hitherto inaccessible deposits of natural gas, and thus counters the imperative for decarbonising the world’s economies as rapidly as possible. While natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal, the use of cheap gas also risks limiting the market-establishment and spread of other, carbon-free sources of energy - a necessity if the world is to make appropriate actions to deal with climate change threats.  In addition, these technologies also create the potential for unprecedented environmental pollution.

As one example of a technology that has the potential to be both and at the same time beneficial and detrimental to sustainable development, consider genetic engineering and the creation of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). These sorts of technologies simultaneously hold the promise of plenty and the threat of exclusion.  

Drought-tolerant crops, while still in the early stages of development, and not without their own controversies, similarly hold the promise, at least, of plenty in a time of increasing climate stress.  If it is true that such drought-resistant GMOs can, indeed be developed and marketed in some relatively affordable way, this is probably for the good of all.

But, on the flip side, consider the unmitigated harm being done to the world’s underprivileged and poor populations by the ways in which genetic engineering is pushing the boundaries of intellectual property rights, particularly in the patenting of life forms and of biological resources.  In many cases, powerful and wealthy multinational corporations are able to capitalise on traditional forms of knowledge, excluding the holders of such knowledge from the global marketplace of ideas.

Clearly, technology is, quintessentially, a wicked problem. It defies singular depiction, the nature of the problem begins to morph as soon as we intervene, and solutions will always be the source of new problems. Then, we must realise that technology is both good and bad, in the case of the SDGs.

My arguments in the case of technology and the SDGs are two-fold - first, that we need to take an ecosystem approach toward technology; and second, that, in speaking of technology as a solution for the SDGs, we must qualify the word technology with the word "appropriate".

The concept of Appropriate Technology is well established in the history of sustainable development, emerging robustly at about the same time as the concept of sustainable development was itself taking shape. Indeed, it can be said that the original arguments for an Appropriate Technology were arguments for a sustainable development.

What came to be called Appropriate Technology was conceived, first, by E.F. Schumacher, in his powerful book, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.1 Shaped by Schumacher’s critiques of Western economic models of development at that time, it posited a world that is "intermediate" between High Technology and Low Technology. This Intermediate Technology, Schumacher conceived, would be people-centered, locally contextual, and accordingly, always appropriate to the case at hand. Generally, Appropriate Technology is relatively low-cost, labor intensive, small-scale, decentralised, energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive, and utilises locally available materials and techniques to the greatest extent possible.

In my opinion, the SDGs should be explicit in calling for the deployment of Appropriate Technology in the pursuit of their ends, rather than speaking merely about technology as a solution for developmental ills. The concepts and practices of an Appropriate Technology must be centrally incorporated into a broad range of SDGs, such as poverty alleviation, health systems, agricultural systems, urban development, energy systems, ecosystem management and good governance. A truly sustainable form of development must rest, first, on the framework of an Appropriate Technology. This is an essential prerequisite.


1 Schumacher, Ernst F.  1973.  Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.  New York: Harper & Row.

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