Emerging and converging technologies: wild card for sustainable development?

Date: 2014
L'espoir technologique pour la planète bleue
Article Index

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Ongoing developments in the areas of nanotechnology, the life sciences and so-called converging technologies are fostering the hope that responsible research and innovation in these areas can achieve long-term technological, environmental and economic sustainability. The following pages focus on this hope, its origin and its prospects, and they do so by contrasting different conceptions of how we might best care for preserving conditions for human life on our Blue Planet. The current mode is characterized by a curious coupling of anxiety and optimism, even hubris - on the one hand, technology is our desperate last hope that we might avoid drastic climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation. On the other hand, this hope involves becoming overly credulous regarding technoscientific promises, believing in our ability to design the future world not only technologically but also by way of forging national, even international consensus regarding directions of change. Without offering a comprehensive argument for this, the strange coupling of hubris and anxiety will be seen at work in current science policy and agenda setting for emerging technologies, and traced to its origin in the concept of sustainability with its promise that we might exceed the limits of the Blue Planet without actually leaving it.

A telling anecdote can provide a simple point of entry to all of this. It is symptomatic for the present condition of policy makers, technology observers and ordinary citizens. In June 2011, the German weekly Die Zeit published a short essay on our renewed faith in the power of technology to save us (Fischermann, Randow et al., 2011). Comparing the technological optimism of the 19th century to the current situation, the authors note one major difference: whereas the 19th century saw technology within a larger movement towards social progress, our current faith in technology is also our last hope to escape the damaging consequences of technological progress during the last several centuries. The hope that technology can save us from the effects of resource depletion or climate change is not underwritten by a firm belief in a further improvement of the human condition but desperately clings to technology as our last straw. But then, the authors continue, who knows, technology might just deliver the goods: 'miracles do happen'. On that somewhat ironic note they go on to present eight more or less far-fetched gadgets, the likes of which have engaged the popular imagination for a while, such as solar-powered planes, neuro-enhancing drugs, plants that produce construction materials along with feedstock and personal assistants that guide us to a more efficient lifestyle.

The discrepancy within this Die Zeit essay, which starts with a sobering reflection on the questionable hope that technology might save us and ends on an enthusiastic outlook towards 'the new wonders of the world', is not quite the conclusion of this anecdote. Some ten days after its publication, a policy maker enjoined social scientists, with a copy of this newspaper in hand, to consider the impacts of these eight technological breakthroughs, as if their coming was only a matter of course (Riegler, 2011; Nordmann, 2007).

If this anecdote paints a confused picture of the current state of science policy, technology assessment and public hopes and expectations, the following review attempts to address and as far as possible clarify this confusion, especially as it concerns emerging technologies and their convergence. At the beginning of the 21st century and spearheaded by nanotechnology, the so-called knowledge societies entered a 'regime of economics of technoscientific promises' (Felt, 2007, pp.24-26), challenging citizens and policy makers to orient themselves in this brave new world of hope and promise, anxiety and concern. In which sense did nanotechnology, synthetic biology, robotics, information and communication technologies, or the programmes for a convergence of these emerging technologies bring about an economy of technoscientific promises? What does this signify for the sustenance of life and culture on planet Earth? To best answer these questions it is perhaps necessary to first take a step back and tell a brief, albeit caricatured history of our Blue Planet.

The Blue Planet: Earth and its boundaries

In more ways than one, the Blue Planet is a product of the space age, its technological achievements and disillusionments. When John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that before the end of the decade the United States would be sending a man to the moon, he inaugurated an ambitious, wide-ranging, highly goal-orientedR&D programme. On one of its missions - Apollo 8, to be precise - the Blue Planet came into view. Photographs of the whole Earth alone in the vast darkness of space, rising and setting above the moon, quickly captured the imagination. Getting ready to leave the planet and in a sense transcend its boundaries, humanity looked back and discovered its exquisitely beautiful, precariously limited home. Benjamin (2003, pp. 47-49) eloquently described this new consciousness:

'(H)omesickness prevailed over the imperative to press onward and upward. Images of our lush fragile globe beamed back from afar made cooing, protective converts of the most forward-thinking rationalists, and before long many of these had swaddled themselves in Gaia and environmentalism. Exploration was out and conservation was in. (...) (E)ven as the astronauts eagerly soaked up sights never before witnessed by human eyes - the more magnificent for having been familiar from a distance and yet for so many centuries unresolved in their full and very foreign detail - their hearts hankered for home. What captivated them most were not the wonders of the proximate world, gray and barren beneath them, but the beauty of the far-off one they had left behind (...) As Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart, an early proponent of planetary consciousness, saw fit to remind us, "That little blue and white thing" he was lucky enough to gaze down on like a guardian angel was everything - "all of history and music and poetry and art and death and life and love, tears, joy, games." In effect, the astronauts of Apollo collectively redefined the moon shot for future generations as the gestalt-shifting moment that gave us singular insight into the fragility and preciousness of our home planet. As Dick Gordon confided to me on that hot Los Angeles day, "People are always asking what we discovered when we went to the Moon: what we discovered was the Earth".'

Arguably, then, the Blue Planet as an object of environmental concern was one of the greatest discoveries of space exploration and the race for the moon. It drove home the conception not only of a whole earth but also of a limited earth with limited resources and limits of growth. Conservation served the goal of passing on to future generations and keeping within a cycle of reproduction a sufficiently plentiful stock of natural resources. And for those worried that the Earth's population would soon exceed its limited carrying capacity, there was only the race to the moon and that it might prepare us to, one day, colonize space. Thus, after the discovery of the Blue Planet, the space programme took on a new purpose of finding more room for all those who could not be accommodated within its limits - what goes around, comes around.

The unbounded promises of emerging and converging technologies

Against the background of this brief story of the Blue Planet, the regime of the economy of technoscientific promises takes on a very different character (Nordmann and Schwarz, 2011). In this regime, the predicament of planet Earth appears in a very different light.

Consider, first of all, the difference between President Kennedy's man-on-the-moon ambitions and President Clinton's National Nanotechnology Initiative and its clones in Europe and elsewhere. More so even than the war on cancer or the push towards a certain percentage of solar energy in the national energy mix, the race to the moon was driven by a particular, highly specific goal. To be sure, not all research developments contributed to the achievement of the goal as planned, while other technologies originated from these lines of research. Nanotechnology, in contrast, is not dedicated to any particular goal and serves no national ambition save that of creativity and innovation as engines, presumably, of economic development. In terms of public investment, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative enjoys very high levels of funding and prestige, but we expect it not only to solve very specific problems, but to also provide general-purpose development of new technological capacities to control complex phenomena, to provide new methods of manufacturing, to design and fine-tune whole classes of new materials, to usher in a new generation of technologies, to provide a Silicon-Valley type of economic stimulus. This simultaneously vacuous and unbounded promise of nanotechnology found its expression in the 1999 brochure Shaping the World Atom by Atom that introduced the US public to nanotechnology as a national funding initiative (Amato, 1999; Nordmann, 2004).

The cover of Shaping the World Atom by Atom again confronted us with an image of space, but this time outer space stands for inner space and for Richard Feynman's 1959 lecture Plenty of Room at the Bottom, an early space age document that many took to be prophetic of nanotechnology (Toumey, 2008). The limits of space recede and the human being is conspicuously absent as an intermediary between the scales of the very large and the very small, and what we see instead is an image of exploration, conquest and transcendence: moving beyond the nanostructured surface in the foreground of an object that represents microtechnology and the computer revolution, our eyes are drawn into the vastness of space, to the Blue Planet and a prophetic comet. As we enter the nanocosm, we find ourselves in a space that represents seemingly unlimited technological possibility.

The very term emerging technologies expresses that the realization of technical possibility is conceived as a quasi-natural rather than political process - new technologies are thought to arise from laboratories that are conceived as incubators of sometimes astonishing novelty. On this account, the best we can do is try to anticipate, prepare, or brace ourselves for what is to come, especially if the visions and promises of what might be possible were to come to fruition (Guston, 2010). Indeed, the absence of planning, of blueprints, of roadmaps towards set goals and instead the promotion of general-purpose technologies signifies a retreat, if not a surrender of science policy.

This pattern continues in oversized funding schemes (e.g. the European Flagship Initiative and its endowment of the Human Brain Project) which delegate funding decisions to large consortia.


Instead of encouraging incremental developments within well-defined technological trajectories, nanotechnological funding schemes aim to provide a broadly supportive infrastructure for creativity, an innovation ecosystem in which the seeds of mere ideas for another industrial revolution can produce a tender growth of new technological capabilities that will grow up to become robust pillars of industry. This, however, is only half of the story.


The very vagueness and lack of determinacy of an emerging general-purpose technology also provides an opening to political processes and invites the inclusion of stakeholders in public deliberation and other informal agenda-setting processes. Since research regarding enabling technologies can promote many purposes and since it is not committed towards specific pre-set national goals, there is a need and the room for ongoing deliberation about the best ways to match emerging capabilities to societal demands and vice versa. At this point, researchers are generally the first to enter the regime of technoscientific promises since they are always required to provide some idea of what their explorations and discoveries might prove to be good for. But clearly, one can create technology platforms, consumer conferences, stakeholder deliberations to engage the research and development process in real time with the hopes of achieving efficient translations from the laboratory to the work floor or, in medicine, from bench to bedside.

In the context of the biomedical sciences, translational research is explicitly dedicated to effect these transitions, and this research is often built around the inclusion of multiple stakeholders.

In this context, the idea of a convergence of emerging and enabling technologies was introduced, not so much as yet another emerging trend but as a policy instrument to promote deliberative processes on a larger scale. According to one definition, 'converging technologies are enabling technologies (...) that enable each other in pursuit of a common goal' (HLEG, 2004), and another report defines convergence as 'the escalating and transformative interaction of seemingly separate disciplines, technologies, communities, and domains of human activity to achieve mutual compatibility, synergism, and integration, and through this process to create added value and branch out into emerging areas to meet shared goals' (Roco et al., 2012). For example, the first prominent programme for converging technologies promoted the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) for the goal of enhancing human performance (Roco et al., 2002). Just as easily, and just as obviously, subject to stakeholder deliberation, one can imagine the convergence of geriatrics, intergenerational studies, information and communication technologies, as well as cognitive science towards the technological needs of an ageing population. The very idea of convergence, therefore, provides the frame for conceiving a strategy that gears many collaborators to a societal problem in need of a solution. It thereby serves as one platform among others to facilitate a deliberative, if not explicitly political social process.


Responsible innovation and the development of technologies in society


Counteracting the retreat of science policy, emerging and converging technologies prove to be a venue for experiments in governance that are carried forward, for example, under the heading responsible innovation (Schomberg, 2011; Nordmann, 2009). Responsible innovation seeks to take the next step beyond the invitation to promoters and critics, consumers and producers, environmentalists and industrialists that they might all come together as stakeholders and share responsibility for the development of emerging technologies in society. From this rather diffuse common bond that allows everyone to take responsibility without incurring obligations or becoming accountable, the idea of responsible research and innovation seeks to forge more specific relations of mutual responsiveness. For example, those who participate in a deliberative stakeholder process might become obligated to disclose any information they hold concerning opportunities and risks about materials or processes.


Nanotechnology, synthetic biology, information and communication technology, converging technologies - are all labels that beg for more precise specification. In the regime of the economy of technoscientific promises, these specifications are deferred to a quasi-natural process of emergence, but one in which stakeholders can participate. On the one hand, the general expectation is that wide public investment in the development of basic technological capabilities will yield sooner or later a good crop of worthwhile innovations, if only because general-purpose technologies open up a whole new world of technical possibilities that just wait to be realized: brain-machine interfaces, targeted drug delivery, a perfectly detailed map of the human brain, emission-free power plants, and the like. On the other hand, within this regime, it is possible to accommodate deliberative processes that inform, guide and perhaps determine a sensible coordination of technological capabilities, other cultural resources and societal needs. The concept of responsible innovation seeks to hold these deliberative soft governance schemes to at least minimal requirements of commitment and accountability.


The sustainable development and technology nexus


In the regime of technoscientific promises, the concerns of our societies and our planet appear differently, they are managed and negotiated differently than in a regime of national aspirations as in the Cold War with its arms race and its space race. These concerns are subject to inclusive, open-ended stakeholder deliberations that unfold in real time in the hope of navigating our societies to an acceptable or - by current standards - sustainable state.


But this is not the only difference that comes to mind as we seek to come to terms with our current, somewhat confusing situation in comparison to that of apparently simpler days when the Blue Planet was discovered as a cipher for our precarious existence in a limited world. Already, emerging and converging technologies were characterized by their unbounded promise. It comes with their development of basic capabilities which enable the realization of amazing technical possibilities. But there is a more telling way in which emerging and converging technologies defy limitations, including notions of limited resources or limits to growth. They thereby represent an altered image of the planet and our ways of inhabiting it.


The idea that technology is our last, perhaps desperate hope, and the idea that emerging technologies might satisfy this hope are closely related to the concept of sustainability. According to the most popular definition, 'sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. By offering this definition, the Brundtland report of 1987 leaves various options as to how sustainable development is achieved. The conservation of scarce resources in a limited world is one option, as is the difficult requirement to replenish what is consumed. While this approach might make it hard to meet the needs of present or future generations, one can be sure, at least, not to disadvantage those who come after us. At the other end of the spectrum, if the world were not limited at all and the energy of the sun were to replenish and repair whatever we consume, sustainable development would be easy - we could do nothing to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Where we actually stand between these two extremes is a matter largely of technology. It offers the hope that we can effectively expand the limits of the world, one that affords a lot more than we previously expected. In the words of the Brundtland report:


'Growth has no set limits in terms of population or resource use beyond which lies ecological disaster. (...) The accumulation of knowledge and the development of technology can enhance the carrying capacity of the resource base. (...) In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.' (Brundtland, 1987, chapter 2, paragraphs 10 and 15).

In a very different, more contemporary and scientific vein, the notion that there are no set limits of population and economic growth is underwritten also by so-called resilience theory, see Rockström et al. 2009.



The definition of sustainable development, then, gives licence to do whatever it takes to meet our own needs and simultaneously to invest in enabling technologies with their promise to create for future generations the ability to meet their own needs as we do ours. If we want to keep our economic promise to future generations without compromising on consumption and economic growth, technology is our one and only hope, the wild card that protects us from having to conserve or to live within set limits.

The Brundtand report mentions only one alternative route and there are few indications that this path is about to be taken, namely a better political system of accessing and distributing goods: 'sustainable development requires that societies meet human needs both by increasing productive potential and by ensuring equitable opportunities for all' (Brundtland, 1987, chapter 2, paragraph 6).



Within this conception of sustainable development, emerging technologies enter the stage, overtaxed from the start by unrealistic expectations. In general terms, as enabling technologies and without commitment to the solution of specific problems only, they are supposed to advance the general purpose of increasing productive potential and enhancing the carrying capacity of our planet.

This is analyzed by Vogt (2010) from the point of view of a nanotechnology researcher.

This becomes apparent in the very vocabulary that is used in respect to these technologies, and also in the debates or discussions they provoke.


Techno-scientific promises: a desperate gamble to achieve sustainability


At the most basic level, there is an appeal to novelty and the new. About a limited world where resources are to be conserved, restored, recycled or replenished, it is usually said that there cannot be anything genuinely new but (as in conservation of matter) only rearrangements and redistribution of what already exists. The Blue Planet and the whole stock of nature are inherited by us and will have to be passed on to future generations without renewal. The economic regime of technoscientific promises, in contrast, is the regime of innovation, of the search for renewables and the systematic investigation of novel properties. Nanotechnology, for example, seeks to exploit so-called scale-dependent discontinuities, that is, those properties that arise only at the nanoscale when familiar objects or materials start behaving in unfamiliar ways. It is these novel behaviours and our emerging ability to elicit and control them that is to enable new technologies, to innovate the economy and to ensure sustainable development.


At a more specific level, emerging and converging technologies are often discussed for their ambition to exceed or transcend present limitations in one respect, namely to enhance human nature. Here, the National Science Foundation-sponsored report on the convergence of NBIC to improve human performance achieved particular prominence (Roco et al., 2002) but by no means stood alone. While technological ambitions to increase human lifespan, to enhance mental and physical abilities may seem a bit far-fetched, nanotechnology, materials research and synthetic biology are working to enhance material nature. What used to be dead matter is meant to become smart material as, for example, information technologies are used to draw things and people together in environments with ambient intelligence (Nordmann, 2010).


At the level of planet Earth, finally, the transcendence of the Blue Planet with its limited resources, limited carrying capacity, and necessary limits of growth produces a different picture, namely one of apparently infinite plasticity such that materials, organisms, the planet itself and the future of human life on this planet all become objects of design. Our only hope that technology might save us here becomes a form of hubris. As we extract ourselves from an evolutionary history, we boldly posit not only that we can shape the world atom by atom but that material and social realities are subject to our choices, thus of our making, and thus as we design them.




This essay began with an anecdote that exemplified a state of confusion. Sceptical of technology as the solution to all of our problems, we must nevertheless place all our hopes on this wild card in a somewhat desperate gamble to achieve sustainability, and thus we turn from sceptical critics of technology to credulous believers in its power to transform life. Accordingly, this essay also ends in a confused state. After all, it is in no way evident that we can move from the insight 'the world as we know it, is a world of our own making' to the bold claim that 'the future of the world is an object of design'. Rather, it is wishful thinking to assume that the effects of human action can be made to conform to purposeful human design. This wishful thinking is a powerful driver of our technological ambitions and thus may prove to be a valuable heuristic. It is not to be taken for a fact of history or technology, however, and to do so is to invite the confusion at hand. And to understand how we became to be confused is perhaps a first step towards a more humble, circumspect and cautionary approach than the one that overestimates the power of emerging technologies.


From the conquest of space to nanotechnologies: the political myth of governing research

. 1961 25th MayPres. Kennedy announces 'Man on the Moon' . 1968 24th December Earthrise picture taken (Apollo 8). 1971 23th December Pres. Nixon announces war on cancer . 1972 1st March Club of Rome report proclaims Limits of Growth . 14th December Humans last walked on the moon (Apollo 17). 1987 Brundlandt report introduces the 'sustainability' agenda with her report 'Our common future'. 1990 23rd April EU limits the use and study of GMOs to confined environments. 2000 24th January Pres. Clinton announces National Nanotechnology Initiative. 2nd February EU adopts precautionary principle . 2002 June The NSF and the DOE publish the report Converging Technologies . 2004 The EU High Level Expert Group'Foresighting the New Technology Wave' publishes Converging Technologies for the European Knowledge Society.. 2011 4th March EU proposes Code of Conduct for Responsible Research