In early June 2012, a diverse group of scientists, engineers, and policymakers convened at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for the inaugural "International Conference on Technology and Innovation for Global Development." The meeting was the brainchild of Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. The goal of the conference was to explore the contributions of technical innovations to global economies, particularly in the developing world. The conference drew attendees from both developing and developed nations, including Slovenia, Tanzania, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The conference was philosophically motivated by the work of Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), an Austrian economist and political scientist considered to be one of the greatest economic thinkers of the twentieth century. Schumpeter argued that technological innovation is critical to the capitalist enterprise, and is potentially the most powerful driver of economic transformation. Schumpeter developed a theory of entrepreneurial innovation and economic development, in which he defined entrepreneurship as "the carrying out of new combinations." Specifically, Schumpeter argued that an economic situation is a combination of products, production methods, raw material sources, markets, and organizational structures. Innovation and development are the result of new combinations of these components. Five main types of innovations contribute to novel combinations: new products, new methods of production, new markets, new sources of raw materials, and new organizational structures. Schumpeter's theory recognizes the centrality of engineering innovations for economic development. Interestingly, many leaders of developing countries embrace the importance of innovation in economic development without realizing that these ideas are based in Schumpeter's intellectual legacy.
With Schumpeter's theory as a starting point, the conference participants at the Harvard Kennedy School sought to apply these ideas to contemporary technological innovations for global development. Just as the conference maintained a geographic focus on the developing world, it also maintained a technical focus on innovations in polymer science. Polymers are large molecules consisting of a large number of smaller, similar repeating units bonded together; these macromolecules may be either naturally-occurring compounds such as proteins and nucleic acids, or synthetic compounds such as plastics. Polymers were chosen as the technological center of this policymaking conference due to their ubiquitous presence in medical, industrial, and consumer products, as well as the constantly evolving production methods and raw material sources for them. In Schumpeter's framework, polymers thus represent a rich source of new combinations and a ripe opportunity for entrepreneurship.
The conference was held over two days, and kicked off with a keynote speech from the President of the Republic of Slovenia, Dr. Danilo Turk. "We believe that optimization of development is possible," stated President Turk, "and that any optimization starts with science, technology, and innovation ... We have to re-ignite scientific optimism, because it is science that shows us the way forward." A welcoming speech was then delivered by Dr. Venkatesh Narayanamurti, Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy and Professor of Physics at Harvard University. Narayanamurti, a former dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, asserted that long-term investments in research and development are essential for technological innovation and progress. …