Innovation is the wellspring of sustained advances in human development everywhere...
and the countries that score highest on the Human Development Index also score highest on the Global Innovation Index (e.g. Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, the USA, and the UK). In contrast, the countries that score lowest on innovation are also the least developed, especially Niger, Zambia, Togo, Guinea, and Yemen. Jared Diamond argues that although some countries advance through innovation as a result of being “geographically blessed”, other countries can gain access to innovations if they create a culture that is “open to innovation” and invest in technologies that allow innovations to spread easily. Friedrich von Hayek made a powerful argument for societies that allow knowledge to diffuse widely and quickly, implying that innovations that enable knowledge to be dispersed can accelerate development, and William Easterly has consistently advocated that the freedoms that underpin the creation and distribution of knowledge are the foundations of development.
When innovations do not spread easily, the benefits can be captured by minorities, handicapping the full development potential of specific innovations and contributing to inequality, both between and within countries. For example, there are vast global inequalities in both internet and mobile phone access, with internet use varying from less than 10% in many sub-Saharan African countries to above 80 in most North American and European countries. Within-country inequalities also exist in most countries. For example, according to a Pew Research Center report, 90% of adults with the highest incomes in the USA have access to the internet at home compared to just 40% of adults on the lowest incomes. Gender inequalities also exist within many countries. A recent Intel report found that 23% fewer women than men have access to the internet. For innovations to reach their full development potential, these access gaps between and within countries will need to be closed.
To maximize the impact of innovation on development, especially in the countries struggling with poverty, poor health and low education, countries should focus efforts on increasing the ease and pace with which new knowledge is spread and set a new goal of at least 60% male and female internet and mobile phone usage by 2020 and at least 80% by 2030. Strategies to achieve this goal could include incentivizing the use of mobile phones and the internet in homes, schools and workplaces by subsidizing and/or rewarding access for the bottom 40%, including through the tax and transfer systems. Countries could also support innovations that widely diffuse new knowledge quickly in the areas most likely to benefit the poor, especially health, education, and livelihoods. Countries struggling with low levels of innovation should strive to create cultures where open inquiry, criticism and the pursuit of constant improvements in all spheres are valued and rewarded.
The United Nations, its agencies and development partners should adopt a new global campaign, “Democratizing Access to Knowledge” and support the diffusion of pro-development innovations on a grand scale. Under the umbrella of Sustainable Development Goal 9, “foster innovation”, the UN should target universal connectivity of the world population by 2030, with a special focus on the countries where less than 5% of the population is connected to the internet, and also prioritize closing the large income and gender gaps in internet and mobile phone access. The international development community should continue to argue that the diffusion of innovation thrives in societies where freedom of speech, the press, association and assembly are not only protected, but actively encouraged as the free flow of ideas, and the creation and diffusion of innovations, is clearly dependent on these basic freedoms.