Friday, 7 October 2011

Technology a double-edged sword in a rapidly developing Asia

Greg Adamson

Patent filings in China this year may surpass both the US and Japan. For India, IT and business process outsourcing is now a $50b industry. Asia is racing ahead in the technology stakes. But it isn’t all smooth sailing.

The Australian Financial Review on 10 January this year carried an article by Yu Yongding, former director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which stated that “China has become one of the most polluted countries in the world. Dust and smog choke its cities. All major rivers are contaminated. Although progress has been made, deforestation and desertification are serious.”

There are many reports of quality problems with Chinese goods: criminal adulteration of milk with melamine, an industrial material used to increase the apparent protein content; use of lead paint in exported children’s toys; and the collapse of a newly constructed 13-storey apartment building in Shanghai in 2009, to name a few.

When I read these reports I feel as though history is repeating itself. I remember reading of the adulteration of bread with alum and of milk with water and chalk in 19th century England; of the thousands of deaths caused by London's “Great Smog” of 1952; and of the fact that in the early 20th century the River Thames was devoid of aquatic life due to manufacturing and other pollution.

Those historical cases had various causes: uncontrolled industrialisation; unanticipated consequences of technology; profiteering; criminal behaviour. The impact is still felt today. In some US cities, for example, modern traffic chaos can be viewed as the outcome of car companies buying up and closing down public transport (a serious subject humorously described in Who Framed Roger Rabbit).

The same causes are evident across modern-day Asia. Many of the problems have local causes – economic, technical, business, regulatory or otherwise. For other problems, responsibility seems to lie outside the country. The 1984 Union Carbide disaster in India’s Bhopal, which left thousands dead, created the impression that global corporations may apply lower safety standards in developing countries.

Some of my friends roll their eyes when I talk about addressing technology quality or environmental issues in Asia. But the 19th and 20th century problems in Europe and North America didn’t just fix themselves. In the 1870s, physician and scientist Dr AH Hassall led a campaign to overcome food adulteration in Victorian England. Scientists and engineers were among environmentalists who changed the way we think about water quality and cleaned up London and the Thames. Consumer legislation has allowed us to expect that the food we eat won’t poison us. Social awareness around these problems was informed by science and addressed by technical activities and legal and industry standards.

In Asia today we see progress at the infrastructure level. We may argue about the timing and extent of the progress, but it at least demonstrates awareness. China is a major investor in renewable energy technology. India has developed a sophisticated IT industry, including its prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. Notable is the early approach of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who invited the advice of Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics and a pioneer in industrial automation, regarding options for industrial development in India. Asia’s most economically developed country, Japan, led the world in the adoption of what became known as “quality systems” in manufacturing, building quality into a product rather than rejecting defects at the end. This approach was based on the work of statistician W.E. Deming, who was invited to contribute his ideas by the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers.

I also see this commitment to awareness of the impact of technology at the individual level: a December 2011 IEEE conference in Hyderabad, India, focussing on sustainable technologies, has received more than a thousand papers. An Indian engineer recently explained that all the world’s IT waste ends up in India and other underdeveloped countries, causing significant problems. If controls to manage the handling of poisonous old car batteries can be set up, why not poisonous old mobile batteries? I spoke to a Chinese engineer in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics who expressed his concerns about materials substitution in building construction, and the growing importance of quality control in China.

These are just individual examples which illustrate a larger picture: many engineers across Asia understand the societal challenges created by technology.

For me, this is a source of hope for the future.

These and other issues will be discussed at the IEEE conference on Technology and Society in Asia, to be held in Singapore 28-29 October 2012.  Further information on the conference can be found here.

Photograph by Sandruz, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

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