What impact will nanotechnology make on the developing world? Some point to the possibility that nanotechnology might help solve pressing problems, such as the availability of clean water and more abundant renewable energy through cheap, nano-enabled solar cells. Others concede that these developments might be possible in principle, but that the political and economic barriers to development are more pressing than the technical ones.
An open meeting, to be held in London on November 7, will consider the issue. It’s organised by the thinktank Demos, and will involve NGOs, scientists and government representatives. Confirmed speakers include two scientists, Mark Welland, head of the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre, and me, as well as David Grimshaw, from the international development charity Practical Action, which was founded by E.F. Schumacher, the author of the famous book “Small is beautiful”.
In the meantime, a couple of interesting publications on the topic have appeared. The Demos project Nanodialogues had a section describing the results of a public engagement exercise carried out in Zimbabwe which explored the gulf between the reality of the water problems people face there and the more glib assurances that technical solutions will be easy. A much more detailed report, Nanotechnology, water and development, has been commissioned by the Meridian Institute, and written by Thembela Hillie and Mbhuti Hlope from South Africa, and Mohan Munasinghe and Yvani Deraniyagala from Sri Lanka. This explores a pair of case studies, and actually is quite positive in tone, concluding that “Developing countries are – on their own initiative – pursuing these technologies for both economic and humanitarian reasons.As the South African case study illustrates, developing countries are using existing nanotechnology products and are initiating nanotechnology projects to remove pollutants from water; the use of these technologies is not limited to developed countries.