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Technological innovation

Innovation is a crucial driver of economic growth and development, resulting in more effective products, processes, services and technologies, with the power to change markets and societies. It can also help address urgent global challenges – such as poverty, growing population numbers, access to sufficient food and water, climate change, or inefficiency of industrial processes.

Innovation in relation to SDG9 can be best defined as the establishment of new ideas which directly translate to original and more effective products, processes, services or technologies.

Innovation can be incremental (by making small improvements to existing products or processes), or it can be radical – through the development of new products or processes capable of entirely replacing existing versions. Regardless of its form, innovation is a crucial driver of socioeconomic growth and development, as it can improve the way in which we manufacture products, transport goods, deliver services and design infrastructure. As such, it is a prerequisite for ensuring sustainable and inclusive development.

In recent decades, information and communication technologies (ICT) have undergone a major transformation, with the unprecedented development and implementation of ICT innovations – including mobile technologies, social media, big data, and artificial intelligence – profoundly changing the structures of both societies and economies.

Alongside these advancements is the Internet of Things (IoT) – the network of smart, interconnected computing devices, digital machines, mechanical appliances and other electronic items which work in synergy, communicating and exchanging information. The concept is becoming increasingly important in terms of the world’s economic output, and is expected to be the biggest driver of productivity and growth within the next decade. In fact, it is estimated that, by 2030, IoT could add 14.2 trillion USD to the global economy.

As the internet becomes more widely available, smartphones become increasingly more accessible, and the cost of technology decreases, more and more devices are being created that are compatible with – and able to connect to – other forms of tech. Currently, conditions for the development of IoT are optimal in both developed and developing countries.

While in 2000 only 4% of the population in developing countries had access to mobile phones, that figure had risen to 94% by 2015. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, where only 68% of people had access to water in 2015, 76% of them used a mobile phone. Not only has this improved the ease of communication with family and friends, but is has also facilitated access to markets, financial services and a range of innovative (and often life-changing) apps.

Today, the digital infrastructure is at the core of world economies. The global interconnectedness afforded by ICT and innovative technologies also has great potential to accelerate human progress, to develop knowledge societies, and to make industry and infrastructure more sustainable.

With ICT at the forefront of a new industrial revolution, smarter technologies and IoT can be applied to address societal challenges and support a wide range of SDGs – with tech such as sensor and GPS-enabled devices, satellites, smartphones, computers, digital cameras and drones revolutionising everything from the food and farming sector to urban planning and public health (including medical procedures, as well as the administration of vaccines and other medicines), as well as disaster monitoring and early warning systems.

Technologies behind ICT innovation

Innovative ICT solutions involve computers of every variety, satellites, sensors, and smartphones – as well as the Internet of Things, and the tools that make it work. The manufacture and operation of such smart tech is hugely dependent on metals and minerals – including aluminium, copper, nickel, iron, and rare earth elements.

  • Sensors

    Sensors detect events or changes in their environment, convert this data to a signal (optical, electrical, mechanical) and send it to other devices – often computer processors. In general, sensors can be classified as proprioceptive (responsive to internal stimuli) or exteroceptive (responsive to external stimuli, and further classified as active or passive). For example, proprioceptive sensors are installed in speedometers in every car to measure the speed, while active exteroceptive sensors are essential for sonar technologies (as used by submarines). Remote sensing, meanwhile, involves the collation of information about an object without making physical contact, via a satellite.

    Sensors can be applied in nearly every sector (automotive, aerospace, sports and gaming, personal electronics, health, agriculture, fishery), either alone or as part of a larger communicative system. All sensors require a transducer – a device that converts a signal from one of type of energy to another. Transducers usually comprise six separate components (piezoceramic element(s), housing, acoustic window, encapsulating material, sound absorbing material and cable), all of which require a range of raw materials – including steel, brass, aluminium, and magnesium.

  • Satellites

    Along with ground stations and receivers, satellites play a key role in remote sensing technologies, IoT and global positioning systems (GPS). GPS consists of around 24 satellites, orbiting the Earth at an altitude of around 20,000km and uniformly distributed across six orbits (four satellites per orbit). This spatial distribution and the number of satellites ensure that from every point on Earth at least eight satellites can be simultaneously seen, in order to determine exact terrestrial locations of, for instance, a phone or a car.

    Satellites come in myriad shapes and sizes, but usually comprise two main parts – an antenna for sending and receiving information (made of copper, aluminium or stainless steel) and a power source (which may be a battery or a solar panel). Metals used in solar panel construction include silicon, aluminium, iron, lead, nickel, copper, cadmium and zinc. Silicon is also essential to the electronics used by satellites to receive and send signals back and forth.

  • Drones

    Drones – otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can provide innovative solutions to a vast range of sectors – including defence, emergency response, humanitarian aid, disaster relief, conservation and field surveys, disease control, healthcare, weather forecasting maritime, waste management, energy and mining construction planning. It is estimated that the value of the global market for services provided by drones accounts to over USD 127 billion.

    Generally, a single drone will consist of a multi rotor frame (a quadcopter is most commonly used), motor or speed controller, flight controller, and battery. The use of light materials is essential to the functionality of drones. Therefore, composite materials take a central role in the process of their designing and manufacturing. The composite materials (also called composites) are made of two or more materials with different physical and chemical properties. As a result, the composite has improved properties in comparison to the individual constituent materials (also called constituents). These constituents can be organic or inorganic – including cement, metals, ceramics, or glass.

  • Smartphones

    In 2019, the number of mobile phone users worldwide is estimated to reach over 5 billion – accounting for 67% of the population. Smartphones have become key to people’s daily lives and play an essential role in ICT innovation and connectivity.

    A smartphone is composed of dozens of different raw materials. Its screen is made of indium, tin, and oxide (enabling touch screen functionality through a transparent film over the screen). Most phones have an aluminosilicate glass, which is a mix of aluminium oxide and silicon dioxide. The glass is strengthened with potassium ions. The colours in a smartphone’s screen are in turn produced with a range of rare earth elements. Copper – along with gold and silver – is used for wiring and micro-electrical components. Tantalum is the major component in micro-capacitors. The microphone, speaker and vibration unit are reliant on rare earth elements, while the chip is manufactured with pure silicone. Most phones use lithium ion batteries, usually composed of lithium cobalt oxide and graphite. The phone case utilises magnesium alloys or plastics. Plastics may contain flame retardant compounds, some of which include bromine. Nickel may also be added in order to reduce the electromagnetic interference.