This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

 Work in Progress
  A Review of Research Activities of
The United Nations University
Volume 15, Number 1
Spring 1998
Public Affairs Section
The United Nations University

Work in Progress    A Review of Research Activities of the United Nations University
Volume 15, Number 1/Spring 1998

Editor: Manfred F. Boemeke
Consulting Editor: John M. Fenton (New York, USA)
Administration, Production and Distribution: Sumiko Sudo

Public Affairs Section
The United Nations University
53-70, Jingumae 5-chome, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-8925, Japan
Telephone: 81-3-3499-2811 Fax: 81-3-3499-2828
ISSN 0259-4285
Work in Progress aims at providing an edited sampling of the research conducted by, or of interest to, the United Nations University. UNU copyrighted articles may be reprinted without permission provided credit is given to Work in Progress (United nations University) and a copy is sent to the Editor. A Japanese edition is also available.

Return to the top

Pathway to Sustainable Development?

The young science-fiction writer who first coined the term "cyberspace," (in the mid-1980s), described it as a place of "unthinkable complexity (with) lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data." In all its unfolding convolutions - with many millions of interconnected computer systems, interactive television, and other ways to communicate knowledge - his original description is still as good as any of that mysterious realm, one in which much of modern history is being played out.

Technological advances in cyberspace, in the computer and telecommunications field, have vastly speeded up our ability to communicate with one another. With millions of computers now jacked into the Internet, we have extended the communications range to the tiniest corners of human settlement. In the vast reaches of cyberspace, we are coming closer to being a truly global village.

This represents a broad-scale transformation in the human condition whose portends we are just beginning to understand. We are too inundated with information flows to see our way clearly. As always, when tinkering with something profoundly central to the human condition, it is an artist who may have sensed the true dimensions most lucidly. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes warns that "the greatest crisis facing modern civilization is going to be how to transform information into structured knowledge."

The new communications technologies coming on-line offer, to be sure, liberation from many ancient drudgeries on farms and in factories. But they also can bring wealth and power to those who possess the skills to understand and control them - and herein lies their enormous potential for social disruption. To counter this, in the struggle to build a more equitable, peaceful and civil global society, we need to ensure that the on-ramps to the information superhighway are accessible to all.

We are far from getting there. Many hundreds of millions of the world's peoples are still too poor or too far from a major communications hub to enjoy the fruits of cyberspace. Without access to computer and a high-speed telecommunications link, they are the new "have-nots" - the "know-nots," who risk being always behind.

But in recent decades, we have vastly improved the means to disseminate new knowledge. During the past 20 years, the global network of computers, telephones and televisions has increased its carrying capacity a million times over. And cell phones, with modems attached, can "leap frog" creaking and inefficient state telephone systems which have kept so much of the developing world out of the information age.

Obviously, there are many ways to approach cyberspace and its role in human destiny. In this issue of Work in Progress, we look at what the new information technologies might do for the cause of sustainable development (IP (J a contribution we have dubbed "cybergrowth." The pitfalls and promises are discussed by scientists, educators and other experts from the worldwide networks of the United Nations University. Information, and the human ability to use or abuse it, has been a concern of the UNU for nearly two decades - since the first PCs began to radically transform the way we deal with new knowledge.

It is appropriate that this issue of Work in Progress - with its emphasis on new channels of communications (IP (J should appear just as the University itself was hearing a new voice of leadership - that of Prof. Hans van Ginkel who took over as fourth Rector of the UNU on 1 September 1997, succeeding Heitor Gurgulino de Souza, the University chief executive for a decade. As a human geographer and planner, and Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Prof. van Ginkel comes to the UNU rectorship as someone thoroughly conversant with the challenges of the computer age.

So too was Rector Gurgulino de Souza. Our look at the potential for cybergrowth presents the views of both the present and past Rectors. Prof. van Ginkel examines the impact of a new knowledge intensity on higher education. The previous Rector, in a selection from his speeches, reflects on various challenges and opportunities of the new information age.

In a further look at computer-education interactions, a British scientist examines the benefits to be stimulated by the computer in environmental education, an area in which increasingly widespread demand worldwide is anticipated. Prof. Norman Longworth of the University of Southampton, United Kingdom, discusses some of uses of computer programmes in environmental learning at his home base at Southampton's Geodata unit. The unit has been widely recognized for its innovativeness and creativity in computer visualizations of ecological complexities.

On the surface - with the direct person-to-person linkages that communication technology makes possible - cyberspace might appear to offer the nearest thing to the level economic playing field that development strategists would like. But the workings of the international economic system, and particularly the twistings and turnings of technological choice, confront the development strategist with many tricky hurdles. Measuring productivity induced by investment in technology remains an illusive goal.

The economy-technology nexus is examined from four perspectives. Brazilian information scientist Paulo Rodrigues Pereira warns that "out-sourcing" of cheap labour may prove a short-run phenomenon, as industries return home for the computer skills they increasingly will need. In a report from the UNU's Institute for New Technologies (UNU/INTECH) in Maastricht, Edward Steinmueller and Maria-Inês Bastos point up the problems in reorganizing industry to accommodate the new information technologies. A major problem, they find, is the tendency of existing industrial networks to resist reform in the workplace.

One of the most thorny problems of the new information age is picking the right tool at the right moment. Every week, it some-times seems, there is a new explosion in computer performance. But picking wrong can be disastrous, says Ajit Bhalla, an Indian economist who is Chief of the Technology and Employment Division of ILO in Geneva. He argues for widening the set of technological options in the patchwork world of modern computing. The plethora of information options makes choice particularly risky in the swollen mega-cities of the Third World. So concludes Alan Gilbert, a geographer with University College, London, who coordinated the UNU project on population, urbanization and development. The processes of globalization, bolstered by new communications technology, can bring new wealth or suddenly take it away. The computer, the video player and the laptop can create high expectation, but also heighten uncertainties.

After this multicultural look at the social and economic soils in which the computer revolution in the Third World must be planted, Work in Progress examines some of the specific steps the UNU has already taken to aid planners in stimulating cybergrowth.

A crucial need in the developing countries is software that speaks directly to their problems - as, for example, helping trains and planes to run on time. The UNU response is being mounted by the International Institute for Software Technology (UNU/IIST), a UNU research and training centre located in Macau. Two members of the UNU/IIST staff explain the centre's methods and some of the problems it is working on - including improved scheduling of China's railways and Viet Nam's airline.

In the rapidly growing world of information technology, a new "homepage" of the Worldwide Web is created every few seconds. As a responsible and relevant centre of international scholarship, the UNU centre in Tokyo has created its own homepage. Among other things, it leads users to the Global Environment Information Centre (GEIC), the UNU's window on the world of environmental data. Glen Paoletto, an environmental specialist at the UNU Headquarters, describes what is available at - a web page facility that responds to the call of Agenda 21, the United Nations blueprint for sustainable development operations.

Also available on UNU computer networks is "PlasmaNet," a tool that brings the cutting edge of their field to scientists, particularly in the Third World working with plasmas, a state of matter beyond solid, liquid and gas which offers enormous technological promise. Japanese physicist Takaya Kawabe, who helped set up PlasmaNet, provides a plasma primer and tells how advances in the field are being made available to scientists everywhere. The new network is a specific response to the first words of the UNU Charter that it be "an international community of scholars" - one which must seek new knowledge today in the farthest reaches of cyberspace.

Return to the top

Shrinking Knowledge Frontiers

By Hans van Ginkel, Rector, The United Nations University

Hans van Ginkel has been interested in the interactions of technology and society since he studied the roots of Chinese tin mining in Malaya as a graduate student at Utrecht University in the early 1960s. A human geographer and historian by academic training, Dr. van Ginkel, has been strongly interested in science policy and its potential impact on human settlements. In 1986, he was named Rector Magnificus at Utrecht, in which post he was deeply involved in various European cooperative education endeavours, particularly in the area of sustainable development. After serving on the UNU governing Council, he was appointed the University's fourth Rector, a post he assumed on 1 September 1997. We present here some highly pertinent thoughts about the response of higher education to the information revolution, in an age of knowledge-intensification. They are excerpted from his speech on the university in the 21st century entitled "University 2050: The Organization of Creativity and Innovation," delivered in London in 1994. - Editor

One of the major processes that characterize our age is the growing intensity of knowledge - in society at large, and, following from that, in our scholarship. This has particular implications for those technological advances - in computerization, telecommunications, and other components of the Information Revolution - which might be deployed in furthering scholarship and passing it on. Indeed, advances in modern technology feed the intensity - the computer can perform calculations in minutes that would take an unaided scientist a lifetime. Perhaps the best metaphor for modern knowledge intensity is the stock exchange trader - whether in Tokyo, London, New York to Bangkok - dealing with the whole world, using many telephones at the same time, with constantly updated information on computer screens in front of him.

Universities have not quite reached that level - yet! - but clearly science and scholarship do also function electronically at a world level. Personal computers, E-mail, television and fax machines have effectively shrunken our planet. The message that, centuries ago, required weeks to pass only from London to e.g. Venice now takes only seconds for much greater distances. At the same time, the volume of information transmitted, has multiplied beyond all recognition.

The increase in knowledge intensity is marching hand-in-hand with another important modern process. This is the acceleration, the "up-scaling" if you like, which is pitching societies into new trajectories, new life styles and new expectations. A host of forces are moving societies at a speed triple or quadruple that of only a few decades ago. More and more, every part of the human endeavour is connected, at some level of stratification, as it becomes easier to cross cultural, political and geographical borders. Science might term this process "autocatalytic" - the rate of increase speeds up as the processes catalyze themselves.

Leading academics have always pushed back frontiers, not only in the sense that the limits of human knowledge and ability are expanded, but also as political and geographical borders are continuously bridged. As part of the progress of globalization combined with a general up-scaling of political, cultural and economic entities, universities and research institutes are working together more and more on a much broader range of activities. The swelling cost of groundbreaking research only encourages this trend.

This process of globalization, combined with a melding together of our experiences and perspectives, will only intensify. Opportunities for communication are multiplying at a sensational rate. We may still prefer to talk face-to-face than on the telephone - especially when talking to someone who comes from another culture. However, the stock market traders gave up on this a long time ago, and many academics are already in everyday contact with colleagues around the world, without ever having seen them. E-mail allows them to stay in better contact with someone sharing research interests in Australia or Venezuela than with another academic in the same building, whose hair colour they may know, but not his or her research topics.

Unity in Diversity
It seems to me that globalization will inevitably lead to greater social and cultural unity. But this will not be the unity envisaged by Napoleon two centuries ago, with the same laws and the same straight roads stretching right across Europe. It will be, and indeed ought to be, a unity in diversity, based on the principle of subsidiarity. This will also apply to universities in a big way. They have a tradition of diversity stretching back to their origins. But modern processes argue that universities will become increasingly interlinked and bound to one another, while continuing to identify themselves as distinct from each other; being part of an increasingly global academic community at the same time trying to serve the region and country they are part of in the best ways.

Increasingly important, in the technologically-linked modern world, will be the network to which one belongs - it will contribute directly to the attractiveness of a university and its international position. Indeed, it is possible that international networks will form the basis of the university of the future. However, I do not think it will be long before the larger universities have set up institutes abroad, and we can see this in a number of institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom already. The university will become an international business, in every sense. Many existing universities will come under the hammer during the process, but that is old news. The university has always been an evolving entity - in Europe stretching back to Bologna and in China and the Arab World even further to the monasteries and mosques where knowledge was once kept alive.

Impact on Knowledge Itself
The increasing knowledge-intensiveness of society and science has enormous import for the state of knowledge itself. For one thing, more and more knowledge will be produced: estimates say the amount of knowledge now doubles every five years. At the same time, the shelf life of knowledge will decline rapidly. I think it indicative, in a recent study, that US publications cited in the patent rolls in 1975 were eight years old on average, but only six and a half years old on average 10 years later.

The whole concept of education will shift as a result of this knowledge intensification, and this will have a fundamental influence on universities. The increasing importance of learning throughout the course of one's working life will play an important role.

Already, I think we are seeing the knowledge-intensive economy replacing the work-intensive and the capital-intensive economies. As a result, academia is gaining a progressively stronger influence on society. The Dutch Government is one of those to have already stressed the importance of academia to society, remarking in one paper:

"Today we are witnessing waves of important discoveries. They are so significant that some people even compare them to those of the first industrial revolution."

This has become now a leading idea in European Union policy-making. The influence of scholarship on civilization is expressed very recognizably in the influence of technology on civilization. The IRDAC report, "Skill shortages in Europe," published in 1990, goes into this in great detail. Many other writers have also stressed this. In the United States, the Clinton-Gore administration has sought to stimulate the development of a national information structure. The intensification of scholarship pervades all stages of the academic process in some regions.

The Power of Technology
The knowledge-intensification of science and scholarship will increase technology's capacity to distribute and develop knowledge. Without wishing to become involved in any Azimov-type speculation here, it would not appear, to my mind, to be an unreasonable claim that during the next 50 years unbelievable developments in the area of artificial intelligence technology will take place. We should certainly not underestimate the consequences of this for both scholarship and society. Much depends, therefore, on the question of how quickly we can achieve a better understanding of what intelligence actually is. But rather than plunging wholeheartedly into this classic philosophical debate, I shall restrict myself to making a few general points:

First, it is important to remember that the future does not begin at any specific moment. There are always processes and developments. Think of the increasingly technological society in which we live. The first PCs came onto the market only in the late 1970s, only a blink in history's eye. Now we could not live without them. If computers were suddenly made illegal, civilization would collapse in a single day.

Second, consider the so-called "thinking machine." Raymond Kurzweil of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has written a thoroughly admirable book, Intelligent Machines, to which Marvin Minsky, Daniel C. Dennett and Douglas R. Hofstadter also contributed. Kurzweil piles prediction upon prediction. He expects that by the turn of the century there will be "telephones answered by an intelligent telephone answering machine" and "speech-to-text machines which translate speech into a visual context for the deaf."

Kurzweil's vision of the teacher's future is interesting: one in which "computers dominate the educational environment (and) courseware is intelligent enough to understand and correct the inaccuracies in the conceptual model of the student." Kurzweil also predict that, in the long run, or between 2020 and 2070, there will be a truly intelligent machine. In technical jargon, this would be a machine, which passes the Turing test, and therefore achieves the level of human intelligence.

The thinking machine therefore no longer belongs to the realm of the imagination. In fact we see them around us already. Super computers scan and analyse the heavens and medical research is no longer conceivable without high-tech apparatus. Interactive videodisks and other educational tools are being rapidly developed.

Artificial intelligence is on the rise, just like virtual reality. It would not surprise me at all - in fact, I think it likely - that in a few decades we will have artificial intelligence that not only conducts a large amount of independent research, but also simultaneously decides what should be done with the results, that both collects and distributes knowledge independently.

Ultimately, the most important factors in the future of the university are flows of knowledge, which develop themselves and interlock. In other words, self-developing knowledge systems. It is more than 10 years since Patrick Winston, also from MIT, proclaimed the idea that you can never obtain from a machine more than you put into it. That notion seems already to have been superseded.

The prospect of self-developing knowledge systems might be a little frightening - and I haven't even mentioned biological knowledge systems. But this is not a simple question of whether man will be outstripped by machines. Human knowledge and insight will, in my opinion, develop further during the coming decades, which means that it is not really a case of thinking in terms of winners and losers. One thing people will do, at any rate, is concentrate more on directing and mastering the flows of knowledge. This will require techniques beyond anything we now know, far more complex than the Knowledge Engineering I have just discussed.

Knowledge is ultimately the most important raw material, and it is, at any rate, the only one, which can be continuously enriched. It is the most important thing which man is capable of adding to nature. Or, to paraphrase Descartes: "We think, therefore we are."

Return to the top

Wiring Environmental Education

By Norman Longworth

One of the most fruitful encounters on the road to sustainable development could be between the computer and environmental education. The computer has a demonstrated ability to present vividly the multidimensionality of ecological interactions. And any hope of a massive restructuring of consumer behaviour would seem to rest ultimately on education.

Because of growing environmental concern, there will likely be a worldwide increase in demand for environmental education. In meeting that challenge, the use of information technology as flexible and innovative tools of learning could be vital. It could be immediately useful in helping to knit together more closely efforts at environmental education now under way. The European academic community, for example, has fostered a number of cooperative efforts at environmental education; this is an endeavour in which the new UNU Rector, Hans van Ginkel, was particularly active in his previous post at Utrecht University.

In the following article, Norman Longworth of the University of Southampton, UK, examines some of the issues at stake. He is a member of Southampton's Geodata Unit, recognized for its innovative use of computer programmes in environmental learning. The article is excerpted from a paper he wrote for Higher Education Policy, the journal of the International Association of Universities. - Editor

As a matter of long-term survival, we should be deeply committed to increasing public knowledge of the environmental sciences through effective educational and other programmes. The problem is immediate, and needs to be implemented to present generations in industry and the community, as well as to future generations in universities and schools.

Information technology is already highly active in monitoring, managing, digitizing, recording, analysing, communicating and synthesizing environmental affairs. By the same token, information technology has long been established as a potential tool for the development and dissemination of education. While the analogy is not an exact one, it is nevertheless useful to look at the ways in which it can be used in very real and exciting ways to satisfy the new imperative of environmental education in the 1990s. The use of information technology in environmental education is increasingly important in view of:

  • - the fact that there is an urgent need for a mass environmental education programme reaching many millions of people - a task which can only be performed using open and distance learning methods with information technology tools; and

  • - the increasingly versatile capacities of these information technology tools and techniques to improve interaction, enhance personal involvement and solve environmental problems.
The role of the university in promoting such use is obvious. It has the equipment and the expertise to make it happen, and the links to encourage people to participate in the protection of their own environment.

Networking: Power of Ideas One important area for universities is networking. Networks are nothing new. People networks have existed for centuries between human beings of like mind, business or objective. They are examples of the power of ideas to progress through common concerns into affirmative responses.

The addition of an electronic component through which messages, concepts, responses, information and debate can be traded easily, quickly and inexpensively represents a huge increase of network capability.

Certainly, electronic networks represent a breakthrough in education as a whole - and their positive impact on learning motivation is well documented. Environmental education can be enhanced at all levels through the use of networks. Consider the following possibilities:

1. Networks of scientists working on environmental problems. Many of these are, of course, already in touch with each other through their own scientific networks. Their availability to educational networks - if properly monitored - could make them a very valuable resource for teaching, learning and material development. They could even be used to bring eminent scientists more directly into the teaching and learning process.

2. Networks of education and curriculum developers worldwide. Through like-minded centres, for example, which assess needs for the region in which they operate, the collaborative development and testing of courses and materials would be a great boon. The electronic facilities would be used for distribution of course modules, ideas for new courses, assessment of needs and much else.

3. Networks of teacher training institutions in universities and colleges. For pre-service and in-service training of teachers in schools, for the development and testing of materials locally, for accessing the information needed to create new courses, and for the exploration of cultural differences. There is great value in being able to perform such tasks over days rather than months.

4. Networks of schools, universities and industrial training establishments. There could be many benefits in sharing access to environmental data and research and being able to combine in practical participation projects on environmental subjects - locally, nationally and/or internationally.

Access to Databases Networks can also be used to give access to environmental databases which abound in many places. (See pages 18-19 for article on UNU's environmental databases. - Editor). In purely educational terms, databases represent one of the frontier posts in the development of discovery techniques of learning (I do, and I understand). In environmental education, there are perhaps three ways in which databases could be valuable:

1. As accessible resources to underpin strategic teaching and learning - in which the data are made available to the learner, and it is the learner's task, assisted by the teacher, to make the right scientific inferences from the information available. This is often a skill which is neglected in both schools and universities. At Southampton, we have been using such techniques, drawing on data available at our CERES project to establish an infrastructure to make the UNEP-GRID global monitoring information available to education in Europe.

2. As teaching and learning strategies in which the database is itself built up by the learner, either by original observation or through secondary data. This is an opportunity to impart information-handling skills right from the collection stage through storage, analysis and dissemination.

3. Much more difficult to implement is the technique of using the database as a teaching tool in its own right. This means initially mastering the access software to the right data at the right time for the right purpose. Also involved is incorporating additional learning software into the database.

Hypermedia: New Teaching Tool The use of the personal computer (PC) as a teaching machine has opened up fresh possibilities, particularly in new hardware and software developments. At Southampton, for example, we have been able to incorporate hypermedia - a recent development in software - into the database. Hypermedia is an improvement on presentation techniques from computer-assisted learning (CAL) software, which itself has not been widely used. It has the facility of presenting new information and concepts as hierarchies to be called up as required, the facility to flip in and out of the mainstream programme. Probably most important, hypermedia has the ability to present graphic material, digitized and motion pictures or maps and diagrams on the screen.

An example is the "water programme," developed at Southampton's I.T. CERES Centre. Learners are asked to build up, on their screens, a diagram of the processes though which water goes from river to tap. At any time in the programme, the students have available the stages of the diagram completed to date, digitized and labeled pictures of each stage, pictures of the purity of water at each stage, and an examination to be taken to pre- and post-test understanding of the subject matter. Such versatility had not existed before outside a large mainframe computer.

There is obvious scope for expanding the use of hypermedia to explore relationships between issues, systems and ideas - for example, to build up a picture of the connections between the build-up of greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, pollution control measures, etc. with pictorial, diagrammatic and textual back-up in a way that is easily understandable and manipulable by the learner.

Many of the major manufacturers are now marketing powerful tools for the creation of self-learning programmes for the training market. These are an extension of the hypermedia approach allied to videodisk and other external education storage devices and offer simplified programming techniques accessible to a wider range of education developers. It all presages a future for open learning flexibility which may hopefully overcome the inherent resistances to new approaches to learning.

It is evident that the development of environmental education is a global need which should be satisfied using local, national and international action. The use of networks, databases, software and open/distance learning systems are key tools for evolving new strategies for developing information technology. The coordination of the educational effort is essential to the effective use of valuable and scarce resources.

There is a need for a network of centres which can satisfy such needs, and which can communicate its products and services to a wider audience - including industry, education, government and professional associations. There is an equally great need for the implementation of a wide vision which encompasses the global opportunity and meets the twin educational challenges of promoting environmental awareness through information technology capability. It is the higher education system, working in cooperation with others, which should make it all happen.

Information Technology: Panacea or Peril?

By Paulo Rodrigues Pereira

So great are the changes promised by advances in information technology that we run the risk of seeing some sort of New Jerusalem - offering a better life to all in a world vision of human solidarity. Better products, lower costs, more jobs, more creative ways to handle our money, lower energy consumption, smarter farming. Even, some would argue, an improvement in international relations!

The list is long and enticing. But as Paulo Rodrigues Pereira points out here, there are also many perils lurking - chiefly economic ones - for the Third World planner. The very thing that has made the developing countries appealing to international business - a inexpensive labour supply - may come to work against it in the information age. Offshore production could drop sharply as the on-shore electronic devices that manage foreign assembly lines grows ever more sophisticated and costly. Investment funds may stay home where the know-how (and the value) is. More and more, firms in industrialized countries may find that the kind of worker they need most is right there at home, not thousands of miles across the world in a politically unstable climate, and well out of the market "loop." Mainly missing in the developing countries is the ability to handle sophisticated information systems that introduce efficiencies up and down the line, from the factory floor to the showroom model.

Some argue that this may be the moment for the less developed to participate in the fashioning of the new skills and technologies, jumping in while others are still learning. But Professor Rodrigues Pereira, a former Assistant Director for Scientific and Technological Cooperation at Digibras, the Brazilian state enterprise for computer science development, is not sanguine on this - many levels of education and skill still need to be added for the developing countries to participate fully in the information revolution. The excerpt is taken from his chapter, "New technologies: opportunities and threats," in the UNU volume, The Uncertain Quest: Science, Technology, and Development, published in 1994. - Editor Information technology - defined as the convergence of electronics, computing, and telecommunications - has unleashed a tidal wave of technological innovation in the collecting, storing, processing, transmission and presentation of information. This has not only transformed the sector itself into a highly dynamic and expanding field of activity, creating new markets and generating new investment, income, and jobs. It has also provided other sectors in the economy with more rapid and efficient mechanisms for responding to shifts in demand patterns and changes in international comparative advantages, through more efficient production processes and new and improved products and services.

The improvements range across industries: replacing mechanical and electromechanical components, upgrading traditional products by creating new product functions, incorporating skills and functions into equipment, automating routine work, and making technical, professional or financial services more transportable. Due to scientific and technological breakthroughs in transistors, semiconductors, and integrated circuits or "chips," micro-electronics is affecting every other branch of the economy - in terms of both its present and future employment and skill requirements and in future market prospects.

Its introduction has resulted in a drastic fall in costs as well as dramatically improved technical performance both within the electronics industry and outside it. The continuous rise in the number of features on a single micro-electronic chip has led to a number of benefits: lower assembly costs for electronic equipment, as each chip replaces many discrete components; faster switching speeds and thus faster and more powerful computers; and more reliable, smaller, and lighter equipment, with fewer interconnections, less power and material.

All sectors of the economy have been influenced by this. Information technology opens up greater opportunities for the exploitation of economies of scale and scope, and it allows more flexible production and use of labour and equipment. It promotes the inter-nationalization of production and markets, offers greater mobility and flexibility in capital and financial flows and services, and is frequently the precondition for the creation of innovative financial instruments.

Information system developments are constantly being applied to increase the productivity, quality and efficiency of finance, banking, business management and public administration. In manufacturing, and to some extent in agriculture, many processes have been automated, some requiring highly flexible, self-regulating machines, or robots. The engineering industry has been transformed by computer-aided design and three-dimensional computerized screen displays.

New Interdependencies
The pace of technological change in information technology will most likely accelerate the already observable growth in the interdependence of international relations - not just economic or financial, but also political and cultural. National economies have become more susceptible to the effects of policy decisions taken at the international level, and domestic economic measures are having increased impacts on economic policies of other countries. World markets for the consumption of similar goods are growing, and so are common lifestyles across national borders.

The advance of telecommunications and computerization has recently enabled large companies to use information systems to transmit technical and economic information among numerous computer systems at different geographical locations, subjecting widely dispersed industrial plants to direct managerial control from a central location. This affects the international division of labour and production and international trade, changing the patterns of industrial ownership and control, altering the competitive standing of individual countries, and creating new trading partners.

It is the integration of functions that confers on information technology its ability to integrate previously separate production functions. This is more than simply the substitution of new technologies for old. Information technology offers the opportunity for completely new ways of working through systems integration. It is not a matter of simply applying one item of new technology to each of the production functions now performed at distinct stages of the production process. The new technology offers rather the possibility of creating whole new "loops": linking, for example, design to production, planning to marketing, and production to distribution. Manufacturing equipment can respond to design codes, computer aids and databases, sensing and collecting changing market trends, orders and commissions. These all can be automatically incorporated into the production process.

Implications for the Third World
Thus, far-reaching changes in the trajectories of electronic, computer, and telecommunication technologies are converging and offering a range of new technological options to virtually all branches of the economy. This has significant implications for the way it will affect the societies and economies of developing countries. The potential impacts - both positive and negative - is a matter of great controversy among economists and politicians.

The main short-term issues usually discussed are the potential erosion of the comparative advantages of low labour costs, particularly in relation to assembly facilities, and the effects of automation, particularly on internal markets and international competitiveness.

The first direct effect of the micro-electronics revolution was the location of production for export in third world countries. While production of mainframe computers continued to be located largely in industrial countries, production of smaller computers and of micro-electronic devices, more subject to price competition, was shifted to low-wage locations, mainly in East Asia, where countries presented low wage costs as well as political stability, a docile labour force, and government incentives.

Now, however, the automation of production is beginning to decrease the relative importance of labour-intensive manufacturing and cost of labour, thereby eroding the competitiveness of low labour costs. For example, automation led to a sharp decrease in the difference between manufacturing costs of electronic devices in the United States and Hong Kong. In manual processes, manufacturing costs were three times higher in the United States. The introduction of semi-automatic processes made the difference practically disappear. Equally, the expansion of automation in Japan has contributed to a reduction of Japanese investments in the Asia/Pacific region in firms in electronics, assembly parts and textiles.

The trend to increasing systems optimization and integration is most likely to induce large producers in industrialized countries to bring back a significant share of their production located in developing countries - so-called "offshore production." This movement has been called "comparative advantage reversal."

As integration increases, with functions previously obtained by assembling pieces being incorporated in the electronic components themselves, value-added is pushed out of assembly processes into the components themselves and upwards toward servicing. In addition, the growing technological complexity of electronic devices increases the value of the parts manufactured by firms located in industrialized countries. The amount of value-added obtained in offshore assembly has thus been constantly decreasing.

Global factories constructed in locations of least cost, often at a considerable distance from final markets, were economically worthwhile because labour was one of the major determinants of cost. Technology and rapid responsiveness to volatile local markets, however, are becoming more important components of competitiveness. Machines and equipment can now be programmed to adapt to obsolescence. All this has led to a concentration of manufacturing investment in capital-intensive flexible manufacturing, further adding to the erosion of the comparative advantages of developing countries.

The assembly of systems will probably continue in some developing countries that have adopted protective legislation for local production targeted at particular market segments - as, for instance, in Brazil. This is changing very rapidly, however. The kinds of equipment produced under these circumstances are used largely in internal markets, and hardly competitive on the international level. Such equipment tends to be far more expensive than comparable equipment available abroad, and more costly to use due to expensive auxiliary installations, under-use and lack of management skills. Nevertheless, it may at least provide the country with the capacity to follow the development of information technologies more closely.

The introduction of micro-electronics requires certain new skills of design, maintenance, and management, as well as complementary infrastructural facilities - such as reliable telephone systems and power supplies. Deficiencies here prevent the widespread adoption of information technology in developing countries.

The more advanced developing countries, with a wider base of skills and infrastructure, and a more flexible labour force, may be in a better position to adopt information technology and to increase their productivity and their international competitiveness. But the less developed countries, with inadequate skills and infrastructure, low labour productivity, and lack of capital resources, will find it difficult to adopt the new technologies; they are likely to suffer a deterioration in international competitiveness, vis-a-vis both industrialized and the more advanced developing countries.

Systems and Innovation: Key to Profit
Quality, too, requires an adequate level of skills, infrastructure and managerial know-how that is generally lacking in developing countries. This greatly reduces the synergies, number of options, faster responses, and more informed decisions that can be implemented in the firm by the optimization of the systems performance. In turn, the composition of the labour force existing within industrialized country firm will further improve their systems performance, and further reinforce the advantage derived from automation. The proportion of the labour force employed in production is constantly decreasing in the industrialized countries, implying that performances at the systems level and innovation, not manufacturing, are becoming the keys to profit, growth and survival.

Like biotechnology, information technology is a proprietary technology. Vital technical information on design engineering specification, process know-how, testing procedures, etc. are covered by patents or copyrights or are as closely held as trade secrets within various electronic firms from industrialized countries. Many companies in the software area do not patent or copyright their products because it entails disclosing valuable information. Firms are generally reluctant to license the more recent and advanced technologies.

This means that technology transfer takes place mainly among established or important producers, hindering the access to developing countries. Moreover, the main issue is not so much access to a particular technology as it is to the process of technological change, because of the dynamism of this process. Recent trends in inter-firm relationships seem to indicate that this access takes place essentially through the participation in the equity of the company holding the technology. The possibility of firms from developing countries doing this is small.

The general tendency thus points to a widening of the information technology gap, both between industrialized and developing countries and within developing countries. From a purely quantitative standpoint, there remain large gaps in the access to information in the world, showing that the diffusion of information technology in developing countries is still in an embryonic stage.

Only a small proportion of the world's computers are located in developing countries. The Third World so far has mainly used computers for more standard functions, such as inventory control, accounting, and payroll. The situation is not very different from the qualitative standpoint. The process of "information" of society is one in which greater amounts of knowledge and information are incorporated into goods and services. Knowledge and information are sources of wealth creation and value-added in their own right: as their amount increases, the amount of energy, materials, labour, and capital decreases. The concentration of knowledge and information-intensive in the industrialized countries is per se a further barrier to efforts to reduce the information technology gap between industrialized and developing countries.

There is, to be sure, an alternative "reading" of this evidence. Some commentators see information technology as a powerful new opportunity for at least some developing countries to improve their competitive position in certain fields and to foster their development precisely because of their relative lack of established industrial infrastructure. They have fewer institutional barriers to the adoption of advanced systems based on information technology. But this school of thought, in my view, minimizes the fact that in practice, information technology is still a "black box" technology for most users in developing countries, requiring new skills to operate, to repair, and even to purchase. This is particularly so in its integrated form, where its fullest benefits emerge.

Return to the top

Finding the Right Blend

By Ajit Bhalla

Surely one of the most important responsibilities the technological planner faces today is choice. New software, new networking tools, new efficiencies come on the market with disconcerting speed. The bewildering blur goes to the heart of a crucial development dilemma today examined here by Ajit Bhalla: What is the proper mix of technologies? How much of the new to adopt? How much old to jettison? Picking wrong can spell disaster for the country - as one African nation discovered in the 1970s when a choice in computing system caused the whole national budgeting process to grind to a halt.

In the early development decades, the vote was invariably for the biggest, the shiniest and the most advanced, often a regrettable choice. Today, the need is to widen the set of technological options - with one intriguing choice being that of "technology blending." Dr. Bhalla, an Indian economist who has taught in Delhi, Yale and Oxford, is Chief, Technology and Employment Division, ILO, Geneva. The following is excerpted from his chapter in the UNU volume, The Uncertain Quest. - Editor

The emergence of new technologies in the early 1980s first produced doomsday scenarios predicting unprecedented negative employment effects and social evils pervading the entire economies and societies of industrialized countries. Very soon, however, it was realized that the pace at which new technological breakthroughs were expected did not really materialize, partly owing to economic recession and resulting sluggishness of demand, and partly to a shortage of new types of polyvalent skills required. It was perhaps also due to the inertia of conventional styles of management as well as the ignorance of policy makers about the potential benefits of new technologies.

The new technologies are heavily dependent on scientific research and development, which explains why, with few exceptions, most of the production of these technologies is concentrated in the industrialized countries. The enormous investments required are simply beyond the capacity of most developing countries. Apart from capital investments, the human resources required - scientists and engineers, systems analysts and multi-skilled technicians - are often not available in developing countries. For these reasons, the new technologies are concentrated in and controlled by big multinational corporations with enormous resources and organization.

Some empirical knowledge on the impact of new technologies has now been accumulated. Three sets of studies may be noted: global or "synthetic" studies, sectoral investigations, and micro analyses. Much of the work is of a micro nature.

Despite the initial fears of massive unemployment due to the use of micro-electronics-based technologies, the limited experience of both industrialized and developing countries shows that the impact of these technologies on direct and indirect employment may in fact have been marginally positive. The pessimistic predictions did not come true partly because of the economic recession. Furthermore, while the new technologies may displace labour in old activities, they generate additional demand for labour by creating new goods and services.

But one thing is clear from our present inadequate state of knowledge: the micro-electronics-based technologies are bound to affect not only the quantity of employment, occupation composition, and the labour market but also its quality - in terms of flexible types of employment, shorter working hours, home-based work, and quality of working life.

The new technological revolution is also likely to have a tremendous potential influence on the distribution of income within and between countries. Yet empirical evidence of the nature of these distributional implications is even more sparse than their employment implications.

For example, little is known about the effects of micro-electronics technologies on the distributions of incomes, on the distribution between producers and consumers and between producers and workers. Also it is not clear whether the effects of micro-electronics on income distribution will be different from those of the Green Revolution. It has been argued that micro-electronics will probably have a greater impact on products than the Green Revolution did, and that the bias is likely to be weighted in favour of larger producers and multinational corporations. In the case of consumers, the gains may accrue mainly to the rich consumers in developing countries who can more easily afford the products incorporating micro-electronics (e.g. watches, clocks, passenger cars). However, there has been little empirical testing of these hypotheses.

The new technologies will clearly exert a significant influence on the developing countries, both directly and indirectly:

Directly, with increasing globalization of production and international competition, the export-oriented countries will be compelled to use new technologies to compete with the industrialized countries. The increasing production and use of new technologies in the industrialized countries is likely to widen the already serious technological gaps between countries. The fear of being left behind is likely to put pressures on developing countries to make a selective start with the use of new technologies.

Indirectly, the use of new materials and new biotechnologies in the industrialized countries is already hurting the exports of primary materials and commodities from the developing countries. They have little control or influence on the "dematerialization of production" and the substitution of new for old commodities taking place in the industrialized countries.

Advantages of "Leap-frogging"
As latecomers, developing countries may be able to take advantage of new technologies to "leap-frog" from manual methods directly to flexible manufacturing systems. However, leap-frogging presupposes the existence in these countries of organizational and innovation capabilities to produce new products through the use of high technology. It also assumes that the developing countries possess technological capability at a sufficiently high level to assimilate the high technology efficiently.

Yet few advanced developing countries meet these prerequisites. The majority of developing countries are at an early stage of industrialization, with small industrial sectors. For these countries, the usefulness of new technologies would not be for material industrial development. They would be immensely useful, however, in the development of human capabilities through, say, the application of microcomputers for the delivery of health services to rural areas or the use of computers in education. New technologies could, for example, raise the efficiency of the traditional education system and permit training outside the school system.

Blending - Retain the Old
In the majority of developing countries, the greatest potential for new technologies is probably though so-called "technology blending" - a combination of new and traditional technologies without destroying the old. This concept of blending was introduced in 1983-84, and the idea originated from the growing recognition that the benefits of modern science and technology in the developing countries had not trickled down to the rural and the urban poor.

In most developing countries, despite the availability of advanced technologies, age-old low-productivity techniques continue to be used. The key question is: can the application of new technologies to traditional activities lead to a process of gradual modernization rather than displacement?

But is technology blending just another name for appropriate technology - the concept that so fascinated development thinkers in the 1970s? Like appropriate technology, the blending concept does not refer to a choice from among an existing techniques but rather to the development of new ones that would be more suited to the needs of the poor developing countries.

While the concept of appropriate technology refers mainly to incremental innovation, blending implies a quantum leap on the part of developing countries that do not have to go through all the stages followed by the technological leaders of today. The scope for leap-frogging is potentially enormous.

Technology blending may be best analysed in terms of the objectives sought and the characteristics of the new technological variant. The objective is simple enough: to bring the benefits of the new technology revolution to bear on improving the standards of living of the rural and urban poor. To some extent this aim determines the required characteristics of technology blending.

As a general rule, two extremes can be envisaged. At one extreme, a technology blend would reflect almost entirely the characteristics of the new technology. At the other extreme, the blend would largely reflect the traditional method. In practice, acceptability of technology blends for the rural and urban poor can be ensured if their characteristics are not too far removed from those of traditional technology.

As the rural and urban poor lack purchasing power (their incomes are generally far below average), it is clear that the technology blends cannot be too expensive, demanding cash outlays that are beyond the reach of their intended targets. In the initial stages, diffusion of new technologies to rural areas may have to be subsidized in the same way as were the agricultural inputs during the Green Revolution. The blends should also be easily comprehensible, easy to maintain and repair.

Whatever the blending possibilities, it seems clear that, for the foreseeable future, the new technological component of this scenario will continued to be produced mostly in the industrialized countries. We may also see wider gaps begin to open up among the developing countries themselves - with the newly industrialized nations, for example, surging even further ahead. A growing divergence of Third World interests may be explained in the future partly in terms of the technological factor. This underlines the degree to which technological capability building and choice has become a major element in development debate.

Return to the top

Organizing for Growth...

By W. Edward Steinmueller and Maria-Ines Bastos

One of the great economic puzzlers of our age is why the vast expenditures on information and computer technologies have not yet been reflected more clearly in productivity statistics. Robert Solow, the Nobel Prize laureate who largely created modern growth theory, has said that "we see information technology everywhere but in the numbers." The debate rages between those who see the world on the brink of a new golden age of prosperity and those who predict economic disaster.

In the following article, W. Edward Steinmueller and Maria-Ines Bastos examine the ways in which the new technologies (semiconductors, computers, software and telecommunications) are impacting on economic growth, both in the advanced industrial societies and in the Third World. They stress in particular the importance of new ways of organizing production if we are to take full advantage of modern information and communications techniques. A major problem is dealing with existing networks, both social and technological, which resist reform in the workplace.

Professor Steinmueller is on the faculty of the University of Limburg; Ms. Bastos is on the staff of the UNU's Institute for New Technologies (UNU/INTECH) in Maastricht in the Netherlands. This selection is excerpted from their 1995 paper for the Global Forum on Industry Perspectives for 2000 and Beyond, organized by UNIDO in cooperation with the Government of India. - Editor

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been heralded as the foundations for a new industrial order. The enormous scale of current investment in these technologies - across a broad span of countries in various stages of development - indicate that this belief is shared by developed and most developing nations. It is reputably estimated that in 1993 alone, the major and emerging economies together spend something approaching $750 billion in this field. What do these technologies promise that has attracted such a level of investment? Have these promises been kept, or will they be, sometime soon?

In the last two centuries, economies throughout the developed world have been able to achieve higher levels of sustained economic growth by transferring agricultural to industrial labour through the use of fossil fuels for motive power, the improvement of mechanically based technologies of mass production, and the establishment of new forms of social organization - a primary example being the factory. The basis for this sustained growth was the realization of much higher productivity in industry than had been possible in agriculture.... Agriculture itself was transformed beginning in the 19th century through the use of fossil fuels, originally for transportation, and subsequently for uses such as irrigation, and chemical fertilizer.

In the advanced industrial nations, most of these gains had been realized by the first half of the 20th century. The developing nations, for many reasons, have experienced difficulties in fully entering this process.

The promise of information and communication technologies for addressing manufacturing productivity in developing nations is that substantial advances would allow expansion of industrial output. If large enough this could substantially influence the creation of employment and the creation of wealth. Because ICTs are often labour-saving, a large increase in output is necessary to raise the derived demand for labour - otherwise their impact may be the negative one of reducing the need for labour.

This promise is partially supported by observed technical progress, much of it the direct result of the application of materials science to the production of modern information and communications technologies. The earliest, and still the most important of these applications, is the use of semiconductors for the production of computers, telecommunications equipment and related electronic devices.

Productivity gains from the use of information technologies involve improved control within individual production processes, smoother integration of individual processes, and better control in the acquisition of inputs and the disposition of outputs. Communication technologies are particularly important in coordination - for example, in relaying detailed information about inventories and scheduling throughout a distribution system. Productivity gains are realized through cost-reduction, with reduction in material inputs, labour and capital. Labour saving is a principle source of cost-reduction.

ICTs can also play a role in compensating for particular deficiencies in market infrastructure. A truck driver stranded in a traffic jam, for instance, can notify the destination of the delay using a cellular phone and identify alternative routes using local radio communication. Even better, all of this information can be coordinated through a sophisticated logistical control network.

We caution, however, that widespread deployment of these technologies, without organizational change, is unlikely to reproduce the sorts of historical productivity advances experienced in the last century. It does little good for the truck driver to notify the destination of delay unless this message can be transmitted to the shop floor in a way that alters the composition of work activities. This presumes a high degree of flexibility and ease of "reconfiguration" of production processes and tasks.

Our simple example of the truck driver is only an illustration of a very large class of specific actions within the social and technological networks that comprise the modern manufacturing organization. Most of these networks have evolved for several human generations and are not amendable to rapid alteration or reconfiguration. This is the essence of the problem of reforming manufacturing organizations to fully exploit the productivity potentials of information and communication technologies.

Information Use in Services
The second trend underlying the claim that these new technologies are tools for economic growth focuses on the "service sector." This encompasses an enormous range of activities, ranging from professional services like medicine to personal services such as hair stylists. Trying to register the historical gains in manufacturing productivity within the service sector has proven to be a much for intractable problem.

Information and communication technologies have been seen as an important solution to this problem. The hope is that they will produce productivity gains that match or exceed those historically experienced in manufacturing technologies. This would make it possible to indefinitely sustain overall economic growth and improved productivity, as a growing share of output is being produced in service sectors.

The possibility of indefinite growth in the service sector is encouraging for both industrialized and developing economies. For the advanced countries, a larger share of output in services is consistent with increasing investments in human capital as well as the dispersal if industrial activities to reduce localized environmental problems. The growth of services can also provide domestic growth opportunities that can absorb labour displaced by productivity improvements in agriculture and industry.

Such opportunities, moreover, are less challenged by imports from abroad. The use of information technologies, for example, can create a domestic demand for software and systems engineering services, creating better paying jobs than many other service occupations.

The corresponding challenge for developing countries is to find ways to upgrade the value and quality of services so that service sectors employees experience increasing wages over time. Doing this, of course, requires improvements in the productivity of the service sector.

Thus both developed and developing nations face a common challenge in finding ways to improve service sector productivity. But, we stress again that it is the issue of organizational change that provides a fundamental barrier to translating new technological advances into productivity gains. Implementing the organizational changes that would permit ICTs to have the same productivity impact in services that previous organizational shifts had in manufacturing has proven a very difficult task - for several reasons.

First, in the service sector, mass production is the exception rather than the rule. This makes it difficult to engineer information and communications solutions that can be applied across a range of service activities. Second, these technologies are often used in the service sector to develop new products, removing them even further from the mass production and consumption model. In financial services, for example, it is true that ICTs support economies of scale in transaction processing. But at the same time, they also permit the creation of many new services of an individually tailored nature.

The service sector might seem of lesser importance to the developing nations, where the first priority is to increase manufacturing productivity, and thereby stimulate other economic activities. Moreover the chief contribution of information technologies is often to reduce the number of workers. Most services in the developing countries are personal services; few opportunities exist to absorb the available labour. While there is some truth to these arguments, they are also misleading.

Firstly, in developing countries, governments often absorb relatively large shares of national output - most government activity involves delivery of services. Improving government productivity could free resources for private investment.

Secondly, services are often close complements to manufacturing. The effectiveness of the retail and distribution sector influences manufacturing by providing more efficient market outlets.

Harmonizing Global Production
Third, developing nations are increasingly faced with the problems of harmonizing their production systems with computer-driven systems in the more advanced economies - in order to serve as suppliers and sub-contractors in an increasingly global division of labour. This process of harmonization requires adoption of new information technology not only at the "service" levels of the firms - the front office and communications links to developed nation supplies - but also within the production process to control quality and scheduling in ways that are consistent with customer demands.

Many of these harmonization problems are reflected in demands for services. Without extensive use of ICTs, these can become barriers rather than complements to improved international trade.

Finally, productivity improvements in both services and manufacturing are worthwhile wherever they may be achieved.

To the extent that these technologies release labour, the problem is to develop other opportunities for their employment rather than lock them into employment patterns where they have low productivity.

On the shop floors and in the offices of modern enterprises of both industrialized and developing nations, ICT use implies forms of organization that are antagonistic to the traditional hierarchical division of labour. Achieving productivity gains from these technologies most often requires restructuring both the organization and the content of labour contribution to economic output.

"Persistent, Incorrect View..."
A persistent and incorrect view of the role of information and communication technologies is that they could be productively employed as direct substitutes for unskilled labour in production activities; managers and designers would then have a more pliant and reliable labour force of automated machines rather than workers. Experience has shown, however, that the information acquisition, filtering and transmitting operations performed by middle managers are often the ones that are bypassed by ICTs - they become redundant at a faster rate than the labourer on the shop floor.

In addition, implementing the new production technologies requires a skilled and flexible labour force that can solve problems on the shop floor independently of the guidance of the industrial designers. Precisely because of these tendencies, the adoption of ICTs is often resisted by the hierarchical structures created by earlier stages of the industrial process.

Developing nations face many of the same basic problems as the advanced countries in the use of ICTs to improve manufacturing productivity. They are further influenced by the pattern of ICT use in the latter nations. As the advanced countries use ICTs to move toward greater levels of outsourcing, the developing nations experience reduced market barriers and are more likely to become suppliers.

To participate in this process, however, developing nation enterprises find it necessary to develop the information links to integrate themselves into supply chains being created for such activities. In addition, as the industrial nations utilize these technologies to improve the level of their manufacturing flexibility, developing countries enterprises face competition that is more difficult to meet. Traditional mass production methods no longer suffice. They are forced to consider also adopting organizational models that reduce hierarchies and more closely link production to market demand.

Our conclusions about the potential contribution of information and communications technologies are based on empirical results from advanced industrial countries. The results from the US experience (which appears to parallel the experience of Europe and Japan) suggest that reproducing the enormous gain in productivity that were achieved in manufacturing over the past century will require far more than the rapid technological progress that has come from the new information technologies. They call for fundamental organizational changes that have only begun to be made. These changes are proceeding at very different speeds and in many different ways among the services and manufacturing industries that intensively use the new technologies. The same uneven development appears to characterize their use in developing countries.

Return to the top

In Latin American Cities... A Chancy Life in Cyberspace

By Alan Gilbert

For the millions of poor peasants newly crammed into already overcrowded cities, of Latin America, life is unpredictable - and made all the more so, argues Alan Gilbert, by the impact of the information revolution. Key decisions affecting daily lives are made elsewhere. The processes of globalization, bolstered by new communications technology, can bring new wealth or suddenly take it away. The computer, the video and the laptop have created high expectations - but carry with them the equal risk of high uncertainty. Professor Gilbert, from the Department of Geography, University College, London, was a coordinator of the UNU project on population, urbanization and development. He is editor of the UNU volume, The Mega-city in Latin America. - Editor The new world of computers and telecommunications - cybergrowth - has greatly facilitated the process of "globalization." For the populations of Latin America's cities, as elsewhere around the globe, this means that many of the key decisions affecting their lives are made elsewhere. Decisions made in the headquarters of a major transnational company lead to jobs being shed in Argentina. Decisions made in the International Monetary Fund offices in Washington D.C. affect the levels of food subsidies in Mexico. A rise in the price of oil, generates taxes for the Government of Venezuela.

As those examples suggest, the effects of globalization on Latin Americans can be either beneficial or harmful. Perhaps this is the main problem. The brief answer to how cybergrowth will influence Latin American cities lies in one word, unpredictably.

In the past, a lower level of dependence on international trade and foreign investment and greater protection against international competition for local industry and agriculture gave a certain autonomy to national governments. The state was able to take decisions that are no longer possible. It is true that a more integrated world economy provides more opportunities for competitive Latin American companies to sell abroad but reduced levels of protection mean that inefficient Latin American companies go out of business. Some cities do very well while others fare rather badly. And, within those cities, some people make fortunes while others lose their jobs and even their pensions.

During the last 30 years the volume of international trade has increased dramatically but the volume of foreign direct investment had grown much faster. Foreign investment has established new manufacturing facilities in formerly far-flung parts of the globe, the expansion of maquila plants on the Mexico-US border being the classic example. Foreign companies have also invested heavily in producer services. The spread of major international hotels, communications, transport, accounting and banking systems has been impressive. Most notable of all has been the expansion of electronic financial transfer systems and the emergence of 24-hour trading practice.

Unfortunately, there has been a downside to the new openness, illustrated dramatically by the events that were triggered in Mexico in December 1994. From paragon of neo-liberal virtue, Mexico's economy changed overnight into a basket case. A combination of guerrilla activity in Chiapas, an increasing balance of payments deficit, a new president with less than deft political touch, and a bungled devaluation caused portfolio funds to flood out of the country. Mexico lost some US$4 billion dollars trying to maintain the value of the peso. The Mexico City stock market dropped in dollar terms by 50 per cent and perhaps a million jobs were lost during 1995.

Globalization meant that the damaging impact of this loss of confidence was not confined to Mexico. The so-called "Tequila effect" hit stock markets and foreign exchange markets throughout the region. In the three weeks after the Mexico peso crisis of December 1994, the São Paulo stock market fell by 34 per cent and that of Buenos Aires by 29 per cent. The new global financial community, with its reliance on the latest communications technology, reacts instantly to any local change in political or economic expectations. Mere hints of a change in interest or exchange rates send billions of dollars cascading around the financial circuits.

Not only the changing rules of the financial system but the whole process of international competitiveness seems to encourage volatility. Comparative advantages tend to be a fleeting phenomenon; one day, Brazil may be producing most of Latin America's cars, the next day it may have lost its competitive edge because of a shift in the external value of the real. Internally, a crisis such as Mexico's can plunge domestic production into turmoil.

Poverty and Inequality
The new international trade regime both creates and destroys domestic jobs. In Mexico, it has created employment along the border with the United States while creating unemployment in Mexico City and Guadalajara. In Colombia, cheap imports from China have undermined the clothing industry of Medellin while creating opportunities for exporters in Bogotá.

In the process of restructuring the labour market, globalization has accentuated already marked levels of inequality, what Mittleman aptly calls a "life is marked by a deepening divide between rich and poor."* The qualified are more likely to get jobs, the unqualified less likely. Newly created "professional" jobs in the largest cities are available only to those with relevant skills. Those lacking university education or technical skills cannot expect to gain access to highly paid forms of employment. The poor, benefit only insofar as these jobs create more work in lower paid activities.

Consumption and the International Demonstration Effect
In Latin America, the desire of most households to become global consumers has been whet by the ubiquitous television set and by the advertising campaigns of international companies. Latin Americans now crave Walkmans, Levi's, Big Macs and visits to Disney World. Unfortunately, the wish to buy "sophisticated" products and services is not the same as the ability to do so. With the value of local currencies often falling spectacularly against the dollar and with real incomes falling in many countries, the masses are frustrated in their desire to buy the new products. Rising levels of crime are possibly one manifestation of that frustration.

Of course, the degree to which Latin American consumption has followed international trends varies considerably from place to place. Tijuana is much more international than La Paz, both because it is on California's doorstep and because it is much more affluent.

The Nature of the State
Globalization has demanded that the Latin American state remove many of the controls that it painstakingly instituted during the phase of import substitution. Liberalization required that governments reform themselves, a shift further encouraged by the drift toward democratic government that occurred in Latin America during the 1980s. Many of these new administrations embraced the ethos of decentralization and participation. They tried to reduce centralized control and give a stronger voice to the majority of the people.

Unfortunately, the combination of economic decline and administrative decentralization did not always improve living standards. Whereas more authority was given to municipal and provincial governments to run services such as water and electricity, few resources came with the new responsibilities. One of the clear advantages of decentralization for central governments is that democratically elected local leaders now take the blame for the non-provision of services.

Globalization has also brought greater competition between cities and regions. Latin American governments have been forced both to make their economies more competitive and to woo foreign investors. In the process, each Latin American city has been restructuring itself in an attempt to make itself more appealing to foreigners, particularly those with high-level business or diplomatic credentials.

If that process is not necessarily harmful to local populations, one form of international salesmanship is. Too often, local authorities are either turning a blind eye when companies pollute the environment or promising to clear up the mess if they do. Again the example, par excellence, comes from the US-Mexico border where the development of maquila plants has produced serious environmental problems.

Political Protest
Despite the fears expressed by some, in practice, I am not sure that there has been any generalized rise in social protest in Latin American cities as a result of globalization. Indeed, for me one of the strangest features of political life in Latin American cities during the 1980s was how placidly most Latin Americans accepted structural adjustment. There were riots in some Brazilian, Mexican, Peruvian and Venezuelan cities but, in general, the poor did not protest a great deal. Indeed, the recent election successes of presidents Cardoso (Brazil), Fujimori (Peru) and Menem (Argentina) suggest that the poor are prepared to reward the instigators of tough macroeconomic policies for removing the "poverty tax" of inflation.

No doubt the global reach of the media produces some kind of international demonstration effect. If they can riot in Caracas why not here in Mexico? But, on the whole, the whole process has met with surprisingly little protest. In the poorest neighbourhoods, the poor have been too busy working longer hours to make up the family budget to protest. Globalization may have created objective conditions under which protest should have appeared, but, so far at least, there are relatively few signs of its having done so.

Most Latin American offices have embraced computers warmly. Many homes have mobile phones, videos, personal stereos, laptops and modems. Whether this has improved the quality of life in Latin American cities is uncertain. What is beyond doubt is that cyberspace has changed them. The globalization that cybergrowth has generated has both offered the potential for improvement and has created grave dangers.

A critical danger is that globalization brings with it both higher expectations and higher uncertainty. Advertising encourages poor families to expect their own car but their jobs may disappear as a result of decisions made in offices thousands of miles away. What is particularly worrying about cyberspace is how quickly decisions are made and their consequences diffused across space. The spectre of what happened in Mexico in 1994 now hangs over Latin America. If a paragon of neoliberal orthodoxy can be turned so quickly into a basket-case, where will disaster strike next? Perhaps this is the greatest danger in the new global era. A botched devaluation, a peasant uprising or the election of a left-wing leader may suddenly hit international confidence. The confidence achieved through years of hardship and economic reform may be swept away in a few days. And, when international confidence is damaged, one can be sure that it will be the poor and the middle class who will pay most of the price. In this age when making money is again regarded as a noble ambition, equity ranks low among the aims of most Latin American governments. Whatever the future holds for Latin America, therefore, it is likely to be less stable and less equitable than in the past. Given Latin America's past record, that hardly constitutes grounds for real optimism.

*J.H. Mittelman, "The globalization challenge: surviving at the margins," Third World Quarterly 15, 427-43, 1994.

Return to the top

"The Only True International Currency"

By Heitor Gurgulino de Souza

During his 10 years as the third Rector of the UNU, Heitor Gurgulino de Souza, a Brazilian educator trained as a physicist, frequently reflected on the role of new information technologies in the development process. The following article is excerpted from various speeches he made during his tenure. He stepped down as Rector in September last year, and was succeeded by Prof. Hans van Ginkel. - Editor

Much of the globe's ills, since the dawn of history, have spun out of humanity's inability to cope with information, the first step in understanding. Indeed, it might be said that to the degree the human species has survived, existence has hinged on the ability of our remote ancestors to sort out that which hurt and that which satisfied - which is to say, new information….

The different actors who play a leading role in the information revolution make for a provocative convergence of some of the key impulses driving and transforming society today - education, basic and applied research, and the management of increasingly sophisticated information systems. These are the people who will have major responsibilities for that vital and intricately wired global switchboard that will be connecting all our daily lives in the 21st century.

In a world as complex and rapidly changing as the present one, access to new knowledge, and the capacity to absorb and make use of it, are essential requirements for all levels of society. Knowledge today controls access to opportunity and advancement. The achievement of sustainable development depends crucially on ability to absorb and utilize vast amounts of new and relevant information. A major part of our efforts are directed to helping the poorer societies improve scientific and technological prowess….

It can sometimes seem a virtually borderless world -J one linked only by electronic "highways to tomorrow," those fabulous freeways of fibre-optic cables, satellites, computerized switching devices, small hand-held cellular phones with computer and fax capacity and incredibly enhanced capacities for storing vast amounts of information.

The education potential in all this can stir the mind and race the blood of the educator looking to expand the mind of the pupil to the broader world. This is particularly so for those in the developing countries who for too long have had to do with overcrowded classrooms, outdated texts and second-rate lab equipment. It is important that we keep in mind that the digital superhighways do not necessarily have access ramps everywhere - at least not yet. We educators need to work to ensure that the knowledge moving up and down these highways is open to all.

New electronic advances could breed even greater disparities between the rich and poor communities, with lack of access to information and technology spawning a tragic new kind of global society - one divided not so much into "haves" and "have nots," but perhaps even more perniciously into "knows" and "know nots," with the latter falling ever more hopelessly behind….

Information is now a commodity to be bought and sold. New products and new markets are constantly being created by the application of new knowledge, giving industry ample motivation to be out on the cutting edge of knowledge, a terrain once thought to be reserved exclusively for the university scientist and scholar on the university campus….

Information flows… may well be the central disturber of our age. (They) directly impinge on human consciousness - arousing as never before new hopes and fears. And while one effect of this has been heighten, sometimes to unrealistic levels, the expectations of the world's poor, the disturber is not necessarily all bad. Some of history's greatest disturbers were those whose new thinking jarred and dislocated old ways, to the ultimate betterment of the human condition.

Probably one of the most ancient of truths is that the human species tends to be wary of new knowledge, particularly when it may uproot and dislodge old comforts and familiarities. This was as unsettling in Galileo's time as it is today. His was an age of new questioning - and so is ours. As his telescope unleashed new heresies, so today do our computers, cellular telephones, videodisks seem to encourage new disturbing forms of intercommunication that leave us slightly uneasy with their implications for our daily privacy.

It has been rightly observed that living along the electronic highways of the late 20th century, you don't need to know everything - indeed to attempt it would be folly in today's fact-crammed world - but you do need to know where to find it. A second imperative follows: you must have free access to that information.

At the United Nations University, we have been giving a good deal of attention to the question of how knowledge is generated in our modern world and where the gaps are which are impeding development. We subscribe to the notion that, in late 20th century terms, true knowledge is information in effective action, focused on results that improve the human condition. Indeed, one could argue, I believe, that the very process of learning and understanding is a central part of our humanity - when that capacity is lessened, so is our capacity as human beings.

I am convinced that higher education - thanks largely to the wonders of the communications revolution - will more and more become a kind of global marketplace where ideas, values and perspectives will be freely traded.

Using the Internet and the World Wide Web, educators will be able to network to an unprecedented degree. Anything less would be a disservice to our students in preparing them to enter the intimate interdependence of the future.

The growing reach of computers, faxes and other communications technology, along with the emergence of a new international social stratum - of scientists, engineers, computer specialists, software developers and others - is cutting across the webs of global interdependence, creating a new interconnectedness all its own.

My academic background is that of a scientist - so I have no difficulty in seeing the immense potential of the computer as a vital scientific tool, capable of absorbing and sorting out vast amounts of raw data. But as an educator, I am also aware of the larger repercussions of such an instrument, and thus we do well to listen to the perspective of the humanist. Like that, for example, of my fellow Latin American, the novelist Carlos Fuentes who has warned that "the greatest crisis facing modern civilization is going to be how to transform information into structured knowledge."

As educators, we must be concerned with how the computer can help, and be a welcome partner in the human endeavour. The computer, it seems clear, has immense potential for improving and enriching the quality of daily lives everywhere. It can digest and make available vast amounts of information - and it can do this in the blink of an electronic eye (much more quickly, in fact, than the time it takes me to tell you the story). In particular, the small personal computer could be an invaluable tool in helping to promote decentralized growth and self-reliance at the regional and village level in developing countries.

But immense new strides in our ability to do something as profoundly central to the human condition as communicate is bound to have its negative implications. We need to be aware that the impact of these miracle communicators, like virtually any technology, can at times be something less than benign.

We must ensure that the information superhighway is open to all. We need to remind ourselves that we exist in a world which is at once part post-industrial and part pre-industrial. Many millions still do not have access to something as basic as a telephone. A computer, a modem and a Web page can seem light years away to the Third World villager.... It is vitally important that the marginalized and impoverished of the global society learn how to make creative use of the new information advances and participate in their development.

When we think, as educators, about what kind of education the 21st century will need, it becomes clear, above all else, that the educated person of tomorrow must be able to retain a global perspective. Which is to say to be ready to value diversity, understand the demands of interdependence, and to be able to adapt to change.

The new electronic communications technologies have the potential to permit contact among the world's educators far beyond anything known in the past. The flood of new information that microelectronic technologies has released is very exciting - but it is bound to sorely test existing traditional educational structures and actors. In addition to schools, a number of different institutions -businesses, government agencies and a range of other entities - some still defining themselves - have become players in the world of ideas and learning.

Prediction is always a risky business - and trying to organize our learning needs around guesses about the future means working within an enormous margin of error. In a rapidly changing global society, hoping to pin down the specifics of what we will need to know 20 years or 40 years down the road is totally unrealistic.

Still, I think one might fairly safely make a few guesses about the coming configurations of international education. I would envision a future world in which educators, of all levels, all cultures, and all parts of the world, engage in a constant and stimulating exchange of ideas and values. Global networking believe, will be the norm in the educational efforts of the 21st century.

It seems to me that our readiness and ability to learn from each other will be key.... What seems clear to me is that knowledge is rapidly becoming the only true international currency. (We) need to mint it cooperatively - for it is a very precious coin.

Return to the top

UNU's Ecological Homepage:

By Glen Paoletto

Modern communications technology now knits together the far corners of the globe in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. It is said that no communication medium in history has ever grown as fast as the Internet. Some sense of the speed of growth of the new information technologies can be gathered by one staggering statistic: worldwide, a new web site - or "homepage" - is created every four seconds.

The UNU recently established a Global Environment Information Centre at the Tokyo Headquarters, in cooperation with the Environment Agency of Japan. The facility has its own homepage on the World Wide Web. Known by its acronym GEIC, the site's rationale arises from recommendations of Agenda 21, the Rio Earth Summit call for action. It houses the environment-related materials of some 1,000 organizations, and acts as a centre for (1) global projects (2 )networking and (3) public information on environmental issues.

In the following article, Glen Paoletto, an environmental specialist of the UNU who has been in charge of developing GEIC, tells of some of the challenges faced in setting up such a facility. His article was prepared specially for Work in Progress. - Editor Technically, a new homepage is not all that difficult to create. All you need is access to a personal computer (PC) a modem (linking your PC to a telephone line) and some knowledge of html (hyper text markup language). But quantity is no substitute for quality. If you have ever "surfed" the World Wide Web (the now familiar "www"), you will know that there are some "good" and "not-so-good" homepages.

For the unitiated, the World Wide Web is a system that lets the user travel around the world electronically, looking for information. It uses "hypertext," which lets you jump from place to place in a document, using linked, highlighted words. The user follows a trail of linked words - you select a topic that interests you, and view related information that is keyed within your selection.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for creating a homepage - a lot of learning is done through actual hands-on interaction, looking at other peoples' homepages, taking mental note of what is useful and what is not.

The UNU's Global Environment Information Centre (GEIC) opened at the UNU Headquarters building in late 1996 and is still learning the ropes of interaction through the Internet. It is a joint effort with the Environmental Agency of Japan, which has added its widely recognized strengths to the implementation of the GEIC programme.

Developing a good homepage for the sort of diverse, worldwide audience that might be interested in global environmental data has been particularly challenging. Initially the GEIC's homepage has four databases. One - a kind of ecological "Web Master" - provides linkages to other environmental information on the Internet. A second is a global network providing data about natural disaster and risk management. A third includes information from the UNU chemical monitoring project in East Asia, which is analysing hazardous substances from land-based sources. A fourth provides environmental information supplied by UNU's small island network.

Your Face to the World
The best homepages, I have found, always convey elements of human interest to the user. The first step in creating a homepage is to identify your target audience - and then go on to create an information package appealing to that audience. Your homepage is your face to the world. One of the most difficult things to do is to step outside of your homepage, and look at it critically through different eyes.

Some general rules: the Web site should be complementary to and reflective of what you are actually doing, and focus on the benefits the user can derive from the site. It should be prepared for requests that can challenge your organizational and geographic limits. The homepage should be stylistically simple. Access should be quick and easy, with information downloadable anywhere, even in places with underpowered equipment, the situation in many developing countries. Keep the number of links, pages and "hops" to get to information to a minimum.

You should include a system to quantify results - who is accessing your homepage and where? Such information can make the homepage better in the future, shaping it more closely to users' needs. Which is to say, don't assume that once the site is up and running you are finished. Homepages are not static; they need time and effort to maintain, and to be kept up-to-date, responding to new needs and suggestions.

GEIC's target users are academics, NGOs, medium to small groups and ordinary citizens who want to do something about sustainable development. To this varied audience, we try to promote and convey information, networking, ideas, models and practices that they all might find useful. Since GEIC is also international, there are activities to promote a more significant role for actors in the global arena - for example, NGOs and their place in international and national processes. During 1996-97, one NGO focus has been on climate change - linking our activities to the Third Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-3) held in Kyoto in December 1997.

As an integral part of the UNU, with its computer terminals and staff working out of the Tokyo Headquarters building, GEIC houses original information on and from the work of the University. The material it has distributed electronically has dealt with a range of ecological concerns - from integrated biosystems to industrial organic carbon sinks to ways to develop waste-free manufacturing processes. It facilitates communication with UNU collaborators, project participants and other interested parties worldwide in the effort to achieve sustainable development.

Finding What You Want
The Internet is an extremely effective and powerful networking tool. We sometimes forget that networking can be a major source for retrieving information. Networking can be particularly useful when you're not sure where to start looking for information, or cannot find what you want. It is not the amount of information that is the problem - the world is overwhelmed with information - but being able to put your finger on what you need for a given problem.

Imagine, say, that you are a government official or a scholar in a developing country with poor communications system. Or that you live in a remote island. Either way, you are part of the UNU "audience." You have a problem on which you wish to find out more information, but don't have the books or the people to support you. However, you do have access to e-mail. In these sorts of developing country situations, networking can often prove much more effective than the traditional forms of research which they might be able to carry out.

GEIC is very concerned with networking smaller communities and minority groups - as, for instance, with the Small Islands Network (see example). Providing an interactive homepage on EarthWrap (the GEIC newsletter) is another way. A homepage need not provide full details on every publication; all you need is a simple description of area of expertise, affiliation, the contact address, perhaps nationality - and, of course, an e-mail address. The speed of e-mail means that if the person contacted is not appropriate, then the right one can generally be found shortly.

Interactive Power
The real power of the Internet lies in its potential for interactivity. Any organization that operates on the Web taps into the two-way communication potential. Users want direct database queries, fast transfer of large, multimedia files, and remote access so they can work from home or while travelling. Hardware infrastructures - the hubs, routers and switches - will need to change to accommodate this.

Catering to individuals should be the ultimate objective of any homepage. The value of the Internet has already surpassed straight information sharing; it is now in a one-to-one relationship realm. In the case of GEIC, for example, the user - likely to be a small to medium NGO, individual or community group - should eventually be able to customize the site from which he or she can access documents, links and e-mail addresses of interest to him or her. This would also allow GEIC to notify the user of information that may be of individual interest. If the user is interested in, say, energy, then related information, as it becomes available, will be transmitted to the user.

"Thinkbase" - Making the Web Intelligent
At GEIC, we have established "Thinkbase," a concept which aims to make the Web intelligent. Thinkbase is comprised of a number of links and documents that they are extremely useful if a user wants practical and useful up-to-date global environmental information instantly.

The "winners" in the future of the Internet will be the first to maintain dynamic, interactive sites with content tailored to individual users. Organizations need to do much more than post static information and catalogue pages. The Web is not a book. The Web can "add value" to user relations. The user needs to enter the site and leaving with a value-added experience. Increasingly, content needs to be tailored for specific users.

Up to now, the Web has always been seen as an information disseminator. This perception and role will change to one where the Web becomes a place to find information. This change in perception and role means that there must be an accompanying change in how homepages are structured. This is something we have under constant study at the UNU's window on the environ-mental world - the Global Environment Information Centre.

On a Small Island ...
If you were to open the GEIC homepage and follow the links to the small island network, this is what you might find.

Return to the top

Software for Development

By Chris George and Xu Qiwen

From its offices in downtown Macau, the UNU centre for software development looks out over the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea, one of the fastest growing high-tech areas in the world today. Here where the industrialized and developing worlds stand cheek by jowl is an appropriate setting for the UNU International Institute for Software Technology (UNU/IIST), a place which is helping the developing world to keep pace with the 21st century.

Personal computers are increasingly available at lower and lower prices. Technological advances in, for example, the small cellular phone with computer access may also soon help get around the power outages that have plagued many poorer countries. The problem is not the hardware, but the software, the instructions telling the computer what to do: compile a payroll, store data, solve abstruse equations, schedule a flight, perform word-processing or whatever. But most developing countries have few software companies and little experience in its creation.

As the price of hardware has plummeted, the potential of the computer remains frustratingly just out of reach - cheap but of little use without the proper software. The Macau centre responds directly to that need, strengthening the capabilities of the developing countries to produce their own software, designed specifically to meet their needs. The following article, by two scientists on the UNU/IIST academic staff, was written specially for Work in Progress. - Editor

Information has been called a resource that is not only renewable but self-generating. Running out of it is not a problem - drowning in it is. At its new institute for software technology, the UNU is seeking to help Third World communities put the new technology to use in improving their daily lives - and to stay afloat in the mounting tide of data.

The small personal computer is an ideal tool in helping promote the decentralized growth of self-reliance at the regional and village level in the developing countries. Properly designed, computer programmes have enormous potential for the developing countries in nearly every field of relevance to their growth and success - including agriculture, industry, transport, natural resources, science, medicine, education, and the management of financial and human resources.

The work we have under way at the UNU's International Institute for Software Technology pays particular attention to software products that speak directly to the kinds of problems faced daily in a developing country - such as management of natural disasters like floods or earthquakes, rural and mobile health care, small business inventories or customs and cargo clearance, or even making the trains run on time. These are essential aids to full participation in the benefits of the information revolution.

Most software companies, however, are located in the affluent nations and they tend to see their markets in affluent terms - games, multimedia displays, and the like. Local software development, that speaks to local Third World problems, is therefore badly needed.

UNU/IIST was made possible by financial support from the Governor of Macau and the Governments of Portugal and China. A multipurpose endeavour, it has been characterized by its first Director Dines Bjørner as a cradle, a showroom, a bridge and a channel. As a cradle, the institute nurtures young developing world scientists from the information field. As a showroom, it helps to demonstrate workable approaches to them in various aspects of their field - application modelling, requirements engineering, programming, software engineering and software technology management techniques and tools.

UNU/IIST serves as a bridge between theory and practice, between university and industry, between consumer and producer, and between the developing and the industrialized countries. Finally, it is a channel which, we hope, brings to international attention the little-known achievements of developing countries in software research and technology.

The staff of the Macau institute is not large. Currently, there are 7 academic and technologist staff, 8 administrative and technical people, and some 20 Fellows. UNU/IIST does not award degrees, though many Fellows arrange for their work here to be part of work for postgraduate degrees. Fellows come from partner institutions, and typically spend 9 to 12 months at the Macau centre.

UNU/IIST is involved in a number of activities - including advanced development projects, research, postgraduate and post-doctoral courses, events such as workshops and symposia, and dissemination, primarily to universities and institutes in developing countries.

Advancing Development Know-how
The advanced development projects are concerned mainly with engineering aspects of system construction (UNU/IIST research, by contrast, aims at understanding foundational matters of more sophisticated software technology). The development work is basically cooperative - efforts carried out jointly with industrial companies, government departments, universities or research institutes from developing countries. Since advanced development is one of UNU/IIST's major "showrooms" (to repeat the Bjorner analogy), we intend to devote the bulk of this article to work in this area. Our aim is to show something of the range of real-world concerns on which IIST is focused.

First, however, a note about methodology. The use of mathematical modelling and reasoning about contemplated designs is at the centre of any of the development activities that UNU/IIST promotes. To the laymen, the precise mathematical formulations used can seem a bewildering blur of symbols and numbers. To the software professional, mathematics is a tool for expressing abstraction - and abstraction is the engineer's most important way of capturing the essence of matter before delving into details.

A number of disciplines come into play " including software engineering, programming, management and computational science. Also very important is a relatively new field of study, rigorously adhered to, which is known as "application domain modelling and requirements capture."

Domain analysis involves careful study of the domain or the "environment" in which a given software is to serve. The domain, say, of transport in a study of railway computing systems. Establishing a domain is considered an absolute prerequisite for any meaningful software development. Once the domain is modelled - its essential aspects described and understood - the requirements can also be expressed or "captured" using precise mathematical formulations to state, in, for instance, a rail system, the relationships of rail networks, lines and stations.

Advanced development projects generally focus on software support for infrastructures, activities which support other essential systems: transportation, manufacturing, telecommunications, the financial industry and its services, document processing, and the like. Research into the infrastructure concept is a distinguishing, unique feature of the Macau programme.

Helping China's Trains Run on Time
Software research at IIST has focused on infrastructure concerns in a number of developing countries. In huge, sprawling China, efficient railway utilization is an obvious economic factor. The project there has involved a domain analysis of train dispatching for the Chinese Government. The results are being implemented at 28 train dispatch centres along the 500 kilometers of rail line between the cities of Wuhan and Zhengzhou in northeastern China. Seven Fellows from the Chinese Railways worked on this project in Macau and produced a prototype "Running Map" tool for use by train dispatchers. The project demonstrated that developing country railway software does not always have to come from the industrialized countries.

In another developing country, an UNU/IIST project on Road Management Systems reverse-engineered the functions and behaviour of a tollbooth system for Indonesia's Toll Way System Company. The system is being refined to fit the electro-mechanics of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation's toll way system equipment. A side benefit of the project is the new light it may shed on Asian mega-city traffic congestion problems; it is thereby aiding another UNU project concerned with urban development and sustainable cities.

Viet Nam Budgeting
Elsewhere in Asia, the Vietnamese Government asked UNU/IIST to assist in the architectural design of its budget computerization. Effective economic management can make a big difference to a country's economic performance; computerized information systems are an important useful management tool, ensuring information is accurate, comprehensive and up-to-date. In just over a year, a comprehensive model of Viet Nam's taxation, budget, treasury and external aid and loans was developed by Fellows from the Vietnamese Ministry of Finance, Hanoi's Institute of Information Technology and Hanoi University.

Fellows from Viet Nam Airlines are working on the so-called ABC 2000 project - for Airline Business Computing. The aim is to develop software support for the strategic planning and management of aircraft, route networks, staff, ticket agencies and other facilities and finance. The software will also support scheduling, including timetables and daily operations: ticketing, passenger and freight check-in, gate control, flight dispatch, etc.

Other problems being explored include microwave telephone systems in the Philippines and port management in India. The UNU/IIST umbrella covers a wide variety of problems faced by the developing countries in their efforts to join the modern industrialized sector.

Software for All Scripts
A particularly important computer consideration in many developing societies is software that speaks the local language. The magnitude of that need can be appreciated when one realizes that two out of three citizens of the Third World do not use the Roman script to write their languages. This can give particular headaches to the software developer in Asia where scripts in daily use can read, in addition to English usage, from right to left (Arabic, Hebrew) or from top to bottom (Chinese, Japanese).

The UNU/IIST project known as Multiscript focuses on this linguistic chaos. Increasing international communication generates the need for contracts and other documents in pairs (or even triplicates) of different direction text, and requires dramatically new forms of text systems. The Multiscript projects is prototyping a common software architecture that allows reasonably arbitrary word processing system to cooperate on input, editing, formatting and communication in combination of scripts. Fellows from Mongolia are contributing to the study, research and development of Multiscript as part of their training.

Space does not permit fuller discussion of other UNU/IIST activities in training and curriculum development. Training courses in software development have been organized in many places around the world. Here in Macau, the courses are provided in liaison with the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Macau. Elsewhere, we have offered courses to date in Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Viet Nam.

As the world of the new information technology is wide, so are the topics dealt with by UNU/IIST. Last year, for example, we had a one-day event on "Trading over the Internet," thus pre-dating the intellectual recognition given stock trading in this year's Nobel Prizes. A vast and varied world is out there for those with the right software. As the developing societies enter "cyberspace," they badly need to be able to unlock the potential of the computer themselves and direct it towards the resolution of their own special problems.

Taking the Bus in Minsk ...
To the layman, the software engineer's precise formulations can seem a bewildering blur of symbols and numbers. To the professional, they are a tool for expressing important abstractions. Above, fragment of Minsk Metropolitan Transport System (prepared by Gueorgui Satchok, UNU/IIST Fellow, Minsk, Belarus).

Return to the top

Networking the Sun's Power

By Takaya Kawabe

The UNU Centre in Tokyo is rapidly becoming a major nodal point of scientific networking - the place the working scientist checks in with to get the newest development technologies, the latest zero-emissions work or the state of global hydropolitics.

Of all its computer-driven networks, however, none have quite the enormous promise as does PlasmaNet - which deals with the type of energy generated on the Sun, nuclear fusion, a potentially limitless source of energy and producer of new materials. Plasma physics lie at the outer reaches of the effort to find new energy sources. At issue is the energy released by nuclear fusion, a concept embodied in Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2 - the energy released (E) is equal to the mass (m) multiplied by the square of the speed of light (c2). The amount of energy generated by such a transaction is immense - at least a million times greater than energy available from a similar amount of fossil fuel.

Most of the effort in recent years has focused on the ability of plasma to form hard, impenetrable coatings on all kinds of surfaces. This has proved to be a property invaluable to everything from drilling tools to artificial blood veins to reducing air conditioning needs.

In the following article, written for Work in Progress, Takaya Kawabe, a scientist from the Institute of Physics at the University of Tsukuba, the Japanese "science city," discusses this energy source and the role envisioned for PlasmaNet. Professor Kawabe is an Adjunct Professor at the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU/IAS). - Editor

Successful technology transfer is one of the keys to a successful "catching up" process by the developing nations. To date, many of the technologies that have been transferred to the developing countries have been so-called "low level;" by the time they are in place, they are already obsolete.

Plasma technology, I believe, is a 21st century advanced technology which could be transferred successfully to the developing countries. This is the aim of the UNU's recently established "plasmaNet" which brings the latest developments to scientists around the world.

To understand why plasma technologies are so important, a bit of elementary school science would perhaps be in order first. The lowest energetic state of matter is solid. In the case of water, it is ice. Heat the solid and you get a liquid, water. When you heat the liquid, it eventually changes into a gaseous state - as in vapour.

But what happens if you apply heat - or energy - to the gaseous state? At a very high temperature, the gas has all the electrons stripped off its atoms. In the ionization process which ensues, the gaseous state changes into clouds of positive ions and electrons. It becomes the fourth state of matter - known as "plasma."

We can find plasma wherever matter is heated up: in the flare of a flame; the spark in an electrical discharge; the discharge inside a fluorescent lamp. Lightening is plasma - so is the ionosphere. Most of the light emitted by stars is plasma - as is most of the matter between the stars. It is far and away the most prevalent state of matter - estimated to compose 99.99% of the matter in the universe.

A most interesting point about plasma is the fact that electrical conductivity is the function of the temperature of the electron. When an electron becomes very hot (again, remember millions of degrees), plasma becomes more conductive than copper.

Research on plasma physics has been under way for about 60 years. The initial applications were in telecommunications, using the reflection of electromagnetic waves by the ionosphere. Beginning in the 1960s, the focus shifted to studies of controlled fusion to produce electricity. This mainly involved enormous and very expensive equipment from the high technology laboratories of the North.

The UNU explored its potential in the Third World in the project directed by Dr. Lee Sing at the University of Malaya. Experiments there with a plasma focus machine were successful in producing plasma nuclear fusion at the lowest voltage recorded to that time - in the late 1980s.

Dawn of Plasma Age
In recent years, there has been a virtual eruption of plasma applications. It seems safe to say that here at the beginning of the 21st century, we are also at the dawn of plasma age.

Plasma has a number of characteristics which make it useful. Because of its exceedingly high temperatures - 10,000 to 20,000 C - we may use plasma technology to separate out various gases and liquids which are harmful to humans and the environment.

This ability has proved beneficial in the production of optical fibre, an essential new material in modern communications. Optical fibre is produced from refined quartz. Japan, for example, imports this quartz from Brazil. In the refining process there, charcoal is used and carbon monoxide, a deadly poison gas, is a by-product. Hot plasmas, however, can dissipate the carbon monoxide and thus reduce the hazards to those working in or living close to the quartz refineries.

The ability of plasma to form new coatings is another very useful property. While the plasma temperature must be high, it is not necessary that the matter to be modified need to be the same temperature - this in contrast to the ordinary chemical processes. In this way, a thin metal coating can be applied to the surface of a plastic lens, say, without melting the plastic. When plasma particles and other gaseous particles come together on the surface of solid materials, many useful reactions occur.

Since the plasma particles (atoms, molecules, charged ions) are pure energy, they stick on a number of surfaces - metal, ceramics, plastic, glass, fabric, wood. The plasma particles actually penetrate the atoms of the solid target, forming a very strong and hard surface. Some of the typical uses here are for drills and other cutting tools, anti-corrosion piping (oil, artificial blood tubes), anti-friction coating, anti-rusting, or even the application of gilt to decorative jewelry items.

Lessen Air Conditioning
Plasma technology makes a major contribution to energy conservation through its ability to coat window glass and thereby reduce infra-red rays. Air conditioning is a major consumer of electricity in hot climates and during summertimes. Infra-red rays normally pass through glass windows and help to warm a room. By using plasma technology to coat windows, infra-red warming can be cut, thus reducing air conditioning needs.

It has been found that the cost of such plasma coating is more than justified by the reduction in electricity costs. Plasma technology has been used in a number of other coating applications: anti-reflection for eye glasses or automobile front windows, shielding of electro-magnetic noises, ceramic coating (automobile engines, artificial bones and teeth), special colour cloths, waterproofing.

Such technology obviously could make many important contributions to economic growth. Diffusion of plasma technology to the poorer countries is thus an important need in the achievement of sustainable technology. Plasma technology is a high-tech process with potentially enormous economic benefits to developing countries. And since the technology is relatively young, there are undoubtedly many other applications which have not yet been explored. It is essential, therefore, that the developing countries keep abreast of the advances in this field.

International cooperation for the transfer of plasma technology has been going on between Japan and Argentina for several years. I personally have been deeply engaged in this endeavour since early in this decade. We expect shortly to send Japanese plasma experts to work at the Research Institute of the Argentine Atomic Energy Commission. Nissin Electric Co. Ltd. has donated a plasma reactor to this institution. Another will be built on site with the help of Japanese experts and titanium nitride (TiN)-coating technologies will be explored.

Last summer, the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies brought together Argentine and Japanese plasma technology experts for a seminar on plasma processes. About 40 Latin American scientists participated, from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. A programme of technology transfer is being built around a regional centre in Latin America. Another regional centre - for Eastern and Central Europe -is being planned in Romania.

PlasmaNet: Available to All
As a further important step in disseminating the latest information in the plasma field, the UNU has established the network known as "PlasmaNet." All members in the network have e-mail service. UNU/IAS sponsored the computer system to do this, and the Institute of Physics of Tsukuba University offered technical support. There are already more than 500 subscribers, and the network membership is growing quite fast. Reactions from individual subscribers indicate they very much appreciate the service.

PlasmaNet is built around a number of lists, identifying regions and topics of interest. Each list has a coordinator. There are two major lists, for general news and announcement and for international cooperation. There are six regional cooperation lists: Latin America, Asia and Oceania, Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, former USSR, and the Baltic Sea region. Topical forums on the PlasmaNet include areas like environmental plasma technologies, materials processing, laser-produced technologies, and light source plasma.

A homepage on the World Wide Web has just been created. For those countries who cannot afford to use the Internet, a printed version of the PlasmaNet is published with the collaboration of the Institute of Plasma Research, India. It is published quarterly and distributed free of charge. All in all, we believe that the UNU PlasmaNet is quickly becoming a real world centre of excellence in this field.

Illustration: reprinted from Energy of the 21st Century - Plasma & Fusion by T. Kawabe & E. Mikado (Iwanami, 1991)

Return to the top

The Global Debate ...

The Information Revolution has been widely discussed in scientific papers, the media and the arts. Most welcome the new technology, but others fear its social consequences. Could it be a separating force in society? Are we being overwhelmed by new information? On this page is a sampling from the global debate:


"We have for the first time an economy based on a key resource that is not only renewable, but self-generating. Running out of information is not a problem, but drowning in it is" John Naisbitt, Megatrends.

*    *    *

"Information technology makes fewer claims on resources than previous technologies, and is potentially more environmentally friendly. Whereas cars, railways and steam engines were heavy users of raw materials and energy, IT is speeding up the shift towards a so-called 'weightless' economy, in which a growing slice of output take the form of intangible goods. IT also offers huge potential for reducing pollution and congestion through telework and teleshopping that will make many journeys unnecessary. (It is estimated) that by 2005 a fifth of all workers in rich countries will be teleworking, either part-time or full-time.
Pam Woodall, "The hitchhiker's guide to cybernomics," The Economist (1996).

*    *    *

"Convergence is happening not only between audio and video but between computers and communication. There is a fundamental change in society, and this is our opportunity."
Nobuyuki Idei, President, Sony Corporation.

*    *    *

"Conduit through which we conduct our lives."
"Access to the information highway may prove to be less a question of privilege or position than one of the basic ability to function in a democratic society. It may determine how well people are educated, the kind of job they eventually get, how they are retrained if they lose their job, how much access they have to their government and how they will learn about the critical issues affecting them and the country. No less an expert than Mitch Kapor, co-founder of Lotus Development Corp. and now president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, feels that those who do not have access 'will be highly correlated with the general have-nots. Early in the next century the network will become the major conduit through which we conduct our lives. Any disenfranchisement will be very severe'."

Suneel Ratan, "A New Divide Between Haves and Have-nots?" Time (Special Cyberspace issue, Spring 1993).

*    *    *

"Today, the English language contains roughly 500,000 usable words, five times more than during the time of Shakespeare. The number of books in top libraries doubles every 14 years....You don't need to know everything, you just have to know where to find it." Richard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety.

*    *    *

"Does it connect?"
"The human virtues are about connection - achieving it, sustaining in it, believing in it - while the sins, as Nietzsche held, are about separation. I find it hard to believe that the current explosion of digital technology, which seems to be about connecting everything to everything else, will do anything but pump energy into the space where the virtues live. Here is the primary choice we're given as we tumble over the falls into the future. When we behold some new species of technology, we should ask ourselves one question: does it connect or does it separate? And since every powerful technology will probably do a lot of both, we should ask which of these properties is naturally dominant. For example, the telephone both connects and separates, but you can argue persuasively that it more often than not connects. Television both connects and separates, but a close look at America reveals the wreckage of its savage predisposition to separate."
John Perry Barlow, "It's a Poor Workman Who Blames His Tools," Wired Scenarios (1995).

*    *    *

"Automation meant that jobs which had once allowed (workers) to use their bodily presence in the service of interpersonal exchange and collaboration now require their bodily presence in the service of routine interaction with a machine. Jobs that one required their voices now insisted they be mute…. They had been disinherited from the management process and driven into the confines of their own individual body space. As a result, the employees in each office became increasingly engulfed in the immediate sensations of physical discomfort."
Shoshana Zuboff, Smart Machine.

*    *    *

"Helping us understand global environment...."
"Computers offer enormous power for collecting, storing and organizing information that can help us understand the global environment and our effect on it. Systems for performing these tasks fall into two main categories: monitoring and modelling. Monitoring systems are used to study and keep track of industrial and natural processes - such as the release of carbon dioxide, or the rise in atmospheric temperature. Modelling systems are used to test theories about complex processes, such as the causal relationship between carbon dioxide and atmospheric temperature - thereby allowing the simulation of experiments too dangerous or time-consuming to conduct in the "real world."

John E. Young, Global Network: Computers in a Sustainable Society (Worldwatch Institute).

*    *    *

The new technological era in education should promote greater equity of access to good education. Before, when schooling was limited to traditional buildings and managed by a state bureaucracy, poor children usually got the least-experienced teachers and the poorest quality of instruction. In the new era, technology makes it possible to provide exactly the same quality of instruction to every child. Using the new technologies, all children will have access to exactly the same electronics-teaching programs, learning at their own speed and in setting of their own choosing…. The prospects for education in the age of technology are nearly boundless."
Diane Ravitch, "The Next 150 Years," The Economist (1993).

*    *    *

"More new information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000. About 1,000 books are published internationally every day."
Peter Large, The Micro Revolution Revisited.

*    *    *

"Over the next decade, most information, including television, is expected to assume the same digital form as computer data. And the spread of mobile telephones is already bringing mobile computing in its wake. Some of the latest laptop computers can already communicate over the airwaves. More powerful chips seem certain to put enormous computing power into machines small enough to fit into the palm of the hand. More powerful software will make computers of any size and shape easier to use."
David Manasian, "The Computer Industry," The Economist (1993).

*    *    *

"Cheaper, but ...."
"There are two ways to get something done. You can find one group trained to accomplish things the old-fashioned way. Or you can pay another group to set up and maintain machines and systems that will do the same work with fewer employees - of the older category of worker. You are not really replacing people with machines; you are replacing one kind of person-plus-machine with another kind of machine-plus-person.... Automatic teller systems require programmers and technicians paid four times as much as bank tellers. If things go well, banks need less than a quarter of the staff, and they come out ahead. But it is notoriously difficult to predict all problems, or their levels of difficulty, in advance. And one mark of newer technology is that while it is cheaper in routine, it is expensive to correct and modify."
Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.

*    *    *

"While the capacities of electronic hardware have been growing exponentially - in say laser optics or microcomputers - there has not been a corresponding gain in human capacity."
Orrin Klapp, Overload and Boredom.

*    *    *

Peoria competing with Pohang
"The radical transformation of the nature of our job markets, as we work less with atoms and more with bits, will happen at just about the same time the 2 billion-strong labour force of India and China starts to come on-line (literally). A self-employed software designer in Peoria will be competing with his or her counterpart in Pohang. A digital typographer in Madrid will do the same with one in Madras. American companies are already outsourcing hardware developments and software production to Russia and India, not to find cheap manual labour but to secure a highly skilled intellectual force seemingly prepared to work harder, faster, and in a more disciplined fashion than those in our own country.

"As the business world globalizes and the Internet grows, we will start to see a seamless digital workplace. Long before political harmony and long before the GATT talks can reach agreement on the tariff and trade of atoms, bits will be borderless, stored and manipulated with absolutely no respect to geopolitical boundaries."
Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital.

*    *    *

"The world of today is as different from the world in which I was born as that world was from Julius Caesar's. I was born in the middle of human history to date - roughly. Almost as much has happened since I was born as happened before."
Kenneth Boulding, first UNU Visiting Scholar (1984).

*    *    *

"The new information technologies have an obvious positive and enhancing role to play in expanding humanity's access to scientific knowledge. These technologies will no doubt exert an important force on expanding international scientific cooperation. The role of the United Nations University in this respect is clearly stated in its Charter: to enhance communication among scholars, between scholars and other communities - the goal being dissemination of scholarly work. In particular, UNU seeks to reach out to the scholar in the developing world who has often been isolated from the global mainstream. I firmly believe that the new information technologies can be an invaluable tool in furtherance of this Charter objective."
Ines Wesley Tanaskovic, Coordinator, UNU Programme on Microprocessors and Informatics.

Return to previous page

Return to the UNU Homepage