Breakthroughs for Global Development

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed this amazing report in 2014 that identifies the 50 most critical scientific & technological breakthroughs required for sustainable global development.

The report is a very useful blueprint for technologists and entrepreneurs looking to solve the difficult problems of our world. In particular, it provides two views for analyzing the technical complexity and commercial potential of the identified breakthroughs.

Technical Complexity


Commercial Potential


Top Ten

Here are the top 10 breakthroughs (in no order) identified in the report.

#1. A new method for desalination: scalable, low cost, and using renewable energy.
Water scarcity is one of the most critical problems the world is facing today, and this problem is likely to get significantly worse in the coming years. An increasing amount of the world’s freshwater is becoming brackish, and more is being dissipated into oceans and other bodies of unusable water. Reclaiming this seawater and inland brackish water through desalination will need to be a significant part of the larger solution to meet the needs of the growing global population. Current forms of desalination (e.g., reverse osmosis) are prohibitively expensive and energy-intensive.

#2-4. Vaccines that can effectively control and eventually help eradicate the major infectious diseases of our time—HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB.
Collectively, HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB kill almost 4 million people a year, and represent a significant disease burden for low income populations in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Effective vaccines for these diseases do not exist yet due to the intrinsic complexity of the pathogens causing them, and a lack of understanding of the specific mechanisms through which our immune systems protect against these diseases.

#5. ‘Smart’ electronic textbooks which dynamically adapt content for different skill levels, languages and other user specific needs.
Education for low income students is fundamentally constrained by the absence of qualified teachers and adequate instructional tools. As smartphones and tablets become increasingly affordable and feature-rich, and as so much of the world gets connected to the Internet, there is a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog current education methods, and create new models of content development, content delivery and instruction. ‘Smart’ electronic textbooks will require curated and up-to-date content, ‘wiki’ interfaces for vernacular and other locally relevant and gender-inclusive material, visual and dynamic learning tools for students, interfaces and tools for teachers, student-teacher interaction
and peer-to-peer collaboration.

#6. Biometric ID systems, linking birth registry, land title registry, financial services, education history, medical history, and other information critical for ICT enabled services.
Individuals born in industrialized countries have formal IDs, which are linked to a range of services vital to their wellbeing and empowerment, and are an intrinsic part of their day-to-day lives. ID systems are inadequate in most developing countries, in part due to the absence of the institutional framework necessary for issuing and using IDs for individuals and businesses. This is one of the reasons why a majority of citizens in many low income countries operate in informal economies, cannot assert all the rights they are entitled to, and cannot hold their governments accountable for services. Biometric technologies can enable developing countries to bootstrap ID systems, empowering individuals to assert ownership of land and other assets, have accurate medical, educational and financial histories available to service providers, and truly become part of formal economic structures. Stringent safeguards are required to ensure privacy, and to protect individuals from being targeted by repressive regimes.

#7. Affordable (under $50) smartphones that support full-fledged Internet services, and need limited electricity to charge.
The recent penetration of mobile phones across the broader developing world has been nothing short of dramatic. However, most low income consumers still use basic phones which do not offer advanced functionality beyond voice and SMS text. For true digital inclusion, we believe that smartphones—with their ability to exchange information via a range of modalities (e.g., touchpad, voice-driven control, various ports), and their ability to support a wide array of Internet-based services—are essential. Unfortunately, today’s smartphones are too expensive for low income users.

#8. A new generation of homes with advanced construction material, especially for the urban poor: durable, lightweight, and affordable, with integrated solar-powered lighting, ventilation, and toilets.
The majority of the poor—particularly in urban areas—live in densely packed shacks made with found material, which have very limited light or ventilation, and no running water or sanitation. This contributes to a range of health problems such as TB, diarrheal disease, pneumonia, and other respiratory conditions. Improving living conditions by reinventing the home for the poor, with the characteristics listed above, can significantly improve quality of life and is critical for improving health outcomes in developing countries.

#9. New methods to produce fertilizers to replace current processes, which are extremely capital intensive and have significant environmental footprints.
Production of synthetic fertilizers—a mainstay of agricultural yields for many decades—depends on processes that are very capital intensive (manufacturing plants and mines costing hundreds of millions to billions of dollars), and in the case of nitrogen, extremely dependent on natural gas (nitrogen fixation factories must be located close to natural gas sources). As a result there are no fertilizer manufacturing plants in sub-Saharan Africa, and this creates a cost burden for African farmers who must buy fertilizer from international sources. From a more global perspective, current production processes have a large ecological footprint, create dependence on fossil fuels for food, and introduce volatility in fertilizer and food prices tied to volatility in fossil fuel prices. New research is required to explore options like simulating natural nitrogen fixing mechanisms (found in crops such as legumes), foliar nutrient uptake (instead of roots, to reduce fertilizer runoffs from farms), etc. In addition, it will be important to improve the safety and effectiveness of existing sustainable methods like composting biological waste.

#10. A ‘utility-in-a-box’ for making it simpler, cheaper and faster to set up and operate renewable energy mini-grids.
Currently, setting up mini-grids in rural areas is time consuming, complex and costly, due to weak and fragmented supply chains, poor roads, a lack of skilled workers, and the absence of standardized, modular components. A ‘utility-in-a-box’—a bundled package of mini-grid components that can be easily integrated and installed, and whose parts work seamlessly, making operations simpler—would make mini-grids much more attractive to both service providers and investors, and significantly reduce barriers to expansion. In short, it would make the business of running rural mini-grids more profitable and less risky.


Featured image from NPR: The 50 Most Effective Ways To Transform The Developing World

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