The initiation, importation, modification and diffusion of new technologies takes place through the activities and interactions within a network of public and private sector institutions. Many of these innovation systems have contributed greatly to creating risks to the survival of humans and millions of species⁵.
Organisations like the United Nations and the European Environment Agency use the planetary boundaries framework to indicate what constitutes a safe living space for humans in the long term.⁶ There are nine such planetary boundaries, six of which have already been crossed.⁷ The carrying capacity, resilience and stability of global ecosystems have declined because of this. And so have the social, economic and political systems that are intertwined with them. For example, changes in climate are causing the spread of new diseases and increasing drought is leading to famines and political unrest.
The crossing of planetary boundaries is closely linked to the design and use of modern technology. In some cases quite literally, as with the planetary limit on Earth's tolerance for new chemicals (novel chemical entities).⁸ These substances are often not biodegradable and therefore persist in the environment for a long time. The overabundance of such substances thus threatens the survival of crucial ecosystems. Consider, for example, the role of microplastics in the death of coral reefs.⁹ In other cases, the role of technology is more indirect, such as with the role of the petrol engine in climate change.
These developments bring forward two types of demands in relation to technology development. Firstly, the urgency for developing socilly responsible technology, such as solar energy and hydrogen technologies, is growing. Secondly, the development and use of irresponsible technology must decrease. After all, tolerance for such technology declines as planetary boundaries are crossed. Indeed, within a society plagued by disasters such as floods, shortage of crucial resources and clean drinking water, it is much more difficult to raise enough energy, time, resources and money to also clean up the damage of new irresponsible technologies.
A proactive precautionary approach is crucial to bring about innovations that provide solutions to our planet's challenges rather than harming it. Precaution should not be external and retrospective, but part of the innovation process itself. In other words, it should act not only as a safety net, but also as a compass.