This post is part of a series examining the connections between nanotechnology and the top 10 trends facing the world, as described in the Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015. All authors are members of the Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology.

In the World Economic Forum’s Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015, the weakening of representative democracy was listed as the fifth most significant global trend. While the erosion of trust in political institutions and processes isn’t often directly associated with technology innovation, the two are inextricably interwoven.

Governments have the capacity to both help and hinder the economic and social environments in which technologies emerge. They principally achieve this through research and development investment, business and innovation support, incentives (including tax breaks) and regulation. As democratic representation weakens though, widespread support for these instruments begins to wane and they lose their power to guide innovation for the collective good. As a result, this global trend could begin to undermine the development of technology-based solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges – from the spread of disease to managing climate change – and as a result, undermine business capacity to successfully innovate in many spheres.

How might this happen? Below, are three plausible scenarios that suggest how a weakening of democratic representation could compromise global capacity to develop socially relevant technology innovations. Though extreme, each of these echoes trends that are already occurring to a varying degree in different regions. But I believe there is an alternative trajectory: a proposed “golden scenario”, which demonstrates a new and important form of democratic involvement and also enables a more positive synergy between emerging technologies and societal need.

Scenario one: Innovation by popular vote

Imagine a world a few years from now, where a continuing decline of trust in the centralized democratic process and in individual politicians, dramatically reduces the ability of governments to take strategic, timely and sometimes unpopular decisions on technology trajectories and investments. This “democratic deficit” leads to institutions sacrificing strong leadership in favour of vote chasing and populism – to the detriment of viable solutions to big problems.

Government support for innovation pathways is based on media popularity and favours fashionable problems and uncontroversial solutions, or at least rapid, high-profile solutions, regardless of effectiveness and impact. The investment in technology development would be reduced as the typical decades-long timeline from idea to product is considered too long term to deliver votes and favourable media headlines. Without incentives, the stimulus of patient capital and a vibrant university research base, businesses also take the easy and uncontroversial options and innovation stagnates. What emerges is a scenario of “innovation by popular vote” where longer term, potentially transformative solutions languish unfunded; quick fixes fail and problems escalate.

Scenario two: Technology out of control

Alternatively, imagine a future where politicians listen only to business and “big science” in their eagerness to stimulate growth, and the goals of economic prosperity trump all else. Behind-the-scenes manipulations of regulation, incentives which prioritize speed-to-market at the expense of health and safety concerns, even increased corruption, generate market-driven technology solutions that are implemented – regardless of their effectiveness and impact on society or the environment. Alternative, less profitable solutions to problems are marginalized or ignored.

In this scenario, confidence is further undermined by a disinclination to engage with or listen to reasonable and constructive alternative views, with plausible transformational ideas rejected out of hand because they don’t fit within the dominant power structure. Taking this scenario further, it’s not hard to imagine significant health, safety and environmental problems manifesting themselves on a small and large scale. These failures are amplified by a vociferous and increasingly global social media, further undermining confidence in democratic processes and the global capacity to innovate. Increasingly hostile publics, even in previously technology “friendly” countries, begin to question technology solutions and resist further technological progress. Technology innovation begins to falter and real solutions seem still further away.

Scenario three: Confusion reigns

A third plausible scenario sees trust in politicians and businesses dramatically reduced, while other groups grow in influence; civil society groups, non-government organizations, bloggers and high profile social media stars begin to dominate the discourse on innovation trajectories with a clear anti-technology stance. In response, political and business positions harden, and views become entrenched on the many sides of the debate around “appropriate” innovation pathways.

Discussions over solutions to increasingly important problems become polarized, with a plethora of technological and non-technological solutions being proposed, while institutions lose their ability to make headway in taking any of these forward. Problems increase as a multitude of approaches are tried, but fragmentation, confusion and dogma stymie progress.

Scenario 4: The “golden scenario”

Each of the above scenarios has elements that are familiar to anyone following current debates around the use of emerging technologies in society – from nanotechnology and ICT, to genetic engineering and robotics. They paint a concerning picture of possible futures that sees a widening gap between pressing problems and our ability to develop appropriate and effective solutions. But is there a fourth scenario, one that offers a more positive outlook? Current thinking in the area of responsible innovation suggests there may be.

Imagine a “golden scenario” in which political leadership and responsiveness stimulates a more democratic approach to technology innovation in which all society genuinely participates in the development of appropriate, effective and safe technology solutions. Imagine a scenario in which we are able to assess and effectively prioritize the social, ethical and environmental impacts, risks and opportunities of innovation, as well as the technical and commercial ones, and where oversight mechanisms are better able to anticipate and manage problems and also adapt to changing knowledge and circumstances.

In this scenario, the currently observed weakening of established democratic processes remains, but the growing power of grassroots social entrepreneurism, community engagement, corporate responsibility and trust in diverse institutional arrangements is harnessed to stimulate new channels of involvement and participation and better solutions on a small and large scale.

A new “radical transparency” emerges, an opening up of information, such as data sharing on potential health and environmental impacts, collaborative multi-disciplinary R&D and stakeholder involvement across the innovation chain. The institutions of governance also open up, trustworthiness is more clearly demonstrated and trust in the systems of governance increases. This opens up otherwise unforeseen possibilities and stimulates transformative innovation, while increasing confidence in those technology-based products and solutions which are adopted. This approach rides the current wave of global interconnectedness and empowered stakeholder involvement, responding positively to emerging trends rather than resisting them.

This is not to say that this evolving approach is going to be easy. Of course, there will always be those who strongly disagree with specific innovation pathways. Values clashes, unpopular trade-offs and conflicting ideologies will all undoubtedly remain.

But a strong vision of democratic innovation delivered for society and with society and opening up the processes of innovation and governance will facilitate nanotechnology and other emerging technologies to be focused appropriately and for social good, to the benefit of rich and poor, and make an important contribution to enabling transformative solutions to our most pressing problems.

Author: Hilary Sutcliffe is Director of UK-based think tank MATTER.

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