Can nanotechnology reduce inequality?

10 July 2015

Portrait of Professor Sonia Contera

by Professor Sonia Contera
Professor of Biological Physics

Oxford Martin Senior Alumni Fellow Sonia Contera was Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Nanotechnology for Medicine, which was part of the Oxford Martin School from 2008-2013. Sonia is Professor of Biological Physics at the University of O...

© iStock

Over the next decade, nanotechnology will contribute to widespread technological transformation, affecting the productivity and development of a myriad of applications, from new multifunctional materials, to disease diagnostics, water purification and energy efficiency. As it does, there are concerns that it could become a technology of the rich, and help widen social and economic disparities. Yet with the right policies and development culture, nanotechnology can become a global force to reduce inequalities.

Technological innovations like nanotechnology are sometimes seen as increasing social disparities. Technological change, for instance, is often depicted as favouring more skilled workers, replacing tasks previously performed by the unskilled and increasing the demand for skilled labour. In doing so it can create substantial changes in the distribution of wealth nationally and globally. The real picture, however, is much more complex. One could argue that in the globalized world, technology is not an external force acting on the labour market, but an “endogenous” factor, where the conditions and decisions made by the developers, workers, regulators, consumers and exploiters of new technologies can determine use and a fair distribution of the outcome.

Technology and equality can and should go hand in hand. Yet to achieve this, we need creative policies and anticipatory governance mechanisms so that nanotechnology is used to reduce inequality rather than become a new source of it.

From my point of view, as a woman, mother, scientist and educator, the vision is clear and the potential is huge. In the lab, the internationality and multidisciplinarity of nanotechnology empowers our female and male students from all backgrounds, and enhances their scientific and technological creativity and entrepreneurship. Many of the applications of nanotechnology we and others are working on are potentially cheap and easy to implement, requiring minimum lab infrastructure. With the right framework, nanotechnology could become a global force to reduce national and global inequalities.

Take Elizabeth Holmes, who founded Theranos when she was 19. She uses nanoparticles to increase the effectiveness of blood testing at a fraction of current costs. Her motivation is “to create a new technology, and one that is aimed at helping humanity at all levels, regardless of geography or ethnicity or age or gender”. Elizabeth envisions empowered patients who can take control of their health through real-time diagnosis and monitoring, with testing that has open and transparent pricing schemes. The fusion of technology and inequality reduction is at the heart of her mission. She has also become the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire.


In a very different context, a group of scientists led by Marianny Y. Combariza and Cristian Blanco-Tirado at the Industrial University of Santander, in Bucaramanga, Colombia, have developed a method to synthesize nanoparticles directly on the fibres of fique. Fique is extracted from Colombiancabuya, which is mainly used in the fabrication of sacks for transporting Colombian coffee. This nano-enhanced traditional material can be used in the remediation of water contaminated with toxic indigo, which is currently used as a dye in the fabrication of denim in the region.

This example in particular illustrates how scientists are able to find relatively simple and cheap solutions to local challenges using community-relevant nanotechnology and local resources. These researchers are now pursuing the commercialization of their product globally through a partnership with ISIS innovation in the UK. It’s an example of how state-funded research and education, and public-private partnerships, can encourage wealth creation from the local entrepreneurs.

As a third example, Askwar Hilonga has developed a customizable water filter based on sand and nanomaterials, that can be tuned for water decontamination and disinfection in different environments. Through the Gongali Model Company, a university spin-off company which he co-founded in Tanzania, Hilonga has already enabled 23 entrepreneurs in Karatu to set up their businesses with the filters, and local schools to provide their learners with clean drinking water. As Hilonga states: “Our success will not be in the sales of the filters only. We’re planning on turning community centres into ‘water hubs’. Here water can be purified and families will be able to access clean filtered water at a cheap price.”

As nanotechnology matures, we have an opportunity to develop and promote policies and approaches that reduce inequalities within the culture of sustainable development that is embedded in the DNA of our field.

For instance:

  1. Policies for developing technology should include creativity, inclusiveness and equality within their core values.
  2. Public-private partnerships on both exploratory and late-stage research are needed to promote application development, qualification, regulation and adoption, facilitating the translation and the scale-up of products and ideas.
  3. The growth of existing activities should be supported through regulation that encourages local social and economic entrepreneurship and equality, rather than aligning with and protecting existing (more or less successful) economic activities.
  4. To stop the drain of talent (especially of women) and ideas that we currently suffer in academia and business in science, technology and engineering, stronger policies and actions that underpin diversity and equity are needed.
  5. We need to incentivize good practice in academia and business by, for instance, creating charters and awards that highlight and reward equitable progress and inclusiveness.
  6. We need to do a better job of including equality, diversity and entrepreneurship in parameters used to rank academic institutions globally.
  7. We need to create ambitious international scholarships and educational programmes with a strong emphasis on equality within nanotechnology, where students are encouraged to move, network, learn, disseminate and start businesses, and where institutions and industry can find a tangible value in promoting equality.

Nanotechnology is not only a large group of scientists dealing with very small things: it is a conscious, international, responsible community that has all the ingredients to become a force for social and economic equality. With the right policies, we have the opportunity to make this potential a reality.

This article was originally published on Agenda - the World Economic Forum blog.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.