How to enable technological innovations for the SDGs?

Dietrich Van der Weken | April 6, 2020

Dietrich Van der Weken | April 6, 2020

When it comes to fighting the impact of climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, the time for business-as-usual is up. But how can we enable the breakthrough technological innovations that are vital for achieving the SDGs? And how do we ensure at the same time that these technological innovations work for the benefit of all people?

During the plenary sessions of the 2019 G-STIC conference, several government representatives and champions of change from different sectors of society provided their perspective on these pressing questions.

An integrated view of what is required to change the world

People are scared by the potential impact of climate change because they do not know how to deal with an uncertain future, according to H.E. Enrico Giovannini, Co-chair of the Independent Experts Advisory Board on “Data revolution for sustainable development” named by the UN Secretary-General.

But how uncertain is that future really? As Mr Giovannini recalled, the scenarios depicted in the 1972 Limits to Growth report commissioned by the Club of Rome have proven to be scarily precise. Notwithstanding what the world has done over the last 50 years, we are exactly on the path forecasted at the time. If we want to change that path, business-as-usual and unlimited economic growth are unviable options.

The SDGs represent an integrated view of what is required to change the world. They are not just a list of targets and goals agreed by diplomats. They make a plan to change the world, and innovation is everywhere in that plan: technological innovation, social and economic innovation, as well as cultural change. Policy coherence is the big challenge in implementing this plan. But we are making progress in this area, Mr Giovannini highlighted. The EU commission, for example, has decided to redesign the entire EU policy coordination process according to Agenda 2030. This will not be an easy task, but it is the only way to succeed in achieving the implementation of the SDGs.

Building technological innovation roadmaps involving all stakeholders

Policy coherence across different sectors of society and across regions is also vital for H.E. Marie Chatardova, Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the UN and Co-chair of the 2019 STI Forum.

She pointed out how waves of technological innovation are already changing people’s lives at an unprecedented pace, no matter where they live. To ensure these changes contribute to achieving the SDGs, we have to make sure technological transitions work for the benefit of all citizens and leave no one behind. That’s why it is crucial to build technological roadmaps assessing alternative technological solutions. And we need to involve all relevant stakeholders, from those impacted by the technology to those investing in its market penetration.

Ambassador Chatardova believes technological innovations, such as mobile phones or solar energy, present developing countries with leapfrogging opportunities to achieve the SDGs, helping them to avoid adopting less efficient technologies to address the impact of climate change. These leapfrogging opportunities don’t come automatically, though. They require hard work, appropriate policy measures and (digital) skill development, lifelong learning, and inclusive change processes.

Creating policy coherence to boost technological innovation

H.E. Ambassador Macharia Kamau, Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kenya, admitted there is great concern that the world is not making enough progress on the implementation of the SDGs so far. But, he underlined, it is not possible to expect policy coherence to happen instantaneously. There has to be a time lag before the world picks up on the significance of the SDGs. It takes time before we can see technological innovation kick in and boost the implementation of the SDGs.

For many African countries and Kenya in particular, the SDGs have taken the guesswork out of visioning and planning. The SDGs have created policy coherence between different sectors of society, which in turn accelerates their implementation. Digital technologies, for example, have made it possible to create financial inclusion for people living in Kenya.  The entire ecosystem built around M-Pesa enables them to do everything from their phone, whether it’s getting assistance for health, buy gas or pay school fees. That kind of transformation would never have happened without the SDG framework being in place.

Ensuring an ethical and safe use of Artificial Intelligence

Digital transformations are a crucial part of the waves of technological innovation engulfing the world. Eva Kaili, the Chair of the Future of Science and Technology Panel in the European Parliament, gave a perspective of how Europe sees the role of digital technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

While we move ever faster from one wave of technological innovation to the next, we are coming closer to singularity – the point in time where the difference between human and machine intelligence is eliminated. As Ms Kaili said, we therefore have to be fast and smart on how to use AI technologies before they create bigger inequalities, and make sure that everybody is on board.

The challenges ahead are both economic, social and ethical. Digital disruption could even destroy the link between employment and income, with people losing their job if they cannot adapt. We need to understand how we can make a digital transition happen and at the same time achieve the SDGs. AI needs more politics to ensure that its use in the industry goes hand in hand with the protection of our citizens. Common standards and certificates for ethical and safe AI are absolutely essential. The UN, OECD and the EU could be the big platforms to achieve that and help us to our final mission of achieving the SDGs.

Barriers to technology diffusion require more attention

During the ensuing panel discussion, Tareq Emairah (Director Energy Department, UNIDO), Kartik Kulkarni (Chairman, IEEE Global Humanitarian Technologies Activities Committee) and Michiharu Nakamura (Former President & Advisor, Japan Science and Technology Agency) re-enforced that a systemic change is needed to enable the adoption at scale of technological innovations. In addition, more transformative technologies (and enabling digital technologies in particular) are needed to drive the worldwide transition.

Barriers to technology diffusion require more attention. Paramount among these barriers is the lack of financing. Addressing this specific barrier might require a different way of assessing return-on-investment, accounting for the social dimensions of technology diffusion.

The time for business-as-usual is up

Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, summed it up in one sentence during his conclusion:  there is no business-as-usual anymore. And even if we want it, planet Earth doesn’t allow for it.

Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the International Resource Panel have come to the same conclusions:

  • Urgent action is needed, windows are closing.
  • We are already seeing irreversibility.
  • Everything is interconnected.

In other words: incremental improvements of existing technologies will not do anymore because they will only deliver marginal efficiency gains. We need systemic changes enabled by breakthrough technological innovations, new management approaches and new financing models. We must do things radically different during the coming years compared to what we have been doing since Agenda 21 was published in 1992. The time for business-as-usual is up.

How to enable breakthrough technological innovations for the SDGs?

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Dietrich Van der Weken

Since January 2017, Dietrich Van der Weken is the General Manager of the G-STIC conferences series initiated by VITO, the prime research and technology organization in Belgium. Dietrich joined VITO in July 2009, focusing on cleantech innovation. Until December 2016, Dietrich was the Program Manager of MIP, the Environmental and Energy Technology Innovation Platform, a subsidy program that focuses on accelerating the transition to the sustainable management of energy, materials, and water. Dietrich holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics, obtained at Ghent University, Belgium.

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