Sustainable Development

8 ways to ensure innovation benefits all of us

Adrian Ely
Senior Lecturer, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex
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This is part of a series on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This article focuses on goal 9 – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

Sustainable Development Goal 9 calls for resilient infrastructure and inclusive, sustainable industrialisation, and also refers to the need to “foster innovation”.

These two words at the end of the goal’s text are fundamental to the challenge of sustainable development. Beyond goal 9, science, technology and innovation can contribute to goals on food, health, water, energy, infrastructure, cities, sustainable consumption and production, and even – through the role of Information and Communication Technologies in enabling citizen participation, transparency and accountability – improved governance. Rather than being siloed into goal 9, innovation needs to be embedded across the goals.

The Millennium Project invested in understanding how science, technology and innovation contributed to development. Technological change will arguably be even more crucial in realising the new global goals, which require dramatic shifts in the directions of development in wealthier and poorer countries. As a result, the UN, following the ‘Financing For Development’ conference in Addis Ababa in June, is setting up a Technology Facilitation Mechanism to coordinate efforts across the UN and member states.

Based on our work at the STEPS Centre, here are eight considerations to help guide the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, and enable innovation across all the Global Goals.

  1. Agenda-setting: national policies for science, technology and innovation must pay much greater attention to the direction of technological change, rather than its rate or scale, traditionally measured by gross domestic expenditure on research and development, GDP, patents or high-tech exports. Whilst innovation agendas in each country will differ, the range of actors involved in innovation should strive towards locally-situated pathways that navigate within a “safe and just operating space”.
  2. Funding: Goal 9 encourages public and private research and development spending. While increased funding has been recognised as an important possible contributor to development for over forty years, this R&D must be linked to initiatives that improve social and environmental outcomes, and for other complementary skills (in design, engineering and management) to receive parallel attention. For instance, funding not just for energy technologies – but for accessible, sustainable energy systems that make electricity available to the poor.
  3. Organising: innovation systems need to link to traditional science and technology sectors, firms and academia, and also to users and civil society networks with expertise and experience in sustainable development fields. Embracing a diversity of forms of innovation – including that emerging from the grassroots, and from citizens – is key to transformative change.
  4. Distributional issues: it is vital to ask who stands to gain or lose from innovation. To take alternative pathways to sustainable food futures as an example, innovation could variously focus on high biotech and large-scale commercialisation, or on small-scale production, participatory plant breeding, agro-ecology and food sovereignty – involving very different interests, values, benefits, costs and risks for different businesses, farmers, and consumers. Ensuring that innovation supports goals on equality, poverty reduction and gender, as well as sustainability, means addressing its distributional dimensions head-on.
  5. Capacity-building: SDG 9 calls for an increase in the number of R&D workers per million. This will mean significant training and capacity-building. Beyond PhDs with important laboratory skills, real transformations require new kinds of ‘bridging professionals’ who are not only capable of deploying scientific and technical knowledge, but also understand local social, environmental and institutional contexts.
  6. Access and control: innovation raises questions about who gets access to technologies, and who controls them – critical if the SDGs are to accord with the vital ‘leave no one behind’ agenda, and with other goals on gender (goal 5) or equality (goal 10). For instance initiatives to enhance women’s access to and control over appropriate everyday technologies in four priority sectors – water, safe sanitation, clean cookstoves, and electricity – are proving transformative both for sustainability, and for women’s health, dignity and work, and for poor women in particular.
  7. Lock-in: years of research in technology studies have shown that certain infrastructures have a tendency to lock-in particular (e.g. high-carbon generation) pathways, and even power relations. Centralised energy through nuclear or large hydro may deliver low-carbon electricity, but may also displace farmers and disempower local residents over multiple generations. Decentralised infrastructures – such as more distributed energy systems – can empower users, and accommodate future clean-energy innovations.
  8. Monitoring, evaluation and accountability: all donors and development actors need to be held to account for their sustainable development impacts. New donors such as the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, with major contributions from China, are exciting opportunities to support countries around goal 9. However clear social and environmental safeguards are required. Governments need to apply and implement regulatory and governance frameworks that ensure developments do not seek economic growth or narrow environmental goals at the expense of wider sustainable development objectives, including rights and justice for local populations.

The current focus on technology within UN debates is heartening, but above all, the SDGs must remain resolutely people-centred. A truly transformative outcome for Goal 9 would be that whatever form it takes, innovation leaves no-one behind.

Have you read?
Bill Gates: ‘We are reducing inequity faster than ever’
3 steps to a more sustainable economy

Authors: Melissa Leach, Director, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and co-Chair, Future Earth Science Committee; Adrian Ely, Senior Lecturer, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: Undergraduate seniors in Prof. Marko Popovic’s lab describe their quadruped robot “Hydro Dog” at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

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