Health and Healthcare Systems

As we come out of COVID, we need innovation to help us reach the global goals for 2030

A woman and a girl fetch drinking water from a well on the outskirts of Agartala, India, April 25, 2016.

Lack of access to safe drinking water is both a social and environmental issue. Image: REUTERS/Jayanta Dey.

Will Sarni
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Water Foundry
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  • COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the slow progress of achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
  • Mass adoption of digital technologies, and increased engagement from the private sector, has the potential to reignite action.
  • Our ability to rapidly adjust highlights our willingness to collaborate and rebuild a more resilient, sustainable world.

Did anyone really believe we were on track to meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a call to action for countries all over the world to collectively promote prosperity while protecting the planet?

Have you read?

While it is perhaps easy to now claim that the COVID-19 pandemic has set us back from achieving the SDGs, we must be honest with ourselves that we were not on track to begin with. Instead, the pandemic has actually created opportunities to get back on track and perhaps even meet our objectives within the decade.

My take is that there are two key factors that will give us a chance to achieve the SDGs by 2030, they are:

1) The accelerated adoption of digital technologies.

2) The increased engagement of the private sector and entrepreneurs in solving economic, environmental and social challenges – or those that have been referred to as “wicked problems” (see graphic below).

Pre-pandemic things were looking shaky. Not one country was on track to complete the SDGs within a decade, according to the devex article, How off track are the SDGs, exactly? We don't know, but it might not matter. There is no other way to spin it: we were off the rails. I also believe there’s not a simple answer to how much the pandemic has impacted our trajectory in achieving the SDGs.

Positive developments have emerged

The adoption of digital technologies has accelerated notably during the pandemic. An obvious example of that is how rapidly the world adjusted to working remotely using video conferencing tools that have matured incredibly over the past year. We learned to manage teams from afar, orchestrate supply chains, oversee operations and excel with customer engagement – all with digital technologies. This has fostered increased collaboration and productivity beyond measure.

More specific to sustainability, adoption of digital tools has increased, such as the use of satellite data and analytics for real time water quality monitoring, agriculture management and water utility asset management (leak and infrastructure failure). The ability to more effectively manage water and agricultural production using digital technologies will directly support achieving SDG 6, “clean water and sanitation” and SDG 2, “zero hunger”.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about closing the gap between global water demand and supply?

The pace of innovation during the pandemic has accelerated, and for many public and private sector enterprises, the digital transformation fast track is no longer optional. According to Accenture, we’ve witnessed three years of transformation in a matter of three months.

We also need to look at the positive impact of the private sector in addressing the negative impacts of the pandemic. For example, companies like AB InBev through its 100+ Accelerator have identified newcomers that are contributing to solving complex issues such as water, climate, agriculture and waste. The 100+ Accelerator programme not only identifies and mentors startups, but invests in these companies and provides opportunities to pilot and scale them.

Many of these complex environmental issues are also tied to social issues, such as a lack of access to safe drinking water, the societal impact of climate change and lack of access to food. While the private sector can’t replace the role of the public sector, it can support the identification and scaling of innovative technologies and business models to contribute to achieving the SDGs.

Honest reflection to chart a path forward

It is clear that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on economies and has driven tens of millions of people into poverty. In September last year, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation outlined in its 2020 Goalkeepers report that when it comes to development and poverty trends, “…we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks,” and the findings report that there is a 7% increase in extreme poverty. This painful impact cannot be overstated.

However, the rapid pace of digital advancement and the rise of the private sector in combating the impact of the pandemic must be recognized and further accelerated. The next nine years may well be the roaring twenties – as I’ve likened it to water – characterized by a willingness to take social, industrial and technological risks as we embrace a renewed commitment to achieve the SDGs and rebuild better. We shouldn’t go back to the way things were. We should instead take the lessons learned from the pandemic and embrace a smarter way forward.

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