What is 'coopetition' and how can international organizations help?

Revitalizing global partnerships.

Revitalizing global partnerships. Image: Unsplash

Yunzhong Cheng
Partner Engagement Lead, Strategic Partnership, World Economic Forum, Tokyo
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SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals

  • "Cooperative competition" is the idea that competitors can benefit by working together.
  • Businesses must adopt this strategy to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • COVAX, which is working to bring COVID-19 vaccines to the world, is an example of this sort of global solution.

Businesses have an important role to play in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. According to one report, meeting the SDGs could also offer a $12 trillion business opportunity.

But tackling the toughest global challenges cannot be achieved by one company or sector alone. It requires something called “coopetition,” or “cooperative competition,” the idea that competitors can often benefit from cooperating with one another strategically.

However, too often the barriers to cooperation are too tough to overcome, and the rules of engagement are complicated.

To overcome these challenges, many businesses turn to the international organizations, which are often seen as neutral platforms for partnerships. SDG17 aims to realize opportunities to “revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.”

Why and how can international organizations help businesses unlock the benefits of coopetition?

Image: United Nations

Sharing knowledge

International organizations often bring profound knowledge of global development challenges. At the same time, businesses also share their knowledge and experience with the international organizations. It is the role of the international organization to clearly define what kind of knowledge is shared and protected when businesses cooperate with rivals.

For example, the Business Call to Action is a UN initiative that aims to accelerate progress towards the SDGs by challenging companies to develop inclusive business models that engage people at the base of the economic pyramid as consumers, producers, suppliers, distributors of goods and services, and employees. The platform shares examples of successful, profitable and scalable models for reaching communities and contributing to global development while withholding core knowledge about specific businesses.

In the case studies produced by the Business Call to Action Impact Lab, participating companies shared their own “Impact Value Chain” which mapped business goals, strategies and operations against outcomes related to the SDGs. The knowledge and experience shared in those case studies support a greater number of companies in understanding, providing and improving their impact.

Such sharing can further lead to changes in perceptions of impact measurement and management, helping businesses to understand dimensions of an impact area that they had not previously contemplated. This is particularly important when an international organization brings together stakeholders with opposing interests - such as in the case of inclusive businesses operating in the same sector - since it helps to create a common understanding of the development issues at stake.

Have you read?

Advancing technology

The contributions of the technologies are crucial to advancing the SDGs, given that 70% of the 169 Global Goal targets could be enabled by advanced technology applications. But in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology competition is fierce. Unlocking the potential opportunity to harness new technologies to accelerate the SDGs requires the cooperation of multi-stakeholders with divergent perspectives, and international organizations play a critical role in managing the complexity.

For example, the World Economic Forum’s 2030Vision platform is using a multi-stakeholder approach that brings together technology companies, governments, civil society and academia to collaborate on the responsible deployment of new technologies to deliver positive impact. “Coopetition” and multi-stakeholder engagement ensures participatory equity, accountability and transparency.

Through its multi-stakeholder dialogues and consultation, the platform published a report that mapped 345 technology applications across the SDGs. This provides all stakeholders with a broad understanding of technology applications that are currently being deployed to tackle the SDGs – helping to guide investment decisions, research and development (R&D) efforts and technology governance.

Multi-stakeholder engagement also helps scale up tech solutions to global development challenges by leveraging relationships with influential stakeholders with common interests and comparative advantages.

Another example, launched at the Davos Agenda Week in January 2021, the EDISON Alliance is building a “network of networks” to accelerate and foster unprecedented collaboration between the ICT community and other critical sectors of the economy by identifying and scaling new and existing strategies, projects and initiatives leveraging connectivity as a key lever across the SDGs.

Recovering together

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the demand for strengthening international cooperation to rise. International organizations’ neutral platforms create the conditions for trust among different stakeholders and serve as a mechanism for providing mutually acceptable solutions and win-win situations.

While developing and searching for COVID-19 vaccines has become a global competition, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator is a global collaboration that brings together governments, global health organizations, manufacturers, scientists, the private sector, civil society and philanthropy with the aim of providing innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. COVAX is the vaccines pillar of the accelerator, and it is a global solution to ensure that people in all corners of the world will have equal access to vaccines once they are available.

As shown by the examples above, multi-stakeholder engagement approach is increasingly used by international organizations in dealing with complex development issues, particularly in terms of sustainability, to strengthen capacities for engagement, effective participation and joint implementation of priority development actions by different stakeholder groups.

The critical point here - and the essence of partnership as a sustainable development tool - is the belief that working in partnership will achieve greater outcomes that no single organization could achieve alone.

Combining resources in this manner requires a higher degree of strategic planning, attention to standard processes, sensitivity to political context and cultural differences, as well as a commitment to building mutual trust. International organizations’ neutral platforms and multi-stakeholder engagement approach help businesses understand these issues in greater detail. This should support businesses in the process of identifying, designing and managing effective partnerships that deliver the greatest value, and to think more ambitiously and creatively about how they partner under “coopetition”.

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