Unlocking innovation is key to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals

Why the UK government must include a broader group of stakeholders and communities to unearth the innovation required to drive UN SDGs

27Feb

That the modern world can be a challenging place to live and work is something that few would dispute. Whether it's poverty, hunger, gender inequality or climate change, the planet is facing a wide range of challenges that must be addressed if its long-term future is to be secured and it is to become a better and fairer place to live.

That's why in 2015, the UN launched its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a "global blueprint for dignity, peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future". As part of this, the UN announced 17 different but interconnected Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by 193 UN member states and all designed to drive change in their respective areas.

It is the responsibility of both the private and public sector in the 193-member states to make each SDG happen, but most initiatives are driven by government. The UK government has made some progress so far, but what can be done to unearth the ideas to take UK innovation to the next level and achieve the SDGs in the UK?

Can the UK do even more?

Although the UN SDGs were almost universally welcomed when they were first announced, the UK has subsequently entered a highly chaotic and uncertain time politically. With government attention focused hugely on Brexit, the time and resource for many other areas of policy has not been what it might have been otherwise, and SDGs have perhaps suffered from this as much as anything.

There is also the question of SDG-fatigue. Faced with an essential but immense set of challenges, the pressure to deliver on SDGs may lead to more practical and achievable goals being set at a national level, instead of more ambitious goals that could make a more significant impact. Each member state must present at least one review of progress to the UN, and the UK's Voluntary National Review of the SDGs will take place in July 2019.

What progress has taken place in the UK will become much clearer then, but it's essential to bear in mind for the UK government that every initiative counts and every new idea to help solve these issues is valuable.

A more inclusive approach to SDGs

Whatever the progress made to this point, it is clear that there is a stark need for sustainable innovation – ideas that can grow, develop and ultimately deliver something truly impactful –to support the UK and its SDGs. To achieve sustainable innovation, it requires several different elements, including:

A broader ecosystem of stakeholders: Who is best placed to come up with an idea that would help address good health and well-being – SDG #3? It really could be anyone. Yes, there are people that are especially knowledgeable and experienced in such matters, but the germ of a good idea can come from anyone and anywhere.

That's why SDGs should be approached in the UK by targeting a much broader ecosystem of potential contributors than has been to this point. This should of course include the government department most connected with a particular SDG – the NHS for health-related SDGs – and this is already happening across several goals. Specific teams in other ministries, counterparts in other member states, community groups, businesses, not-for-profits, the general public…and the list could go on of people to include in the generation of ideas to achieve the SDGs both locally and globally.

A culture to foster innovation: The next stage is being able to filter those ideas, so government can focus on the innovations that will really have an impact on SDGs. This involves developing a culture of innovation, a long-term approach of collaboration and encouraging diversity of opinion. Those involved must feel trusted and have the time and energy required to innovate and from there ideas can be developed and grown.

The right environment: The next element to deliver on SDGs is the right environment, which involves strong and committed leadership. Senior government figures must set the tone and make it clear they are willing to take risks and learn from failure. The setting of goals is also important. When the overarching objectives are as grand and important as SDGs, incremental goals along the way keep people focused and motivated whilst progress can be tracked. SDGs can also be tied into existing strategic and innovation goals, further cementing the environment for innovation.

Few ideas appear fully formed and ready to implement and that is likely to be the case with the ideas that will have a positive effect on SDGs. To deliver those ideas it needs a governmental culture as outlined above, that gives people the freedom to shape the forward direction required, building their motivation to engage with innovation.

Crowdsourcing ideas and innovation are proven tactics in business and many organizations are using it to great effect. But it is equally applicable to government and with targets such as the UN SDGs, which are amongst the most important challenges the planet will ever face, the UK government must take its innovation around SDGs to the next level.


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