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Why Innovation Is Critical to Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

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By Kali Taylor, October 11, 2017

At times, 17 goals and 169 targets can seem overwhelming (not to mention the 231 indicators to measure the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]).

But the 2030 Agenda was specifically designed to show the complexity of sustainable development and the interconnectedness of economics, social issues and the environment.

The global community now widely accepts that an integrated approach is needed to implement the SDGs. The concept has proven more difficult to achieve in practice, however.  We frequently hear terms like “silo breaking,” “policy coherence,” “indivisibility,” “nexus thinking” and “whole of government approaches.”

But how do you turn the theory of integration into action? 

At IISD, we are trying to answer just that: experimenting with new methods of building partnerships to drive innovative and integrated approaches.

“If our true goal is integration, for that to work we really need this: integration of viewpoints and learning from each other." 

The Innovation Sprint recently launched in Geneva to test partnership-building with a diverse group of individuals representing a variety of institutions, disciplines, experience levels and backgrounds. The 25 people in the cohort come from backgrounds ranging from human rights to climate change to blockchain technology to youth empowerment to AIDS eradication. Many of them are stepping completely out of their comfort zones to apply their experience in new ways, to new topics. 

"I participated in the Innovation Sprint because of the diverse group of people around the table,” said Maximilian Mueller, a Policy Officer at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

At IISD we are experimenting with new methods of building partnerships to drive innovative and integrated approaches to achieving the SDGs. 

The cohort spent the summer exploring the theory behind concepts such as design thinking, assumption testing, question framing, systems thinking, leverage points and complexity. These concepts allowed participants to understand how human-centred approaches can lead to better outcomes by including divergent perspectives and rooting solutions in empathy. Systems thinking methodologies provided participants with tools to see the links between goals and not just the goals themselves.

“If our true goal is integration, for that to work we really need this: integration of viewpoints and learning from each other," Max said.

In September, the group met for the Innovation Sprint Kick-Off Workshop and identified areas where they could find common ground for collaboration. Four themes were identified, and the teams mapped key issues for each theme and identified design questions to test.

Participatory Infrastructure

Exploring how citizens and individuals can play a more participatory role in the infrastructure around them and how it enables many dimensions of everyday life. This team is focusing on energy infrastructure and exploring big data as a means of creating more participation in infrastructure development.

Humans’ Relationship to Food

Seeking to better understand people’s relationship to food, both in terms of how it is produced and how it is consumed. From the production side, the group is interested in incentives. From the consumption side, they are interested in early adopters (children) and local food production. They are also looking at food waste for both production and consumption. 

Financial System Transformation

Looking specifically at the Swiss financial system and exploring how the local finance community could be mobilized to be a model for how mainstream financial institutions can play into a new, sustainable finance paradigm.

Digital for Social

Exploring how access to technology can enable new business models and sustainable development outcomes. 

 

To be clear, we are not claiming that these themes are completely new, revolutionary or groundbreaking for sustainable development. We know there is a wide array of work already underway to advance each of these topics, but we believe each of these themes can benefit from a new partnership-building approach. 

“What excited me about the Sprint was tackling real challenges and finding people who want practical outcomes."

In the coming weeks, the cohort will continue to gather information and compile relevant resources. One of the most important next steps is interviewing stakeholders who may be able to provide new perspectives on their themes. 

Later in the year, the group will come together for another facilitated workshop, this time focused on ideation. Here they will develop concrete projects that will be taken forward. 

"So much of the talk about the SDGs is at the policy and regulation levels,” said Harri Toivonen, a Cooperation Associate at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. “What excited me about the Sprint was tackling real challenges and finding people who want practical outcomes."

The Innovation Sprint recently launched in Geneva to test partnership-building with a varied group of individuals representing a variety of institutions, disciplines, experience levels and backgrounds. 

At IISD, we believe that this experimental process can help us to learn more about the kinds of models, supports and resources required to build real partnerships between diverse actors that focus on the needs of countries and communities delivering SDGs.

That’s the kind of transformation and integrated thinking required of the 2030 Agenda and that’s what we aim to build with the Innovation Sprint.

A full album of photos from the September workshop can be accessed here.