Science, Technology, and innovation for the sdgs: highlights from the first u.n. multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology, and innovation & the role of business


“In this Forum, we should not just be talking about technology innovation in general - what we are interested in here are transformative technologies for the SDGs”

•    Ambassador Macharia Kamau (Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN & co-chair STI Forum)

Can the STI Forum Itself Be Transformative?

The first annual U.N. Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum) met on June 6th-7th at the United Nations in New York.   Ambassador Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, and Mr. Vaughan Terukian, Science Advisor to the US Secretary of State, chaired the discussions.

Part of the UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM), the STI Forum is intended to:

- help analyze technology needs and gaps for scientific collaboration, innovation, and capacity-building to achieve the SDGs;

- support development of multi-stakeholder networks and partnerships to advance STI for the SDGs. 

So, will the STI Forum itself be a “transformative” body in the UN, and break the prevailing North-South gridlock on ‘technology transfer and cooperation?”  It is too soon to judge the impact it will have, but its first meeting gave reasons for optimism.  Conducted as an interactive and open dialogue, it’s format was a considerable departure from many UN meetings, giving almost equal time to government, UN, NGO and business speakers throughout the session.  The Co-Chairs and moderators added their guiding questions, inviting comments on next steps.

Business at the STI Forum

Business weighed-in throughout the two day discussion, bringing practical guidance with a focus on establishing supportive governance frameworks and exploring a wide diversity of partnerships.  A prime example was the intervention of Solomon Assefa, Head of Research for IBM Africa, who presented the company’s approach to advancing not just their own innovation initiatives, but their involvement of their local community through partnerships, training and other collaborative efforts.  He emphasized the importance to use all vehicles for innovation, whether internal or in multi-stakeholder discussions.  

Louise Kantrow, ICC’s Permanent Representative to the UN, stated the commitment of the Global Business Alliance for 2030 to mobilizing private sector innovation in technology and practice for the SDGs. 

Norine Kennedy, USCIB’s Vice President for Environment, Energy and Strategic International Engagement highlights that innovative technology’s potential to advance the SDGs depended on broad dissemination and deployment:

"Whole of economy approaches will be needed, and innovation ecosystems have to function effectively, have to be economically sustainable, have to provide shared value in the global marketplace.   This depends not only on STI policy, but also on trade policy, IP protection, good governance, and other key areas."

Innovation Ecosystems for the SDGs: A Wide Range of Options Tabled at the STI Forum

The emphasis throughout the two day Forum was on enabling policies and practices at national and regional levels, with a broad consideration of different approaches to creating and reinforcing “innovation ecosystems,” whether through partnerships, public-private coalitions, or academic and R&D incubators.

In particular, the Forum’s Ministerial Dialogue on “Effective Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Frameworks” featured notable policy initiatives and recommendations: 

China described its national STI for SDG Strategy (“STI for Social Development”) including the formation of a green technology bank as a supporting mechanism for innovation.  China has also established bilateral channels, which allowed 10,000 scientists from 120 developing countries to receive training within the country, and has instituted 189 national sustainable development pilots.  

Kenya presented its approach to STI policy as an integral component of its national Vision 2030 Plan for global competitiveness and economic development.  The comprehensive policy package includes STI recommendations for priority SDGs, including jobs and economic growth, poverty, health and gender equality.  While the presentation highlighted “an IPR regime” as part of Kenya’s STI infrastructure, it also referred to “facilitation of acquisition of IPRs by scientists, researchers and innovators,” which could be interpreted in several ways.

Chile discussed its initiatives for STEM education, and the encouragement of open innovation platforms for local entrepreneurs in order to facilitate the adoption and adaptation of new technologies.  

The International Labor Organization (ILO) underscored that the future of work is affected by STI through its effects on productive capacity.  Challenges and opportunities include the impacts on employment presented by automation trends, “ultra flexibilization,” and the emergence of so-called “zero contracts.”  

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) noted that it actively assists countries with reviews of science and technology policies to identify areas of intervention and then develops action plans in which good practices and lessons learned serve as a basis for policy adjustments.

Continuing and Broadening the Dialogue in the STI Forum and TFM

The TFM needs to advance dialogue, action and partnership on technological innovation in practical, inclusive and prioritized ways.  In other words, the TFM and STI Forum need to construct their own “eco-systems for innovation” inside the UN’s institutional architecture.  

What would that include?  In our view, the TFM should move to involve business experts, either in expanding the “Group of 10” on its existing Advisory Committee or including representative business experts in some advisory capacity.  If the STI Forum does decide to move to provide technology roadmaps or expert working groups, as the Co-Chairs suggested, the specific topics should seek the broadest engagement of business sectors, not only along sectoral lines, but also across supply and value chains.  

The first UN STI Forum was noteworthy: it set the stage for out of the box dialogue and consideration of collaboration to share knowledge, promote innovation and jump-start R&D relevant to the SDGs across education, academia and business. The private sector is ready to offer perspectives, know-how and experience to inform its further work.