Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs: a primer for business on the First U.N. Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation

The first annual U.N. Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum) will meet next week on June 6th-7th at the United Nations in New York.  Participants will include Member States, UN organizations, civil society, academia, industry, the private sector, and authorized individuals such as scientists, sustainability change agents, innovators, and entrepreneurs.  USCIB representatives will attend the STI Forum in order to gauge opportunities for private sector engagement.

A glance at the provisional agenda shows an impressive line-up of academic, public sector, and U.N. speakers that will cover a range of topics. But is it reflective of the main actors involved in technology innovation and its deployment?

Surprisingly, business representation on the program seems rather limited.  Innovation and its deployment depends to a substantial degree on business, and this will be especially true concerning the SDGs’ deployment, which is intended to be universal across all countries and mobilize not just states, but also the private sector and civil society.  The business community represents a deep and wide “talent pool,” which the STI Forum and the UN as whole should tap in implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

From a business standpoint, questions for attention at next week’s session include:

  1. What specific mechanisms (e.g. networks or partnerships) will the STI Forum foster in order to leverage the resources of the business sector (micro-enterprises, cooperatives, small and medium enterprises, multinationals, state-owned enterprises)?
  2. Are there specific sustainable development priorities (i.e. inclusive growth, social equity and progress, environmental protection) the mechanisms will seek to prioritize over others?  How will these priorities and strategies for investment be decided upon?  How will business’ views on those priorities and their implementation be solicited?
  3. How will progress of STI Forum initiatives be measured?

Going into next week’s discussions, this post provides some useful background and structural explanation of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism and its objectives.

Where did the STI Forum Come From?  

The STI Forum meeting is convened by the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM), a new UN body established by the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, and first mentioned in the UN Rio+20 outcome, The Future We Want (Target 17.6).  Its mandate is to advance the technology components of the SDGs and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Agenda.

"Target 17.6
Enhance North-South, South-South and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation and enhance knowledge sharing on mutually agreed terms, including through improved coordination among existing mechanisms, in particular at the United Nations level, and through a global technology facilitation mechanism"

The TFM’s purpose is to support the achievement of the SDGs, further multi-stakeholder collaboration in that pursuit, and strengthen coherence and synergies among science and technology initiatives already operating within the UN system.  The STI Forum is one of three components of the TFM , which also includes:

  • an online platform and channel for information on existing STI measures, techniques, and programs;

  • a UN Inter-agency Task team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs (IATT)

The main engagement point for business in the TFM is the Multi-stakeholder 10-Member Group of Experts appointed by the Secretary-General to present ideas, guidance, and recommendations to the UN Inter-agency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (IATT).  Interestingly, the multi-stakeholder group’s first cohort has only one business representative, which seems less than desirable given the critical role business plays in sharing knowledge and expertise on technology issues.    

Nonetheless, the STI Forum provides an opportunity to begin a discussion about improving  opportunities for the private sector to engage in this important policy conversation with clear focus on the SDGs as the framework for action.

STI Forum Objectives/Framework

The STI Forum has several ambitious objectives:

  • to promote STI for the SDGs by Member States, mobilise action and partnerships

  • offer a platform for exchange on applying STI to the SDGs,

  • develop ideas for the TFM online platform.  

More specifically, the STI Forum aspires to present a venue for enabling interaction, matchmaking and the development of multi-stakeholder networks and partnerships that can help analyze technology needs and gaps as it pertains to scientific collaboration, innovation, and capacity-building in the context of achieving the SDGs.  

The following questions will guide the discussions next week:

1) Why are science, technology and innovation essential for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals?

2) What are the main opportunities and challenges – at policy, organisational and individual levels - for maximizing the contribution of science, technology and innovation to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals?

3) What are the key elements that countries and international organizations may need to take into account in formulating action plans and/or roadmaps for science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals?

4) How can we deploy existing knowledge and new, innovative solutions and technologies and make them more readily available to those who need them?

5) What would be success criteria for the STI Forum in the coming years? What questions should the STI Forum focus on?

For business, a critical area of interest in these discussions is the question of how to strengthen existing ecosystems for innovation and create them where they do not exist . Innovation ecosystems are the enabling environments necessary to promote innovation, particularly the foundational building block of functioning intellectual property rights regimes.

Where Does the New UN Technology Bank for LDCs Fit In?

Concurrently, the UN is instituting  a new Technology Bank (TB) for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in Istanbul, following from a 2011 commitment and subsequent support in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.  The TB LDCs now has a Governing Council and a dedicated trust fund that is officially open for voluntary contributions from Member States. The TB LDCs, whose development was supported by a High-Level Panel of Experts in 2015, is modeled after the United Nations University and is intended to strengthen national capabilities and provide expertise to LDCs to ensure that they are not left behind technologically.

"Target 17.8
Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology"

The Technology Bank for LDCs will consist of

  • a bank of patents to assist LDCs with accessing and using suitable technologies;

  • a Science, Technology, and Innovation Supporting Mechanism to aid with enhancing scientific research and innovation platforms of LDCs; and

  • a science and technology research repository to advance global networking of researchers and research institutions in LDCs.  

It aims to

  • enhance scientific research and innovation platforms,

  • encourage networking between researchers and research institutions,

  • assist these actors with access to and use of critical technologies,

  • pull together bilateral opportunities and backing by multilateral institutions and the private sector, improving on existing international initiatives.

Zeroing in on Innovation - Embedding The Real World in UN Technology Discussions

A key element of innovation ecosystems and their dissemination of know-how and technology are identifying and working with various pathways for technology transfer and cooperation - whether through private-private, public-private and other means.  While technology flows through a variety of cooperative and ODA channels, the private sector functions as a central agent of technology transfer and deployment.

As noted in the United Nations General Assembly Technology Bank and Science, Technology and Innovation Supporting Mechanism Dedicated to the Least Developed Countries Report of the Secretary-General:

"In their efforts to encourage and promote technology transfer, developed country governments are usually limited by two factors: (1) they do not own the vast majority of such technologies; (2) they cannot force the private sector to transfer its technologies. Incentives can therefore only take the form of encouragement, promotion and facilitation of projects which are part of a global and comprehensive approach to development...."

For business, this comprehensive approach to development in the context of the SDGs must work in harmony with  innovation ecosystems and global markets.  

Since the SDGs call for transforming  the economic and political relationships with developing, emerging, and developed countries, the STI Forum/Technology Bank should consider how to involve global AND local business communities, even in LDCs, to scale-up and spread innovation for the SDGs.  In addition, technological progress presents novel and cost-effective resolutions to challenges in key areas of sustainability such as climate change, healthcare and agriculture. As a result, it is vital that the STI Forum’s platform tie in to networks that enable the business sector to engage in partnerships that catalyze achieving the SDGs.

As business prepares to join the STI Forum discussions next week, we will be looking to bring a “real world” perspective and suggestions to utilize and incentivize private sector investment and action in their efforts to promote and scale up technology innovation for the SDGs.


Giovannini, Enrico, Ingeborg Niestroy, Mans Nilsson, Francoise Roure, and Michael Spanos.  2015.  The Role of Science, Technology and Innovation Policies to Foster the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Report of the Expert Group “Follow-up to Rio+20, notably the SDGs”  European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation Climate Action, Environment, Resource Efficiency, and Raw Materials

Brant, Jennifer, and Balaji Parthasarathy.  2015.  Innovation And Intellectual Property Series.  The Dynamics of Global Technology.  Pg 5. Research Paper 4  International Chamber of Commerce.