2030 Agenda

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.


Leveraging Existing Private Sector Sustainability Reporting Frameworks

Tracking all that business is doing to advance the SDGs begins with tuning in to the private sector wavelength on sustainability reporting

Some thoughts on recognizing existing corporate sustainability reporting frameworks within the 2030 Agenda’s follow-up and review mechanisms to galvanize greater business engagement

In the Sustainable Development Summit of September 2015’s outcome document, Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Member States in article 67 “call on all businesses to apply their creativity and innovation to solving sustainable development challenges.” Indeed, that is what business does best -- innovate for problem-solving -- and last year saw major business groups and companies stating their commitment to carry forward 2015’s outcomes. And while SDG target 12.6 “[e]ncourage[s] companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle,” business engagement will go far beyond that: nearly every goal and target are relevant to the business community and will no doubt rely on business involvement to be achieved.

If business’ role is now fully recognized (as compared to the approach taken by the Millennium Development Goals), then presumably there is an expectation that these actions - beyond just sustainable practices and product innovations - in all their diversity are to be reported. Yet serious questions remain about how that would work: Where is this information supposed to go and how will it be utilized in the UN system? How will corporate contributions to sustainability - either through core business operations or philanthropic, CSR efforts - be counted on the national and global scale and integrated into ongoing national and global policy decisions on where to focus our collective energies in the 2030 Agenda?

Unfortunately, the UN currently satisfies itself mostly with a handful of recurring private sector speakers providing anecdotes about their company’s contributions - but there is so much more activity going unnoticed in terms of reporting of business contributions to the thematic goals and specific targets which now comprise the SDGs. The UN is frankly not tuned in to the business wavelength.

At the moment, there are no plans to integrate the emergent SDG indicator framework - which aims at tracking Member State progress towards fulfilling the SDGs - with the myriad existing corporate reporting frameworks, which for decades have enabled companies to report on their contributions and impacts on sustainable development. Nor has there been an invitation on behalf of the UN community to adequately recognize the full breadth of the private sector contributions to the SDGs in a more methodical, statistically sophisticated manner. The slight exception has been the inclusion by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of Business for 2030 as an action network in its Partnerships for SDGs Platform.

This is a substantial missed opportunity. A more formal platform for acknowledgement would dramatically incentivize increased activities from the private sector, and would give true meaning to the notion of a revitalized partnership that lies at the core of the 2030 Agenda.  The power of such a collaborative platform, particularly one paired with existing Official Development Assistance spending, would also enhance our learning about which goals and targets are receiving too much or too little attention in terms of resources and programs so that reprioritization and rebalancing can occur as needed. A good example of the potential of such an approach is on display at the new philanthropy project - SDG Funders - which blends philanthropic donations alongside ODA flows in an accessible and interactive fashion.

Our Business for 2030 catalogue of case studies is a step in the right direction, as it matches company contributions to specific Goals and targets. But this collection is anecdotal and highlights the best of the best in order to demonstrate what is possible to the UN community and to galvanize others in the private sector to take action. What we will need, however, is a big data approach to truly leverage the insights and collective learning that integrating these separate strands of data might yield. There are no doubt technical and likely political complexities to such integration, but the building blocks are in place.

Some initial steps in the right direction

On the business side, corporate reporting on sustainability issues has been dramatically increasing for years. According to the Governance & Accountability institute, over 80 percent of the S&P 500 now files a CSR or sustainability report. In addition, KPMG noted in 2015 that 92 percent of the world’s largest 250 companies produce a CSR or sustainability report.

The trend towards greater reporting on sustainability has had a meteoric curve in recent years, which have seen 180 policies and initiatives on sustainability reporting introduced in 45 countries, roughly two thirds of which are mandatory. All evidence suggests that the trend will continue. For example, the World Federation of Exchanges - the world’s global association for 64 stock exchanges and clearinghouses - recently released a guidance recommending 34 key performance indicators for ESG listing requirements and there are now 38 such exchanges participating in the Sustainable Stock Exchange Initiative.  

Investors continue to respond in kind, with the number of assets under management invested pursuant to socially responsible investment strategies has also increased exponentially in recent years. It would be even better if leading reporting frameworks continued on their trajectory of harmonization so that businesses can reflect what they are a doing in a single, coherent language enabling others to more readily understand their contributions to sustainability and progress on the SDGs.

And what about at the UN? A few initial steps have been taken that could lead towards greater integration, but no one within the UN system has yet stated that as a goal.  For example, the UN has created space for the private sector to participate in the High-Level Political Forum in July 2016, which will be the first accounting of progress on implementation of the SDGs for member states, so there is an opportunity at least for business to share what it is doing - again, anecdotally. In addition, the UN Global Compact, GRI and the WBCSD have jointly created the SDG Compass, which correlates SDG targets to existing corporate reporting frameworks. Another initiative, Measuring What Matters (MWM), is separately seeking to align corporate reporting with the emergent UN SDG framework and even recommended as such to the UN back in 2014. But from a policy and organizational perspective, this integration has yet to be placed on the agenda.

Moving Forward

Over the course of the next fifteen years, and beyond the 2030 Agenda, the business community will play a leading role in mobilizing resources, forming partnerships, and finding innovative ways to alleviate poverty by contributing to economic growth and revolutionizing production processes to be less impactful on and more efficient with our planet’s resources.  Corporate sustainability reporting that is officially recognized -- not mandated, just recognized -- by the United Nations could potentially stimulate increased engagement from the private sector.  At the same time, that reporting needs to reflect and accommodate what business is already disclosing and how.  

Now that we’ve entered the SDGs’ implementation phase, it is time to follow through on the bold ambition for a more collaborative partnership with business; this depends on the UN system becoming attuned to how business tracks and reports its sustainability actions. Member States should evaluate whether current working methods really allow for true partnership and what they could be missing out on by not deepening the private sector’s engagement in policy processes and strategic planning. The SDG indicators are a perfect place to start experimenting with improved working methods.  

New UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism open for business -- but is it open TO Business?

Business has been keenly interested in informing U.N. deliberations to design a global Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) since it was first proposed in the Rio +20 outcomes in 2012.  As most innovation emanates from business and collaborations with business, and considerable resources are expended to take technology from concept to market, business has much to offer and a lot at stake vis a vis global initiatives on technology to advance sustainability and the way it gets deployed.

The new TFM has just been officially launched at the UN. The success of the TFM will depend on its ability to bring in meaningful engagement by a variety of stakeholders, especially the private sector. At this early stage, questions remain about whether the TFM is constituted to deliver on its mandate and add value beyond several existing technology bodies at the UN - particularly on the question of its ability to incorporate the views of business.

What is the TFM?

The TFM was launched during the United Nations Summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda in September 2015.   It also figured prominently as an outcome of the July 2015 Addis Ababa Conference on Financing for Development (see para 123 of Addis Ababa Action Agenda) and has received support from a range of stakeholders as a critical means to promote science, technology, and innovation to advance progress on all of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With the launch of the TFM, stakeholders hope to have better access to the technical cooperation necessary to combat climate change, alleviate poverty, and ultimately achieve the SDGs.

Prior to the TFM's launch, an informal working group of several UN agencies, the Word Intellectual Property Organization and the World Bank had led the UN's work on technology facilitation.   Going forward, a new Inter-agency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (IATT) open to every UN agency will work across seven work streams. Among other activities, the IATT will

  • Create a collaborative, multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology and innovation for the SDGs
  • Create an online platform
  • Map existing science, technology and innovation initiatives, conduct background research and develop reports in support of the TFM’s activities
  • Carry out a UN capacity building programme on technology facilitation for the SDGs
  • Develop partnerships and advance fund raising

These work streams and the current structure of the TFM do combine several of the building blocks that have proven successful in other multilateral technology bodies and initiatives, but a critical component – engagement with the business community – may be underdeveloped in the current structure of the TFM, as discussed below.

Learning lessons from existing technology facilitation mechanisms

In our view, there are some important lessons to learn from previously existing technology facilitation mechanisms – particularly those in the green technology space – that are essential for the TFM to incorporate so that it adds value to already existing initiatives. 

Some of the success factors to be considered for the TFM are exemplified by existing bodies, such as: 

  • The Climate Technology Centre & Network (CTCN), which works alongside the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) alongside a consortium of other institutional partners, and
  • WIPO Green,  established by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 2013. 

The CTCN is a satellite organization of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  CTCN

  • facilitates the transfer of climate-friendly technology by providing technical assistance at the request of developing countries,
  • creates access to information and knowledge on climate technologies, and
  • fosters collaboration between business and academic institutions.

These services address barriers that limit the development and transfer of climate technologies and works to create an enabling environment for innovation and increased investments in climate technology projects. CTCN's demand-driven approach ensures that countries have assessed their own needs first, which also signals the requisite ‘buy-in’ so that technology will be usefully deployed.

WIPO Green is “an interactive marketplace that connects technology and service providers with those seeking innovative solutions.” It is comprised of an online database and network whose members include SMEs, industry associations, intergovernmental organizations, and other stakeholders. Since its inception, WIPO Green has contributed to green technology innovation and transfer in addition to adding greater transparency to the market for green technology.

CTCN, WIPO Green, and other successful technology facilitation approaches share a common thread – strong partnerships with the private sector that leverage the sector’s insight on the factors that enable new technology. It would be a shame if the TFM doesn’t take advantage of the business community's considerable experience or doesn't pay attention to the need for appropriate enabling environments and providing country-specific assistance.

What is the role for the private sector in the TFM?

In launching the TFM, the President of the UN General Assembly, H.E. Mogens Lykketoft, “stressed the importance of having strong participation from the private sector and that the role of the states was to provide the enabling environment for that.” Indeed, business needs to be embedded in the TFM process in order to leverage the resources, including investment, innovation, and know-how, that business can bring towards its implementation.

The main engagement point for business in the TFM would appear to come in the multi-stakeholder 10-Member Group of experts appointed by the Secretary-General to provide ideas, guidance and recommendations to the UN Inter-agency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (IATT) as it carries out its main tasks described above.

This first group of experts serves at the discretion of the Secretary-General, but nominally for an initial two-year term.  Unfortunately, this multi-stakeholder group’s first cohort has  just one business representative – not exactly a proportional number of the represented stakeholders (business, academia and civil society) as was projected by the nascent IATT-STI in its first meeting (noting among other criteria, the need for "balance of representatives of civil society, private sector (including philanthropies), scientific and technological community;").  

Nor is one business representative really proportional to the role and insights business can bring to the discussion. Questions may arise as to exactly how the different perspectives of the vast constituents of the global business community can be adequately represented in the members’ work with such limited representation.

Seeking Supportive Innovation Ecosystems

The Alliance for Clean Technology Innovation (ACTI), has stressed the importance of strong intellectual property (IP) protection to technological innovation and dissemination.  There is no one-size-fits all approach to enabling innovation and investment, and ACTI has argued for targeted, creative policies that are tailored to meet country needs. These elements, in addition to collaboration among governments, multilateral institutions, academia and business, come together to form supportive ecosystems for innovation that are necessary for clean technology innovation to combat global climate change.

One initial development in setting up the TFM is puzzling:  the IATT-STI's first act during its first meeting in October 2015 was to delete the reference to property rights in its Terms of Reference, in order to "avoid possible legal and controversial discussions." The meeting summary notes that "It was highlighted that the principles of intellectual property rights could be treated in other places other than the TORs, if necessary (e.g. any contracts or terms of use related to external products, such as the online platform)." While we do not know what the draft reference to intellectual property rights said, taking the topic off the table entirely is arguably not a step in the right direction.

The outcome documents of the SDGs and the Addis Abba Action Agenda both recognized the need for the 2030 Agenda to forge a “revitalized” global partnership for sustainable development. We hope that as the Inter-agency Task Team moves forward with its work, it will find supplementary ways to get the business community’s perspectives on its various work streams, and in the TFM itself.


Alliance for Clean Technology Innovation, Climate Change Policies for Clean Technology Innovation and Dissemination (11 May 2009) pp. 2-3.