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.


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.