This article was originally published by UNDP and is republished with permission.
Businesses, alongside government and civil society, will have an increasingly active role in collaborative solutions to address today’s most pressing societal challenges described in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With SDG Accelerator, a new innovation programme initiated by UNDP in Denmark, we hope to illustrate how the SDGs can be operationalized in a business context, creating business benefits and impact on the goals.
More and more companies recognize the SDGs as levers for innovation, growth and better competitive performance. If we are to achieve the Goals by 2030, it is not a question of whether to involve the private sector in development or not. It is rather a question of how. How do we support companies to develop innovative business solutions where the goal of profit — the raison d’être of the private sector — is not at odds with the objectives of inclusiveness and sustainability addressed in the 2030 Agenda?
SDGs as a lever for innovation
The vast majority of reports, papers or articles about development usually depart from the many issues and challenges yet to be solved. Whilst recognizing these, we also need an increased focus on the opportunities yet to be seized.
Recently, at the UNDP Nordic Representation Office, we have, with support from the Danish Industry Foundation and together with Monitor Deloitte, initiated an innovation programme in Denmark, called SDG Accelerator, which aims to do exactly this. Through the SDG Accelerator, we use innovation as an engine to open the doors to the broader sustainability agenda for the companies. The programme aspires to accelerate business solutions with the SDGs by taking 30 Danish small and medium-sized companies through an innovation journey in which we look at the SDGs as a catalogue of the world’s greatest unmet needs. This is where solutions are needed. While the private sector can bring an ability to quickly adapt and innovate, UNDP, with its on-the-ground networks and specialized knowledge, can pave the way for businesses to contribute to the SDGs. This partnership between UNDP and companies is perfectly positioned to bring new solutions that address some of the roadblocks we are facing in reaching the ambitious targets of the 2030 Agenda.
Despite being in the early stages, most of the companies in the SDG Accelerator programme are coming up with innovations that tackle some of the most persistent challenges in our world. The participating companies may be small and medium sized, but their solutions will have the potential to create a better world for all of us.
New business solutions with the SDGs
The SDG solutions that the involved companies have come up with encompass a wide range of innovation in action. Some are pursuing new ground-breaking products and services, others new business models: from cleantech firm, Plastix, recycling discarded fishing nets, trawls and other post-use plastic waste fractions from all over the world, into valuable recycled “green plastics” that can feed into the production of furniture or shoe soles; DESMI Ro-Clean envisioning a new solution that integrates collection of plastic debris from rivers, which they will convert into energy through pyrolysis in Indian rivers; to fish feed producer Aller Aqua wanting to build a digital educational solution to address the knowledge gap in Nigeria, where educational opportunities and knowledge about sustainable fish production is poor.
There’s also a Danish IT company, BLUETOWN seeking to increase Internet availability in developing countries by setting up solar-powered base stations that establish WiFi-hotspots in remote areas, primarily in Africa and India. BLUETOWN wishes to provide local users with the ability to access relevant content without using a “paid” internet connection by offering a local hard disk solution enabling private and public stakeholders to distribute relevant information easily, free of charge for the end-users. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that today 52 percent of the world’s population lack internet access, and as such this solution can, for instance, help secluded health clinics drastically and reduce error diagnoses by up to 80 percent.
One-year innovation journey
All the companies are supported throughout the one-year innovation process by UNDP and Monitor Deloitte to develop their ideas. As a trusted and neutral partner to governments and multiple stakeholders, with deep knowledge about sustainable human development and an exemplary level of transparency, UNDP is uniquely placed to drive such an initiative for the SDGs. To achieve the ambitious targets of the SDGs, the large palette of resources and competencies of stakeholders from different sectors must be brought into play. We need to think in new partnerships that bring together different ways of thinking. By applying the entrepreneurial mindsets and business acumen of the companies with innovation expertise from Deloitte and UNDP’s global presence, in-depth contextual knowledge and strong network of experts, we can bring to light new opportunities and steer us towards a more sustainable future.
The innovation process includes a range of workshops with the companies. First, these workshops focus on problem framing where we develop a well-defined description of the issue the companies want to address relying on human-centred design. Then comes an ideation phase where the companies come up with a multitude of ideas that address the SDG challenge they wish to solve. Through the enrichment phase, we test assumptions, and finally we achieve integration of the solution to users and customers.
It is easier to be part of the solution, than part of the problem
It has been a driving factor of motivation for the companies to focus on the challenges they wish to solve through innovation.
No one actor, neither the UN nor the private sector, can innovate and develop the required solutions alone. With SDG Accelerator, we are moving away from silos to inter-linkages, to seeking synergies, and inspiring other companies and organizations by showing that the challenges raised in the SDGs are, in fact, opportunities. To have business goals that go hand-in-hand with the Sustainable Development Goals is not only possible but also profitable. We hope to see more companies join the SDG movement.