SDGS, INNOVATION AND IMPACT — HOW TO CONNECT THE DOTS

Julia Stamm
12 min readJan 25, 2022
Credits: Harvepino (istockphoto.com)

This article is co-authored by Julia Stamm (Founder & CEO, The Futures Project, Germany), Ramona Liberoff (Impact and Investment Advisor, UK), Sébastien Mena (Professor, Hertie School, Germany), Francisco Santolo (CEO & Founder, Scalabl, UK), Jennifer Shirar (Project Assistant, The Futures Project, Germany), Leehe Skuler (Co-Founder & Executive Director, Global Impact Tech Alliance, Israel) and Aditya Singh (Director, Athena School of Management, India).

Whether we are prepared or not, the consequences of today’s actions are charging towards us like a herd of gray rhinos while we stand frozen in their path. Every moment of delay, our opportunity to jump out of harm’s way only shrinks.

This paper offers a remedy to this pressing problem. Pulling together key insights from a panel discussion on the topic of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Innovation and Impact organised by The Futures Project, it offers actionable steps for how we can adapt society, education, business and finance to meet the world’s urgent challenges, including sustainably facing up to the climate crisis.

Any solution will need to acknowledge the interconnectedness of our systems, societies and economies, along with its vulnerabilities. SDGs are not a shopping list but an active and interconnected system. Using the UN goals as a framework, this paper encourages us to rethink how we structure society, prioritise pedagogical themes and incentivise and provide values for businesses and finance.

If we hope to side-step the rhinos’ charge, we clearly need significant changes. But how can we ensure this change is for the better and not the worse? This article incorporates advice from experts in a range of relevant fields to answer exactly this question. As a society we need to open our minds to empathy, nurture the habit of reflecting on the future and recognise our collective power to change. We won’t return to normal, but how we rebuild is in our hands.

INTRODUCTION

Sustainable development, as defined by Gro Harlem Brundtland and her colleagues in “Our common Future” in 1987 is “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.”

Adopting a sustainable development frame helps us to understand the world, our role in shaping it, and the challenges we are facing. It requires us to see and comprehend our world in its complexity and its interconnectedness.

Brundtland’s definition of sustainable development urges us to think beyond ourselves — to think into the future and act for the future. This thinking is reflected the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Launched in 2015 as part of the UN 2030 Agenda, the SDGs are a blueprint of the challenges that people and planet are facing — challenges we have to address. The SDGs are defined as a way to help us to acknowledge, understand and tackle the world’s wickedest problems. They provide a map of sorts for uncovering what is amiss.

Where do we stand today, six years after the official announcement of the SDGs? The 2020 SDG Report states: “One third of our way into the SDG journey, the world is not on track to achieve the Global Goals by 2030. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, progress has been uneven, and more focused attention was needed in most areas. The pandemic abruptly disrupted implementation towards many of the SDGs and, in some cases, turned back decades of progress.

Hence, it is quite clear that the situation is far from looking good. We struggle to gain significant ground when it comes to implementing the SDGs. The “decade of action” threatens to become a “decade of inaction”.

The SDGs were also explicitly designed to engage the private sector in addressing the world’s most pressing challenges. However, until recently, the business world didn’t really seem to care much about the SDGs and their role in contributing to their realisation. However, judging from recent developments, this has changed. Let’s just look at the grand speeches during the virtual World Economic Forum and promises of a “Great Reset”.

Nonetheless, the question remains whether things have really and truly changed, whether the actions taken (will) go beyond pure window-dressing. In addition to clearly showcasing the interconnectedness of our systems, societies, economies, the current crisis has also exposed the vulnerabilities of these interconnected systems, the interconnectedness of our societal problems. And it’s not over yet. We will not go back to normal. Or will we?

In this article, we want to reflect on the SDG’s as a framework for business, on the role of innovation to address our global challenges and how this all relates to the central question of impact.

SOCIETY

Society is what we make it. Everything that happens in this world is related to our decisions. Our way of coordinating, communicating and deciding results in poverty, misery and hunger in the middle of a world of abundance. While the number of billionaires in this world is increasing, we come across campaigns that tell us that children can be educated or fed for only $1 a day. Our planet’s resources are finite while our drive for consumption never stops. The contradictions we have normalised are untenable.

Justice, peace, hunger, health, poverty — these are very human challenges. They are human created, and they are our responsibility to solve. Still, we resist taking a clear-eyed view of the situation. If we imagine the imminent consequences of today’s actions — our changing climate, for example — as charging gray rhinos, it is as if we are standing frozen in their path, our opportunity to jump out of harm’s way diminishing with every moment. If we imagine unexpected societal shocks as rarely-glimpsed black swans, we still act surprised to see them, even though we know we have created conditions that precipitate their arrival.

The future will be full of black swans and gray rhinos, and it will only become more complex, as technology is starting to democratize. A new normal, a return to an imagined equilibrium, will not occur without active redirection. The SDGs offer a road map for this intervention with a set of systematic, intersectional goals. Sustainable development means overlapping systems, and these goals should be understood as a system, too; as a reflection of the complexity and interconnectedness of today’s biggest challenges.

Confronting today’s biggest challenges also means understanding how these challenges extend beyond immediate time and place. The environmentalist Bill McKibben is a proponent of “7 generation thinking”, a concept that is often associated with indigenous Iroquois tradition and which holds that the choices we make today should result in a better, more sustainable world seven generations into the future. Nurturing our ability to think beyond our immediate selves, beyond the moments, communities, and surrounding we inhabit, will help us move beyond mechanistic ways of thinking about systems of input and output. This is an essential skill, and one we can practice: being reflective about the future and how our actions today shape it may not be a habit for us now, but it is a habit we can nurture, even in our day to day activities.

EDUCATION

Creating a sustainable future will require strong moral leaders in all fields, from all walks of life, and in all levels of society. Starting with formal education of young people just beginning their careers and their lives as adult citizens of the world, we can begin to incorporate the SDGs and sustainability as central, guiding pedagogical themes. The idea is simple: educate everyone about sustainability and SDGs. Schools and universities can (and indeed, are beginning to) implement sustainability as a standard subject. This can begin during primary school socialization or even before, as sustainability education is as much about instilling values as it is about academic or technical expertise. Helping children grow a sense of wonder, curiosity about the world, and an internal drive to innovate will help them grow into adults who are naturals at caring for the planet.

In a way, we are lucky. The future of our planet lays on the shoulders of a new generation, which is a generation that is open to impact, open to change and aware of the people around them, as evidenced by youth-led movements for climate and social justice around the world. We need to back them up, we need to equip them with the tools to lead, and we need to tell them: go for it, make it happen.

Business schools and university training programs can also modify their curricula to reflect value systems rather than stand-alone approaches to individual disciplines. For example, the Athena School of Management in Mumbai organizes its curriculum under four value systems: impact leadership, stakeholder management instead of shareholder management, circular and sustainable economy, globalization and multilateralism. In combination with a focus on character-building, these value systems resonate with students who are ready to engage with the world in all of its complexity.

Business schools can also begin challenging some of the ideologies that have dominated economic and societal structures for the past several decades. Students are starting to come to business programs with ideas about social purpose and creating change, but business programs often still teach dogmatic ideas, such as how markets can solve anything. We know that the world doesn’t work this way, and business schools can begin teaching students about the ways that businesses can do good to do well; that business is one piece of a broader picture, and that individuals can be a part of affecting change from the bottom up.

Part of this means teaching students how to ask the right questions about the world, and regardless of their degree programme, encouraging them to explore the answers to these questions through the multiple lenses of philosophy, psychology, and social and natural sciences. Learning also doesn’t have to stop after university. We often focus on the education of the young. While it’s true that we need to create a new resourceful generation, we also need to make sure to harness the energy and resources and skills that life has taught adults. Teaching and learning are lifelong, multigenerational endeavours.

BUSINESS & INNOVATION

If we think of problems as opportunities for entrepreneurs, then the SDGs offer wonderful problems for businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs to solve. With this mindset, businesses do not have to decide to be innovative or social — they can be both. We are currently undergoing a profound change. Whereas in previous times, sustainability has been something alien — or at the very least, peripheral — to traditional lines of business, companies now understand that doing well (making a profit) can go hand in hand with doing good (creating a more sustainable world). Sustainability is any activity that gives back more to the planet than it takes from it. It is a simple idea, but many corporations and governments still struggle to (or actively resist) taking it on board. Initiatives like The Futures Project help companies incorporate this new way of working into their ecosystem. The employees, the consumers, the stakeholders and shareholders, the supply chain, the community that a business operates in, society, the whole world — we all co-exist, and it is past time to start working like we do.

In terms of aligning business with impact and incorporating the SDGs into business planning and procedures, it is important to understand that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. We often have a mechanistic understanding of social impact, assuming that innovation will always lead to improvement, and some innovation is always better than no innovation. But to truly innovate for better futures, we need to understand how innovation affects society, both positively and negatively. While working on the SDGs, it is important to first prevent harm in all areas outlined by the SDG framework before focusing on creating positive impact in one area. In other words, we must go beneath the surface level of innovation to examine the wider impacts of any given initiative and understand how even a single, narrowly-focused initiative may have unintended consequences in seemingly disparate realms. Innovation and impact are about understanding systems, connections, and relationships.

The way a company operates reflects its values, whether these values have been intentionally considered or not. Values deserve a central place in the business world, and a culture that is based on values and a sense of purpose can fundamentally shift the trajectory of a company. Relationships, humbleness, taking care of others — these values have a place in high-performing professional settings, and diversity brings creative and inclusive problem solving to life. All of us tend to think we have all the answers or know who can help us, but oftentimes, the ones who hold the keys to innovation and unlocking new potential are those who have been systematically excluded from the table.

FINANCE

In order to fund the innovations that will help us realise the SDGs, we must take a close and critical look at the way SDG-related innovation is financed. Innovation for the SDGs does not have to be about charity, it can also be a good business opportunity. But it can’t only be a good business opportunity. To effectively fund the SDGs, the financial sector needs to gain a greater awareness of the welfare-finance nexus, or the relationship and tradeoffs between financial gains and societal well-being. Value indicators may be used alongside financial metrics to define what makes an investment successful.

We also need to change the way we look at the SDGs: a lot of financiers would see the SDGs as a shopping list — which SDG could get us some public money, is not a large risk and can maximize our return? We see that SDG areas that make economic sense, like clean energy, attract around 70% of the investment that is available for the SDGs. Other areas that are tougher, like sustainable land use, only get less than 1% of the financing available. Even tougher areas, like strong institutions and democracies, receive much, much less. There is not enough investment for the areas that are most important and fundamental. The SDGs are not a shopping list, from which financers can pick the most risk-free and easy area to invest in. The SDGs form an interconnected system in which every part, every area, counts. We need to ensure that investments are made that reflects this systematic interconnectedness.

This also applies to how investment is distributed around the world. The countries that most desperately need investment are completely starved of resources. We should highlight opportunities, support entrepreneurs and finance grassroots innovators in those countries, as they likely possess the greatest wisdom about local problems and fitting solutions.

The world of SDGs and social innovation is incredible, but it misses the potential for scale because many innovators struggle to find capital. The world of technology and innovation offers this potential, and also offers the potential for true disruption. We have to bring the disruptive potential of tech and innovation to the SDG world in a proper, systematic and analytical way. We want to change, and we need capital to make this change. Many entrepreneurs develop great ideas and business plans to tackle societal problems, but then struggle to find funding. By building up the ecosystem and community of funders and entrepreneurs, we can help facilitate new connections.

Finally, we must recognize the ways in which financing and social impact do not always align, and find ways to enable a shared language for impactful investment. An overemphasis on measurement and reporting leads to an erasure of the intangible aspects of social impact that are no less important. How can these intangibles be accommodated in investment evaluation in a way that makes sense for investors and society alike? Bringing together values and metrics in a way that does not undermine the bigger societal goals outlined by the SDGs will help the financial sector more effectively channel its resources for impact.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

As we think about SDGs and our shared future, and as we look for ways to revolutionise the innovation and impact ecosystems, we can start by recognising our collective and shared power. Power is the power to make something possible. We can grow by helping others grow. We must look out for each other, for our surroundings, and for the connections that bind us to one another. Making a different world is about continuous learning and wise, empathetic engagement with the problems and the communities around us.

Empathy is where we want to go. If there is one thing we need to change, it is to internalize the thought that we can do it together. You can see this sense of empathy blossoming in younger generations, and we must continue to nurture it. We must also open our minds and our awareness to views on future thinking, such as those found in indigenous communities, that are grounded in empathy for nature and communities. Those visions should also be valued and respected in the way we talk about innovation for the future.

In short, we must bring a sense of caring into the way we approach innovation and technology, leaving behind the standard ways of seeing tech, innovation or business as worthwhile because it is innovative — tech for tech’s sake. Instead, what we should do as humans is to promote humans. Integrating this into all of our activities and thoughts will help us orient ourselves, over and over again, toward one another. In doing so, we can ensure that we are charting a path to the future that makes all of us — people, planet, and ecosystems — better off.

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On The Futures Project (TFP)

Founded in 2019, The Futures Project (www.futures-project) was established to change the way we approach innovation, technology, and our futures. Too often, the creation of new technology is celebrated as a desirable end in and of itself. Innovation, sustainability, and impact have become mere buzzwords. TFP aims to bring in the big picture of where we want to go and why — and of our responsibility for future generations.

Building on the UN2030 Agenda and contributing to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), The Futures Project focuses on three thematic pillars of Empowerment, Life and Society. Through our systemic approach to creating sustainable futures, we seek to interconnect societal problems and their solutions through innovation to bring about meaningful change, for people and planet. We are a Think and a Do Tank. Our work spans across industries, sectors, geographies, and generations.

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Julia Stamm

CEO of The Data Tank. Founder of The Futures Project. Passionate about building positive futures for people and planet. Focused on driving systemic change.