The Sustainable Development Goals: The Breakthrough Opportunity of Our Time

A blog by Lise Kingo, CEO & Executive Director, United Nations Global Compact

An initiative of the United Nations, UN Global Compact is a principle-based framework that encourages business worldwide to adapt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and report about their implementation. It consists of ten principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption.

Welcome to Anthropocene: Age of Man. The geologic epoch where man’s impact is expected to leave its mark in the geologic record, long after our cities have crumbled. It replaces Holocene, an era that began 10,000 years ago after the end of the second ice age. At the brink of this Age of Man, our current economic system has resulted in a series of concerning events — climate change & extreme weather, natural resource depletion, threats to food security, biodiversity, lack of access to arable land, fresh air & water, large-scale human migration, antimicrobial resistance, and a steep rise in lifestyle-related diseases. It has also resulted in unacceptable levels of extreme poverty and inequality in our world. The fact that we need to change something shouldn’t be in any doubt.

The magnitude of these challenges requires a disruption of a symmetrical scale. It will take significant creativity and effort to foster the changes needed to eliminate poverty, reduce inequality and protect our planet.

Ready for the Challenge

In 2015, world leaders at the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the related 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Together, they set an ambitious and transformative vision for peace and prosperity on a healthy planet and importantly, chart a course for how to get there. It is widely recognised that to make such radical and swift change, all sectors of society must cooperate, with businesses seen as integral to the plan. The private sector brings the creativity and expertise needed to help scale and develop the essential technologies and breakthrough innovations that can meet the 2030 Agenda.

Meeting this global vision is not about stopping or slowing development. Those 800 million people living on less than $1 a day need economic progress to lift them out of poverty. What we need is for development to become truly sustainable and inclusive to everyone. From business leaders to everyday people, the world needs to know that this is entirely possible.Together, we can improve the lives of billions.

Incremental innovation has failed to deliver the necessary advances. Breakthrough innovation holds the potential to launch us into a new economic order, which is more social, lean, integrated and circular.

There are three core messages that I would share with the business community, both in India and globally — The first is that the SDGs or Global Goals present the greatest opportunity of our time. They are the guiding star for knowing what is needed to solve humanity’s biggest challenges and improve the lives of billions.

The second message is that facing these challenges opens up business opportunities. The recent Business and Sustainable Development Commission report (of which I was honoured to be a commissioner), concludes that achieving the Global Goals opens up at least $12 trillion in market opportunities and generates 380 million new jobs by 2030.

There are major opportunities for significant innovation and new business models. To name a few: reduced waste in the food chain is worth $155–405 Billion/year, affordable housing ($650–1080 billion) and circular business models ($475–810 billion).The first movers to align their businesses with the Global Goals will have a five-to-fifteen year advantage on this sustainable playing field.

The third and most critical message is that this is urgent, and it is not going to be easy. The 2030 deadline is not far away; we will need to disrupt the status quo now. We are at a period in our collective history where the changes that have been talked about and predicted now emerge as realities, and the challenges we have ahead of us are complex and systemic. Incremental innovation has failed to deliver the necessary advances. Breakthrough innovation holds the potential to launch us into a new economic order, which is more social, lean, integrated and circular.

Anything is Possible

This is exciting for innovators and entrepreneurs. The best minds from the world of sustainability are coming together with those at the forefront of innovation to generate disruptive technologies. We are seeing how new breakthrough technologies in a range of fields are enabling the type and scale of change needed to meet these goals. From big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things through to driverless vehicles, 3D printing and synthetic biology, we have the potential to radically transform life, businesses and the global economy. We can enlist these technological breakthroughs in the service of sustainable development while ensuring that we tackle their possible unintended consequences responsibly.

India as a Geographic Challenge & Opportunity

We can make significant gains by focusing in India. Home to 1.2 billion people, with nearly a third of the population living in poverty, India is facing a host of sustainability challenges across all 17 goals. In fact 50 per cent of the delivery of the Global Goals will come from progress made in India.

Fortunately, India has a thriving economy with an average economic growth rate of 7.26 percent and foreign capital inflows of over $31 billion. Its leadership is up for the challenge. The 2016 Global Opportunity Report shows that Indian business leaders are particularly aware of both the Global Goals and the opportunities in addressing them, and there is a strong belief in the capacity for economic and technological change. Importantly, India has demonstrated awareness moving to action. In 2015, the country launched ‘Digital India’, which will open up rural India to high speed internet.

Join the Movement

This leaves me very optimistic that we can seize opportunities in this critical region and watch as India inspires action elsewhere. We want the most ambitious and courageous companies, innovators and disruptors to join in the mission of making the Global Goals local business opportunities, in India and around the world.

The final question at the end of this, I leave to you: in the Age of Man, how will you break through?