Fostering innovation

The Decade of Action demands rapid and impactful innovation in all areas to make Agenda 2030 a reality. How can we achieve this?

Economic development

Isingiro, Uganda, using drones to create a refugee settlement base map that will enable evidence-based development decisions. Digital technologies can act in a leapfrogging capacity, levelling up countries with less well developed infrastructure. © UNDP Uganda / Steven Goldfinch

Innovation, as a collective learning process, has been the foundation of human and societal development since the dawn of civilization. Innovation was the central force of the “explosive” nature of the Industrial Revolution, which has resulted in enormous benefits for humans and fundamentally changed settlements, families, societies, the way of life, work, and interaction among people and their social networks. 

Significantly, life expectancy has doubled and half of humanity now benefits from secondary education. 

However, this explosive development has also brought about negative environmental and societal impacts and left billions to live in poverty. This phenomenon was especially pronounced during the last half century of the “Great Acceleration” when it brought about a new era in human history, the age of the Anthropocene. This is a critical crossroads where further unconstrained development may expose societal and environmental tipping points and possible collapse. It is a period in which one species dominates planetary processes. Yet that species has an ever-increasing awareness of its own responsibility for stewardship of the Earth, nature, and its own future. 

This “paradox of innovation” is that it is both at the core of human progress and a major cause of human interference with the environment and planetary processes. At the same time, innovations in the broader sense will provide many possible solutions for achieving a sustainable future for people and planet. Innovations need to be fostered, nurtured, and supported as their emergence is not automatic. They depend on human capacity and ingenuity empowered by the right conditions and “social steering.”

Winners and losers

Innovation in its simplest terms is an emergence of novelty, originating from human endeavor and inspiration. Innovations range from radical new inventions to incremental performance improvements. They encompass technological, social, and behavioral changes reflected in processes, products, and institutional change. 

Innovations that are successful typically undergo widespread diffusion, upscaling, and commercial uptake. However, this outcome is the culmination of an often lengthy process, which runs from research and development (R&D) through demonstration and trials to early market formation and then diffusion. It is not a linear but an interactive process. Learning by doing and using are central to improvement, scale up, and ultimately successful diffusion. 

There are countless pitfalls along the way. The process is characterized by deep uncertainties: one can say that “many are called but few are chosen.” The majority of innovations end in failure: some abject, others marginal. Innovation is neither costless nor determinate. Even successful innovators often have a history of failures that are important learning experiences for the eventual adoption. 

Supporting innovation

This renders support of the innovation process difficult because the discovery processes are unpredictable, making it impossible to “pick” winners. The support and social steering of the process needs to foster the right conditions for innovation and for new ideas. Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets. That support needs to be adequate and sustainable from both public and private stakeholders, through both policies and the public at large.

The appropriate policy support can guide innovation and development, including the emergence of values, policies, and systems, to support sustainable development toward a safe and just future for all. This is more critical than ever, as the current rate and direction of innovation is insufficient to achieve the 2030 Agenda with its 17 aspirational and ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

In part this inadequacy is due to a relatively narrow focus on technological innovation without fully addressing societal, institutional, and cultural innovation. And it’s also in part due to underinvestment in innovation. As innovations constitute new knowledge, they are difficult to fully appropriate by the private sector. 

Consequently, the private sector, with its focus on short-term profitability, inherently underinvests in innovations that have a general purpose or facilitate public goods that support sustainable development. This particularly applies to fundamental R&D, and public goods such a health care, education and infrastructure. This then must be offset by the public sector, by foundations, and by new investments in a sustainable future for all. 

Balanced innovation

The quest for innovation needs to be guided by balance: benefits must be fairly shared within society and societal gains must respect planetary boundaries. Innovations must be socially directed toward assuring the basic needs of all, addressing inequities and inclusion. 

Yet this is not sufficient, as much more needs to be done to foster decent and good life for all. This would also involve efforts to improve efficiencies at all scales and reduce the pressures on the Earth’s systems. Simultaneously, innovations must drastically reduce the need for new materials through circularity (resource reuse and elimination of waste). 

Three elements of innovative processes need to be strengthened: efficiency, sufficiency, and circularity. Efficiency and sufficiency transformations to sustainable and resilient futures minimize the environmental harm by lowering the energy use or material requirements of a product or service. Innovations (from micro and macro perspectives) need to anticipate and integrate both short and long-term effects. This is to avoid the risk of overall unintended impacts that may cause an increase in harmful environmental and social impacts, ideally through evidence-based feedbacks to the societal discourse.

The diffusion of innovations, including dematerialized societal innovations, can contribute to a more sustainable future for all, as envisioned by the UN 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement.

Emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are an example of one of the largest waste flows related to human activities but would require a fundamental transformation from primary reliance on fossil energy toward zero-carbon alternatives and uses. In some sense, the challenge is not only to innovate but also to change the way we live, work, and behave. It will be next to impossible to achieve these complex and multiple goals through incremental innovative processes. Rather, we need synergies across fundamental transformations. 

Digitalization is an early sign of such a fundamental change that has been accelerated through the tragic COVID-19 pandemic. Most important, however, would be to develop more proactive efforts to promote diffusion and learning, foster education, and address barriers, constraints, and unintended consequences of innovations. 

Ingredients for success

One of the best examples of digitalization and the epitome of successful innovation is the worldwide spread of mobile phones. The first mobile phone was introduced three decades ago. Today, essentially everyone in the world has one, including about a billion people without access to electricity. There are approximately 10 billion phones for almost eight billion people. Significantly, the diffusion occurred essentially synchronously throughout the world, among rich and poor. In many important ways it is a leapfrogging technology. This is especially the case with smartphones that provide internet access, banking, billing, and many other important services. At the same time a smartphone uses about a hundred times less energy than the myriad analogue devices it replaced: from the television and fax machine to the alarm clock and satnav. It also requires 25 times less material and energy to produce. All told, this results in a hundredfold decrease of GHGs without even changing energy supply. 

There are other examples of such breathtaking innovation diffusion: from photovoltaics and windmills to laptops, tablets, and the internet. What they have in common is “granularity” rather than large “unit size.” More granular innovations can be expected to have:

  • faster diffusion
  • lower investment risk
  • faster learning
  • more opportunities to escape lock-in
  • more equitable access
  • high job creation
  • larger social returns on innovation investment

In combination, these advantages enable rapid change. This is highly relevant for the role of innovations in the context of transformative change. It indicates that for rapid transformation to occur, investments should be directed toward innovations with high learning and diffusion potentials. So, while innovation processes are characterized by deep uncertainties, the strategy of supporting innovations that are inherently granular increases the likelihood of rapid diffusion and benefits for people and nature. 

Where to focus?

Digital technologies are examples of innovations with rapid diffusion because they are granular, even though they are embedded in large and complex infrastructures and systems. Examples of granular innovations include:

  • artificial intelligence
  • connectivity (the Internet of Things)
  • digitalization of information
  • additive manufacturing (such as 3D printing)
  • virtual or augmented reality
  • machine learning
  • blockchain
  • robotics
  • quantum computing
  • synthetic biology 

As mentioned previously, balance needs to be an overarching principle. Digital technologies have spread rapidly in much of the world. They can help to overcome social inequalities, but they are also characterized by inequalities themselves. Large disparities exist in access to, usage of, and skills relevant for digital innovations, summarized as the “digital divide.” Even more importantly, gaps also exist in the broader development benefits from using digital innovations. Digitalization has often boosted growth, expanded opportunities, and improved service delivery. Yet the aggregate impact has fallen short of being inclusive and is thus unevenly distributed. Because of its generally granular nature and fast diffusion and learning rates, digitalization is reshaping work, leisure, behavior, education, health, and governance, and can facilitate the achievement of the SDGs.

Digital technologies and innovations are disrupting production processes in nearly every sector of the economy, and this has been accelerated during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In general, digitalization can raise labor, energy, resource, and carbon productivity, lower production costs, expand access to services, and dematerialize production. But without proper policy frameworks and social “escape hatches,” it can also leave many behind. 

On a global level, what is commonly described as the digital divide boils down to a physical reality, access to the internet. There are also clear dangers and downsides to digitalization, including job losses, rising inequality, and the further disparities of income, from labor to capital. Digital identities can be stolen, or artificial identities can be created. Proprietary digital information can be stolen. Governments and private businesses can invade privacy and monitor individuals against their will or without their knowledge. 

The challenge to change

Research systems and organizations that are based on traditional social and industrial structures, lifestyles, culture, and science and technology must be redesigned for the age of the SDGs, digitalization, and beyond, toward other innovations: from agenda-setting processes, funding, and evaluation systems, to human resource development methods and career paths. It is necessary to diversify R&D investment and priorities according to actual needs and context. Collaboration between natural sciences, humanities and social sciences is essential. Cooperation between supply and demand sides and the combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches is important.

We need to accumulate, share, and feedback those efforts for reflection and transformation. It is necessary in parallel to recognize the importance of preserving basic science, and a dialogue between policymakers and researchers. Building trust and maintaining scientific quality, integrity, and codes of conduct are also important. Finally, evidence-based science for policy is essential for fostering innovation for the SDGs.

However, initiating transformation is difficult. This is due to institutional inertia by incumbent actors with vested interests, and consumers or users stuck in comfortable routines. In addition, the globalization of economic and social activities that has occurred over past decades has created intricate webs of activities, making transformation a complex process. Furthermore, existing studies indicate that current policy instruments are either absent or ineffective for achieving the magnitude of transformation needed in the expected timeframe. This means that unless there are substantially advantageous (simple, low cost, superior, and universal) alternatives offered to individuals, achieving change will continue to be difficult. 


COVID-19 is a great human tragedy, but may provide an impetus to accelerating innovation and transformative change. The pandemic and the ensuing economic upheaval have shown the dangers of degrading ecosystems and nature, as well as the need for international cooperation and greater social and economic resilience. The crisis has had major economic costs and is triggering significant investment pledges. Ensuring that these investments support transformative and innovative change is key to achieving the SDGs.

The full unfolding of the “digital revolution” will have even deeper impacts on our societies, creating the next generation of sustainability challenges. Moreover, the digital transformation may redefine our own concept of ourselves as humans. In the Anthropocene, humans become the main drivers of Earth-system changes. In the “digital Anthropocene,” humans will also start to transform themselves, enhancing cognitive capacities into what can be called “Homo digitalis.” This could be the next disruptive innovation to transform humanity for the benefit of all people, and the planet.

This article draws upon the work of The World in 2050.

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