Beyond pencils and pens: Incentivizing scalable innovations for broad SDGs’ implementation

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By Marcio Pontual          

The decision of engaging in the Cold War with less refined and cheaper solutions probably helped the Soviet Union to afford the competition against the West Bloc. An example is an urban legend about NASA investing millions of dollars during the Space Race to develop a pen that could write in zero gravity, hot/freezing environments; while the Soviet Unions astronauts used pencils [1]. Effective solutions do not need to be complex or expensive. Yet, humankind will also need innovative approaches to tackle the complex challenges of sustainable development.

The 2030 Agenda launched by the United Nations (UN) in September 2015 is more complex than placing a man on the moon. Budget figures allow comparing the challenges: the U.S. spent US$200 billion, adjusted for inflation, on the Apollo space program, which ran from 1962 until 1973[2]. Estimates on the costs of implementing the 2030 Agenda varies wildly[3], but the more conservative estimations (US$2.5 trillion[4]) are at least 10 times higher PER YEAR than the total costs of the Apollo program.

The 2030 Agenda, with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aims at the Planet and all its population (human and animal). This level of ambition led the UN to exhort enhanced participation. South-South cooperation, technology sharing, and related incentives are some of the deeply ingrained approaches to increase participation and allow a successful and timely implementation. It is a 15-year long framework for actors to not only design policies, products and projects, but to also implement, monitor and evaluate them. Even though the Agenda is not legally binding, countries are likely to implement its goals to avoid becoming international pariahs.

Rocket-science can be innovative but it will not, on its own, allow the full implementation of the SDGs. Due to our mandate of fostering cooperation among the Global South, the RIO+ Centre is aware that simple, efficient and affordable solutions that can be deployed in large scale are the ones that will count. Bright ideas, such as the Liter of Light”[5] - that uses recycled plastic bottles and local material to illuminate homes, business and even streets - will make a difference. To achieve sustainability, we need to balance rocket science with initiatives that can be quickly adopted and replicated, leaving no one behind.

The RIO+ Centre is incentivizing innovative approaches to sustainable development by establishing dialogue with different actors and raise awareness on the SDGs. We have identified entrepreneurs as key catalysts to push forward inventiveness for implementing the Agenda. They are everywhere, with drive, eager to revolutionize and to raise the bar in terms of performance, efficiency and results. They can be one person start-ups, or the mover and shaker within a team in a big company. We would like to motivate them to be ours “liters of lights”, beacons to the sustainable development path.

We are working with several partners, especially in the City of Rio, to spread the idea of innovation for sustainability among the private sector. For instance, last month we had two great opportunities to do so, as we spoke to (i. see first picture below) a group of sustainability representatives from small, medium and large companies and start-ups based in Rio during a “Quartas para Somar”; and (ii. see second picture below) also delivered a capacity building session to Yunus Social business Brasil in their project with Oi Futuro. Despite differences in these events, the message was the same: we need to act now - quoting the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to explain that we are “the first generation that can end poverty, and the last that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”[6]. We are not sure if any of the participants will become our “liters of light”, but we could definitely see their eyes shine.

Saying that writing down the SDGs history will require both pens and billions of pencils is outdated. In times when people don’t write anymore and digital media is ubiquitous, we need to go beyond pencils and pens and embrace services and technology. We must change habits and keep in mind our impact on the planet, finding solutions for both old and new problems. Hopefully we will be able to spark someone’s interest to create a universal and appealing solution. Maybe someone (in Rio) will be able to create an app that will be part of, or change, the life of billions. A “sustainable Facebook”, maybe? This is not daydreaming, it is just part of the current possibilities in a world moved by innovation and where pretty much everyone carries a cellphone[7]. Except for those astronauts in orbit: they still use pens or pencils; no personal cellphones are allowed - yet.[8]