An Overview of the SDG-Tech Trends

SDG Tech and Research

Technical standards are needed to assess tech-based solutions that can play a role in addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), solutions that can be applied to alleviating poverty, addressing hunger, or mitigating climate change. With technological change paving the way for achievement of the SDGs, new ecosystem research and standards for ethical practices in technology are in the limelight.

Though applicable to an array of use-cases, most technologies have not been explicitly designed to tackle social and environmental challenges or contribute directly to the SDGs. To help hone use-cases that may be applied to the SDGs, the Institute for Transformative Technologies, has identified the ‘50 most critical scientific and technological breakthroughs’ required for the sustainable development goals. 

This blog post introduces how researchers have addressed the ecosystem approach to SDG-tech and presents interesting attempts at establishing standards for ethical and responsible tech. 

Research on innovation ecosystems for achieving SDGs 

Granstrand and Holgersson (2020) defines innovation ecosystems as “the evolving set of actors, activities, and artefacts, and the institutions and relations, including complementary and substitute relations, that are important for the innovative performance of an actor or a population of actors.” This concept is applied to the ecosystems where multiple actors aim to co-create a systemic and transformative innovation to challenge global problems.

‘Digital social innovation (DSI) ecosystems’ is used by Nesta (2015). DSI ecosystems refer to a space where tech entrepreneurs and innovators in civil society are developing digital solutions to social challenges. Using network analysis which maps around 1000 organisations with more than 6000 collaborative DSI projects, this research classified DSI into four different technological trends: open hardware, open networks, open data, and open knowledge. 

The term ‘mission-oriented innovation ecosystems’ is introduced by Jütting (2020), which categorises the typology of ecosystems by its distinct target focus among people, prosperity, and planet. Mission-oriented innovation ecosystems bring together all relevant actors for joint value creation and co-evolution, particularly underlying the role of civil society and research organisations for system-level transformations. The role of public sector and policies were more emphasised by the economist Mariana Mazzucato (2018), who defines the mission-oriented policies as “systemic public policies that draw on frontier knowledge to attain specific goals or big science deployed to meet big problems.” 

Elert and Henrekson (2022) points out Mazzucato’s typology on mission-oriented innovation policies mostly rely on an “overly mechanical view of innovation and economic growth.” Instead, he suggests  the term ‘collaborative innovation blocs’  on the actors and competencies crucial for “an innovative idea that eventually becomes an efficiently produced and widely disseminated high-quality good or service.” 


Ethical practices in technology

Developed by university and sector research employees and research foundation delegates from over the world, the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism is a guide written for digital technologies, encouraging actors to adopt responsible and socially beneficial practices. Released in 2019, the manifesto calls for a Digital Humanism that “describes, analyses, and, most importantly, influences the complex interplay of technology and humankind, for a better society and life, fully respecting universal human rights.” 

The Vienna Manifesto concludes with 8 core principles that underscore the social responsibility of tech research: 

  1. Digital technologies should be designed to promote democracy and inclusion. 
  2. Privacy and freedom of expression are essential values for democracy and should be at the centre of our activities. 
  3. Effective regulations, rules and laws, based on a broad public discourse, must be established. 
  4. Regulators need to invoke anti-trust to break tech monopolies. 
  5. Decisions with consequences that have the potential to affect individual or collective human rights must continue to be made by humans. 
  6. Academics and industrial researchers must engage openly with wider society and reflect upon their approaches.
  7. Practitioners everywhere ought to acknowledge their shared responsibility for the impact of information technologies.
  8. A vision is needed for new educational curricula, combining knowledge from the humanities, the social sciences, and engineering studies. 

Technology is one of the main pillars of SDG 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. As more research on sustainable technologies and SDG-driven innovation ecosystems is published, ecosystem actors will gain a better idea of the possibilities afforded by SDG-aligned tech, as well as their respective roles in championing practical and effective solutions to today’s most pressing social and environmental challenges.

We look forward to keeping our eye out for more up and coming research on this emerging trend.