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We Must Close the Innovation Gap to Achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals

We will not achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the solutions that we have today, no matter how much money we throw at them. We need to invest in innovation directed by and to the poorest and most marginalized communities, and we need a new way to collectively innovate.

Starting next week, world leaders across all sectors will gather in New York to discuss the SDGs, whether that includes climate change, eliminating extreme poverty, or reducing disease. The UN estimates there is a $2.5 trillion annual funding gap to achieve these goals by 2030. But even if governments, philanthropists, corporations, and impact investors all put in significantly more money and closed this gap, would we achieve the SDGs, given the solutions in the marketplace today?

I argue no, we would not. On top of this funding gap, we have an innovation gap. And if we could close this innovation gap, we could reduce the cost of achieving the SDGs, thereby reducing the need for funding.

Despite the exponential pace of technological innovation over the last decades, we are not designing and funding enough innovation to solve the problems of the poorest and most marginalized communities. While over 70 percent of the world’s population lives under $10 a day, most research, technological development, and innovation are designed to solve the problems of the top 30 percent. Just like trickle-down economics, we assume that “trickle-down technology” will work.  

In other words, there is a faulty assumption that these innovations will soon become cheaper and easily adopted by the remaining 70 percent of the population, including the poorest and most marginalized. If this were true, we would have already solved many of the world’s biggest challenges.

We need to fundamentally rethink how we design and fund research, technology, and innovation if we are to solve world challenges and achieve the SDGs, tapping into the talent and ingenuity of the people who experience these challenges every day. In short, we need a new process: open innovation.

Identify the Right Challenges

First, we must identify the core challenges facing the poorest and most marginalized—and the innovation gaps that prevent these challenges from being solved. Even at the most basic level, global social impact funding and expertise are not efficiently or effectively directed. 

For example, most global health aid budget is still funneled to funding for infectious diseases, whereas the majority of people in developing nations die from chronic diseases; and unfortunately, there is very little funding directed to mental health.

Find Promising Innovators Around the World

Second, we must find the most promising innovators—wherever they may be—through open innovation. We must find those with promising linchpin technologies and innovations that, if scaled or replicated, could make significant progress on solving world challenges. 

This open innovation process recognizes that there are talent and ingenuity everywhere—in rural Liberia and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, not solely in Silicon Valley and leading academic institutions.

Provide Innovators with Critical Funding and Support

The hurdle is that these innovators rarely, if ever, have access to the resources they need to develop, validate, present, and scale their solutions to their communities and beyond. For this reason, it is critical to support these innovators—with funding, be it grant or investment capital, expertise, mentorship, and peer support to help them validate and grow their solutions.

Accept to Take More Risk

The social impact space is notoriously risk-averse, and there is some good reason for this—we want to avoid doing harm first and foremost. But we need to be willing to test new ideas and invest in unproven innovators and innovations. Too often, funders are looking to scale proven solutions, and only fund established organizations. In doing so, they often exclude real innovation.

In taking these steps, we can create a new type of innovation ecosystem. Inspired by the narrow—but highly effective—ecosystems of Silicon Valley and Kendall Square, these new ecosystems, such as the one MIT Solve is creating, would be global, open to all, and designed to support innovations for the poorest and most marginalized. With this in place, we will unlock untapped ingenuity, scale promising innovations, and drive tangible impact towards achieving the UN SDGs.

Learn about a new crop of innovators at Solve Challenge Finals on September 22. 61 social entrepreneurs will pitch their solutions to Solve's Global Challenges, and the most promising will form the 2019 Solver Class. 

Tune in to the livestream to hear them all!


Photo: courtesy of Plastics For Change, a Work of the Future Solver

Related Event

Solve Challenge Finals 2019

Apella | New York City

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