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Achieving the SDGs Will Depend on Adopting Breakthrough Technologies. Here’s Why.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are estimated to cost between 7–10% of global GDP per year.

Google’s Project Loon could bring down the cost of connectivity by “an order of magnitude or two” using hot-air balloons, according to Googler Mike Cassidy. The idea exemplifies the kind of technological breakthrough we need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Image Courtesy: iLighter, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic | Wikimedia Commons

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are estimated to cost between 7–10% of global GDP per year. That figure needs to be drastically reduced if we are to succeed.


Some of you may already know that I was recently selected to attend UNLEASH, a global innovation lab for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a set of goals advanced by the United Nations intended to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges such as poverty, hunger, health, and climate change, among others. For those who don’t know me, I’m a communications consultant based in Toronto, Canada, working exclusively with the health and social impact sector (here is a longer bio detailing my experience and qualifications).

One of the organizations with which I work is Amref Health Africa, the largest African-led international organization on the continent, providing training and health services to 35 countries in Africa. A few reasons why I love Amref Health Africa: our community-based approach means that health interventions address the real needs of the communities with whom we partner; our systems-strengthening programs means that projects have a lasting impact; and, most relevant for my involvement at Unleash, much of our portfolio of programs leverages incredibly innovative technology with an aim to achieve progress at scale.

As part of the application process to attend Unleash, delegates were asked to advance an idea or insight about achieving the SDGs. My insight looked at the price tag of the SDGs and what can be done to reduce it by orders of magnitude. A potential solution? Adopt breakthrough technologies by integrating them into existing global development programs.

Below is an updated version of my essay.

Achieving the SDGs Will Depend on Adopting Breakthrough Technologies. Here’s Why.

Estimates vary, but achieving the SDGs could cost somewhere between $5 trillion and $7 trillion per year (7-10% of the world’s GDP). It is predicted that most low-income countries will not be able to afford even three of the SDGs—poverty, health, and education—let alone the full complement of all 17 goals. At the SDGs’ current price tag, the battle may be lost before it even begins.

Mobilizing 7-10% of the world’s GDP to achieve the SDGs is a daunting challenge. Aligning directions, mobilizing resources, and converging timelines at this scale and scope would be an accomplishment unprecedented in human history.

Unprecedented accomplishments are hard. They’re hard to plan, hard to predict, and hard to sustain. In the context of the sustainable development goals, this problem is, at best, an oxymoron, and at worst, an impasse.

A preferred, and, I would argue, easier approach, is to adopt breakthrough technologies. Our history is rich with examples of humankind using technological breakthroughs to do unprecedented things, and we have developed a good engine for generating them. We need to apply our innovation engine to the context of the SDGs to bring down their cost by at least 10-fold.

Three of the biggest areas of SDG investment—telecommunications, energy, and transportation—involve spending largely on infrastructure. Instead, we need to invest in technologies that make existing infrastructure obsolete—technologies that leapfrog the status quo.

Leapfrog technologies already exist in each of these three spending areas. For example, balloon-based wireless networks need none of the expensive, traditional towers used in current mobile networks and can bring down the cost of connectivity by “an order of magnitude or two”. Solar energy needs neither pipeline nor refinery and comes with virtually no carbon footprint; the price of solar panels has declined by 80% in the past two years alone. Drone carrier units need no roads—infrastructure that carries with it high upfront capital expenditures in addition to high maintenance costs. By deploying these kinds of breakthrough technologies, we can minimize the investment required to achieve the SDGs.

If we reduce the total investment needed across all spending categories by an order of magnitude—which is completely possible (and even probable) if we fully utilize our innovation engine—then the cost of achieving the SDGs falls to 0.7-1% of global GDP. That’s far less daunting.

And that’s not even accounting for breakthrough technologies in finance—technologies that have the potential to grow the world’s GDP simply through better instrumentation. For example, M-Pesa allows financial transactions via text message. We will soon see blockchain technology used in digital identity applications to tackle tax evasion, corruption, and fraud. Digital cryptocurrencies like BitPesa can drastically minimize the cost of transactions and support a more financially inclusive world. These technologies can formalize informal economies and enable governments to more effectively mobilize resources. These applications hold great potential and they are just barely scratching the surface of what is possible.

Breakthrough technologies cut across all seven themes in focus at Unleash. Let’s make them cornerstones of our plans with an aim to snowball their effects as we co-create solutions in Denmark. Our success in achieving the SDGs depends on it.

On a final note, Amref Health Africa has a number of health initiatives that integrate innovative technology into its programs (see a few examples here, here and here). Reach me on Twitter and I would be happy to discuss them with you. If you are a passionate entrepreneur with an innovative product or service to improve primary health care in Africa, check out our Innovate 4 Life Fund, a health-specific accelerator for African entrepreneurs.

Originally published at medium.com

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