Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer, UN Development Programme (UNDP)

On reaching sustainable development goals

To what extent are sustainability goals tied to the success of a business? 

ROBERT OPP: Sustainability does not necessarily contrast with long-term profit; however, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have provided a global framework to address this significant challenge. The SDGs are different from anything I have seen in the past. There is a strong element of partnership between multiple stakeholders, and the private sector in particular is considered a critical partner for success in achieving these goals. 

The SDGs have become a framework through which businesses look at what they are doing and determine how their operations contribute – or do not contribute – to their successes. Some companies are probably doing this largely for public relations reasons or perceived corporate social responsibility, but more and more understand that the success of their business is ultimately tied to sustainability. 

Consultants have created the Total Societal Impact index, which asserts that companies that treat social impact concerns as a business-forward approach are actually more profitable than those that do not. Shareholders and executives are realising that there does not need to be a trade-off between profitability and sustainability; you can achieve both. Ultimately, if companies cannot maintain sustainability in their supply chains, it will be difficult to keep the same productivity parameters.

What role do governments or multilateral organisations play in nurturing innovation, or does benign neglect allow it to develop organically?

OPP: Sometimes innovation processes put forward by governments may not be worth the investment if they are not properly executed. However, there is no question that strong ecosystems can indeed allow innovation to prosper, so governments of multilateral organisations may well have a role in helping to facilitate the successful emergence of such beneficial ecosystems. For example, if you are a start-up in a developing market, your network may be somewhat limited, and sometimes it can be helpful to have an entity with the ability to connect you with a broader network. 

An important role of the government is to clear obstacles in the policy and regulatory environment, removing disincentives to innovation, particularly in regard to new technology. Although it can be challenging for any government to keep up with the rapid pace of technology, they should strive to quickly formulate and implement policies and regulations that allow innovators to thrive, while simultaneously mitigating risks. 

For multilaterals, we first want to bring innovation into the organisation itself. Thus, the UNDP is interested in understanding how we can embrace new innovations and place them in programmes we offer to our partners around the world. We also want to be players in the international ecosystem. For example, if something exciting is happening in Uganda, maybe we can help forge links with another country experiencing similar challenges and conditions.

Where do you see potential for international open innovation to help achieve the SDGs? 

OPP: Companies and organisations such as the UN have realised that there are essentially two sources of innovation that are able to be successfully incorporated into existing business models. One is internal, and the other is external. 

There was some initial reluctance on the part of both public and private organisations to open up to what is actually going on outside, deciding instead to innovate from inside. More and more organisations have been realising that this approach is insufficient, and that they must look for solutions and ideas externally. This is an encouraging trend.

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