UNDP Launches an Innovation-Focused Lab, Aiming to Achieve Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) announced on Wednesday it has officially opened a Sustainable Development Goals Innovation Lab – a so-called SPARK Lab – in the southwestern city of Chengdu, China. With this project, the UN is embarking on an endeavor to utilize innovations in science, technology and finance to meet the greatest challenges of our time.

Chengdu’s SPARK Lab is the first innovation platform built under the cooperation between the UN and a local government in China. The project is committed to promoting the swift integration of Chengdu and Western China into the global systems in scientific and technological innovation, international exchanges, and construction of free trade zones, relying on UNDP’s global network and experience in sustainable development.

At the inaugural Re: Think Conference for Innovation and Sustainable Development, public and private sector representatives from around the country and the world met and discussed how to achieve sustainable development in the digital era.

“Digitalization is transforming our world. New technologies offer fresh solutions to address complex global challenges, with the potential to boost resilience and unlock long-term, sustainable prosperity for people and planet,” said Beate Trankmann, the UNDP Resident Representative for China. “From cloud computing and big data, to fintech and blockchains, technology can expand access to goods and services that support development, while placing vulnerable people at the center of innovation.”

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As one of China’s new high-tech hubs, Chengdu has seen its economy boom in recent years, attracting young entrepreneurs with creative start-ups. “As an innovation hub, with a Hi-Tech Zone, where thousands of companies are working at the forefront of digitalization, Chengdu is the perfect place to spearhead this conversation,” Trankmann said.

In 2015, the UN identified 17 planet-saving Sustainable Development Goals which should be achieved by 2030, including building sustainable cities and communities, combating climate change, and eliminating poverty and hunger.

However, it will take a torrent of money to reach these goals by 2030. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a shortfall of $5 trillion to $7 trillion in the global mega-program, according to the UNDP itself. To fill the gap, mobilizing both public and private capital is necessary.

“One of the great paradoxes we have today is that we have more than $17 trillion of institutional investment capital,” said Leslie Maasdorp, the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of the New Development Bank. “There is, therefore, an opportunity to mobilize just a portion of those funds into, for example, the infrastructure, that can have a very positive impact in terms of the development agenda.”

Panelists of the event’s digital finance session examined new business models and industry transformations that have arisen, what the future of work may look like for businesses and for individuals. They also discussed the role of small and medium-sized enterprises in this digital transformation to help build resilience among the population – providing them a digital buffer to future shocks. A strong digital economy can be turned into further opportunities for business, while also aiding recovery and beyond.

Representatives from leading tech companies also shared examples of how they are leveraging technology sustainability and discussed present and emerging challenges of the digital era, such as the role of artificial intelligence in the future of work.

The Digital Resilience Panel facilitated dialogue on ways to ensure that the digital transformation is inclusive and does not increase existing or emerging divides.