The United Nations has been organizing a special Forum dedicated to discussing the role of science, technology and innovation (STI) for the SDG’s since 2016. The fourth annual proceeding was held at the UN headquarters in New York City on 14-15 May 2019. This year, the crosscutting theme of the Forum was STI for Ensuring Inclusiveness and Equality, with a Special Focus on SDGs 4 (quality education), 8 (decent work and economic growth), 10 (reduced inequalities), 13 (climate action), and 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions). The STI Forum brings together stakeholders from various sectors for leveraging scientific knowledge, technological advancements, and innovation to achieve the SDGs. The annual STI Forum is one component of the UN’s Technology Facilitation Mechanism serving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.
For the third year in a row, FinCEAL+ BRIDGES organized a delegation of senior members of Finnish academia to attend the event. This year, the three expert delegates represented different faculties and units of Tampere University. Furthermore, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Transport and Communications and SITRA organized a side event focusing on fair data economy. Thus, Finland had a strong presence at the event once again.
Reflections on the STI Forum 2019
The Forum is structured around plenary sessions dedicated to each of the SDGs in focus. In addition, Member States, different UN organs, and other institutions collaborate to organize and offer a wide array of thematic side events. The program is packed with interesting sessions, but the ceremonious nature of the proceedings may feel disconcerting to the unaccustomed. Effective networking during the event requires a careful study of the programme beforehand, as well as a proactive attitude, since no dedicated time is reserved for networking. Although Finns may find another feature of the Forum to be even much more incomprehensible – there are no coffee breaks! However, the event does provide learning opportunities even for seasoned experts, as Senior Lecturer Yuzhuo Cai from the Faculty of Management, Tampere University, points out:
“The main outcome for me is that I got a unique opportunity to learn about the state-of-the-art development of STI for SDGs in such an international environment at the highest UN level. This helps me better understand the relations between knowledge in academia and the needs in the practical world.”
Dean Antti Lönnqvist from the Faculty of Built Environment, Tampere University, shared a similar experience:
“The importance of SDGs and the scale of the challenges we face was something I understood better as a result of the event even though I was well aware of the theme already beforehand. In addition, gaining an understanding -- at least to some degree -- on how the UN works was really valuable for me as I have been studying the leadership and management of complex change processes.”
One of the main topics discussed in different sessions was the fact that the uptake and implementation of new technological solutions is still not fast and effective enough to respond to global challenges. Disparities between countries and regions remain alarmingly large. The potential role of inclusive, disruptive technologies to address these disparities was seen as a key opportunity for achieving a large impact on the SDGs. Mika Kautonen, Head of the Innovation Studies research group at the Research Centre for Knowledge, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, Tampere University, comments:
"What I was trying to see as a big picture of the UN STI Forum was whether the change in the logic [from linear to transformative innovation] could be seen in the speeches and presentations. What I saw first, was that those people operating on the grassroots level or near it often had as their starting-point a certain problem that touched one or several SDGs that they intended to solve by any means at their disposal. It was important to note that for them, it was not important if the solution was either a new or an already well-known technology, as long as it worked. In the developing countries existing, known technologies often tend to work better because their adoption may not be too demanding, (not too much capacity needed meaning availability of highly educated experts, for instance). This is not to deny the role that frontier technologies may sometimes have."
Other key issues highlighted throughout the two days were the importance of education, bridging gaps in technology and science, gender and STI, capacity building, and developing STI roadmaps. Dr. Kautonen summarizes:
“The UN STI Forum showed that a valuable contribution to connect the SDGs and science, technology and innovation had been made on a general level. There were also many fascinating examples as evidence of this on the national, regional and local levels from all over the world. Nevertheless, an adoption of a helpful framework was still largely missing and an old-fashioned linear science-to-practice thinking prevails among the majority of the policy-makers, if one can judge based on the evidence of the forum.”
What is Finland’s role?
The STI Forum attracts participants from all over the world, and from all different kinds of sectors, with a variety of thematic interests. This makes the discussion diverse, but also provokes the question of what kind of role Member States, participant organizations, and individuals can and should have in the global movement to address the SDGs. There should also be room for constructive criticism to make the STI Forum a more interactive an impactful arena for the multistakeholder dialogue and agenda setting.
Finland can and should be an active partner. Although a small country, Finland has the knowledge base and innovative mindset to make a strong contribution to the SDGs. Highlighting this expertise at events like the Multistakeholder Forum – either through expert delegations or by holding side-events to the Forum – is a good way to draw attention to Finnish expertise and to themes of particular interest for Finland.
This year, two of the Finnish delegates were invited to give stakeholder commentaries during plenary sessions, which added to Finnish visibility and attracted interest from potential partners among the audience. Dr. Lönnqvist also points out that having a joint Finnish delegation is a good idea because it provides an opportunity to network and reflect the national implications of the key messages during the event among the Finnish group.
BRIDGES delegates to the Forum also encourage Finnish actors to become even more engaged in the SDGs beyond “the academic bubble”. Both national policies and researchers mind-sets require revision, as Dr. Cai pinpoints:
“Although societal impact is an important criterion in evaluation of research funding, the emphasis is mainly on promoting employment and economic growth. Relatively, the existing policies have not strongly driven researchers to deeply consider how their research outputs may help develop inclusive deployment ecosystem and achieve multiple SDGs as emphasized in the UN STI Forum.”
- Briefing note on Forum proceedings on 14th May
- Briefing note on Forum proceedings on 15th May, 2019
- Background notes of the Forum.
*Picture credits: Antti Lönnqvist, Mika Kautonen, Kajsa Ekroos