Associate Professor, Finance & Economics and Research Lead, CISD, SPJIMR
The 2030 Agenda is a universal agenda for achieving sustainable development by transforming the world to move on a sustainable and resilient path i . It is a plan of action for people, the planet, and prosperity, with haloed objectives of universal peace, poverty eradication, collaborative partnerships, and gender equality as its cornerstone. The United Nations announced 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets in 2015 ii to stimulate actions to achieve this agenda. A significant focus of the goals and the Agenda is on sustainable development and seeking balance amongst its three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental. In addition, every discussion on sustainable development, SDGs, and the 2030 Agenda also includes a reference to sustainability. Sustainability and sustainable development are semantically related and are often used interchangeably. Both speak about the danger of consuming resources faster than they can be replenished. However, a close look at sustainability versus sustainable development reveals nuances that differentiate them. The issue of how sustainability and sustainable development are related/similar/different is debatable, with divergent views and interpretations available.
I interpret sustainability as a principle that mandates judicious management of resources to meet current economic and social needs without jeopardizing the interests of future generations. In comparison, I consider sustainable development as a process of achieving sustainability. The bright and dark sides of innovation have a role to play in sustainability and sustainable development. As discussed in my blog, Global Risks and Innovation: Is it time to account for the dark side? iii , the dark side of innovations needs to be acknowledged and accounted for if our quest for sustainable development is to materialize as envisaged.
I believe that before any discussion on accountability, we must first understand what it is that we seek from innovations in our quest for sustainable development.
Why should we innovate?
Theoretically, the answer is easy to articulate. We need to innovate to improve the quality of life at micro, meso, or macro levels, as the case may be. To express in simple terms, we may need to innovate to solve a mundane day-to-day routine issue, treat some critical illness, or help nations address pervasive social problems. The list can go on perennially. To express it more clearly, we must innovate for profit, people, and the planet iv (the triple bottom line). Putting it more precisely and contemporarily, we must innovate for the Triple Bottom Line, sustainability, and sustainable development! The unveiling of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs) in 2015 has brought this focus to the forefront in no uncertain terms.
But our businesses seem to think differently, with many of their innovation experiments not standing the test of the triple bottom line. John Elkington, who coined the term triple bottom line more than 25 years ago, recently noted how businesses have manipulated the concept of the triple bottom line by reducing it to an accounting and reporting tool for creating a rhetoric of social and environmental responsibility, all the while continuing to keep profits as prime, and perhaps the only concern. This is where the problem lies.
So, what is the way ahead?
The way forward is quite intuitive – we must emphasize and focus on innovations that stand the test of sustainable development by not only contributing measurably to the pecuniary part of sustainable development but also addressing at least one of the other two priorities – ecological and social. The central concern of such an orientation is that resources are used for current needs without impinging on the needs of future generations. This unifying concern should be envisaged as the fulcrum of all business, social, and individual initiatives/activities. Such realization will be the pivotal point where innovations will transcend from being just a fashionable word to something more meaningful – innovation for sustainable development. Sounds easy to achieve, but the devil lies in execution.
Whatever may be the impediments in execution, we need to find a way of preventing the mindless, almost megalomaniac approach of innovating for some intangible, vague positive outcomes. The potential solutions are so difficult to envisage that even the super-intelligent generative AIs might have no ready answers. Yet, with sustainable development and an unfazed effort to achieve it continually no longer remaining a matter of choice but rather becoming a matter of survival, some inspired paths will have to be thought of.
Academic research provides a valuable point of reference – the quintuple helix innovation model that can guide the way ahead. The model underscores the importance of incorporating environmental sustainability in the innovation process. It emphasizes the need for all stakeholders/actors (i.e., government, civil society, academia, and industry) to consider the ecological impact of their collaborative pursuit of innovation. Succinctly, the quintuple helix model supports the synergistic coming together of innovation, ecology, and knowledge to benefit the entire ecosystem.
Another pertinent point of reference is The UNECE Innovation for Sustainable Development Review (I4SDR) v . Broadly, the review considers overall economic development and innovation performance, and national innovation system and innovation governance. The key objective of I4SDR is to stimulate innovation, enhance stakeholders’ innovation capacity, and enhance the efficiency of the given national innovation system, ensuring that the entire endeavour is in concordance with sustainable development.
A radical solution
Personally speaking, I believe the issue of irresponsible innovation, if I may call it so, needs to be culled at the inception itself. What I want to say is that time is ripe to consider harsher and more formal measures to gauge and enforce the sustainability dimension of innovations. There can be various approaches to achieve this objective. An approach that I feel may work well is making it mandatory for businesses to report the adverse sustainability impact of innovation – in terms of the social, economic, and environmental cost of conceptualizing and commercializing the said innovation and the anticipated post-commercialization cost of the innovation to the planet, also factoring in cannibalization and waste generation.
Speaking more precisely, it is time to consider the cost of innovating reporting, maybe even instituting a cost of innovating index. This calls for a 360-degree adjustment in our orientation since the focus so far has been on the bright side of innovations as catalysts of economic development. In fact, innovation is considered the key enabler of the 2030 Agenda.
Although this idea is still quite nebulous and has yet to evolve fully, increasing accountability and overtly discouraging innovations that do not stand the test of sustainable development/sustainability are plausible and rationally appealing starting points.
i United Nations (2015). Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda
ii United Nations (2015). Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development https://sdgs.un.org/goals
iii Talwar, S.(2023, March 10). Global Risks and Innovation: Is it time to account for the dark side? CISD Blogs. https://www.spjimr.org/faculty-research/research/centre-of-practice/centre-for-innovation-in-sustainable-development-cisd-2/
iv People, Planet, and Profit are together referred to as the triple bottom line, abbreviated to 3Ps or TBL or 3BL
v UNECE (n.d.). Innovation for Sustainable Development Reviews (I4SDRs). https://unece.org/innovation-sustainable-development-reviews-i4sdrs