As the new Sustainable Development Goals are launched this week, attention will be focused on some of the great global challenges that face our world. They also give us a chance to think about how to do things differently. One of the big questions is how processes of industralization and innovation can really create the conditions for this to happen.
Goal 9 is “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.” Rather than seeing its sole focus as industrializing those areas in “developing countries” without access to electricity, running water or broadband Internet, this new goal should be about rethinking how we all understand infrastructure, and industrialization itself.
Industrialization has always been at the centre of development debates, and its role in contributing to economic growth has recently been highlighted again in the African Union’s “Agenda 2063”. The role of technology and innovation in this process has also been receiving renewed attention across the African Union since last year’s new strategy, which we debated at the University of Sussex last month.
Goal 9 aims to enhance innovation by increasing the number of workers per million of population involved in research and development (R&D), and by raising public and private R&D spending. This may be valuable, but as colleagues at the STEPS Centre have argued before, innovation is about much more than R&D. Beyond the focus on formal science and technology, innovation relies on education and training in engineering, design and management, and in order to make it relevant, innovators must be linked to — and embedded within — the communities that they seek to serve.
Challenging energy assumptions
Energy is one area that requires infrastructure and innovation, and achieving Goal 7 (“Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”) is an underlying condition for industrialization as we know it in the rich world and countries like China that have met their economic MDG targets. The UN “Financing for Development” conference that took place in Addis Ababa in July placed great emphasis on energy, and the new president of the African Development Bank recently announced a “new deal on energy for Africa.” However, pre-empting these high-level commitments, innovation is already occurring, redefining what energy infrastructures need to look like, and at the same time responding to another of the goals (number 13): “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”
The challenges of traditional infrastructures supplying electricity to many remote households in Africa and elsewhere are greater due to the high cost of grid extension to these rural areas. Solar-home systems and other off-grid technologies are therefore likely to meet around 70 percent of Africa’s sustainable-energy needs. On top of struggling to afford the outlay for a solar PV system, users may have less access to credit, making the solar-home systems even less accessible in poorer communities.
Helped by the rapidly decreasing costs of solar-photovoltaic panels and the boom in mobile connectivity, socially and environmentally motivated private-sector initiatives have been pioneering off-grid “pay as you go” solar-home systems, bringing clean light and basic electricity services to hundreds of thousands of households across the continent, as well as to least developed countries and island nations in other regions. Adopting “hire-purchase” business models in some cases provides the households with ownership of the hardware (and thus even cheaper energy) in the long-term.
Whilst, as some have argued, these examples may not deliver the energy required by heavy (and dirty) industry, they are re-writing the rule book as far as “quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient” infrastructure is concerned and showing that the models followed in the rich world do not provide a global blueprint.
In fact, these are precisely the models that new forms of innovation are challenging. Like the others, Goal 9 is supposed to be “universal,” applying to both poor and rich countries alike. And there are equally disruptive ways of addressing the same question of household-electricity services in the rich world. Distributed renewables and community energy have been famously pioneered in Denmark (through wind) and various communities across the UK have now started to produce their own energy. Our colleagues have documented how these innovations can serve environmental, social and economic needs — precisely what the “sustainable development” narrative has been seeking for decades.
Beyond scoring high against sustainable development criteria, these examples are leading us to re-think the logic of centralized-energy infrastructures that — in the rich world at least — often remains unquestioned. My colleague Adrian Smith and I have written about similar examples of “grassroots innovation” in a recent book on The Politics of Green Transformations, in which we argue that communities and entrepreneurs are able to challenge powerful interests through practical experiments like the ones described above. Whilst others have suggested that the SDGs provide a space for these political questions to be opened up, this vital opportunity is not going to make it to the agenda for the debates at the UN later this month.