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How small ideas can provide global solutions

WGS001B65 How small ideas can provide global solutions Shutterstock 324371117

Small ideas might be more effective than grand policy plans when it comes to creating new jobs and delivering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This was the view of experts discussing ways to implement the SDGs at the 2018 World Government Summit in Dubai.


For instance, one group of experts looking at how to implement SDG 9, which promotes investment in infrastructure to drive economic growth, said investing in large infrastructure projects to deliver the SDGs might be a waste of time and money if smaller-scale efforts could achieve the same ends more cheaply and sustainably.


“We decided to take a bold approach,” said Mary Flanagan, professor in digital humanities at Dartmouth College in the US, who presented her discussion group’s findings to the Summit.


She said the group’s vision was to create a sustainable, open ecosystem for infrastructure and industry at a time of great change because of the fourth industrial revolution.


“We wanted to propose that, by 2020, we would have 2,200 sustainable innovations across transport, industry and so on. These would be exemplary innovations we could point to as a community and say ‘these can be scaled, these can be moved’.”

Reaching remote communities


The idea, she explained, was to create small prototypes of inventions or applications that could be tested and the results examined over a two-year period, so they could be nurtured and the best ones developed and rolled out.


These could be small inventions used tactically, depending on the needs of global populations. One possible innovation, she explained after the session, could be collapsible solar energy panels or mobile internet networks built into backpacks, which could supply power and communications to remote communities in countries such as Puerto Rico.


Such innovations could also be deployed in crises, such as refugee situations or natural disasters, while at the same time offering a future alternative to the ways infrastructure projects are currently delivered.


Stemming the flow


The theme of the need for a range of providers – big and small – to work together to do the work necessary to meet the SDGs also cropped up in a debate about SDG 14; creating sustainable oceans.


Peter Thomson, the UN’s special envoy for the ocean, said that partnerships were needed to stop plastics and other pollution reaching the world’s seas, and these could be implemented at a variety of levels and by organisations of all sizes.


The need for this was all too visible in places like Fiji, he said, where downpours washed through the rainforest, through inhabited areas, picking up human and industrial waste, taking it through sewers and out into the sea.


“There is a realisable solution to the plastic pollution that comes through rivers all around the world that carries plastics from rubbish dumps into the oceans,” he said. “The technology exists to put river booms in place that collects that plastic before it gets into the oceans, and this is something that could be done by private enterprise, it could be done by local authorities, it could be done by nations.”


Crowdsourcing ideas


And Imad Fakhoury, minister of planning and international cooperation for Jordan, with reference to goal 8 -  promoting economic growth and decent work for all - said that a new paradigm shift was needed to build sustainable, meaningful jobs for the future that could involve more small businesses taking a role in finding solutions.


“We felt that the weakest party of all the SDG stakeholders were the small and medium-sized businesses,” he said, when compared to what governments and big organizations were achieving. And he called for a platform to involve smaller businesses more in the SDGs.


He added this was important as the world needs to focus on creating innovative youth employment, while at the same time developing new growth models rather than focusing on those of the past.


Flanagan also suggested that one way forward may be to crowdsource ideas from young people, students and small businesses for engineering projects that would counter some of the challenges facing humanity over the next few years, such as sustainable power generation.


“Systems may need to change,” she said. “Instead of massive power grid projects, we may need to find new ways to provide sustainable energy on a smaller scale.”


And such small scale projects will serve as a powerful reminder that the world can be changed by small ideas as well as by global initiatives.

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