Globalizing Innovation

CANBERRA – For the next two weeks, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will host a global discussion on sustainable development – the United Nations-sponsored “Rio+20” Conference on Sustainable Development. At the heart of the challenge facing the more than 50,000 participants expected to attend is the need for innovative new approaches to addressing global challenges. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, without substantially new ways of thinking, we cannot solve old problems.

Balancing economic growth and poverty reduction with policies aimed at ensuring environmental sustainability is undoubtedly the greatest challenge that our globally interconnected society has ever faced. But, for the 20 years since the last Earth Summit, we have been locked into the kind of business-as-usual thinking that got us into trouble in the first place.

The next decade offers an opportunity to break the paralysis. However, to provide enough food and energy for a growing global population – which the UN forecasts to reach 9.3 billion by 2050 – while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, eliminating poverty, and improving human and environmental well-being, we need ideas. Moreover, we need systems that can overcome outdated thinking and obsolete institutions to translate ideas into action quickly.

At the national level, countries rely on the flow of knowledge among enterprises, universities, and research institutions to harness their citizens’ creativity and facilitate innovation and technological development – national innovation systems. What we need now is a global innovation system, and Rio+20 is the right forum to lay its foundations. Such a system would share many characteristics with national innovation systems, but would emphasize cooperation to achieve global sustainability goals, rather than economic competitiveness.

Already, Rio+20 negotiations and input documents have proposed five measures that, if taken together and coordinated, would form such a global system.

  • Agreement among world leaders on universal sustainable-development goals that build on the success of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, while benefiting all countries, rich and poor.
  • Regular global sustainability outlooks that assess progress, thereby helping to avoid environmental tipping points, such as when the climate changes irreversibly from one state to another.
  • Creation of a new international body (a UN sustainable development council) to bind together the three pillars – economic, environmental, and social – of sustainable development, which presupposes authorization by the General Assembly to act across all UN bodies.
  • Appointment of a chief scientific adviser to the UN Secretary-General to help to coordinate the system and smooth the path from scientific progress to international policy, thereby scaling up to the global level the fluidity of knowledge flows among innovators, industry, and policymakers on which national innovation systems depend.
  • Finally, international research on global sustainability must be streamlined to ensure a cohesive agenda and information-sharing across countries. Some are already working towards this end. For example, the International Council for Science is spearheading the ten-year research program Future Earth to develop the knowledge needed to respond effectively to climate change. But, in order to be truly effective, such promising initiatives must be linked to the first four measures.

Today, we know that we can no longer take for granted the environmental conditions that have allowed humanity to flourish. Achieving global sustainability requires harnessing innovation in order to act faster – and around the world.