First UNDP Innovation Lab for SDGs in China “SPARKs” Sustainable Future

April 27, 2021

The Re:Think Conference for Innovation and Sustainable Development

28 April, Chengdu - The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) today unveiled the latest addition to its global innovation network –––– the SDG Innovation Lab –––– during its inaugural Re:Think Conference for Innovation and Sustainable Development event in Chengdu. As UNDP’s first Innovation Lab for SDGs in China, the SPARK Lab will harness science, technology and innovative finance to take on the evolving development challenges of the 21st century.

The Re:Think Conference was jointly hosted by UNDP and the Chengdu Hi Tech District government, with support from the China International Center for Economic and Technical Exchanges (CICETE) under the Ministry of Commerce. In a moment when digitalization is redefining sustainable development, stakeholders came together to rethink the future of global development. Speakers across public and private sectors, both international and domestic, shared innovative ideas, exchanged experiences, discussed challenges and forged new partnerships.

“Technological innovation can help in the transition to a greener, more inclusive “new normal”, said Beate Trankmann, UNDP Resident Representative in China. “At the same time, it also has the potential to exacerbate existing divides between countries, communities and individuals. To create a sustainable future, we must balance innovation with inclusion.”

From finance and education to the emergence of new jobs and business models, technology is reshaping life in all its aspects. With the aim of ushering in new pathways for international development cooperation in the digital era, discussions at the Re:Think Conference centered around digital finance and technology for sustainable development. 

Yet achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 requires an enormous amount of funding. Before the pandemic, the annual financing gap to achieve the SDGs was estimated at US$ 5 -7 trillion. To bridge this gap in financing requires both public and private capital.

“One of the great paradoxes we have today is that we have more than $17 trillion of institutional investment capital,” said Leslie Maasdorp, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of the New Development Bank (NDB). “There is, therefore, an opportunity to mobilize just a portion of those funds into, for example, the infrastructure, that can have a very positive impact in terms of the development agenda.”

Panelists of the event’s digital finance session examined new business models and industry transformations that have arisen, what the future of work may look like for businesses and for individuals. They also discussed the role of SMEs in this digital transformation to help build resilience among the population – providing them a digital buffer to future shocks. A strong digital economy can be turned into further opportunities for business, while also aiding recovery and beyond.

“The possibilities are endless,” said Judith Karl, Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). “We are already witnessing immediate gains, lower costs due to mobile delivery systems, more efficient financial services, gains in financial inclusion and new business models, many of which are linked to the SDGs.”

In the Tech4SDGs session, representatives from leading tech companies shared examples of how they are leveraging technology for SDG advancement, and discussed present and emerging challenges of the digital era, such as the role of artificial intelligence in the future of work. The Digital Resilience Panel facilitated dialogue on ways to ensure that the digital transformation is inclusive and does not increase existing or emerging divides.

“We're advocating for a whole-of-society digital transformation,” said Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer of UNDP in his keynote address. “We need to step back and ensure that all parts of society are included.”

Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen, Tech Ambassador of Denmark, emphasized the importance of digital access. “With the rapid development of technology, there are still marginalized communities that struggle to join the digital economy,” said Engtoft Larsen. “In its most basic sense, digital inequality has two major components: one is the access to the digital economy for which you need connectivity and adequate tools, and two, is having the necessary skills to benefit from this access."

To tackle today's complex social and environmental challenges requires finding the most relevant and effective solutions that work locally. The SPARK Lab in Chengdu, officially launched during the event, will join UNDP’s global innovation network –––– the largest learning network in the world for sustainable development. The Lab will accelerate the testing and scaling of solutions to better confront development challenges within China and around the world through the research and piloting of innovative models on the ground.