Speech: “Innovation will be critical to break trends and achieve the SDGs”—Yannick Glemarec

Opening remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Yannick Glemarec at the Women World Changers Summit in Australia


In September 2015, world leaders from 193 nations adopted—by consensus—the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, along with a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For the first time, humankind has a common plan for peace, people, prosperity and the planet. Achieving the 2030 Agenda would create a more sustainable, profitable and equal world. Only reaching SDG 5 on gender equality could contribute up to USD 28 trillion to global GDP by 2025, according to one estimate.

If the benefits of achieving the SDGs are enormous, so would, unfortunately, be the costs of failing to do so. Based on current trajectories, existing interventions will not suffice to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

Today, the world has the largest youth cohort in history. Whether this translates into the largest development dividend or the largest development challenge in history will much depend on how this cohort of youth is educated and skilled for the changing world of work.

Goal 4 is to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. Based on existing trends, the world will be 50 years late in achieving its global education commitments.

We are not faring better with goal 5 for gender parity. Based on current trends it will be 50 years before there is parity in politics at the parliamentarian levels and 170 years before women worldwide earn as much as men.

SDG 7 is to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services. Based on current trends, it will take until 2080 to achieve universal access to electricity.

Similarly, Goal 13 is to take urgent action to climate change and its impacts. Without an immediate and dramatic inflection in our GHG emissions, the window of opportunity to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels will most likely be closed by 2030.

However, trends are not a fatality. History shows that trends can be broken with innovation in policy, institutions, management models, finance, sciences and technology.

A single institutional innovation at the turn of the 19th century, the limited stock company, allowed early innovators and industrialists to pool resources and risks and finance the railways and factories of our industrial revolutions. The industrial synthesis of ammonia at the beginning of the 20th century allowed the world population to triple and advert mass starvation.

The capacity of innovation to break global development trends is recognized in the sustainable development goals. While SDG 9 focuses on industry, innovation and infrastructure, all SDGs acknowledge the importance of actionable strategies to leverage innovative practices in science, technology and entrepreneurship.

Digital technologies can provide unprecedented solutions to address the fundamental needs of marginalized groups and those at the bottom of the pyramid. The number of internet users has more than tripled in a decade—from 1 billion in 2005 to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2015, whereas nearly 70 per cent of the bottom fifth of the population in developing countries own a mobile phone

Many poor or disadvantaged populations now receive public services because governments can use digital IDs to verify their eligibility. Nearly 900 million Indians have been issued digital IDs in the past five years, which they are using to open bank accounts, vote, and curtail fraud through better monitoring.

Digital technologies provide also previously unavailable tools to enable universal access to quality and tailored education and vocational learning for all. While tailored education was restricted to an elite during most of our history and while the first two industrial revolutions were characterized by one-size-fit-all mass education, digital solutions hold the promise to provide affordable, quality and tailored education to all and leave no one behind.

Rapidly falling renewable energy technology costs and new business models means that they have become the most cost-effective solution in many locations and can be deployed faster than conventional energy. Solar parks can be built in nine months, small decentralized solar systems in a matter of days, whereas coal, gas and nuclear plants take several years.

Deployment of decentralized renewable energy technologies at scale could enable us to achieve universal energy access by 2030, in accordance with SDG 7 and half-a-century ahead of existing trends. In turn, progress on electricity access would accelerate the achievement of at least 11 other SDGs, including SDG 5.

However, history also shows that innovation is not pre-ordained, can create new, unforeseen problem on its own and doesn't automatically benefit all equally. The second industrial revolution was driven by electricity but for the 1.1 billion people worldwide who still lack access to electricity, it could as well have never happened.

Furthermore, innovation seldom benefit men and women equally. For example, smallholder women farmers in sub-Saharan Africa continue to be excluded from the benefits of the green revolution half a century after its inception, due to the gender gap in access to land, information, technologies, finance, time and markets. Closing this gender gap could increase their productivity by up to 20 per cent, contributing substantially to the achievements of the 17 SDGs in concerned countries.

Similarly, gender disaggregated data highlight the need to adopt a gender-responsive approach to digital innovations. Women are 30-50 per cent less likely than men to use the Internet to increase their income and are 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men in the world.

In 2014, only 18 per cent of U.S based start-ups had at least one female founder, increasing from 9.5% in 2009. Similarly, only 6 per cent of app developers are women. While the computing industry’s rate of job creation in the US is now three times the US national average, based on current trends, women will hold only one in five computing jobs by 2025. A growing number of disruptive business models are under-pinned by digital technologies and it is estimated that 90 per cent of future jobs will require ICTs.

One of the many reasons for the under-representation of women as digital innovators and entrepreneurs is their under-representation in STEM and ICT-related fields. In 2011, only 0.4 per cent of women planned to major in computer science, compared with 6.7 per cent in 1983. Similarly, women make up only 12 per cent of engineering students fields.

Innovation will be critical to break trends and achieve the SDGs in the next 13 years of their implementation. However, to achieve this promise, innovation efforts will leverage the capacity of all women and girls, boys and men to deliver ingenuity at scale that benefits all. Gender blind innovations will fail to reach 100 per cent of its target customer base, and could result in trillion of dollars lost to the global economy.

Making innovation works for Women is a key objective of UN Women. Many barriers create and sustain the gender gap in innovation and technology. In addition to the under-representation of women as STEM professionals, innovators and entrepreneurs, barriers can include perceived high risk/low reward profile of investing in innovations for women and girls; limited awareness of the market potential of gender responsive innovations, lack of dedicated methodologies and tools for gender responsive innovation and adverse social norms.

Efforts by individual entities to address each barrier separately are unlikely to achieve transformative change. To address these barriers in an integrated manner and build coalitions for change, UN Women launched last September the Global Innovation Coalition for Change (GICC) with leading private sector, academic and not-for-profit institutions committed to making innovation work better for women and accelerate the achievement of gender equality as well as the entire 2030 Agenda.

The GICC will work collaboratively to identify and select key actions to address these barriers and needs – at an industry wide level. These actions will feed into UN Women’s policy dialogues with Member States on how to promote an enabling environment to make innovations work for women. 

In partnership with several UN agencies, the GICC will release a set of Women Innovation Principles to promote gender responsive innovation next March. These Principles will build on the Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs) – a seven step guide developed by UN Women in collaboration with the UN Global Compact, to enable business to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. To date, more than 1489 business leaders around the world have demonstrated leadership on gender equality through the WEPs.

We invite all of you to participate in the consultative process on the women innovation principles to be initiated by the GICC and join this overdue revolution of mass collaboration for peace, people, prosperity and the planet. 

Thank you very much for your attention.