This side event explored the possibilities for public innovation and smart regulation to accelerate progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The session was opened by Ms Maria Emma Mejia Vélez (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Colombia to the UN, Geneva), who underscored the need for financing, public-private partnerships, and public innovation to mitigate the enormous challenges related to the pursuit of the SDGs. The moderator, Mr Luis Fernando Mejia (Minister of National Planning, Colombia), explained that these challenges are generated by the inherent complexities of the SDGs, which demand quality over quantity, as well as inclusivity and the management of synergies and trade-offs. The rapid pace of technological change is exacerbating this complexity, affecting the public’s expectations and trust, and testing governments’ adaptability. While traditional methods have proven to be effective under stable circumstances, they might not be well-suited to challenges in times of uncertainty, which creates the need for smarter regulation and public innovation. Mejia presented a number of initiatives taken by the Colombian government that promote entrepreneurial mindsets within the public sector, support innovation by setting up new units and instruments, adapt funding mechanisms to allow budget experimentation, and design institutional frameworks to facilitate trial and error approaches.
Mr Mahmoud Mohielding (Senior Vice President for the 2030 Development Agenda, United Nations Relations, and Partnerships at the World Bank) highlighted the impact of technological advances and disruptions. While many stand to benefit from technology, there are 3.5 billion people who remain unconnected to the Internet. Besides activities to boost technology and infrastructure, the World Bank is now increasingly investing in human capital, powered by education, health, and social protection schemes, so that countries can best use ‘the most valuable capital they have – which are human beings’. In addition, technological advancement should be built, boosted, and brokered through public-private partnerships.
Considering the complexity and uncertainty generated by today’s technological and social developments, Ms Beth Noveck (Director of GovLab and Professor in Technology, Culture, and Society at New York University) raised the question of how to manage current challenges without stifling the same innovation that drives growth and development. According to her, we need more flexible, data-driven, and collaborative forms of regulation and law-making. Introducing the concept of ‘CrowdLaw’, she promoted the use of society’s collective intelligence at every stage of lawmaking in formal participatory processes.
According to Mr Marco Bonturi (Director for Public Governance, Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD)), public sector innovation can be a major enabler for the achievement of the SDGs. Based on the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, Bonturi shared a number of lessons learned:
Public innovation requires institutional coordination and the management of trade-offs
Integrating the SDGs or related performance indicators into budget frameworks could assist in the allocation of funds to public innovation
The expertise of accountability institutions should be leveraged to contribute to the design, monitoring, and review of SDG implementation
The knowledge of civil society and the business sector should be leveraged, as they have a major role in the design and delivery of the SDGs
Innovation is not only embedded in technology. New ways of thinking, such as systems analysis, foresight methods, policy coherence tools, and behavioural insights, should be used to benefit public innovation
After the presentations of the three experts, the panel moved on to discuss the implementation of public innovation by three governments: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Slovenia, and the United Kingdom. Ms Radheya AlHashmi (Director of the Sustainable Development Department at the Prime Minister’s office of the UAE) described the emergence of multistakeholder engagement processes and public innovation in the UAE, which has now resulted in an advanced innovation strategy focusing on:
Enriching the government with new methodologies and tools for innovation
Enabling the government to develop high-skill public sector employees through training and online courses
Promoting a culture of experimentation to try out policies in different settings
The government also actively engages with the private sector, universities, and citizens for the development of policies.
Mr Timotej Soos (National Development Strategy Lead, Slovenia) stressed that innovation should always be promoted for the advancement of human life and the preservation of the earth, rather than for the sake of innovation itself. He also noted the need to align budget frameworks to the 2030 Agenda as a key document to assess success. Finally, he called for the integration of innovation throughout the government by developing the capacity of public sector staff, as opposed to concentrated ‘heavens on earth’ where innovators develop solutions in a more isolated setting.
Mr Neil Briscoe (Deputy-Director and Head of the Global Partnerships Department at the United Kingdom Department for International Development) emphasised the benefit of public participation, consultations, and round-tables, as stakeholders sometimes come up with better policies than those within the ministry. In addition, innovation can be promoted by pulling back on unnecessary red tape. He also highlighted the utility of safe spaces to incubate and test ideas and policies before scaling up, adding that risk-taking needs to become part of the DNA of governments.