Category 06 November 2018

Africa-Europe Dialogue Symposium on Innovation for Sustainable Development

The innovation for sustainable development network ( held its third symposium on 29 November to 1 December 2017 in Pretoria, South Africa, organised in co-operation with south Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Stellenbosch University and the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GOVINN) at the University of Pretoria

The symposium aimed to enable knowledge sharing and co-generation, bringing together around 90 international participants from policy, academia, business and the not-for-profit sectors, to identify solutions that can support sustainable development in both Africa and Europe.

Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals

A considerable amount of research has already been carried out on the topics of green growth and eco-innovation, but the generated knowledge is not often linked with policy and practitioners in a way that can support a transition towards environmental, social and economic development. At national and regional levels, the application of green growth principles is supported through policies and investments aiming to trigger technology adoption and stimulate behavioural change. However, uptake remains slow, and achieving positive societal impacts from research requires stronger international connections with policy- and decision-makers, as well as businesses and civil society, to enable them to adapt and implement change.

Bringing this knowledge into use will be vital role in achieving long-term sustainability, as aimed for by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of seventeen goals put forward by the United Nations to replace the Millennium Development Goals. Unlike their predecessors, the SDGs are applied to all countries, rather than being differentiated between developing and developed countries. This means that all countries are exploring solutions to overcome common challenges, and whilst different solutions will be found in different regions, there is great scope for collaboration, co-operation and co-generation of knowledge amongst global regions.

Measures to support innovation for sustainability are highly dependent on a number of contexts, with different countries and industrial sectors having different needs, infrastructures, technological trajectories and capabilities to eco-innovate. However, there is still much to be learnt from each other.

To this end, the inno4sd symposium debated how innovation can support the SDGs and how Africa and Europe can learn from each other to meet their long-term development aims. Whilst the symposium was open to discussion on any of the SDGs, particular focus was put on five topics: Zero HungerClean Water & SanitationAffordable & Clean EnergyResponsible Consumption & Production, and Climate Action. Conclusions from the Symposium will feed into the Africa-EU High Level Policy Dialogue (HLPD) on Science, Technology and Innovation, as part of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES).

Zero Hunger (Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture)

The United Nations estimates that one in nine people globally are undernourished – around 795 million people, mostly in Asia (510 million) and Africa (230 million). The aim of SDG 2 is to end hunger and malnutrition by doubling agricultural productivity and ensuring sustainable food production whilst maintaining genetic diversity of crops and animals. Achieving this will require a mixture of agriculture and social practices – both changing how we farm, and targeting interventions to those most in need.

In an African context, the inno4sd symposium noted the need to recognise small-scale and subsistence farming, including communities and alternative farming models which are largely unrepresented in the SDG framework. Successful change will require many of these small-scale stakeholders to be engaged through new models and networks that can circulate knowledge on what works. At a policy-level, education, procurement and reform of taxation and regulation can help to support ecological and healthy agricultural production, however, numerous problems and challenges were identified, including the competing priorities of large (and powerful) actors who impose a logic of scale and can control political debate.

In order to have greatest impact, it is vital to understand the local context and make use of tacit knowledge from local and traditional producers. New solutions are often imposed from top down, rather than working to adapt from the current reality. Rather than starting with pre-defined goals, it was suggested that ‘challenge-driven innovation’ was a better solution, identifying challenges at the local level by working with stakeholders to co-produce a common understanding for identifying topics for research.

In tapping tacit and local knowledge, it was recommended to also seek synergies and solutions that can contribute to multiple SDGs, rather than taking a silo approach. Linkages between, for example, agriculture, bioenergy and land restoration, can contribute to solving multiple problems whilst streamlining use of human, financial and material resources. For this, new models of production could be mainstreamed, such as regenerative agriculture, organic modes of production and precision farming. Achieving this will require the circulation of knowledge between localities through networks that can tap local knowledge, rather than just through top down education.

Clean Water & Sanitation

By 2030, SDG 6 aims to achieve universal access to sanitation and clean drinking water, increase efficiency of water use, and protect and restore water eco-systems. At present, more than 660 million people are still without clean drinking water and 2.4 billion people lack basic sanitation services. Additionally, many water management challenges remain, with 40% of the global population living in areas facing water scarcity and with floods being responsible for more than 70% of deaths from natural disasters.

Water management is a particular challenge in sub-Saharan Africa, where considerable thought needs to be put into resource management systems. Water management can be through ecosystem services or through infrastructure and management processes, though usually a combination of the two is needed. Provision of new technologies and hardware will be essential, but social and political innovation is also needed.

Life-cycle accounting of water, or water foot-printing, can help in governance of the water cycle. As well as looking at water usage, the embodied water in products must also be considered. An LCA approach for embodied water could also be used for exports, to ensure that where possible, eater is not exported.  Ultimately, education and capacity building will be essential for any successful adaptation, especially targeted at children to set life-long behaviours, through games and story-telling.

Knowledge sharing platforms could be developed to both collect information from the local community – benefitting from tacit knowledge – but also to collect best practices and co-generate ideas with other practitioners.

Improving sanitation will require both provision of facilities and also education and behaviour change with co-operation between governments, civil society and the private sector.

Eco-labelling and water star ratings need to be developed to ensure that consumers and businesses are aware of their water uses and encourage a shift to more water efficient products. Taxation and regulation of water performance could also be explored.

The issue of climate change also needs to be tackled. As climates change, rainfall patterns are changing too, making it difficult to manage water flows. Developing an understanding of climate change in a region can also help to determine how agriculture and other water uses will affected, allowing for planning of innovative methods to overcome shortages.

Policy makers should support the above initiatives, but also look for shared values with industry and other stakeholders. Often businesses will know that they need to improve performance, but may need support from government for infrastructure requirements and educational support.

Affordable and Clean Energy

Energy plays a cross-cutting role across almost all development issues, but one in five people globally still lacks access to stable, modern electricity, with 3 billion people relying on resources such as wood, coal and charcoal. Whilst there is a need to enhance global access to electricity, this must also be balanced with ambitions to tackle climate change, requiring clean and renewable technologies. The seventh SDG aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and clean energy by 2030, increasing energy efficiency and use of renewable energy and expanding and upgrading infrastructure and technology.

The symposium recognised the importance of micro-grids for tackling the current low diffusion of electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Microgrids were identified as being very effective bottom-up, decentralised option for bringing energy to otherwise disconnected communities. Coupled with decentralised renewable energy technologies, microgrids can provide both affordable and clean energy.

Such investments can be driven through both regulations and public finance models – setting targets for renewable energy usage, and providing subsidies and micro-loans for investments. Policy frameworks should also reduce market distortions and provide long-term certainty for investors.

Decentralised technologies can also empower local communities, who will need education, training and capacity building. Policy-makers should emphasise the need for educational investments, which are linked to technological issues. Communities need to build capacity to absorb knowledge and introduce new ways of consuming energy efficiently.

The challenge for the energy transition is that it has to be managed with people at the centre – it must always be analysed in connection to reducing inequality and poverty, and improving human capital policies. To this end, we cannot impose expensive technologies on to people, but must consider affordability and social acceptance. New strategies and policies must work from this people-first approach, putting emphasis on local knowledge and stakeholder engagement, and recognising the limitations of technology transfer.

The symposium recommended that governments should act to support demand through education and bottom-up initiatives, making financing available for communities to empower themselves. Green public procurement should be used to stimulate markets for early stage technologies and green industrial strategies should encourage the development of industrial capacity, as well as knowhow.

Responsible Consumption & Production

The twelfth SDG aims to achieve sustainable use of material resources, through reducing waste, improving efficiency of material and energy use, correcting market distortions that subsidise fossil fuels, and supporting public procurement and informed consumer labelling.

Currently, the world population is using resources so unsustainably that we would require two planets to maintain our current lifestyles. If, as forecast, world population reaches almost 10 billion by 2050 then a third planet would also be needed. Reducing resource use now can improve productivity, reduce costs, environmental degradation and pollution, and avoid future economic, environmental and social crises.

Tackling resource use will require new business models, both for individual companies and for whole value chains, taking account of distribution of costs, responsibilities and benefits across the whole partnership in designing cleaner production processes and higher quality products.

Adding to the complexity, both global and local value chains will need to be tackled. Local value chains should be supported where possible, requiring both less CO2 emissions for transportation, but also having additional benefits from the closeness of actors in the chain. In local value chains, actors know each other, building trust and understanding of needs. Similar local pressures are also likely to apply, encouraging the development of common solutions.

With this said, there is a clear role for governments in greening value chains. In some cases, governments may wish to legislate to set minimum standards for value chain actors, including end-of-life, but must consider infrastructure requirements. So far, governments have been resistant of this option, though some examples do exist. A government needs to create a strong enabling framework including education, investment in infrastructure and green public procurement, to set an example and leverage government investments.

Countries which are just embarking on efforts to enforce responsible consumption and production have many experiences from other countries that they can benefit from. For example, avoiding waste-to-energy solutions which have been used in Europe have locked countries into sub-optimal resource use patterns. Symposium participants discussed that many sustainable business models already exist and can be developed from: businesses need to see that there are alternatives to business as usual. Many business models which were successful prior to mass industrialisation could also be taken as inspiration, particularly for re-use of packaging. Existing buy-back models can be useful for overcoming excessive disposal and even generate income for businesses if products are made easier to recycle, repair or re-use.

The symposium also considered the broader society context in which resource savings efforts are being made. The very nature of an economy based on maximising profit limits sustainability efforts, with profits going to private individuals rather than to local communities where they could be reinvested. A consumer, status-driven society is an additional limiting factor.

As has been discussed in all of the other SDGs, there is also a need for localised solutions, building off existing structures and communities, and using available resources. One solution identified in South Africa is that of the ‘Stokvel’ – clubs which act as rotating credit unions, and could be adapted for funding investments in technology and manufacturing infrastructures. To this end, it is clear that we should be thinking not just about technology, but also organisational innovations. Things can be shared, such as through co-operation and collective ownership. These organisational structures have not just an instrumental benefit, but also value benefits, being valuable in and of itself for community cohesion and development.

Climate Action

SDG 13 aims to strengthen resilience to climate hazards, integrate climate change measures into national policies, improve awareness and support mobilisation of resources for climate mitigation action. Between 1880 and 2012, the average global temperature increased by 0.85 degrees, oceans have warmed and sea levels have risen. Tackling this will only be possible in tandem with all of the other SDGs. This will require a new systems approach, whereby climate action will need to consider aspects of agriculture, energy and water management (the Food-Water-Energy nexus), amongst other factors. New forms of monitoring, with new indicators and tools, can help to drive this change.

The key issue is adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change, including commitments to reducing CO2 emissions. Overlaps with other areas – such as clean energy – require a streamlined approach that focuses on only a few communications messages, making clear links between sectors. For example, communicating that energy efficiency and clean energy contribute to local resilience and climate change…

Given the international angle, with global targets and the signature of the Paris Agreement, there is great scope for co-ordination across border, not just at national, but also at regional levels. Several international aspects were considered, including the requirement for cross-border co-operation, and the possibility of creating an international platform for clustering ideas and case studies that can be implemented by businesses, social organisations and governments. Such platforms could also be used for capacity building and education.

Several areas for future research were identified. Firstly, low-carbon development patterns for emerging economies, especially for urban development, should be explored. In Africa and Asia, rapid urbanisation is an emerging challenge where many lessons can be learnt from other markets however, practices will need to be adapted to apply them in newly growing cities. Communities will need to be involved in such a transition, requiring research into how to integrate local knowhow with scientific and technical knowledge. A successful transition is going to require more balance in the use of both ‘formal’ (scientific) and ‘informal’ (local) knowledge.

The Innovation for Sustainable Development Network ( aims to advance the state-of-the-art in innovation for sustainable development by:

  • Reducing fragmentation by connecting multiple networks;
  • Supporting knowledge connectivity for collaboration and co-generation;
  • Engaging policy-makers, businesses, and researchers to enact change.

inno4sd aims to consolidate the global eco-innovation community and foster collaboration and knowledge sharing by bringing people together from all sectors related to the green economy, sustainability and innovation. It is an action-oriented network which will support the practical application of solutions to stimulate trans-formative change and support sustainable development, worldwide.

The network has been initiated by the project (‘European Global Transition Network on Eco-Innovation, Green Economy and Sustainable Development’), funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The project consortium is made up of twelve partners from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, Belgium and South Africa.