Technological innovations for achieving the SDGs

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity for all. A global research initiative established by IIASA provides information and guidance to policymakers for the successful implementation of these important goals.

© Tsung-lin Wu | Dreamstime

The World in 2050 (TWI2050), an international and institute wide crosscutting initiative, released its first report [1] at the 2018 High-level Political Forum at the UN Headquarters in New York through an invited plenary presentation and three side events. The report synthesizes a holistic perspective on strategies to address all 17 SDGs in an integrated manner and on an ambitious time schedule. TWI2050 concluded that six major transformations (Figure 1) are needed to realize a holistic SDG implementation strategy in the fields of human capacity and demography; consumption and production; decarbonization and energy; food, biosphere, and water; smart cities; and the digital revolution. Research by the IIASA Transitions to New Technologies Program underpinned two of these transformations, namely consumption and production [2], and the digital revolution.

Figure 1: Six transformations underpin an integrative strategy to achieve all 17 SDGs.

A key entry point for an integrated strategy towards the achievement of the SDGs is to view consumption and production systems in an integrative fashion, avoiding any undue isolated supply- or demand side perspectives. Research into the current systems efficiencies of resource processing systems revealed that for energy, food, water, and materials, transformation and utilization efficiencies invariably become smaller the closer the systems boundaries are extended towards final service use. A service provision focus is therefore essential for addressing the SDGs, as services provide for human welfare, whereas corresponding upstream resources, while necessary, imply multiple environmental impacts. With water embedded in food, for example, an increase in the efficiency of nutrition for human sustenance through, for instance, a reduction in food waste, translates into a six-fold leverage effect on reducing water withdrawn for input to the food supply chain (Figure 2). The effects in other resources like materials or energy in Figure 2, are of comparable magnitude, highlighting a critical entry point for SDG policies, namely a focus on efficient service provision and associated innovations in technologies, practices, behaviors, and market organization.

Figure 2: Resource efficiency cascades between primary resource extraction and service delivery for energy, water embodied in food, and materials, using steel as example

Researchers also empirically explored the interlinkages and synergies between transformations through digitalization, and consumption and production by looking at the resource implications (materials and energy) of digital device and service convergence [2]. Further critical interlinkages between the digital revolution and the other five transformations for the SDGs are being explored in more detail and will contribute to the TWI2050 report in 2019.

In addition to the above, researchers developed a rigorous analytical format for assessing technological options and trends as input for scenario modeling and policy analysis, and conducted two test case studies on the energy-water nexus. The first study focused on water desalination, which is highly energy intensive [3], while the second took a demand side view on agricultural irrigation technologies.

New research in the domains of social interactions [4], behavioral spillovers [5], and formative phases [6] and processes in technology innovation [7, 8], among others, further supports the research on integrated SDG implementation strategies [9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14] and explores novel policy options.


[1] TWI2050 – The World in 2050 (2018). Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Report prepared by The World in 2050 initiative. IIASA Report. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Laxenburg, Austria

[2] Grubler A , Wilson C , Bento N, Boza-Kiss B, Krey V , McCollum D, Rao N , Riahi K , et al. (2018). A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy 3 (6): 517-525.

[3] Mayor B (2018). Multidimensional analysis of nexus technologies I: diffusion, scaling and cost trends of desalination. IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-18-006

[4] Edelenbosch O, McCollum D, Pettifor H, Wilson C, & van Vuuren D (2018). Interactions between social learning and technological learning in electric vehicle futures. Environmental Research Letters 13 (12): e124004.

[5] McCollum D, Wilson C, Bevione M, Carrara S, Edelenbosch O, Emmerling J, Guivarch C, Karkatsoulis P, et al. (2018). Interaction of consumer preferences and climate policies in the global transition to low-carbon vehicles. Nature Energy 3 (8): 664-673.

[6] Bento N, Wilson C, & Anadon LD (2018). Time to get ready: Conceptualizing the temporal and spatial dynamics of formative phases for energy technologies. Energy Policy 119: 282-293.

[7] Shen F & Ma T (2018). A methodology to position nations’ efforts in a technology domain with a patent network analysis: case of the electric vehicle domain. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 30 (9): 1084-1104.

[8] Fang C & Ma T (2018). Technology Adoption Optimization with Heterogeneous Agents and Carbon Emission Trading Mechanism. In: Integrated Uncertainty in Knowledge Modelling and Decision Making. Eds. Huynh, V.N., Inuiguchi, M., Tran, D. & Denoeux, T., pp. 238-249 Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

[9] Gomez Echeverri L (2018). Climate and development: enhancing impact through stronger linkages in the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 376 (2119): e20160444.

[10] Gomez Echeverri L (2018). Investing for rapid decarbonization in cities. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 30: 42-51.

[11] McCollum DL, Gomez Echeverri L, Busch S, Pachauri S, Parkinson S, Rogelj J, Krey V, Minx JC, et al. (2018). Connecting the sustainable development goals by their energy inter-linkages. Environmental Research Letters 13 (3): 033006.

[12] Rogner H-H & Leung K-K (2018). The Effectiveness of Foreign Aid for Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Mitigation. In: Aid Effectiveness for Environmental Sustainability. pp. 81-124 Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

[13] Nakicenovic N (2018). Technological Change, Economic Development and the Response to Climate Change. In: Innocavion Para el Desarrollo Sostenible.

[14] Zimm C, Sperling F, & Busch S (2018). Identifying Sustainability and Knowledge Gaps in Socio-Economic Pathways Vis-à-Vis the Sustainable Development Goals. Economies 6 (2): p. 20.

Further information


  • Sustainable Development Solutions Network
  • Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University, Sweden

Selected list of coordinating authors

  • PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Netherlands
  • Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany
  • German Development Institute, Germany