A world dominated by platform companies lacks good platforms for the SDGs: so what can be done?
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
The many people working around the world to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) badly need finance and political support. But all share another set of challenges that have not had enough attention (and that I describe in more detail here):
· It’s still very hard to access reliable evidence about what works, where, why and how.
· It’s still very hard to bring together the most useful data for understanding problems and how to solve them (much of which sits in private companies as well as governments).
· It’s surprisingly hard to find out the state of relevant science in easily digestible forms
. It's surprisingly hard to link up with others working on similar challenges
These overlapping problems have a simple cause: it’s no-one’s job to orchestrate and curate knowledge, evidence and data. As a result the world lacks the basic knowledge and data infrastructures needed to achieve the SDGs.
There are very strong capacities within companies to do similar things – particularly ones like Amazon, Google, IBM, Unilever or McKinsey, which are very effective at organising consumer or financial data, or sectoral information. The world's largest companies are founded on just this kind of capacity. The FANGs (Facebook etc) and BATs (Baidu etc) invest huge amounts of money and brainpower to build data and knowledge systems that help them sell stuff and advertising - but there is nothing remotely comparable for the SDGs, bar modest initiatives around tech for good, which usually means small-scale individual projects rather than the big systems that the platform companies prioritise.
A few sectors – like medicine – have well-supported institutions and processes that generate and share knowledge, and help doctors and nurses use the most uptodate knowledge. But, again, there is nothing comparable for the SDGs.
For historical reasons there are also very strong global institutions organised around money with a public purpose – from the World Bank and IMF to the ADB and national funders like DfID and GIZ. But there are no comparable institutions for data, information and knowledge (whereas in business organisations built around data long surpassed those organised around finance).
Numerous projects provide sketches of what might be possible, some within specific fields like sanitation or malaria. There are dozens of repositories of evidence, peer networks and promising projects using data and bodies, like the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) doing important work in fields like food and energy. There are also many exciting initiatives focused on better measuring and monitoring the SDGs, ambitious ideas for data in the UN Global Platform project, and attempts to make philanthropy better at handling systemic issues, like Co-Impact.
But from the viewpoint of people on the ground the current platforms remain hard to use, patchy and unreliable, and most are run on a shoe-string. Indeed, too many of the platforms that claim to support global cooperation on the SDGs are shaped more by the demands of 'ego, logo and silo' than by usefulness: they rarely have open data, reciprocal links to others in their field, or any sign that they have been designed with the involvement of intended users.
Yet this is a soluble problem. It requires some commitment of resources, but very little as a proportion of aid or capital flows. It requires a genuine willingness to collaborate - with humility rather than over-obsession with brands and credit. And it requires clear design principles - openess, reciprocity, user engagement - quite different from the existing platforms run by bodies like the UN, WEF and the big foundations.
The task is to orchestrate collective intelligence around each of the SDGs, bringing together evidence, useful knowledge, peer networks and data sets, tracking of experiments and innovations. It’s a task best done through fairly tightly focused initiatives - e.g. on issues like air quality or children’s health - since over generic approaches tend not to work. And it’s a task best done in close partnership with the people who will use the data and knowledge to ensure it really is used and useful, and can be adapted to local circumstances.
This work can be thought of as similar to fixing the plumbing or building the roads - it’s less visible and glamorous than the vast gatherings like UNGA or COP 26, or big commitments around money. But it’s the vital missing infrastructure without which actions are bound to be less effective. In this paper I set out in more detail what this means and what needs to be done.