Achieving sustainable development goals with digital technologies


Written by Dr Jo Morrison, Director of Digital Innovation and Research, Calvium

The United Nations’ ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ declaration says, ‘We call upon all businesses to apply their creativity and innovation to solving sustainable development challenges’. So, how can individual digital SMEs play a part?

Firstly, we can ask ourselves, “what parts of our innovation portfolio could help to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?” Secondly, by reviewing our company’s growth strategy to identify new business opportunities in line with the SDGs. Thirdly, through mapping the company’s capabilities against new growth opportunities that achieve positive societal impact. Finally, and critically for SMEs, by working with clients who seek breakthrough innovation to attain the 2030 Goals.

The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing.’

Douglas Engelbart, Human-computer interaction pioneer

The digital era is a time of immense opportunity. To help us explore some practical ways that digital technologies can solve sustainable development challenges, I turn to the familiar lenses of product innovationplatform developmentasset management and digital placemaking.

It should go without saying that to achieve positive breakthrough innovation, the involvement of skilled researchers, designers and software developers from SMEs is a must. If we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for humanity and the planet, and therefore reap the rewards of the digital revolution, then these practitioners need to be front and centre.


Product innovation

It’s clear from the state we’re in that the familiar drivers and models of innovation have caused global harm, albeit mostly, hopefully, unintentionally. Today, harnessing the power of product innovation to do good requires our systems, be they financial, legislative, R&D etc., to be geared towards advancing the SDGs.

Considerable investment and policy changes are needed to make this happen, such as:

Overhaul of the financial system

According to ShareAction, we have the power to keep global heating to below 1.5C, but to do so we need to transform how and where money is invested. Fossil fuel companies, the transport sector and heavy industry are responsible for the majority of global emissions. So, these industries need to rapidly change their investment models to drive environmental progress through responsible product innovation.

Developing key policies to support sustainable innovations

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) recommended policy considerations and regulatory instruments to help move the direction of innovation towards the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals and help stop industrial activities that are inconsistent with the Goals.

They recommend policies to:

  1. facilitate new, hybrid or emerging approaches to innovation
  2. finance and incentivise desirable innovations
  3. strengthen innovation capabilities for scientific and technological capacities, basic education, engineering, design, and management skills
  4. foster digitally enabled, open and collaborative innovation.

Governments should also set sustainable priorities with multiple stakeholders and embrace digitisation as an enabler for new innovative approaches.

Digital SMEs will play a critical part in product innovation to advance our net zero goals and therefore shape our collective future.

Platform development

We have seen how transformational digital platforms can be. Some of today’s biggest platforms have scaled massively in a short period and impacted societies and economies worldwide. Imagine the likes of Airbnb, Amazon, Alibaba, Deliveroo, Uber and Facebook with values-driven design at their heart, powered by an economic system that is accountable to society and the planet! If you are able to do that, you are creating a better future, for we have to imagine our futures to make them happen…our future digital platforms can help us advance the Sustainable Development Goals – we have to imagine them into being.

Platform development for sustainable purposes needs:


Analysing and planning

Your vision for this initiative has to be established right at the outset. That includes knowing exactly what “sustainability” means for your project. Sustainability has many definitions, what is yours?

Strive for a sustainability-by-design or values-by-design approach, whereupon sustainability is baked into the project from the very start, through to delivery and maintenance.

Establish a clear project timeline that identifies and plans for its full lifecycle. Too many projects fail to look beyond the delivery of an app to the App Stores, for instance. We cannot have business as usual, we need business as unusual.

Designing and developing

Always go back to your definition of sustainability and use that as your guide throughout the designing and development process. Examine how your technology of choice will affect sustainability, then identify risks and mitigation strategies.

Collaborate and make sure that your ideas aren’t driven by hunches and assumptions but by good quality data, gathered through good quality research.

Record the decisions made – be transparent. A shared understanding of a project means that it has a much better chance of success as an increased number of creative ideas can shape and steer it.

As well as having a ‘sustainability’ definition, ensure that you have a set of connected and active principles that can underpin the project throughout its design and development (see NavSta case study below).

Deployment and management

Once your project has been released to the world it needs to be looked after, closely and carefully! This platform is really important, remember? It’s helping us to reach our Sustainable Development Goals.

To scale successfully, the platform’s functionality will need to evolve, its technology be updated, its adoption and user base increase, and so on. Fundamentally, the platform will need to be nurtured and not forgotten. It should also be stored on ‘eco-friendly’ servers (those that seek to mitigate or eliminate the environmental impact of their services.)


Measurement and evaluation

Establish the metrics you need to measure whether your platform is actually making a positive impact on the ecosystem. Start with baseline data then analyse your platform’s progress from there. Are users still interested in the platform? Have you addressed their needs? Which improvements have you made and were they helpful? That said, it’s not all about the user, you need to attend to all the factors of the platform and the context within it operates for instance – How is the platform supporting the SDGs? What needs to happen to further invest in the platform?


Case study: PPE Hive (peer-to-peer economy)

SDG 3.d: Strengthen the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Calvium worked with Automated Architecture (AUAR) to build a digital platform that enables communities to create and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE Hive is a platform that streamlines the supply chain by connecting people who need PPE with people who can make PPE, those who have the materials for manufacture, and those who can distribute the products.

Through our agile approach, we were able to get this platform up and running in three weeks, effectively creating communities and exchanges that enabled a form of circular economy.

Case study: NavSta wayfinding platform

SDG 11.2: By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

During 2019, Calvium led an Innovate UK funded project to develop a mobile wayfinding system to help people with less visible impairments to navigate railway stations independently and with confidence.

NavSta provides practical assistance to people when they plan a journey, undertake a journey and manage uncertainty during a journey. By providing the information that passengers need when they need it, NavSta aims to reduce the causes of anxiety when travelling through stations, or when thinking about travelling through them.

At Calvium, we closely followed five core principles as we designed, built and tested the NavSta app. Each of these active guiding principles were born from our first user research workshop and underpin the project:

  1. Trust — Trusting that the information in the system is reliable and will not mislead the user
  2. Safety — A system that allows the safe passage of the user through physical and digital interaction
  3. Clarity — The information in the system is displayed in a clear and understandable format
  4. Personalisation — The user can tailor the services of the application to suit their individual needs
  5. Usefulness and Relevance — The information presented in the system supports the user to complete their tasks effectively.


Asset management

Goal 9 of the SDGs requires us to ‘Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.’ Simply put, to do this requires digitally enabled asset management systems.

Asset management is a huge topic, so here are just a few points to ponder:

Use technology to your advantage

There are several technologies that you can implement, including enterprise asset management systems (a holistic approach to managing physical assets from as simple as database tracking to more complex real-time dashboard reporting), building management systems (for improving energy efficiency or monitoring asset performance), or using geospatial information systems (combining attributes of an asset to provide accurate information on resources like roadways, buildings, etc). Whatever type of solution you seek to adopt, make sure that you have a firm understanding of how to integrate it technically and procedurally into your overall ecosystem.

Understand the total cost of ownership

Owning any asset, whether it’s fixed or variable, comes with necessary costs. Digital technologies can extend the value of your assets, for instance by using IoT technology to monitor remotely the material state of your distributed asset base and letting the data inform your long-term maintenance planning. In this way you can ensure that you are keeping costs down, keeping carbon emissions down, and keeping your physical assets in play for much, much longer.

Bin paper-based systems

It’s astounding how many organisations still run significant aspects of their business through legacy paper-based systems. Paper-based processes are unlikely to enable sustainable industrialization or foster innovation at the pace the world needs. If you are running on old printed documents and need to transfer them to a searchable, secure, digital state – call the Calvium team who would be delighted to help you on your way!

Asset Management Case Study: Rolls-Royce FOD App

SDG 9.2: Promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and, by 2030, significantly raise industry’s share of employment and gross domestic product, in line with national circumstances, and double its share in least developed countries

Calvium’s work with Rolls-Royce to create a FOD (foreign object debris) app, awarded by the United States Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) and funded by the US Marine Corps, demonstrates how technology can help achieve sustainable asset management.

The ground-breaking App enables Marines to report FOD found across their sites more quickly and efficiently. Using a smartphone, users scan objects to capture high quality imagery, accurate GPS location and size which are then sent for analysis in a central database – moving the right data to the right user at the right time.

The accessible and easy to use tool has been designed to maximise the number of users which will reduce paperwork and increase the effectiveness of FOD prevention activities.

Digital placemaking

Sir David Attenborough said that helping people to understand that our entire world is in danger means we have to “bring them face to face with the complexity, the beauty and the importance of the natural world… They have to be allowed to see it, to understand it, to love it.”

This poses a significant challenge, given that today more than 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this is predicted to grow to 68% by 2050.

How then do we encourage people to protect and care for the environment – when research shows that more and more of us are becoming out of touch with nature? How do we innovate using digital technologies to provide solutions? One solution is the practice of digital placemaking.

Here are some inspiring examples that are already out in the world:

Digital placemaking: connecting to nature in urban spaces

The Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild app, for example, allows users to pick one of 101 activity cards at random. Tasks include things like watching the way a creepy crawly moves or spotting newborn animals – with the ability to take photos in-app and logging activities on social media.

The RSPB has developed its own Giving Nature a Home app, with quizzes, species fact files and simple garden activities to inspire excitement for nature, while the Nature Passport App is designed for use by both families and teachers, and “uses simple games and lessons to encourage kids to think, move, observe, collaborate and create in nature.” Nature reserves and zoos also have the option to work with Pocket Pals, who offer AR trails to educate and engage children with their surroundings without detracting from experiencing the site itself.

The Parkhive app, meanwhile, offers Bristol’s residents and visitors key information (e.g. play areas, sports facilities, etc) about parks around the city that are near their current GPS location. The app aims to encourage more people to get out and explore undiscovered areas in their city. Calvium launched the app during the 2015 Bristol Festival of Nature and received great reviews from the attendees. It was also featured on BBC News, The Observer and the Bristol Post.


Digital placemaking case study: Place Experience Platform

SDG 11.7: By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

Place Experience Platform (PEP) is an award-winning digital platform for the experience economy. It combines creative storytelling, wayfinding and real-time information about a location, to enhance visitor satisfaction.

As visitors are guided around a destination, following one of many personalised routes, they experience the place in ways that most interest them. The green spaces route may reveal the biodiversity of a town while the architectural route highlights points of cultural interest and the accessible healthy heart route provides opportunities to raise everyone’s BPM!


Less than a decade to go

As of this article’s writing, we only have eight years left until our 2030 deadline. If we can imagine a better future, we can achieve it, but it won’t be easy. We need to work collectively, with vision, passion and energy. Digital SMEs have proven themselves time and again to be key innovation partners and it’s essential that high performing SMEs are enabled to play their part in advancing the sustainable development goals – thus creating a radically better future.


Join Dr. Jo Morrison at Innovation Week 2022 with her talk ‘Digital Placemaking for Health and Wellbeing‘ book your place now.

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