SDG Academy: Unleashing Start-Up Potential to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

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The overwhelming coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting socio-economic tremors have made it deceptively easy for global citizens to lose track of an equally insidious crisis: the impending climate emergency and, with it, the looming deadline for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Yet, despite the distractions, the global temperature continues to rise, our planet’s oceans continue to warm, and the urgent fight to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals remains a pressing international obligation many have still to meet.

The current year 2020 marks the beginning of the Decade of Action — the final stretch in the United Nations’ effort to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and a deliberate international push to achieve far-reaching progress in a vast range of sectors spanning from green energy and gender equality to sustainable cities and disease eradication.

But some questions still linger: how can public institutions, civil society and the private sector come together to accelerate on these goals? Is 2030 an achievable objective? And what role can fledgling start-ups have in delivering on 2030?

Enter the SDG Academy: a new initiative launched by the SDG Hub Denmark — Sustainable Business in Action team in New York City, in collaboration with MakeImpact, aimed at bridging the yawning gaps between private sector goals and the global community’s sustainability objectives and helping lift up start-ups keen on expanding in the SDG space.

As Denmark ramps up its Green Reboot ensuring that the world’s post-COVID-19 recovery is one fueled by sustainable solutions and green investments, Denmark In New York caught up with the SDG Hub Denmark’s Elsebeth Dam Nordlund, Astrid Willum Foltinger and Sebastian Rodas Medeiros to learn more about the SDG Academy and the importance of SMEs in building a more sustainable and climate-forward future.

Denmark in New York: Elsebeth, Sebastian, and Astrid: thank you for taking the time to speak with us about this fascinating initiative. How would you describe the SDG Academy ?

SDG Hub Denmark: The SDG Academy is a Masterclass designed to transfer sustainability into the core business of companies and assist companies in connecting their goals to a global mission. Sustainability is deeply embedded in Danish society and culture, and the Danish government has put sustainability at the forefront of their politics, with the aim to reduce the greenhouse gas emission by 70% by 2030.

Now, with COVID-19 disturbing the global markets, Denmark is strengthening its focus on assisting Danish SMEs’ export potentials as a driver to build back the economy. With the Danish and global economy needing to be re-booted, now is a chance to do it focusing on sustainability — environmental, social and economic. This is where the SDG Academy can play a role.

The SDG Academy will take place in New York City and is designed to give Danish start-ups a solid understanding of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the ability to explore commercial opportunities within the SDGs and the opportunity to meet key stakeholders in New York.

This year we will have a special focus on Danish start-ups working with the SDGs. Participating companies will receive tailored advisory and will be invited to participate in virtual meetings, a workshop in Denmark, and a three-day Masterclass in New York City.

The SDG Academy is designed and facilitated by the SDG Hub Denmark — Sustainable Business in Action, which is based at Consulate General of Denmark in New York and has extensive experience in helping Danish companies understand the commercial potential of the SDGs, connecting key stakeholders, and promoting Danish solutions in strategic SDG platforms.

What elements of the SDG Academy do you think will attract companies, generate excitement, and fuel participation?

SDG Academy: The program aims to give participants insights into the SDGs enabling the companies to build SDG strategies and link the strategies to global initiatives. Furthermore, the aim is to connect the participating start-ups with a broad range of stakeholders and assist them with strategically incorporating the SDG into their core business models — and thereby give them the best prerequisite for tapping into the growing international market for sustainable business.

Denmark’s Green Reboot is leading the post-COVID recovery. And the Danish MFA is following suit. WATCH.

Why are SMEs so critical to the attainment of the SDGs?

SDG Academy: SMEs are the backbone of most economies worldwide and play a key role in job creation, growth and innovation. In Denmark alone, SMEs account for more than 99% of the companies. SMEs are vital for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, not only due to their importance for creating decent work (SDG 8) and for creating economic growth but also because their innovative ideas and solutions are essential for fast-tracking the development and increasing the chances of reaching the global 2030 agenda.

One of the key challenges for achieving the SDGs is that we are still missing many of the solutions necessary for achieving the goals. This means that we still need multi-stakeholders to define the road and innovators to create the needed solutions. SMEs can play a central role for this, especially start-ups that are agile, creative, and innovative as they can create sustainable innovation for helping us reaching the Goals.

Linked to innovation, the SDGs require new business models that include long-term profits and are based on the inclusion of multiple stakeholders. This is something that SMEs and start-ups often can create much faster than larger companies. It is therefore important that we make sure that these new business models — whether we call them social enterprises, impact start-ups, or say they are “born sustainable” — are fit to target the SDGs.

This will enable us to create real impact and achieve the goals locally as well as around the globe.

What are the main challenges facing SMEs and start-ups in the SDG space and what are the necessary steps to overcome them?

SDG Academy: Access to finance and scaling-up through international market opportunities are the largest obstacles for SMEs and especially for start-ups. This SDG Academy will introduce participating Danish SMEs working with the SDGs to financial partners, international trade actors and SDG experts.

Access to the right financial partners is key. It is central for any company but even more so for smaller companies with new business models. It is not only important that we find actors that can give access to finance, but to find the right partners, those that understand and support the importance of new business models with sustainable solutions.

Identifying international market opportunities can also be challenging, especially when providing SDG solutions that require an in-depth understanding of the local needs. This is also something that we see in Denmark, where many SMEs have difficulties with internationalization. However, we also see great initiatives from Danish SMEs being implemented around the world. Blue Town is for example providing access to connectivity in various African countries, and many Danish SMEs are also working closely together with the UN System in order to respond to UN product and service needs.

Through this SDG Academy we will keep fostering these types of solutions, helping new companies understanding how their SDG solutions can be further developed to support needs around the world.

How can sustainability be a solution for kick-starting economic activities post COVID-19?

SDG Academy: Imbedded in the need for an economic response to the COVID-19 crisis lies an opportunity for businesses to move beyond a classic growth-at-all-cost model and instead play an active role in ensuring that we build back better! Advancing sustainable solutions and investing in a green transition will form the foundation for a strong recovery and it is therefore vital that we maintain the global momentum for sustainable change and the valuable dedication of the private sector. Sustainable solutions can be a successful way of creating the economic stimulus needed to balance out some of the negative economic consequences of the pandemic.

At this point, there is no doubt that we need to rethink the coherence between planet, humanity and business to succeed in creating a better balance going forward. In the mists of the pandemic, we have been granted the opportunity and space to reflect on business-as-usual and reconsider what kind of world we want to re-enter on the other side.

What role does the partnership play in your vision for the SDG Academy?

The partnership with MakeImpact is vital for the design and scalability of the SDG Academy. With SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals as our beacon we strive to create cross-sector partnerships that support sustainable development and increase private sector engagement on global issues. Due to the size and complexity of the 2030 agenda it is evident that the global goals can only be reached if we work together across sectors and different fields of expertise. By being cooperative and strengthening the relations between sectors and nations, the SDG Hub Denmark — Sustainable Business in Action aims to play an active role in supporting innovative approaches and technological solutions across the SDGs. This is why we are truly excited to partner with MakeImpact on this project. With our partners’ strong ties to the Danish start-up environment and in-depth knowledge of working actively with innovation and SDG related solutions, we believe that the project has the right complementary skills and resources available to accelerate the potentials of the participating start-ups and create substantial impact. By bridging Danish start-ups with key stakeholders in New York City we can increase the participants’ knowledge of the UN, broaden their international SDG network and create new opportunities for building international partnerships that can scale-up solutions and impact.

Sign up today for the SDG Academy’s program.

Emilie Haaber Lynggaard is the Strategic Communications & Press intern at Denmark In New York.

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The Official Medium Blog for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. For all things Danish, #DenmarkInNY.

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