Founded in 1945 and comprised of 193 countries the United Nations is a behemoth of an institution—the kind that disruptive startups might typically circumvent. Yet, conversations happening at the very top levels of the UN have the potential to influence the startup movement, especially when it comes to innovating within cities.
That’s because, for the first time since 2000, the UN is revising its goals. The UN is moving from its Millennium Development Goals to a set of “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate” Sustainable Development Goals to guide global development in the next decade. At the recent World Urban Forum in Medellin, Columbia, a group of 20,000 city leaders, urbanists and planners from more than 160 countries approved and released the Medellin Declaration, a statement that advocates for an urban focus in the SDGs.
What’s that have to do with startups? First of all, the discussion about urbanizing SDGs reflects a larger conversation as leaders attempt to understand what a drastically urbanizing world would look like. Global urbanization is not just a theory; the reality is that more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050, that number is expected to jump to 6.4 billion people—the equivalent of the world’s entire population today.
In order for society to function peacefully and democratically in close quarters, cities will need new solutions to old problems, such as infrastructure and housing, fair governance, economic development and personal and social security. Innovative, technology-based solutions will become more important as climate and demographic change escalates, exacerbating old problems and creating new ones.
Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ recently released report advocates for cities to incorporate startups and lean thinking into governmental practice. For example, the report recommends piloting prototypes within complex projects prior to a wider roll-out, a practice that mirrors the Lean Startup MVP model. They also advocate for open data and transparency, as well as collaboration with the private sector, from startups to transnational organizations. These recommendations are made with the understanding that cities are both increasingly hampered by budgets and increasing autonomous, reflecting the nature of startups rather than that of institutions.
As Richard Florida points out in his recent article in The Atlantic Cities, a set of SDGs focused on cities will help to direct the flow of development dollars from major international agencies such as the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development into innovative urban solutions. Though city-focused SDGs may not result in an influx of venture capital funds, it will open up the market for technology-based urban solutions.
The opportunity is there: Cities worldwide are adapting startup-friendly policies like data sharing, transparency and direct citizen procurement. Furthermore, 6 billion of the 7 billion people in the world own a cell phone. The tide is turning for startups to make a real difference in cities—and the UN’s new SDGs can accelerate that rise.