TWI2050 Report: Innovations for Sustainability: Pathways to an efficient and efficient post-pandemic future

Third report prepared by The World in 2050 initiative.



Innovation has been the foundation of human and societal development since the dawn of civilization. It has resulted in enormous benefits for human wellbeing while at the same time is has brought the world to a critical crossroads where further unconstrained development risks societal and environmental collapse. The current rate and direction of innovation is insufficient to achieve the United Nation’s (UN) ambitious goals for an inclusive sustainable future for all, in part because of a relatively narrow focus on technology innovation without also addressing societal, institutional, and cultural innovation. We need to rebalance so that all dimensions of innovation and invention are promoted simultaneously, including addressing inequities. We also need to develop more proactive efforts to promote diffusion and learning, and to address barriers, constraints, and unintended consequences of innovations. 

We live in interesting times. They are times of great dangers and uncertainty for humanity and the planet, but times of unprecedented opportunities for directing development toward a just, resilient, and sustainable future. The current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is disrupting the status quo, providing an opportunity to create sustainable societies with higher levels of wellbeing for all and mitigating environmental impacts at all scales. Properly directed, the stimulus packages underway to restart economies can ignite and leverage effects toward sustainability. The risk is that they may promote resurrection of the ‘old normal,’ going back to business-as-usual, rather than a transformation toward sustainability.

This report, which focuses on innovation, is the third by The World in 2050 (TWI2050) initiative that was established by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and other partners to provide scientific foundations for the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This report is based on the voluntary and collaborative effort of more than 60 authors and contributors from about 20 institutions globally, who met virtually to develop science-based strategies and pathways toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Presentations of the TWI2050 approach and work have been made at many international conferences such as the United Nations Science, Technology and Innovation Forums and the United Nations High-level Political Forums.

In 2018, the first report by TWI2050 on Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals identified Six Exemplary Transformations needed to achieve the SDGs and long-term sustainability to 2050 and beyond: i) Human capacity, demography and health; ii) Consumption and production; iii) Decarbonization and energy, iv) Food, biosphere and water; v) Smart cities; and vi) Digital Revolution.

The focus of the second report, The Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges, launched in 2019, was the Sixth Transformation. Although it could arguably become the single greatest enabler of sustainable development, it has, in the past, helped create many negative externalities like transgression of planetary boundaries. The Digital Revolution provides entirely new and enhanced capacities and thus serves as a major force in shaping both the systemic context of transformative change and of future solutions; at the same time it potentially carries strong societal disruptive power if not handled with caution, care, and innovativeness.

This third report, Innovations for Sustainability: Pathways to an efficient and sufficient post-pandemic future, assesses all the positive potential benefits innovation brings to sustainable development for all, while also highlighting the potential negative impacts and challenges going forward. The report outlines strategies to harness innovation for sustainability by focusing on efficiency and sufficiency in providing services to people, with a particular focus on consumption and production. It concludes with the related governance challenges and policy implications. 

The publication of this report in July 2020 and its launch during the United Nations High-level Political Forum is timely. TWI2050 outlines ten key messages on the linkages between innovation, efficiency and sufficiency, and the sustainability transformations:

  1. The world is at a crossroads – achievement of the 2030 Agenda is possible but requires accelerated action and transformative pathways for sustainable development.
  2. A just and resilient sustainable future for all – entails socioeconomic development for improved human wellbeing while preserving Earth-system resilience.
  3. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great threat to humanity – but it provides an opportunity for change and innovation toward sustainability.
  4. Six TWI2050 Transformations are a framework for how to achieve the 2030 Agenda –  jointly, they integrate all the SDGs and provide an entry point for achieving them.
  5. Transformative governance is emerging – there is a growing understanding of governance needs for integrated SDG implementation.
  6. Science, technology, and innovation are at the core of human progress – paradoxically, they have also brought about negative impacts, but they also provide solutions.
  7. Granular, small-size innovations generally have faster adoption and diffusion – they can enable rapid change but require sustained investments.
  8. The science-policy-society interface is essential for evidence-based transformations – research and development are enablers of sustainability-oriented innovations.
  9. Transforming service-provisioning systems is necessary – improving human wellbeing and sharing resources fairly requires people-centered efficiency and sufficiency.
  10. Transnational crises demand global context-sensitive responses – support of actors from local to international is key for accelerating reforms to achieve the sustainability transformation.

Despite the magnitude of the challenge and the current unsustainable direction of development, additionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the transformation to a sustainable future is achievable—we have the knowledge, means, and capacity. However, at this point in time, with only 10 years until 2030, there is a general lack of political will within many governments across the globe to mobilize the necessary resources and make the required policy and structural changes to achieve the 2030 goals. It is our belief that this report will provide policy and decision makers around the world with invaluable new knowledge to inform action and commitment toward achieving the SDGs in these interesting and challenging times. The level of global commitment and cooperation displayed during the development of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda needs to continue and deepen during this critical implementation phase. 

Recommended citation:
TWI2050 - The World in 2050 (2020). Innovations for Sustainability. Pathways to an efficient and post-pandemic future. Report prepared by The World in 2050 initiative. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria.

Available at:

Report Launch and side events at the High-level Political Forum 2020.

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Last edited: 14 July 2020


Nebojsa Nakicenovic

Distinguished Emeritus Research Scholar Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group - Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

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Innovations for Sustainability: Pathways to an efficient and sufficient post-pandemic future

Innovations for Sustainability

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