SDG Lab in the news: Aspiring and resourceful UN hub start-up, CFI

Capital Finance International interviews director Nadia Isler

SDG Lab, UN Headquarters in Geneva: Shaping innovative ways to help implement, and deliver on, the United Nations 2030 Agenda, the Geneva-based SDG Lab seeks to bring together multiple actors to bundle and deploy its expertise, and exploit opportunities that offer shared benefits and add real value.

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SDG Lab, in existence since June 2017, is small and nimble; it engages with multiple stakeholders for a foot- or toehold in what is, arguably, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.

“SDG Lab offers a space for interdisciplinary collaboration across an exceptionally wide array of sectors,” says SDG Lab director Nadia Isler, who started her career at Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) and later joined the Swiss Foreign Ministry as an expert in development affairs. “By poking at established wisdom and asking pertinent questions, we try to find common ground and creative solutions that can help achieve real progress towards meeting the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs),”

SDG Lab was set up to help governments and other stakeholders deal with the practicalities of the goals. This involves ensuring that the voices – and concerns – of stakeholders are clearly heard by the people and organisations that matter. SDG Lab also helps to establish links between possible partners, and to produce novel solutions by tapping into the collective knowledge and expertise available in Geneva.


SDG Lab fulfils four essential tasks:

• Facilitating connections and brokering partnerships between UN entities, member states, and a host of civil society and private sector organisations, in order to promote dialogue and interactions, and strengthen the cooperation between stakeholders in the pursuit of the SDGs.

• Providing a space for all stakeholders to look for new approaches and processes to common challenges. Promising solutions, found through experimentation and a moderate degree of risk taking, may then be tested at country level. Once their effectiveness has been determined, these solutions may be scaled-up and deployed.

• Bringing together and disseminating experiences gathered from around the world as stakeholders work towards the implementation of the SDGs. The Lab functions as a forum where successes and failures may be shared, and lessons learned.

• Detecting and understanding the incentives that help drive an integrated approach to SDG implementation and cause actors to become more receptive to the changes required to meet the 2030 Agenda. SDG Lab aims to ask questions, sometimes inconvenient ones, that prod actors and stakeholders to rethink their approach and seek solutions outside the proverbial box.

"We want to bring aboard expertise from all relevant sectors, including academia, where a lot of applied research is being conducted that could be applicable across the world." - Nadia Isler, Director of SDG Lab


“To summarise,” says Isler, “SDG Lab offers the convening power of the UN, and the credibility and neutrality of the organisation, to join partners that otherwise would possibly not have crossed paths. SDG Lab is located in Geneva because it is precisely this city that boasts a unique ecosystem which includes nearly all stakeholders: 176 UN member states, 35 UN agencies, some 350 nongovernmental organisations, academia, and of course a flourishing business sector.

“Though Geneva is our backbone, our vision is to create a model that can be replicated elsewhere in the world.” Isler explains that SDG Lab is particularly interested in mapping and analysing the dynamics of successful partnerships: “What are the drivers and incentives that make a difference for development, and how may partnership be made sustainable so that they are not crippled when there is a change in leadership?”

Isler details the attempts of the Niger government to leapfrog development by deploying technology. “This can take the form of widely used e-health apps that improve outcomes or tech-driven initiatives in education or agriculture. The Niger government recognises that a lot of expertise is readily available in Geneva, but may not be that clear on who does what, and how. This is where SDG Lab comes into play, identifying needs and establishing links. In the case of Niger, it just took us two days to forge three or four partnerships.”

“However, we wish to go a lot further and offer countries such as Niger an institutionalised and easily scalable model that includes not only expertise but also access to finance or, inversely, the ability to showcase investment opportunities.” Pointing to the Geneva skyline, Isler notes that the city is home to a great many banks and investment funds that, looking for yield, may want to engage: “Lots of investors run scared because of the perceived risks. So, it’s up to us to bring these people in contact with opportunities further afield, and look for innovative ways to address their legitimate concerns.”

Blended finance is one of the many modalities SDG Lab is looking into, using development funds and philanthropic contributions to catalyse and mobilise private capital in a tripartite approach to provide financing for the 2030 Agenda in emerging and frontier markets.

Still a young organisation – a “toddler” according to Isler – SDG Lab is barely 18 months old and very much a start-up. From the get-go, Isler was determined to avoid ready-made solutions. She is not in the mood to preach to others, either: “That’s not what SDG Lab is about.


“Instead, we want to bring aboard expertise from all relevant sectors, including academia, where a lot of applied research is being conducted that could be applicable across the world.” Isler points to Geneva University, which has partnered with Tsinghua University in China to set up a master study on SDGs.

SDG Lab is not without ambition. The UN start-up, a disruptor of sorts in a world of established practices, wants to become a hub for the exchange of information. “Take a city such as Rome or Nairobi – or for that matter Mogadishu. They all have their unique expertise and experience. What we wish to do is to create meta-links between all these poles of knowledge, pool, sort, and process the resulting data sets, and offer a close-to-perfect mix of solutions – via partnerships – to any given problem, anywhere in the world.

“The important thing to remember that SDG Lab is most certainly not a ‘Kumbaya’ exercise: we do not expect, or indeed want, bankers and investors to engage with us for motives other than their bottom line.

“We fully expect them to ask, ‘What’s in it for us?’ That said, and asked, there are myriad ways to partner and mitigate risk while delivering tangible profits all round.”

This article was extracted from the Winter 2018-2019 online edition of Capital Finance International, pages 183-185. The magazine can be accessed by clicking here.

Question AskerKali Taylor