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How WIPO is Tracking Patent Progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) recently released a report on the role of patents in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So, what are the SDGs, what has WIPO found, and where does Australia fit in?

What are the SDGs?

The SDGs are a set of targets adopted by all UN nations in 2015 that provide a ‘shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future’. They are aimed at the interlinked goals of reducing poverty and inequality while preserving the natural environment and tackling climate change. The 17 SDGs are, in order:

No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, Reduced Inequalities, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, and Partnerships for the Goals.

Unfortunately, the UN considers that these targets are not yet being adequately met, due largely to the ongoing influence of COVID-19. Trying to look on the bright side, this means that there are ample opportunities for innovators to make a real difference.

WIPO: Exploring the SDGs Through Patents

WIPO has published a substantive report on their findings, available here. I will summarise a couple of the raised points, but I would urge anyone with an interest in this topic to take a look at the report in its entirety. Some really excellent interactive visualisations of these mapping results are also found at the WIPO website.

WIPO considers that data based on patent filings to be ‘objective and forward looking’ as indicators of global trends in innovation and technology, given the fact that innovations are often disclosed in patent filings years before they become products available to the public. As such, WIPO has worked with LexisNexis Intellectual Property Solutions and conducted extensive data mapping of patents and patent applications.

This mapping identified 100 distinct technological categories linked to the SDGs and spread across most of the SDGs, although notably WIPO found that goals 8, 10, 16 and 17 (Decent Work and Economic Growth, Reduced Inequalities, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and Partnerships for the Goals) do not correspond well to patent data. This does not mean that it is not possible to patent innovation in these areas, however, these are primarily socio-economic goals and so lend themselves to non-technical innovations.

Roughly 1/3 of all patent families across the world are related to one of the remaining 13 SDGs. It is probably no surprise that SGD 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) leads the way with 2.9 million patent families, given its very clear technological foundations. SDGs 13 (Climate Action), 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) each represent about 1 million patent families, with SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) not far behind. The remaining SDGs have some representation in patent filings, heavily biased toward ‘blockchain’ technologies. There is a lot of overlap, with many patent families corresponding to more than one SDG (Climate Action naturally shares many technologies with Affordable and Clean Energy, for example).

WIPO have also used this patent data to identify an ‘Innovation Maturity Matrix’, which is broken into four quadrants – Mature Sectors, Current Hot Topics, Modest Development, and Emerging Interest. SDGs 9, 13, 3 and 12 are identified as current hot topics, representing a relatively large amount of recent patent filings. Although representing a relatively small number of patents, SDGs 1, 4, 6, 14 and 15 have seen substantial recent activity, which may represent increased attention in these areas.

Within technology sectors, WIPO has identified Chemistry as representing the largest volume of SDG related patents, due to the science’s broad applicability across SGD divisions. However Electrical Energy represents a fast-growing sector.

Where Does Australia Fit in?

Australia represents only a small portion of the data collected. Roughly 40% of patents invented in Australia relate to SDGs, coming in slightly behind Europe for the highest percentage dedicated to these goals. We can also see that of these SDG-related inventions, the majority relate to SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) in roughly equal proportions. For comparison, Germany, Japan and South Korea heavily favour SDG 9 over all others, while the US and UK favour SDG 9 but with SDG 3 fairly close behind. Of course, in absolute numbers Australia’s contribution is small, but individual innovations can have an impact beyond the mere number of related patent filings.

For example, we recently wrote about just a few of our Australian clients whose work and missions are in line with some of the SDGs – read our article here.

Conclusion

Innovators are interested in solving problems, and the SDGs represent the biggest problems out there. A look at the places and ways technology is being used to address the SDGs around the world is, I hope, inspiring. And while the commercial realities involved in R&D and patent filing cannot be denied, the existence of problems to be solved and people to help represents a huge opportunity for motivated innovators to make their mark and leave a lasting, positive impact on the world.