If we want to put this planet on a more sustainable & equitable path, we need to get smarter together.

The Sustainable Development Goals demand financial resources, and they equally require the mobilization of intelligence. Together with Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design, we at the United Nations Development Programme recognize that in order for governments of the world to achieve these goals, we need to get smarter by harnessing the knowledge of almost 8 billion people on the planet.  

This report is a call to make it standard practice to channel the innovations, knowledge and contributions of people across the globe, to get serious about the move toward real time data, and to find responsible ways of using artificial intelligence to elevate human intelligence.  If we want to put this planet on a more sustainable & equitable path, we need to get smarter together

At the United Nations, we support, accompany and learn from governments, community groups, development partners, businesses and individuals doing their part to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. We see real time knowledge creation, collective action and intelligence-driven decision making as essential. This is why, together with our founding investors from the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Qatar and many others, we’re building a social innovation capability through our network of 91 social innovation labs inside the United Nations serving 115 countries. 

Our starting point is that no country, no government, no organization has the full blueprint for success.  We all need to learn what works and what doesn’t to drive inclusion and sustainability in global development.   This is why we need to tap into the intelligence that drives the actions of almost 8 billion people: to create break-throughs that transform the systems that will determine whether future generations can meet their needs. 

We designed Collective Intelligence for Sustainable Development: Getting Smarter Together as a study on the practice of pooling collective brain power to create a better balance among equity, environmental protection and economic prosperity. It is the first such research to unpack the value of collective intelligence design for distributed problem solving, real time environmental monitoring and new forms of accountability. These and other use cases described are part of the action we must take to drive progress on global sustainability goals and address the challenges we face as people and as a planet. 

Collective Intelligence for Sustainable Development: Getting Smarter Together surveys the activities of over 200 organizations to pool distributed knowledge to advance the sustainable development goals by building accountable institutions, protecting and restoring ecosystems and conserving the oceans.

13 Case Studies is an in depth exploration of how the UNDP Accelerator Labs - the world’s largest learning network - is using ethnography, innovation challenges, citizen science and machine learning to advance the global goals - primarily to make cities inclusive and safe and ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Achim Steiner

I invite you to read Getter Smarter Together as an invitation to participate in this effort to mobilize intelligence to advance the Sustainable Development Goals so that 9 years from now we can look at their achievement as the basis for a more inclusive and sustainable planet.

Achim Steiner Signature

Achim Steiner
United Nations Development Programme Administrator

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Who is this report for?

Who is this report for

The report is aimed at senior officials within national governments, international agencies and development organizations who understand the urgency for action and want to tap into distributed collective intelligence as part of national strategies towards the SDGs. We also hope this report will provide a source of inspiration for innovators within broader development and research communities.


This study was carried out from September 2020 to January 2021. Over 277 case studies covering a wide range of collective intelligence methods were mapped and categorized by most relevant SDG. Case studies were drawn from Nesta’s existing repositories and publications of collective intelligence case studies, as well as a rapid review of the academic and grey literature on the SDGs and related fields, such as citizen science and digital democracy. Case studies from UNDP Accelerator Labs were identified using a combination of online search and semi-structured interviews carried out by a Nesta researcher.

During our analysis we identified use cases, where we inferred a common purpose amongst case studies – particularly looking for use cases that were relevant to multiple SDGs. For each use case we assigned a number of SDG targets. These were identified by retrospective analysis of the focus of the case studies against the SDG targets.

Although few of the case studies explicitly documented links to a specific SDG target or goal, this retrospective analysis helps to illustrate how collective intelligence methods could be used more intentionally for the SDGs in the future. The limitations of our approach mean that the targets listed are unlikely to be the only ones that could benefit from the application of collective intelligence methods. They are, however, the ones where we found the clearest association – and may offer the quickest wins for funders, practitioners and governments.