Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda at the UN General Assembly in 2015, the world has been striving to attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the pace of progress is insufficient, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic has reportedly stalled or even reversed progress.1 According to the latest report by the UN Secretary-General, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty increased from 8.4% in 2019 to 9.5% in 2020.2 The question is how to recover from the pandemic in a better way and attain the SDGs.
This article reviews Japan’s efforts and discusses the future in science, technology and innovation (STI) to achieve the SDGs at global, regional, national, and local levels in connection to efforts in international organizations.
Japan’s past STI policies
Japan strove to reconstruct its economy and society from the ruins of World War II, achieving rapid economic growth from 1955 to 1973. Heavy industry developed quickly, with industrial complexes lining the Pacific coast, but in the process, pollution increased, often causing harm to the health of residents and the environment. In response, stricter regulations were imposed on emissions and wastewater from factories, and environmental technologies for removing harmful substances from wastewater and exhaust gas were developed. In 1971, the Environmental Agency was established, and environmental policies strengthened.
In response to the oil crisis of 1973, research and development of new energy sources (solar power, geothermal power, coal gasification, hydrogen) were taken up to replace oil. The Agency of Industrial Science and Technology also launched national projects to boost R&D for semiconductors, mainframe computers, and other priority areas. Since the 1980s, national science and technology policy have shifted gears toward strategically supporting basic science. In the 1990s, Japan’s financial crisis (the collapse of its bubble economy) led to the reinvigoration of its postwar policy of becoming a science-and-technology-based nation, which led to the enactment of the Basic Act on Science and Technology in 1995 and the implementation of the Science and Technology Basic Plan from 1996 onward. With a rapidly aging population and declining birthrate, the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident in 2011, and the recent pandemic, Japan has been pursuing new STI policy not only for economic prosperity but also for the societal resilience and well-being. This is a work in progress and must be accompanied by a reform of Japan’s STI system. Japan’s experiences and environmental technology development in the past half century will be valuable assets in redefining and implementing actual action plans for SDGs. The SDGs raise the need to accelerate such transformations.
Policy framework and action plan for realizing the SDGs in Japan
In May 2016, less than a year after the UN resolution on the SDGs, the government of Japan established its SDG Promotion Headquarters, chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by all ministers. The “SDGs Implementation Guiding Principles” were formulated in December 2016 after discussions at the SDG Promotion Roundtable, which brought together stakeholders in academia, government, industry, and civil society. In 2019, a revised version of these principles was prepared. The principles restructure the SDGs to fit the Japanese context and clarify the vision and eight priorities.3 Each of these priorities corresponds to the five Ps (people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership) of the UN 2030 Agenda.
The SDG Action Plan, which defines Japan’s activities to achieve the SDGs, has been updated and followed every year since 2018. The latest SDG Action Plan 2021 lists the following as key priorities: 1) countering infectious disease and preparing for future crises, 2) investing in business for building back better and refining growth strategies through innovation; 3) SDGs-driven regional revitalization, creating a virtuous cycle of economy and environment; and 4) accelerating these actions through empowering individuals and strengthening bonds among people.4 As described below, efforts by multiple sectors across Japan are increasing to put these priorities into practice.
In addition to proactive efforts by government ministries and agencies, the participation of various stakeholders, including industry, academia, citizens, and young people, is key in the implementation of these plans. In the industrial sector, the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) was among the first to enact a Charter of Corporate Behavior that complies with the SDGs. As a result of diverse efforts to promote the SDGs, the level of awareness among the public has increased from 14.8% in 2018 to 54.2% as of April 2021.5 This impressive rise is largely due to the increased coverage by mass media and the adoption of ESD (education for sustainable development) in primary and secondary education.
The SDGs need to be addressed in a multilayered manner, with clear interconnections at the individual, communal, local, national, and global levels. The local SDGs are achieving concrete results by customizing them to the region, while making use of local culture and traditional technologies. They are helping drive the transition away from the concentration of Japan’s socio-economic system in large cities toward a decentralized society of the future. Kitakyushu City’s “Green Growth City,” and Aomori Prefecture’s projects to achieve long healthy lives are some examples of distinctive initiatives pursued to revitalize local society. These experiences should be generalized for and shared with other places including foreign countries. Since 2018, the Japanese government has designated municipalities that propose outstanding initiatives to integrate the economy, society, and the environment as “SDGs Future Cities” and disseminated information on such models throughout Japan. As a result, local governments have begun to address the SDGs as their own issues and promote the resolution of regional issues. In 2017, the percentage of local governments working on the SDGs was only 1%; by 2020, it was 39.7%, and the Japanese government is stepping up efforts to increase this to 60% by the end of FY2024.
Japan’s efforts and remaining challenges in achieving the SDGs are summarized in the Voluntary National Review 2021.
Promoting STI for the SDGs in Japan
Science, technology and innovation (STI) aims to increase collective well-being through combining new scientific and technological breakthroughs with social and economic actions. In 2020, Japan revised the 1995 Basic Act on Science and Technology to remove the boundaries between the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences, and to stimulate innovation for a changing world.6 The Act was renamed the Basic Act on Science, Technology, and Innovation. In addition, the Sixth Science, Technology and Innovation Basic Plan (2021–25) was launched,7 focusing on the implementation of “Society 5.0”8 and the enhancement of STI.
Society 5.0 is Japan’s vision for the future: a human-centered society that balances economic development with resilience and well-being by integrating cyberspace and physical space and promoting social transformation by using digital technologies such as the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). Society 5.0 is envisioned as the successor of the sequence of transformations of human societies, from hunter-gatherer society (Society 1.0) to agricultural society (Society 2.0) to industrial society (Society 3.0) and finally to information society (Society 4.0). It is also an action plan/roadmap for STI for SDGs in Japan. In the sixth basic plan, STI policies are being accelerated under roadmaps focusing on carbon neutrality, digital transformation, countermeasures against infectious diseases, and human resource development. In addition, efforts to promote STI for local SDGs are emphasized.
Key transformations in STI policies for the SDGs
Below, we examine six key transformations of STI policy framework, instruments, and capacity, aiming to achieve the SDGs.
- Developing mission-oriented STI policy for STI for SDGs
The UNESCO/ICSU Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge (the “Budapest Declaration”) in 1999 forced a major rethinking of the promotion system and structure of modern science, which began in the early 19th century, as well as evaluation methods and norms for scientists. The SDGs call for the global STI community to accelerate this historic shift.
One such move is the implementation of mission-oriented STI policy, which aims to maximize the power of the STI community to realize a sustainable and resilient society and has been vigorously discussed in international platforms such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),9 the International Science Council (ISC),10 the Global Research Council (GRC)11, and the World Science Forum (WSF).12 The mission-oriented approach is also an important part of Horizon Europe,13 the European Union’s research and innovation framework plan launched in 2021 with grand challenges grouped in six clusters.
In the past, Japan’s mission-oriented R&D was mainly carried out by corporate research laboratories and national research institutes, as seen in the national projects of the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, with the downsizing of corporate research laboratories, universities and national research institutes have an increasingly important role in implementing mission-oriented STI. To this end, the ministries concerned with science and technology have expanded their backcasting research programs and funding. Since 2013, the Council for Science and Technology Policy has been promoting the Cross-ministerial Strategic Innovation Program (SIP)14 for solving social issues through the collaboration of industry, academia, and government. Twenty-three projects, including energy carriers, an automated driving system, and resilient disaster prevention and mitigation initiatives, have already been implemented, and in addition to the development of advanced technologies, legal and regulatory reforms and measures to obtain social acceptance have been put into practice. In 2020, the Moonshot Research and Development Program was launched to tackle technological and social issues without fear of failure in anticipation of 2050.15 With these efforts, Japan has been recognized for its active promotion of mission-oriented STI policies.16
The OECD’s Transdisciplinary Research (TDR) Project, which Japan co-chaired, proposes a new paradigm of science as a powerful tool for strategic orientation, coordination, and implementation of mission-oriented STI policies.17 TDR is defined by OECD as collaborative research between natural sciences and social sciences/humanities, with engagement of non-academic stakeholders. The 2020 OECD report presents 28 practices from various countries, including the project of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, Tohoku University, established to integrate the lessons of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and knowledge from multiple research fields to build a new approach to disaster mitigation research, and the Mobility Innovation project to design slow-mobility systems and services for an aging society, led by Nagoya University and Toyota under Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST)’s innovation-oriented funding program.
- The STI for SDGs roadmap: from design to implementation
STI for SDGs roadmaps are powerful multi-stakeholder engagement tools to envision, plan, communicate, and facilitate actions; track progress; and foster a learning environment to harness STI to achieve the SDGs.18 A well-designed STI roadmap can show a pathway to comprehensively mobilize policy tools, science and technology, business, finance, and regulation to address the social challenges prioritized for geographic area or sector. It is also a methodology that ensures the achievement of STI for SDGs with steps for prioritizing objectives, analyzing gaps, setting goals, evaluating pathways, implementing the roadmap, and monitoring and evaluating progress. A systemic and robust approach should be established in order to make sure to attain STI for SDGs even under the continuous threat of a pandemic.
STI for SDGs roadmaps have been discussed since the first UN STI Forum in 2016. The publication of the “Guidebook for the preparation of STI for SDGs roadmaps”19 and the implementation of the “Global Pilot Programme”20 are among the most remarkable achievements that the UN Interagency Task Team (IATT) on STI for the SDGs has ever made, and Japan and the EU have been supporting these activities. “Guiding Principles of STI for SDGs Roadmaps” were included in the documents distributed at the G20 Osaka Summit.21 Based on these experiences, a global collaboration scheme, called the “Partnership in Action on STI for SDGs Roadmaps”22 is currently being planned to scale up the Pilot Programme. The Partnership in Action facilitates international cooperation for STI for SDGs with the three pillars: building up national STI capabilities to address COVID-19 recovery and the SDGs; boosting international knowledge and technology flows for the SDGs; and brokering international collaborations for the SDGs. At the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2021, a group of countries including Japan supported establishing a multi-stakeholder alliance to implement the Partnership in Action of STI for SDGs Roadmaps.23 High-level officials from governments, research organizations and private sectors who are interested in STI roadmaps are invited to join in this alliance. It will also include leaders and technical experts from UN/international organizations and other stakeholders.
According to the “Progress Report of Pilot Programmes” by the UN IATT, the six pilot countries all share a weakness in their STI industry, infrastructure, and innovation capacity (SDGs Goal 9), a major obstacle to achieving all of the goals. Institutional support, including from UN agencies and international organizations, needs to be well established and backed by financing.
The STI for SDGs should be positioned not only for 2030 but for a long-term roadmap that extends beyond 2030.24 Based on studies of the roadmaps, the Japan Academy of Engineering has taken up the topics of smart cities, the energy-food-water nexus, and governance from the perspective of society, to be realized around 2050.25 The importance of sensing technologies and data for nature and society has also been emphasized.26
- Strengthening international cooperation for urgent issues
With regard to environmental issues, the question of how to achieve carbon neutrality by the middle of the 21st century has emerged as a central and urgent issue in relation to climate change. This requires consideration of both negative emissions in major carbon dioxide-emitting countries and equitable access to energy in all countries. While science and technology share a critical role, the breadth and difficulty of the problem make international cooperation particularly imperative. The Belmont Forum and the Future Earth Programmes have been operating as multilateral international collaboration schemes on environmental science. The growth of open science in response to the COVID-19 pandemic should give us a lesson in promoting dynamic international cooperative research for urgent issues such as climate change and other future risks. The use of digital technology, the convergence of knowledge and experience, and the participation of civil society are also imperative.
- Strengthening the dynamic relationship among global, regional, national, and local levels
Governance is key to promoting initiatives among global, regional, national, and local levels in close relationship with each other. In particular, taking into account scale and regional characteristics, customized schemes in local contexts should be generalized and scaled up for transfer to national, regional and global levels. To this end, as part of strengthening the global partnership enshrined in SDGs Goal 17, a global think tank consortium needs to be established in collaboration with relevant organizations.
At the “Local and Regional Government Forum,” a 2018 HLPF Special Event, the heads of local governments around the world declared that local communities will actively drive the SDGs.27 From Japan, Shimokawa Town, Toyama City, and Kitakyushu City reported on their first Voluntary Local Reviews (VLR).28 HLPF 2020 also recognized that local SDGs activities are playing significant roles.29
Brokering collaborations among relevant organizations and stakeholders is important to promote STI in local areas by using advanced and existing technologies and local knowledge. To this end, it is also important to mobilize local universities and technical colleges for local STI for SDGs.
- Bridging science, policy, and society
The Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident in 2011 highlighted the lack of an interface between science, policy and society backed by mutual trust in times of emergencies in Japan. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of science and technology has been recognized by policymakers and citizens, and expert councils set up by the government have been working among the parties concerned in Japan. However, the voices of the scientific community have not always been adequately reflected in either policy making or social behavioral change.30
To improve the interface between science, policy and society, synthesizing diverse scientific, social, and economic knowledge and communication in multidirectional ways are essential. The current unidirectional flow of information and advices from scientists to policy makers and citizens needs to be re-examined, and the science-policy-society interface needs to be redesigned as a co-creative ecosystem.31 The International Science Council (ISC), which was formed in 2018 with the merger of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC), is already actively working with the United Nations, the GRC, the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), and others to transform science, address social issues, and strengthen science-humanities collaboration. The ISC is expected to further strengthen its relationship with industry, the financial sector, and the public sector, and to take the lead in bridging science, policy and society.
- Reshaping capacity in science and technology at individual and collective levels
The UN SDGs resolution calls for “transforming our world,” which includes governments, the economy, industry, education, science and technology, and living systems in the modern era. It is necessary to promote the use of vast natural and social sensing data in the design of a future society; take stock of the huge number of existing technologies and apply them, especially to local STI for SDGs and in developing countries; and promote transdisciplinary research for solving societal challenges. To implement these measures, it is imperative to rebuild dynamic capabilities in governments and fundamentally change the mindset and curriculum of both faculty and students in higher education. In particular, it is essential to change the purpose and methods of education and training systems to raise individual and collective awareness and capabilities at multiple layers of the science and technology sector. In addition to research universities, local universities and technical colleges play key roles in achieving local SDGs and nurturing practitioners for STI for SDGs.
Sharing trust and values among science, policy, and civil society; disseminating clear information on capabilities, challenges, and the risks of emerging science and technology; and countering disinformation are among the duties of the science community.32 Young scientists and engineers engaged in rapid development of frontier science and technology are expected to actively contribute to STI for SDGs and science-policy-society interfaces. The 2022 Global Young Academy Annual General Meeting and Conference, to be held in Japan (Fukuoka), will discuss what scientists should pursue with the theme “Harmonizing reason with sensibility: Regenerating science for an inclusive and sustainable future.”33 The upcoming World Expo 2025, also to be held in Japan (Osaka), will promote the sharing of challenges and solutions from around the world that are being undertaken primarily by younger generations.34 These knowledge platforms are expected to lead to new ideas that will help resolve global and local issues for our future society.
The 2030 Agenda positions STI as key means to achieving a sustainable and resilient society. Based on Japan’s experiences and the international dialogues on the SDGs, we strongly propose transformations of STI policy framework, instruments, and capacity with coherent multi-stakeholder engagement, which will open a new horizon in 2030 and beyond.
- Jeffrey D. Sachs, Christian Kroll, Guillaume Lafortune, Grayson Fuller, and Finn Woelm, Sustainable Development Report 2021, June 14, 2021, www.sdgindex.org/reports/sustainable-development-report-2021.
- United Nations, “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Report of the Secretary-General,” April 30, 2021, https://undocs.org/en/E/2021/58.
- SDGs Promotion Headquarters, “SDGs implementation guiding principles, revised edition” (temporary translation), December 22, 2016 & December 20, 2019, www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/gaiko/oda/sdgs/pdf/kaitei_2019_en.pdf.
- “Voluntary National Review 2021: Report on the implementation of 2030 Agenda,” https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/28957210714_VNR_2021_Japan.pdf; Voluntary National Review presentation of Japan at High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, July 15, 2021, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/index.php?page=view&type=30022&nr=2644&menu=3170.
- Dentsu, “Dentsu conducts fourth consumer survey on Sustainable Development Goals,” April 26, 2021, www.dentsu.co.jp/en/news/release/2021/0426-010368.html.
- Government of Japan, “Basic Act on Science, Technology and Innovation” (in Japanese), April 1, 2021, https://elaws.e-gov.go.jp/document?lawid=407AC1000000130_20210401_502AC0000000063.
- Government of Japan, “Science, Technology, and Innovation Basic Plan,” March 26, 2021, www8.cao.go.jp/cstp/english/sti_basic_plan.pdf.
- Hitachi-UTokyo Laboratory (Ed.), 2020, Society 5.0, A People-centric Super-smart Society (Singapore: Springer), https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-981-15-2989-4.
- Philippe Larrue, “The design and implementation of mission-oriented innovation policies: A new systemic policy approach to address societal challenges,” OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, no. 100 (2021).
- International Science Council (ISC), “A framework to unleash mission-oriented science,” High-Level Political Forum 2021, July 2021, https://council.science/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/20210524_GRC_AvJ_A-framework-to-unleash-mission-oriented-science_final-GRC.pdf.
- Global Research Council (GSC), “Principles and approach of mission-oriented research,” January 2020, www.globalresearchcouncil.org/fileadmin/documents/GRC_Publications/Sof/2020_GRC_FINAL_Statement_of_Principles_Mission-oriented_Research.pdf.
- World Science Forum, “Declaration of the 9th World Science Forum - Science, Ethics and Responsibility-,” November 23, 2019, https://worldscienceforum.org/contents/declaration-of-world-science-foru...
- Mariana Mazzucato, “Mission-oriented research and innovation in the European Union,” February 22, 2018, https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/mission-oriented-research-innovation-eu-problem-solving-approach-fuel-innovation-led-growth_en.
- Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program, “Pioneering the Future: Japanese science, technology and innovation 2020,” www8.cao.go.jp/cstp/panhu/sip_english/sip_en.html.
- Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI), Headquarters for Healthcare Policy, “The basic approach for the Moonshot Research and Development Program” (provisional translation), December 20, 2018, www.jst.go.jp/moonshot/en/application/202002/pdf/f-policy_en20200227.pdf.
- OECD, “Mission-oriented innovation policy in Japan,” April 21, 2021, www.oecd.org/japan/mission-oriented-innovation-policy-in-japan-a93ac4d4-en.htm.
- OECD, “Addressing societal challenges using transdisciplinary research,” June 16, 2020, www.oecd.org/science/addressing-societal-challenges-using-transdisciplinary-research-0ca0ca45-en.htm.
- United Nations Interagency Task Team (IATT), “Science, technology and innovation for the SDGs Roadmaps – Framework and Working Method,” Policy Brief #1, September 2018, https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/2021-05/Policy%20Brief%20No%201%20-%20STI%20for%20SDGs%20Roadmaps-%20Sep%202018.pdf.
- Guidebook for the preparation of science, technology and innovation (STI) for SDGs roadmaps, 2021, https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/2021-06/GUIDEBOOK_COMPLETE_V03.pdf.
- United Nations Interagency Task Team (IATT), “Progress report of global pilot programme of STI roadmaps for the SDGs,” January 2021, https://sdgs.un.org/documents/progress-report-global-pilot-programme-sti-roadmaps-sdgs-32961.
- G20 Development Working Group (DWG), “Guiding principles for the development of science, technology, and innovation for SDGs roadmaps,” June 2019, www.mofa.go.jp/policy/economy/g20_summit/osaka19/pdf/documents/en/annex_12.pdf.
- United Nations Interagency Task Team (IATT), “Partnership in action on science, technology and innovation for SDGs roadmaps - draft for consultation,” 2020, https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/2021-04/Progress%20Report%20of%20Global%20Pilot%20Programme%20of%20STI%20Roadmaps_2021_1.pdf.
- United Nations High-level Dialogue on the Partnership in Action on Science, Technology and Innovation for SDGs Roadmaps, 2021, https://sdgs.un.org/events/high-level-dialogue-partnership-action-science-technology-and-innovation-sdgs-roadmaps-33359.
- International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), “The World in 2050: Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” July 10, 2018, http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/15347.
- Taro Arikawa, Ikuo Sugiyama, Yoshikazu Nakajima, Hideaki Koizumi and Taikan Oki, “The future of urban design,” in United Nations Interagency Task Team (IATT), “Emerging science, frontier technologies, and the SDGs,” May 2021, https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/2021-05/IATT%20report%20on%20emerging%20techs%202021.pdf.
- Ryuichi Maruyama and Michiharu Nakamura, “Utilizing advanced sensing technologies for SDGs,” in United Nations Interagency Task Team (IATT), “Emerging science, frontier technologies, and the SDGs,” May 2021, https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/2021-05/IATT%20report%20on%20emerging%20techs%202021.pdf.
- Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, “Local and regional action at the heart of the High-level Political Forum 2018,” www.uclg.org/sites/default/files/report_hplf_2018.pdf.
- Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, “SDGs city reports,” www.iges.or.jp/en/projects/city-reports.
- UN ECOSOC, “Summary by the President of the Economic and Social Council of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development convened under the auspices of the Council at its 2020 session,” https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/269252020_HLPF_Presidents_summary.pdf.
- United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “The COVID-19 pandemic: a wake-up call for better cooperation at the science-policy-society interface,” Policy Brief No. 62, April 2020, www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/publication/un-desa-policy-brief-62-the-covid-19-pandemic-a-wake-up-call-for-better-cooperation-at-the-science-policy-society-interface.
- Kristiann Allen, “Lessons learned from COVID-19 for the science-policy-society interface,” in “Emerging science, frontier technologies, and the SDGs,” IATT Report for the STI Forum 2021, May 2021, https://sdgs.un.org/documents/iatt-report-2021-emerging-science-frontier-technologies-and-sdgs-perspectives-un-system; United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA), “Strategy guidance note on the Science-Policy Interface,” March 2021, https://publicadministration.un.org/Portals/1/Strategy%20note%20science%20policy%20interface%20March%202021.pdf.
- William Colglazier, “Americaʼs science policy and science diplomacy after COVID-19,” Science and Diplomacy, June 28, 2020, www.sciencediplomacy.org/editorial/2020/americas-science-policy-and-science-diplomacy-after-covid-19.
- 2022 Global Young Academy Annual General Meeting and Conference, https://globalyoungacademy.net/events/2022-international-conference-of-young-scientists-and-gya-annual-general-meeting.
- Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition, “Overview,” www.expo2025.or.jp/en/overview.