Climate action demands bold social innovation and moonshot thinking

Climate action demands bold social innovation and moonshot thinking
Aisha Saeed Harib Fellow, UAE National Experts Program Digital Social Innovation, PhD Researcher University of Reading, UK

Climate change is an unprecedented global challenge, putting countries and communities at risk and the UAE is no exception. If left unmanaged, potential impacts of climate change on the UAE include extreme heat, storm surge, sea level rise, water stress, dust and sand storms, and desertification.

One of the recommended solutions to counter climate change is the “Moonshot” approach – addressing one of the most urgent and existential threats of our times, through digital social innovation.

What’s Moonshot Thinking


“Moonshot Thinking” provides radical, bold, and ambitious solutions, like the use of technologies, to problems, such as climate change. The idea of a ‘Moonshot’ was based on President John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1962 that launched an ambitious space program. Today, the outcomes of this thinking are limitless.

Read: Al-Jaber calls on oil and gas industry to up game on climate change

Global challenges


The catastrophic impacts of climate change on societies, communities, and individuals cannot be overstated. The UN 2022 Sustainable Development Goals Report has identified COVID-19, climate change, and conflicts as key factors affecting societies, and the implications of these challenges are far-reaching. Despite some signs of progress in certain areas, everything from food, nutrition, health, education, and the environment is being impacted.

In the UAE, for example, climate change could have implications on the country’s development objectives. The direct impacts of extreme weather events, as well as slow-onset phenomena such as sea level rise, could disrupt the daily functioning of transport and infrastructure, impact the value of real estate, affect environmental assets, and damage the tourism industry, according to the National Climate Change Plan of the United Arab Emirates (2017-2050).

Climate action

How can we adopt the moonshot approach to address societal challenges?


Governments can create a proactive framework for addressing global challenges and driving innovation and growth by prioritizing ambitious ‘moonshot’ goals and investing in the necessary research and development strategies. The economist Mariana Mazzucato has advocated for this approach. In her book (Mission Economy), Mazzucato stated that to effectively achieve the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have to implement different types of public-private partnerships. Mazzucato highlights that it is necessary to foster symbiotic collaborations between public and private stakeholders. In this context, what will be the role of the government? Which instruments, structures, and capabilities will be required? What is the role of universities in building up these symbiotic relationships? How to build up a new “entrepreneurial ecosystem” to solve these global challenges?

To move towards this mindset, a portfolio thinking approach is needed so that government leaders identify ambitious outcomes while taking effective measures and support on the ground. Therefore, the first objective for the public sector should be to invest in its own capabilities in the years to come. That is, create a dynamic and creative bureaucracy of public servants, not just to “facilitate” breakthroughs for society but to participate and co-create solutions as well as co-invest in deploying them.

Additionally, a “spillover effect” – or return on investment –  can be expected when taking a moonshot approach to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. For instance, the development of new technologies in one sector can lead to spillover effects in other sectors, such as increased productivity and new job opportunities. A potential spillover from implementing nationalized renewable energy technology could for example bring greater sovereignty for countries dependent on other nations.

In the context of proactive and innovative frameworks, it is important to mention that in 2015 the UAE Cabinet approved the Green Agenda 2015-2030, which consists of 5 strategic objectives and 12 main programs. These objectives and programs were designed to cover all key aspects of a green economy transition – from technology, human capital, regulatory environment, green finance, international trade, local content, intellectual property, and consumer awareness, to integrated national planning and cooperation across the emirates. Based on the latest updates, 22 out of 41 Green Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the Green Agenda show either an improving or steady trend.

Delving into innovative solutions


The space program – as an example of a moonshot thinking application – has provided many solutions. From GPS and camera phones to medical technologies, the innovations that have arisen from space research have had a profound impact on our daily lives. The development of insulin pumps, for example, has transformed the lives of millions of people with diabetes, improving their outcomes and quality of life. The benefits of these innovations are clear and far-reaching, with significant positive impacts on society’s health and safety. It is worth mentioning that insulin pump was first innovated for the use in space programs to monitor astronauts’ vital signs in space, including the monitoring systems that have been adapted to regulate blood sugar levels and release insulin as needed.

Innovation can be created with more global collaboration. But why is collaboration important?


Collaboration and targeted investments have led to wide-ranging positive outcomes, as seen in the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, innovation should not be limited to technology alone but should also include policy instruments, cooperative approaches, financial instruments, new business models, and social innovation. Massamba Thioye, the head of the UN Climate Change Global Innovation Hub, highlights the need for an integrated approach to address challenges such as climate change and sustainability while also putting people at the center of innovation.

Governments can apply this principle more broadly by investing in education, research, development, and public-private partnerships to direct economic growth and create conditions for innovation and collaboration.

Investing in social innovation in education and training is crucial for solving global challenges. As an example of this effort, the Social Innovation Academy, funded by the EU, promotes social impact initiatives and helps address issues such as global warming.

Urgent action is necessary as climate change approaches irreversible levels. To ensure a better future, societal issues must be treated equally important to national security. Collaboration and a moonshot approach are required to create a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive world.

For more on the climate, click here.