20 September 2023
UN 2.0: Strengthening Capacities of the UN – Today and Tomorrow
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The UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief on UN 2.0 outlines his vision for strengthening the organization’s capacities for a modern, agile, and future-forward UN system.

It is built around two core elements: a forward-thinking culture; and cutting-edge skills in data, digital transformation, innovation, strategic foresight, and behavioral science.

In the lead up to the 2023 SDG Summit and looking ahead to the Summit of the Future in 2024, the UN Secretary-General launched eleven policy briefs between March and September 2023, offering “concrete ideas” on how to advance Our Common Agenda. Timed accordingly, the SDG Knowledge Hub is publishing a series of policy briefs of its own, offering insights on the issue areas covered in these publications. The below brief was developed by SDG Lab at UN Geneva and is one of four briefs in the series authored by SDG Lab. The other three briefs address: Future Generations; Youth Engagement; and Global Digital Compact.

By Julia Tscherrig and Edward Mishaud, SDG Lab

Throughout its existence, the UN has had to respond to changing social, economic, and environmental circumstances alongside challenging geopolitical situations. To continue to serve humanity, accelerate the achievement of the SDGs, safeguard the planet for future generations, and deliver relevant and system-wide solutions for the UN and its Member States, the organization is embarking on a transformative shift towards a ‘UN 2.0.’ Under the leadership of Secretary-General António Guterres and as part of his Our Common Agenda (OCA), UN 2.0 represents his vision for strengthening the organization’s capacities for a modern, agile, and future-forward UN system.

UN 2.0 serves as an evolving guiding compass, framed around two core elements of culture and skills in five areas, known as the “quintet of change:” data; digital transformation; innovation; strategic foresight; and behavioral science. With the aim of strengthening its robustness and relevance as an institution, the UN – through the quintet of change and the broader OCA – will be better able to support Member States in meeting the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century and beyond, and ultimately, better serve people and the planet.

UN 2.0 is a whole-of-UN approach whose scope encompasses the entire UN family. It aims to provide strategic guidance and recommendations for the entire UN system, and to develop new capabilities that promote agility, integration, and cohesion, leading to a more diverse, responsive, and impactful organization. Each element of the quintet of change will have a unique footprint in each entity, tailored to its mandate and context.

Skills for impact

Collectively, the quintet of change focuses on promoting a transformative shift in the operational framework of the UN system, prioritizing actions that deliver tangible value rather than altering missions and mandates.

 Data tell us what the world is like and permeate every aspect of our lives. The availability, timeliness, and accuracy of data are essential to achieving the SDGs and long-term sustainability. Gender-disaggregated data are key to exposing bias and discrimination and formulating more inclusive policies. It is particularly important for the UN system to be able to effectively collect, handle, manage, and use data, by prioritizing human rights, safety, and privacy. This will lead to more effective responses to current challenges, unlock the full potential of data, and provide the basis for improved decision making. The UN Secretary-General’s Data Strategy reaffirms the need for data analysis as a core skill for UN staff.

Only by becoming digitally fluent will the UN be able to help partners build their own digital infrastructure in a secure, responsible, and inclusive manner. By embracing technological advances, agile iterations, and user-centered technologies, the UN aims to expand its reach and impact, also by closing the digital divide and addressing risks of harm online, including disinformation and misinformation, with a particular focus on women and girls. A Global Digital Compact will be agreed at the Summit of the Future in September 2024.

Cultivating innovation capabilities is essential for the UN to remain dynamic and relevant, keep pace with emerging trends, and maximize impact and effectiveness. Innovation must be inclusive, including for those historically overlooked. System-wide access to training and networks, fostering a culture of experimentation and creativity, and strong inter-agency networks are key.

The future will not necessarily reflect the past. In the face of an uncertain future, strategic foresight, anticipation, and risk analysis can help to prepare for a range of futures. Strategic foresight also enables critical thinking, identifies emerging trends, and fosters a sense of responsibility for conserving and passing on the resources needed to ensure desirable futures for young people and future generations.

Understanding why people act and behave the way they do, how they respond to policies and incentives, and what prevents them from adopting a particular behavior is crucial to making better decisions and bringing about positive and lasting change. By strengthening behavioral science capabilities, the UN can address unconscious bias in recruitment, management, and stakeholder engagement, better tailor its work, and reduce bureaucracy, as outlined in the UN Secretary-General’s Guidance Note on Behavioral Science.  

Implementing the above capabilities requires a fundamental cultural shift within the organization. Through a more systematic and strategic approach to organizational culture, the behavior and mindset of UN personnel should be geared towards continuous learning, experimentation, and creative and critical thinking, which builds resilience and stimulates engagement. The new forward-looking and forward-thinking culture places a strong emphasis on UN values, human rights, geographic diversity, and gender equality, including a consistent focus on women and girls. It recognizes youth empowerment, youth leadership, and environmental sustainability as priorities.

The way ahead

UN 2.0 lays the groundwork for a UN that not only adapts to change but anticipates and leads it. Data-driven insights are recognized as critical, with a commitment to timely, accurate, and inclusive data handling. Digital transformation aims to bridge divides and ensure security in the digital space. Innovation and strategic foresight are championed as essential tools for dynamic problem solving, futures thinking, and valuing future humans, while understanding human behavior is essential for driving long-lasting change. Against this backdrop, it is clear an organizational, cultural, and mindset shift is required to implement these skills. UN 2.0 provides such a roadmap.

Albert Einstein’s quote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” is a powerful reminder of the need to embrace change and innovation, to constantly evolve, to remain curious, and to continuously learn. Through UN 2.0, the UN Secretary-General is charting a course for the UN to become more agile, diverse, resilient, and impactful. This effort represents an enduring commitment to a sustainable and inclusive transformation of the UN, not only to strengthen its support to Member States in achieving the SDGs, but also to cultivate a forward-looking perspective that extends well beyond 2030, towards sustainable futures for all.

Supporting the Quintet of Change

Developing the above-mentioned skills is critical to achieving the SDGs and embedding long-term sustainability. This is why the SDG Lab at UN Geneva is working on enablers of systems change, such as data and digital transformation. Applying innovation methods, such as exploration, experimentation, iteration, and design thinking to sustainability challenges is crucial and contributes to the strengthening of creativity, risk taking, and continuous learning.

UN Geneva is also innovating in multilateral diplomacy and digital development to achieve the SDGs. Anticipating, assessing, and mitigating the long-term impacts of our decisions today can help ensure that they are future-proofed and aligned with long-term sustainability. Systems and futures thinking are key to this. An example of futures thinking can be found among Indigenous Peoples in North America, who use the Seventh Generation Principle to ensure that the decisions made today will result in a sustainable world seven generations from now. The Lab is increasingly focusing on behavioral science, in particular affective science, as a means to explore the interplay between emotions, cultures, belief systems, and behaviors and sustainable action. This understanding allows for the development of targeted strategies that leverage the power of emotions to drive meaningful change for the SDGs and long-term sustainability.

Additional resources

A dedicated website on UN 2.0 is available, providing an all-in-one repository. A portfolio of UN 2.0 initiatives across the UN system and country teams has also been launched, offering resources to support staff in implementing the Policy Brief’s recommendations and showcasing the impact of UN 2.0 in practice.

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This brief concludes the SDG Knowledge Hub’s series on the UN Secretary-General’s OCA policy briefs. The other briefs published since March 2023 cover: 1) the needs of future generations; 2) improving the international response to complex global shocks through an emergency platform; 3) more systematic participation by young people in decision-making processes; 4) metrics that go beyond gross domestic product (GDP); 5) global digital cooperation on maximizing and sharing the benefits of digital technology through a global digital compact; 6) reform of the global financial architecture; 7) the peaceful, secure, and sustainable use of outer space; 8) a New Agenda for Peace; 9) information integrity; and 10) transforming education.

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