Responsible business practices discussed at Expo 2020 Dubai can show the way for innovators and entrepreneurs to help realise the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Expo 2020 could well be a turning point for sustainability in business. With the SDGs at the heart of the Expo 2020 agenda, attendees were constantly reminded of their role in building an inclusive, environmentally friendly future for everyone on the planet. Nowhere was this more visible than at the many business forums over the six months, where more than 14,000 members of the public and private sector from 192 countries came together to tackle the biggest challenges facing the global community.

The theme of responsible business dominated the event, offering an unparalleled opportunity for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to learn from and be inspired by global best practices around environment, social and governance (ESG) principles. Here are some key takeaways for entrepreneurs around the world.

Unlock value from industrial waste

Everywhere at Expo 2020, participants from around the world demonstrated how they are developing the circular economy by repurposing waste into new products. The concrete-free Netherlands pavilion is being recycled for use on local farms and future construction projects. Living Business programme partner Trident Trackway recycled locally sourced polypropylene into temporary surface protection. USA-based Re-Nuble uses nutrient delivery technology to convert food waste into cost-competitive, controllable fertilisers.

And Max Donaldson, the teenage founder of GreenKiwi Supplements, showed how olive leaf waste is transformed into a high-value, immune-boosting health supplement rich in antioxidants. “In New Zealand, if you want to be a sustainable company, you can’t just be environmentally sustainable. The values are interdependent; it comes down to enhancing people, place and profit. Those aspects can’t be in isolation,” he said.

Seek partnerships to innovate at scale

Partnership and collaboration offer synergies that can help social enterprises scale up to support the delivery of the SDGs within the next eight years, said Dr Alaa Murabit, Director, Programme Advocacy and Communications, Health, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaking at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Global Goals Week.

Sanergy, which provides sewer-free sanitation community solutions in Africa’s informal urban settlements, is working to scale up its low-cost, hygienic solution in partnership with the Kenyan government with the aim of serving millions of people within the next five years.

Similarly, Pakistan’s UpTrade (Goats for Water), which enables communities to trade their livestock for solar energy products, has been able to expand into newer areas with the help of other NGOs. “Partnerships and collaborations have been key, starting with the first steps to now the growth steps,” said CEO Fariel Salahuddin.

See migrants as a human resources asset

Humanitarian assistance is one way to assist the estimated 82.4 million migrants, refugees or internally displaced people who have been forced to flee their homes. Integrating them into the workforce within their new communities improves their wellbeing while enhancing and growing the local society and economy, experts said during Expo 2020 Dubai’s Tolerance & Inclusivity Week.

Malaysia-based catering company PichaEats is one of several SMEs that see migrants as a human resources asset. “Many refugees are well-educated, highly-skilled, and had great jobs before their countries fell into war – and for those that aren’t, there are a lot of jobs in construction, restaurants and so on,” Co-Founder Sook Shian ‘Suzanne’ Ling said at the event. “Malaysia already brings in expats to join our workforce, so why not let [the refugees] work instead? They pay rent to Malaysian house-owners, utilities, buy from local businesses that pay taxes… so ultimately it all goes back into the Malaysian economy.”

Other SMEs working to upskill the displaced through education and entrepreneurship opportunities include France’s Meet My Mama and Australia-based Talent Beyond Boundaries.

Think beyond sustainability to regenerative systems

Global action has begun to coalesce around sustainable ways of living, but these may not be enough to achieve the critical mass required to safeguard the planet. Biomimicry or nature-inspired innovation could help solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges, argued Dr Dayna Baumeister, Co-founder, Biomimicry 3.8 and Professor of Practice, Arizona State University during Food, Agriculture & Livelihoods Week at Expo 2020.

Innovators must shift from an industrial to a regenerative mindset by creating solutions that impact entire ecosystems, she said. Homes shouldn’t just shelter people, they can also rooftop gardens. Parks can recharge groundwater and purify waterways in addition to promoting human mental health. And harvests could be designed to support women entrepreneurs. An onsite example at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Desert Farm, showed how tilapia – fast-growing fish that can survive high temperatures and salty waters – can enrich, produce nutrients and ultimately serve as a food source for plants.

In other words, multipurpose solutions are essential to addressing global sustainability challenges.