Driving Sustainable Innovation

As startups, working to achieve the SDGs is truly something that they recognise is a direction they have to work towards.

Natalia Bayona opens by talking about the importance of having a 360-degree integral and complete innovation process.

Natalia Bayona opens by talking about the importance of having a 360 degree integral and complete innovation process.


UNWTO startups have created more than $240m USD through start-up programmes which are actively working to drive change in the industry. This has amounted in more than 100 pilots and 300 mentorships to help embed innovation in all the sub-sectors of the tourism industry.


With 80% of the actors in tourism being SMEs, this is still one of the biggest challenges to embed technology and innovation within companies, where support has been shaped around survival over the last few years, not innovation.


Also as the most important employer of youth and women in the world, we have to capitalise on this opportunity to invest in education where the cost of investment is a fraction of the impact of that investment. This is why at UNWTO alongside supporting innovation to thrive through start-up competitions that education is also really important. The online environment that has been built-up during Covid has been key in helping spread knowledge throughout the industry and create opportunities around the world.


It's also important to recognise that tourism's success is made-up of more than 100 different sub-sectors. There are a lot more opportunities in tourism than those we consider at face-value. Focusing on tourism as a driver of development and ensuring that education is a central driving force in shaping the future of tourism.


At present, tourism is often simply not considered in the many fields of education with support the needs beyond those 'face value' tourism subjects such as hotel management, but we also need specialisations in data science and other areas which are the skills forming part of the wider value chain in tourism.


For UNWTO, partnerships with Universities in the likes of Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others have helped take knowledge deeper into the education sector whilst also developing links for lifelong learning long into the future, where continual knowledge development is also important for the transformation of our industry.


Doing everything that helps us to bring quality to the overall experience, excellence as an industry and the rigour required within the methodologies which shape our decisions and processes as an industry.


Venture capital is important for our sector, during the pandemic it was the only indicator of growth and change. More than $200bn invested in the last year speaks loudly to the importance of the tourism sector. Emerging markets have shown a lot of promise, yet today still only 5% of the unicorn startups in the world are from tourism.


To grow this, we need to create mechanisms to grow investments in tourism and also to demonstrate tourism's cross-sectoral power to drive change and move society towards a more sustainable future with more opportunities driven by technology and innovation.


Lastly, people are of course at the heart of our industry and all of these objectives from innovation, to education to investments to development require that we incorporate the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the core of these objectives.


Sustainability is Driving Innovation


As we look at innovation now it seems that we are truly looking at new streams entirely, where entrepreneurship is now going deeper into the value chain.


As startups, working to achieve the SDGs is truly something that they recognise is a direction they have to work towards. The young entrepreneurs forming this panel recognise the imperative upon them to build start-ups that are built of course on commercial success but also on positive impact.


There is also recognition that the mindset today is driven entirely by sustainability, both investors are wanting to see sustainability as a strong factor determining the business vision and model, whilst consumers today expect businesses to stand-up and meet commitments which are widely recognised but not always seen in legacy enterprises.


Overcoming Challenges


Working with dreams, as a collective seems key to driving innovation. The example from Colombia shows how valuable it is to empower people to be part of a network of change-makers, so that working towards certain objectives isn't something that is faced alone.


In other examples, the importance of gathering input and working with prototypes and pilots has been really important. There is a need for a lot of validation on the business model, on getting traction on seeing adoption where partnership and openness from the likes of DMOs have been key to seeing if an idea is viable when in the market.


When you try to serve a purpose beyond profit it helps you to find creative solutions. The example of transformation during the pandemic is a key learning curve, shifting traditionally paid activities in-person to remote and online experiences with new models attached.


Both external challenges in getting products and solutions into the market are huge, yet internal challenges are also real for businesses sometimes scaling fast with little knowledge or experience in doing so. Scaling from 2 people to 20 to 200 presents real challenges and unknowns that can be difficult to cope with, whilst presenting a strong learning curve, in addition to understanding the industry and how to break-through with a solution.


27% of startups from UNWTO are led by women - a number that has been growing since starting this drive in 2018, something very positive to see but also reminding us that there is still a long way to go. Gender shouldn't be an obstacle to entrepreneurship but clearly, when we look at the numbers there are still gaps and presumably barriers.


It is important for women to understand that they can be heard. Using your voice to build something you're proud of, that expresses your values is a really important way to tell your story and grow. Owning that story is important, including where you come from, what you've been doing and what challenges you had to overcome to get there.


Sharing experiences and synergies, it is important to recognise the power of community - from female communities for entrepreneurship where there is an understanding amongst each other of that first-hand experience of being a woman in that environment but also at a product level, where that environment for different communities who interact or engage with the business is key to understand.

Key Takeaways

  • As startups, working to achieve the SDGs is truly something that they recognise is a direction they have to work towards.

  • The mindset today is driven entirely by sustainability, both investors are wanting to see sustainability as a strong factor determining the business vision and model.

  • It is important to recognise the power of community.

Published on:
December 2022
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