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Igniting Change Podcast Season 2: Episode 14

Nathalia Dos Santos, Senior Program Associate for Innovation at the Rockefeller Foundation, joins us to discuss her fascinating work on the 17 Rooms initiative...


S2 blogpost episode 14

This week Rich and Puff were excited to chat with Nathalia Dos Santos about all things 17 Rooms, SDG goals, and BattleBots!

Meet Nathalia

Nathalia worked as a corporate lawyer for over 6 years before her transition into the development sector. She got a glimpse of the tech world in this role and was always curious about technology and innovation (which led her to a *bit* of an obsession with battle bots in the early noughts!). When she did her Master’s degree in Public Policy, she got a chance to think about technology from a public policy perspective and that is what led her to the innovation team at Rockefeller Foundation.

Going from a career as a lawyer, into a career in tech didn’t come with as steep a learning curve as you’d think because at her first internship at an internet provider and one of her tasks was to be an expert witness for cloud computing. So she needed to explain what cloud computing was to judges in Brazil. This meant she needed to not only learn what cloud computing was but how to translate it in a way that everyone can grasp the concept and make an informed decision regarding it.

This is quite a challenge! 

There are people who are not experts in technology, making important decisions about it, so communicating and bridging all those complex technical concepts clearly is very important. She calls it “everyday language” because those complex topics are embedded in our daily life, it’s more than making it clear in layman’s terms, but making it clear in everyday life. You have algorithms and AI in most of the day-to-day activities and most people aren’t even aware, which means the translation of tech into everyday terms is essential because it is fully integrated into our lives and that understanding needs to be there.

This early experience certainly set the stage for her to be a part of the 17 Rooms initiative…

What is 17 Rooms?

A core motivation for establishing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 was to break from business-as-usual. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing global crises have shined a spotlight on, a more just, sustainable, and inclusive world desperately requires new forms of action, technology, and partnership at all levels, spanning business, science, government, and civil society. 

The need for innovation extends to the process of problem-solving itself. Every country and local community needs its own efforts to work through multi-stakeholder debates and priorities. Specialist constituencies require opportunities to gather and hash out technical issues in depth. Spaces for policymaking and deliberation need not be rigidly formal. Many problems simply need creative environments for people to float ideas and explore cooperation on the next steps, away from the pressures of microphones and public spotlights. In September 2018, the Brookings Institution and The Rockefeller Foundation kicked-off the first experimental 17 Rooms session, on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly, to ignite progress within each SDG and bridge insights across goals. After only a few years of quick evolution, the initiative has tapped into a massive interest in new approaches to advancing the SDGs, through both a global process and a widely-accessible offshoot dubbed “17 Rooms-X” (or “17 Rooms-U” for universities).

17 Rooms offers an efficient way of convening natural allies, ideally promoting enough familiarity to enable collaboration and enough diversity to spark new ideas and pathways to action. Each Room is a working group focused on one of the 17 respective SDGs. Early years of experimentation have surfaced some core design principles:

  • All SDGs get a seat at the table: Each 17 Rooms process respects unique priorities within goals while recognizing interdependencies between goals.
  • Take a next step, not the perfect step: Rooms focus on actionable ideas within an SDG that are “big enough to matter and small enough to get done” over a 12-18 month horizon.
  • Engage in conversations, not presentations: Convenings celebrate informal discussions among peers, with institutional agendas at the door, focusing on what could be best for an issue, not for an organization.
The SGD’s have some pretty bold goals, and tech plays a huge part in helping us deliver on those goals!

What’s next?

The initiative is starting to gain momentum during a precarious time for the SDGs. In 2020, campaigners had planned to launch a “decade of action” for the goals, but a global pandemic put everything on hold. The crises triggered and revealed by the pandemic have prompted many people to question how their societies are organized, and also to ask whether the SDGs are even still relevant, in light of their ambitious targets and 2030 deadline. 

Amid a time of such widespread policy uncertainty and political fragility, the best answer seems to be to treat the SDGs as a “north star” to help guide the world out of its current mess – a focal point for great transitions toward a more just, inclusive, and sustainable planet.

The 17 Rooms initiative will keep updating its methods through new cycles of experimentation. Meanwhile, will provide more systematic support to offshoot efforts, including the launch of a beta toolkit and community of practice, so that partners can more easily share learnings and insights across their own “17 Rooms-X” processes.

Listen to the full episode here

To hear more of the conversation with Nathalia, listen now using the links below!

For more things tech for good, stay tuned to our blog or shout us a holla to get in touch with us, we would love to hear from you 💚

Published on December 1, 2022, last updated on December 1, 2022

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