Aerial photo of Chongqing, China. Photo by Ming Chen on Unsplash.

Last month’s events around the United Nations General Assembly in New York were a thrilling demonstration of cross-sector and grassroots momentum to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems. Achieving these ambitious goals in 10 years–a blink of an eye in human history–will certainly test our collective resolve and push the boundaries of ingenuity. But in Asia, this takes on an added layer of complexity. It is the world’s fastest-growing economic region, but it is also on course to miss all 17 sustainable development goals. In some areas, the region is regressing.

This throws into sharp relief a tale of two Asias: one version is of unprecedented growth marked by new pools of capital and technological innovations, while the other is a story of societies bursting at the seams, grappling with issues like food security, health crises, infrastructure stress and the impacts of climate change. These aren’t unrelated. Take for example increased consumption, due in part to wealth generation, which, if unchecked, exacerbates environmental degradation, shaving off up to 11% from Southeast Asia’s GDP by 2100.

It is important that we are coming together across the public, private and non-profit sectors. But it is how we converge that will shape the tale that will define the Asian century.

We need to partner smarter

The world’s problems are systemic and interconnected, not siloed. Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue; it affects food security, migration flows, global trade. Malnutrition isn’t just a health issue; it leaves indelible marks on education, economic productivity, the prospects of women and girls. Conversely, by promoting gender equality, the Asia-Pacific region could add $4.5 trillion to their collective GDP by 2025. The interconnectedness of humanity’s greatest challenges and their inextricable links to business, national growth and political stability is clearer than ever.

Alliances, coalitions and public-private partnerships have been indispensable to the progress we have achieved thus far. However, the urgency of our region’s problems now demands us to not just break sector silos but to likewise design and invest behind solutions at the nexus of the challenges we seek to eradicate.

To illustrate, a partnership that advances renewable energy cannot end with actors in the power sector. Electrification is part of a larger system that includes water and food security, greater health, and education access, as well as livelihoods. Take, for example, the collaboration between Claro Energy and The Rockefeller Foundation-backed Smart Power India to advance energy access. They are piloting an “irrigation-as-service” model, addressing a trifecta of water stewardship, smallholder empowerment, and improved crop yields. Converging partners to hack solutions at these critical nexus points can not only impact more people but do so in exponential ways.

 It is *how* we converge that will shape the tale that will define the Asian century.

We are already seeing multi-sector, multi-issue pathways emerge on a global scale

One pathway to scaling impact quickly is by leveraging new scientific innovations. The Rockefeller Foundation believes in rapidly forming technological solutions that are transformative because they address nexus points in a web of challenges. For instance, reducing maternal and child mortality, in addition to saving lives, can have substantial impacts on education, productivity, women’s empowerment and so on. That’s why last week, The Foundation launched a $100 million Precision Public Health initiative with the world’s leading health institutions, to empower frontline health workers with simple, inexpensive data analytics tools. This initiative aims to save the lives of 6 million mothers and children by 2030.

The Foundation has also partnered with MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth to build a cross-sector alliance of partners with the tools, expertise, and resources in data science to collectively deploy them toward social good. Through AI and predictive analytics, we can unlock improved access to critical services, map the health of critical biospheres, even anticipate where an outbreak might happen next.

Meanwhile, capital markets are beginning to channel financing from the private and public sectors to achieve financial returns in addition to social impacts across a number of sectors. One exciting trend is the mushrooming of innovative asset classes. The Nature Conservancy’s blue bonds, for example, leverage private capital to restructure government debt in exchange for marine conservation, which in turn enhances tourism-based livelihoods, secures food supplies through healthier fisheries, and the list goes on. Easing the debt burden also frees up the government to invest more behind other public goods.

The private sector also benefits. The Asian Development Bank, funded primarily by national governments, is developing a new venture facility to invest in technologies and business models that have the potential to scale impact driven by private companies across the region. They’re investing ahead of a trend we foresee will be the norm in Asia, wherein governments are no longer solely responsible for delivering public benefit and are keen to partner.

We must converge faster than our challenges

To write the story of an Asia of abundance, rather than of scarcity, we must write a story of convergence. Many are already lighting the path, consolidating their efforts to fund, design and scale solutions at the nexus of our challenges. This allows them to move as rapidly, nimbly and expansively as the problems they seek to address. If we are to stay two steps ahead and move the needle in the right direction, we must bring together unlikely bedfellows in new and unexpected ways.


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