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Patent Data Show One-Third of Inventions Relate to the SDGs

By Christopher Harrison, WIPO Patent Analytics Manager

Patents are a unique source of information. Much of the technical information in them is never published elsewhere and is in a relatively standard format. This makes patents a recognized indicator for science and technology output, and innovation tracking. So, big data analytics using patent data is fast becoming a key metric of progress.

For this new report pdf on innovations related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), WIPO collaborated with LexisNexis IP Solutions. Using patent metadata reflecting these SDGs, their experts found 100 distinct categories of technologies linked to these goals. (You can find out more about the LexisNexis analysis online.)

By aligning patents with the SDGs, it is possible to identify those areas of innovation contributing the most to our shared goals. We can also find emerging areas alongside those that are still underrepresented. In combination with patent analytics, which shows how specific technologies contribute to each SDG, such an approach can support strategic decisions in R&D, innovation policies, IP commercialization and licensing, as well as research collaboration in the public and private sectors.

Patents represent 13 of the 17 goals, and nearly one in three patents now relate to the SDGs.

Globally, there are over 15.2 million active patent families – a collection of patents associated with the same invention. More than 4.7 million are already linked to the sustainable development goals.

The UN General Assembly established the SDGs in 2015. The 17 global goals capture 169 specific targets that cover social, economic and environmental issues, and provide a blueprint for international peace and prosperity by 2030. Patents are by their nature clear signs of innovation. Aligning them with the sustainability goals is a vital indicator. Patents represent 13 of the 17 SDGs, and 31.4% of active patent families worldwide now address the SDGs.

But crucially four of the 17 goals don’t map to patents. Those goals are SDG 8 ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth’, SDG 10 ‘Reduced Inequalities’, SDG 16 ‘Peace Justice and Strong Institutions’, and SDG 17 ‘Partnerships for the Goals’.

Analysis of patent trends also shows that some targets are advancing faster than others. SDG 9 ‘Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure’ is one example. This field leads and has the highest number of patents (2.9 million active patent families), showcasing the scope of the SDGs within this field. It covers electronics, manufacturing, and materials, all areas that are heavily patented and prominent in the analysis. Its global share of active patents rose from under 10 to about 20%.

Figure 1: The current number of active patent families associated with each of the 17 SDGs that cover relevant technologies. Source: WIPO, based on patent data from PatentSight, January 2024

Alongside innovations in industry and infrastructure (SDG 9), those contributing to climate action (SDG 13) feature most strongly. SDG 7, which addresses the need for affordable and clean energy, is on the rise. A total 1.1 million active patent families contribute to climate action, with another 900,000 contributing to cleaner energy. ‘Climate Action’ (SDG 13) is driven by technologies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, while ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’ (SDG 7) benefits from advances in renewables like solar and wind power. Both show a slightly stronger upward trend than most other SDGs, reflecting a growing awareness among consumer of cleaner alternatives.

Emerging innovations relating to socioeconomic SDGs

Green technologies are vital. But more broadly the SDGs recognize that we must end poverty and other deprivations. Doing this goes hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality and spur economic growth. And patents related to social and economic SDGs, like the calls for an end to poverty (SDG 1), quality education (SDG 4), clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) and sustainable life below water and on land (SDGs 14 and 15) are gaining interest.

Figure 2: The Innovation Maturity Matrix helps identify those emerging
technologies contributing to the SDGs alongside hot topics
and mature sectors.
Source: WIPO, based on patent data from PatentSight, January 2024

At the same time, those SDGs focused on socioeconomic aspects have limited patent connections because they are not tech-driven like some other SDGs. Focusing on certain technologies still reveals their progress. Take ‘No Poverty’ (SDG 1) as an example. Innovation is primarily driven by adding blockchain technology within this SDG. This technology has significantly contributed to advances in agriculture and food security. A blockchain database stores data in blocks linked together in a chain. This can improve the traceability of food thus ensuring an adequate food supply for those who need it. Blockchain also drives transparency and can improve food safety and quality within the supply chain by stopping contaminated food from entering the market. UN briefing notes further highlight blockchain’s potential to ease “trade transactions and access to global value chains, especially for small businesses in developing and transition economies, as well as for the provision of effective government services that support more inclusive economic and social progress.”

The Innovation Maturity Matrix for SDG-related patents highlights which SDGs are current hot topics, meaning they have many patents and have grown strongly over recent years. The Matrix can also help find emerging interest in areas that might otherwise be harder to spot when looking at absolute numbers of patents because these areas are dwarfed by those segments with lots of patents.

Aligning specific technologies and SDGs

Patents are classified by the International Patent Classification (IPC). This is a hierarchical system used by most IP offices worldwide to group patents into specific technology sectors. Much like a library classification system for books, it allows patents relating to a specific technology to be quickly found. To provide enough detail for the analysis presented in the report, the WIPO technology concordance table was also used in addition. This table links IPC symbols to 35 fields of technology, each within one of five sectors, namely Electrical engineering, Instruments, Chemistry, Mechanical engineering, and Others. This deeper analysis shows the alignment between specific technology fields and the SDGs. For instance, it connects SDG 3, ‘Good Health and Well-Being’ to pharmaceuticals and other biological and medical fields owing to the finer detail provided. Similarly, SDG 2 ‘Zero Hunger’ aligns significantly with food chemistry, and SDG 11 ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ with civil engineering.

In broader terms, chemistry holds the largest proportion of SDG-related patents, encompassing pharmaceuticals and innovations for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Within the chemistry sector, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals have battled for second and third position for many years, with consistent annual increases. However, by 2018, both were overtaken by micro-structures and nanotechnology, which has grown from around 25% in 2000 to nearly 65% in 2023. Environmental technology also aligns well with its description and holds the biggest share of SDG-related patents at about 75%, many relating to the decarbonization of industrial processes. The share of SDG-related patents in micro-structures and nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and environmental technology, are progressing toward 100%, albeit coming from an already high level.

Figure 3: A snapshot of SDG-related patents across 35 technology
fields (2000–2023).
Source: WIPO, based on patent data from PatentSight, January 2024

Industry, academia, and research organizations are all driving sustainable innovation

The SDGs are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. Our analysis shows that the top patent applicants with the most SDG-related patents in their IP portfolios are a relatively even mix of corporations and research organizations.

Among the key industry players are CATL and Samsung SDI for batteries, along with Roche and Merck for pharmaceuticals. However, electronics companies such as Qualcomm, Ericsson, Baidu, LG Electronics, and TDK have the highest growth rates.

Within academia and research, the University of California and the Chinese Academy of Sciences lead in SDG-related patents, with significant contributions from academic and research organizations across the United States, China, France, the Republic of Korea and Germany.

By reflecting on the UN SDGs through patent analysis, we can shape our shared future.

While specific UN goals like SDG 9 ‘Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure’ and SDG 13 ‘Climate Action’ show substantial patent activity, others focused on socioeconomic aspects have limited patent connections. Nevertheless, upward trends in SDG-related patents, particularly for renewable energy and emission reductions, reflect a growing focus on sustainable technologies.

Mapping patents to the SDGs also reveals intersections, with cross-cutting technologies like blockchain contributing to multiple goals. Analyzing trends by technology sectors and fields therefore gives a measurable insight into the alignment of specific areas, such as environmental and pharmaceutical innovations, with the SDGs.

Overall, the findings of this new report on innovation related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals illuminate the pivotal role played by intellectual property in steering development toward sustainability. IP empowers decision-makers, policymakers, and innovators to make data-driven choices, allocate resources effectively, and foster collaboration in those areas where inventive contributions are most needed. With insights from patents informing us on innovation as it relates to the Sustainable Development Goals, we can together actively shape our shared future.

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