Building a research community in sustainability and AI


By 2030, AI is anticipated to significantly influence and impact over 8.5 billion people and affect human and natural ecosystems on an unprecedented scale. A study published in the Nature journal suggests that AI will eventually be able to potentially assist in achieving 79% of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More specifically, it could enable the accomplishment of 134 targets across all the goals; however, it may hinder the realisation of 59 targets.

Given that sustainable development issues manifest in each country in different ways on both macro and micro levels, individual nations are cultivating their own scientific expertise in AI to address specific sets of developmental challenges. Some of these challenges overlap across continents and regions, while others are location-specific. Due to this overlap, there is the opportunity to establish connections among research groups working on this topic and tap into diverse solutions, case studies, skills, and competences in both the realms of development and AI.


IRCAI, including its partners at Data-Pop Alliance, has a proven track record in setting up research networks. In 2004, networks were established with NeuroColt, NeuroColt2, PASCAL, PASCAL2, AI4D, ELISE, and in 2020 with Humane AI. These networks have empowered an enormous number of researchers and facilitated the innovation that transitioned AI from a research topic into a worldwide technological phenomenon, providing funding in the range of 50 million EUR across Europe and beyond.

Important lessons derived from these experiences will be applied in NAIXUS, such as the remarkable success earned from facilitating trust and empowering people. The whole premise of NAIXUS is to encourage collaboration and thinking outside of specific research interests, helping to transfer machine learning into the field of sustainable development.


To understand and capitalise on these opportunities, Slovenia is launching NAIXUS, a multi-stakeholder initiative designed to bridge the gap between AI and Sustainable Development. The initiative aims to support cutting-edge research and applied activities related to SDGs through a network of interconnected research centres and companies worldwide.

The NAIXUS Network focuses on research and development and complements existing international initiatives, including those under the UN framework. This endeavour is further reinforced by the UN General Assembly A/RES/76/213 “Science, technology and innovation for sustainable development.” This resolution, adopted in December of 2021, encourages all stakeholders to prepare for existing and future opportunities and challenges posed by technological advancements, including the fourth industrial revolution. It specifically urges members to explore inclusive national, regional, and international technology assessment and to conduct foresight exercises on existing, new, and emerging technologies. These efforts are intended to evaluate their developmental potential and mitigate potential negative effects and risks.


The network is expected to accomplish a number of priorities. NAIXUS aims to mobilise researchers to collaborate on key AI methods and Sustainable Development domain topics, to reach critical mass on these objectives, and to bridge cultural and language barriers and focus on the science that is needed to realise these goals. Since its launch in March 2021, IRCAI has already held extensive discussions with 15 core partners across 5 UN regions and plans to launch the network in its current form during the STI 2022 forum.


The initial partners are coming from Slovenia, Australia, Andorra, Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Iceland, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Netherlands Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Tanzania, UK and USA.

• International Research Centre in Artificial Intelligence under the auspices of UNESCO
• Advanced International Center for Smart Decision Science Applications based on Blockchain And Artificial Intelligence (BAIA Center)
• African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS)
• Andorra Research + Innovation
• Bio-Robotics Laboratory, National Autonomous University of Mexico
• Data-Pop Alliance
• Data Scientists Network Foundation
• ELLIS Unit Alicante Foundation
• Icelandic Institute for Intelligence Machines
• Knowledge 4 All Foundation
• Laboratory at the University of the Witwatersrand (RAIL)
• Masakhane Foundation
• Northeastern University, Northeastern Civic A.I.
• Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society (CETIC)
• Tanzania AI Lab & Community
• The Alan Turing Institute
• TU Delft, Digital Ethics Centre
• Queensland University of Technology
• UNICEF headquarters
• University College London, Centre for Artificial Intelligence
• University Islamabad of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (COMSATS)
• University of Cape Coast
• University of Essex
• University of Gothenburg
• University of Leeds
• University of Pretoria
• University of Tuscia


  • Make the topic of Sustainable Development relevant for AI
  • Increase scientific awareness of the ability to use AI to achieve Sustainable Development goals, ensuring that such an approach becomes relevant for future generations and that AI breakthroughs further contribute to Sustainable Development
  • Ensure UNESCO’s policy recommendations are ingrained in the key strategic research topics
  • Use algorithms, tools, and solutions developed by initiatives funded by the network to strengthen the various available platforms with Sustainable Development related data
  • Encourage mobilisation and commitment from the community, including high level experts, to contribute to the topic, making NAIXUS the reference resource for global researchers, developers, integrators and users
  • Reinforce Global South’s research capacity in AI
  • Pave the way for enhancing educational opportunities. This effort aims to equip a diverse range of non-ICT professionals and sustainable development experts with the necessary AI skills, maximising the technology’s potential
  • Foster exchanges of knowledge and perspectives between Global South (GS) and Global North (GN) research institutions. Focus on key building blocks of AI for Sustainable Development, including access to data, insights, inclusion, and governance
  • Tackle “blind spots” in AI including Tier 3 SDG indicators, ethical aspects, empowerment issues
  • Foster and develop multilingual research and products
  • Inspire and create opportunities for young and future researchers to grow in and join the field, including to create internal demand and retain talents
  • Focus on major scientific and technological challenges, aiming to bolster the capacity and advancements in critical technologies
  • Build on the existing efforts of established platforms, networks and projects, NAIXUS will establish mechanisms to disseminate cutting-edge knowledge across AI labs in the United Nations’ five geographical regions: Africa, Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, and the Middle East. These mechanisms will be collaboratively defined with all network partners
  • Develop synergy and cross-fertilization between industry and investors within the network of excellence centres. This includes initiatives such as internships for academic staff at all levels within industry, as well as structured PhD programs in collaboration with industry partners
  • Establish the network as a common resource and shared facility that will function as a virtual laboratory that provides access to knowledge and expertise. This initiative aims to attract scientists, investors, policymakers, and new talents, positioning itself as a reference point for AI excellence globally and particularly in the Global South
  • Create a data-driven benchmark system for measuring the progress of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to catalyse a social impact investment ecosystem for AI research and companies
  • The network spans all continents and is driven by leading figures in the AI field from major research centres, ensuring the involvement of the finest scientists across UNESCO Regions. This diverse assembly brings a wealth of expertise and varied disciplines to accomplish the network’s objectives
  • The network also seeks to empower researchers, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and AI projects that might struggle to gain visibility in global markets or lack a voice to make a meaningful impact
  • Participation by industry actors will be ensured through the IRCAI partners network in industry and across incubators and accelerators. This involvement serves to bring expertise to identify technological limitations hindering deployment in an industrial context. This collaboration will help define research priorities and raise new research questions
  • Each partner is expected to demonstrate access to essential resources and infrastructure to support research and development (R&D). This includes data, High-Performance Computing (HPC), storage, robotics equipment, IoT infrastructure, and a skilled team of support staff and engineers for experiment development. Utilising all available data sources, including relevant United Nations data, is encouraged
  • To structure its activities, the network will concentrate on scientific or technological challenges with industrial relevance and investment potential and where it can make a notable impact. This will be accomplished by building on existing strengths or enhancing knowledge to address critical gaps crucial for the intersection of AI and sustainability.
  • Based on identified challenges, the network will formulate and execute shared research agendas
  • Progress will be demonstrated in the context of use-cases, which also serves to help to foster industry-academia collaboration
  • The network will establish robust connections among its members, primarily through collaborative projects, exchange programs, and other mechanisms defined by the consortia
  • The network will disseminate the latest and most advanced developments to academic and industrial AI laboratories globally and involve these entities in collaborative projects and exchange programs
  • The network will facilitate interactions with the industry (inside the consortium and beyond), as well as with international policymaking organisations. This engagement will trigger new scientific questions and encourage scientific advances
  • Overall, the network aspires to become a virtual centre of excellence, providing access to knowledge and serving as a reference point. This includes initiatives to ensure visibility and impact in the AI Sustainable Development domain.


Collaborative projects carried out within the network should focus on one or several of the following topics and leverage its diverse competencies available and should fulfil the following criteria:

    • Have a global reach that spans all UN regions, encompassing Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern America, and Oceania.
    • Have a strong Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, or Data Science component in any discipline of science
    • Emphasise producing solutions that actively contribute to one or more Sustainable Development Goals


Membership in NAIXUS is free and open to profit and not-for-profit institutions (not individuals). Institutions must be knowledge-generating, i.e. they must conduct research, analyses, and/or data collection, and can be universities, research institutions, foundations, or civil society groups. Members have to be involved in research and/or education to participate in the global network. Member institutions should have deep expertise in one or more areas related to artificial intelligence and sustainable development and commit a substantial amount of their own work towards finding and/or implementing solutions in AI for the SDGs.


International Research Centre
on Artificial Intelligence (IRCAI)
under the auspices of UNESCO 

Jožef Stefan Institute
Jamova cesta 39
SI-1000 Ljubljana


The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this website do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

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