Stepan Margaryan

National Sustainable Development Goals Innovation Lab Pioneering for Armenia and the World


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Armenia has a unique and technologically advanced research and development institution called Armenia National Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Innovation Lab. It was established in 2017 as a joint venture of the Armenian government and the United Nations Office in Armenia, with support from the UN Development Programme, in order to accelerate the achievement of the 17 SDG goals set by the UN which the Armenian government agreed in 2015 to accomplish by 2030. These include ending poverty and hunger, defending the environment and human rights, and fashioning peaceful, just and inclusive societies with economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all.

Stepan Margaryan was appointed as director of the lab after the change of regime in 2018, at the end of the year, when some restructuring took place. Margaryan traveled in the official Armenian delegation with Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan to Boston in the latter half of this July. He said that the vision of the lab initially was centered on the SDG and currently “is intended to attain sustainable development with the aid of public policy innovation.” The lab or center has a large portfolio of plans which basically correspond to the priorities of the Armenian government as well as the SDG.

From left, SDG Innovation Lab Lead Stepan Margaryan, UN Resident Coordinator for Armenia Shombi Sharp, Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan, Armenian Minister of the Economy Tigran Khachatryan, and Dmitry Mariasin, Resident Representative of the UNDP in Armenia and Deputy Chairman of the SDG Innovation Lab board, listening to, at podium, Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Assistant Administrator of UNDP, and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS, at inauguration of Travelinights AI program.

Margaryan previously worked as vice president and director of the academic programs and awards of the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST), created by entrepreneur/philanthropists Ruben Vardanyan and Noubar Afeyan to develop science and education in Armenia. Margaryan said that he began his involvement in technologies like biotech, artificial intelligence (AI), drones and robots at that time.

He started his higher education with a bachelor’s degree from Yerevan State Linguistic University (2008) but switched to international relations for his master’s degree from London’s Metropolitan University (2010) and managerial economics for his doctorate from the State Academy of Public Administration of the Republic of Armenia (2013). Finally, he obtained an MBA in Rome from LUISS Business School (2017).

Margaryan said that at present the SDG lab has a staff of 14, which includes three data scientists who work with largescale data and create AI algorithms. What the lab does and the policies it pursues, Margaryan said, are “maximally human-centered so that people can benefit from them.” The results of the work of governments can be measured by seeing how satisfied and happy people are, and how well they live in their country, he explained.

The Armenian government is the chief partner of the lab. Consequently, he said, “We always participate in discussions on various topics with ministries, including the ministers and deputy ministers, and issues always come up. We try to find solutions to their problems.” When interesting ideas lead to program proposals, Margaryan said that funding was not a problem, exclaiming, “Believe me, the money is always found to carry them out. There are various donors ready to help Armenia do those programs.” The pilot programs that work, Margaryan said, can be carried out on the national level. In other words, he said, “we are insuring the government from the risks, if it first would try them on a large scale and fail and lose large sums.”

Armenia National SDG Innovation Lab staff, with Stepan Margaryan sixth from left.

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Though the lab works with different bodies of the Armenian government, it does not belong to nor is it subject to any particular body of that government, according to Margaryan. It has a governing council which approves of its operations and plans. The council includes through rotation two representatives each of the UN and the Armenian government in addition to its regular members. At present, Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan and UN Resident Coordinator for the Republic of Armenia Shombi Sharp are cochairmen of the council, and Russian-Armenian Ruben Vardanyan is one of the council members.

The first meeting of the SDG Innovation Lab management board or council on October 29, 2018

The lab uses behavioral experimentation and various innovative approaches to data to develop new policy approaches. Among the behavioral projects it has carried out is an attempt to promote the use of preventative medicine in Armenia, where people only go to the doctor when they have great pain and it is late for treatment. Cancer is one such illness the treatment of which could benefit from early prevention.

An experiment was conducted on increasing cervical cancer screening rates. A “sterile environment” was maintained, with no advertisements, radio and tv mentions from the government, or speaking in public, so that the true results and effectiveness could be measured. The experiment has been concluded and the final results will be ready in September. Even before the official report, it is clear, Margaryan said, that there is great excitement in the hospitals and the Health Ministry for using this approach in various capacities. Furthermore, the World Bank wants to work with the lab on similar test programs for diabetics and breast cancer.

In the realm of taxes, Margaryan says his center was inspired by Italian and Spanish examples to do a behavioral experiment. One reason people and businesses do not pay taxes is that they do not know where they go. In order to try to change this, he said, the lab prepared 13 types of letters for 39,000 small and medium enterprises. The letters explain where taxes goes percentage wise. One type asks where the firm would like 10 percent of its taxes to be spent and offered to try to make this happen to the extent feasible. A different type of letter concerning social norm states that 90 out of 100 pay their taxes so do not be the exception. This experiment will indicate which approach produces results.

Margaryan said that such behavioral experiments, new in Armenia, are now being carried out in five spheres. In a project done with the My Step Foundation, the goal is to get people to use reusable bags with the goal of creating a plastic-free environment. A project working with UNICEF attempts to decrease gender-based abortions. Other fields of experimentation include renewable energy.

In addition to behavioral experiments, the lab works with artificial intelligence. For its UN work, the lab has created a tool which is a type of SDG barometer. It allows measuring Armenia’s progress concretely on the UN goals in real time through a machine learning algorithm. Margaryan said that although other countries have such barometers, this one is unique because of the real time component.

In the field of tourism, Margaryan said, the lab was the first in the world to create a platform providing real time assessments of touristic issues in a country — in this case, of course, Armenia ( It continually analyzes social media and websites like Trip Adviser, Airbnb, and Facebook to divide the expressed sentiments into three basic categories, and 27 subcategories. The Tourism Committee of Armenia’s Ministry of the Economy constantly receives information to be used for marketing and for solving problems. Eventually, Margaryan said, tools will be made available for private use of this data as well.

During May of this year, Margaryan and others from the Innovation Lab visited Switzerland for meetings with various UN bodies and went to Canton Valais, important as a touristic center. There they introduced their tourism tool to Techno-Pole de Sierre, a university, where there interest in its use to provide solutions for Swiss issues. Margaryan said at this point negotiations are in progress to determine the best approach for both sides.

Another program which will provide real-time data is Edu2Work, which will analyze job advertisements, including skills demanded and wages offered, and help bridge the gap between the worlds of education and the employment market. Behavioral interventions based on the results will help direct youth to choose the fields most in demand in the market, and correspondingly, informational campaigns can be organized. This program is being carried out within the framework of the Work Armenia program, together with the British Nesta and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT).

The lab is carrying out a variety of other mass data assemblage projects, such as the creation of an Armenian farm registry to learn what Armenian farmers produce and their capacity. There are some 272,000 farms in Armenia today. Real-time satellite and drone imagery will be supplemented with on the ground information. Artificial intelligence will help monitor crop growth. With greater information, Margaryan explained that the efficiency of agriculture can be maximized. It can be determined what grows best, for example, in a particular zone of land, and when.

As the Armenian innovation lab is the first example of cooperation between a nation-state and the UN for the implementation of SDG goals, the UNDP has decided to use it as a model for the creation of similar centers in some 60 more countries. Margaryan declared that his lab would aid these new centers to set correct theoretical foundations and practices so they understand how they must operate.

Similarly, Armenia’s government uses the reports from the lab to apply policies on a national level. Margaryan said, “This is the advantage of a small country: we can be more flexible and fast.” He added that modernization of the sphere of state governance will require, in his opinion, great reforms, in which digitization must be a large component. He said, “Digitization is not always innovation but innovation without digitization is not possible. We must move towards transparency fast, and turn to the minimal the contact between citizens and governmental bodies. No one wants to lose time; no one wants to wait in line….Everyone wants fast, transparent and effective work.”

Margaryan said that digitization will help diasporan Armenians to participate in Armenian life and the economy more easily, when many services can be accessed via the internet.

The lab works with many local and international nongovernmental bodies and private associations in addition to the Armenian government and the UN.

In the United States, one of the labs it works with is Stanford ChangeLabs. Margaryan said that during his Boston visit, there was the opportunity to meet with the leaders of various centers, and relations established with the director of a Harvard center dealing with technology transfer.

Margaryan estimated that the lab’s budget is roughly 1.5 million dollars, including 1 million from a Russian Federation fund for specific programs, 250,000 sterling pounds from the English government for an education program, and 100,000 dollars from the UN Development Coordination Office. While this is a small sum for the US, he said, this is not a bad budget if the lab is considered a startup organization.

Margaryan concluded: “I want to say that we work in a very open fashion. You see that I am in Boston and met with many different people. It is important for me that we have many different partners. I want the representatives of our community here in Boston to know that there is such a thing in Armenia and we are always ready to cooperate, and are ready to accept, host and in the case of proposals for work, always are ready to collaborate with our diaspora of Boston and the various universities there.” For questions about the lab, write to

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