North Star

Why the SDGs are leading a global transformation

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The UN's Sustainable Development Goals are causing tectonic shifts in national governments, companies and civil society.

One year on, have the SDGs — the ambitious goals for global development, agreed to by 195 nations at the UN in September 2015 — made any impact in the world?

The answer may surprise you: it’s a resounding “Yes!” There is an explosion of SDG-related activity happening in our world today, in governments, companies, communities, schools and in thousands of civil society-led groups and partnerships all over the planet.

Full disclosure: I started one of those partnerships, 17Goals.org. I also have been working in the field of sustainable development for 28 years. So I have a clear bias towards believing (and hoping) that the world’s very public, very high-level embrace of the SDG vision actually makes a difference.

But being an empiricist and a lover of indicators, I am also quick to acknowledge that it remains to be seen whether all the noisy talk and action around the SDGs is going to result in real change and significant, measurable progress. The measurements we have so far are about activity, not results. (The official indicators for the SDGs are separate story.)

And one would have to be a true Pollyanna not to be a skeptic when it comes to the meta-goal of these Sustainable Development Goals — which is, achieving a universal transformation of human civilization, a change in direction toward systemic peace, prosperity, justice and environmental sustainability, by 2030. To do that, we must first resolve the war in Syria, the refugee crisis (and its multiple causes), the continuing expansion of resource consumption in our consumer societies, the energy transition and a number of other knotty issues.

Nonetheless, the early signs of SDG impact are far more positive than most people might guess, despite the dominance in our daily news of saber-rattling, ice-melting, refugee-streaming and worse.

Let’s look at the evidence.

We’ll break it into three broad categories:  government and UN; business; and the civil society, research and education sectors.

Then we’ll add a last one: individual global citizens. Because if there is one aspect of the SDGs that I believe to be under-appreciated, it’s the way that these SDGs seem to be inspiring a generation of people who are growing up to think of themselves as global citizens first, and citizens of their countries and communities second.

Governments like the SDGs — mostly

First, country governments seem to be taking these goals seriously. The stream of presidential decrees, national action plans, stakeholder collaboration platforms and the like that started one year ago has grown into a river. I’ve been traveling a bit on that river and been happily surprised, on more than one occasion, by the extent to which words are linked to serious actions. Governments like Germany, Sweden, Colombia or even little Belize are not just making public statements: they are changing policies, budgets, even the administration of ministries in response to the SDGs.

Here’s an example I know from my own experience, working on assignment from the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (the part of the UN Secretariat that works most directly with sustainable development). Two years ago, Belize offered to be a “pilot country” in adapting the SDGs to its national development planning. How it all happened is a two-year-long story, involving numerous meetings and analyses and documents, but in the end, Belize made a big decision: it merged its traditional economic growth plan with sustainable development, and adopted a much more systematic approach.

The draft plan, which also involved shifting responsibilities and creating new cross-disciplinary decision-making structures, survived an election cycle and other political moments and was formally adopted and announced on television, earlier this year. (It’s not every day you see a national policy diagram on sustainable development on the nightly news.) 

Heading far to the north, my own home country of Sweden has put a commission to work on the SDGs, and also selected one of the Goals for special international treatment: SDG 14 on the global oceans. Sweden and Fiji are co-hosting the world’s first real UN summit on the state of our oceans, in New York, June 2017. It’s amazing to think that the oceans, which are 70 percent of our planet (and are in deep trouble), have never had a real summit of their own. Now they will ... thanks to the SDGs.

More generally, 22 nations have already reported voluntarily to the UN’s new High Level Political Forum, which is overseeing implementation. By the way, this is no longer about the environment or other specific ministries: every few years, that meeting will involve heads of state. In between, the presidents and prime ministers send their representatives. That’s why it’s called “High Level.” Sustainable Development has gotten a serious upgrade, thanks to the SDGs.

Countries are even forming their own clubs and partnerships to help each other out with implementing the SDGs, sometimes in unexpected ways: Finland and Colombia, for example, have become something like international “dance partners,” meeting in each other’s capitals and sharing tips on policies, citizen engagement strategies and follow-up mechanisms.

But not every country is enthusiastic, of course. I will not name names about the countries I know whose governments have expressed official apathy regarding the SDGs (“we are not prioritizing it at this time”). There are always laggards. But my guess is that within a few years, even the laggards will be feeling serious peer pressure, and will start doing something. Especially if their citizens push them on it (see the last section below).

Businesses smell an opportunity (and feel a push from behind)

At this stage, business is emerging as the big surprise of the SDG implementation process — because so many of them are embracing the framework with such apparent seriousness.

One illustration: I was at a seminar in Stockholm recently, sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce. The lead sponsor of the seminar was a local company working in digital media, called Screen Interaction. Their speaker started his presentation with a slide showing the SDGs and said, “This is what we are committed to. This is the real heart of our company.”

Businesses are increasingly realizing that sustainability really is the future, and a source of strategic advantage in the long term, as well as a source that elusive organizational glue we call “meaning.” And they are embracing the SDGs entirely voluntarily for all those reasons.

That’s an anecdote, but I can report that it is hardly atypical. The SDGs have provided wind in the sails for many business sustainability initiatives, from the Global Compact — which has started a new Breakthrough Innovation program in partnership with sustainability guru John Elkington and his group Volans  — to GRI as well as new players like the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, which brings heavy-hitters like Gates Foundation, Unilever and SDG-leading governments together

Even when the SDGs are not explicitly part of a framework, as with the new Net Positive movement, you can still feel them quietly pushing things along in the background, setting a new floor for minimal business action that makes higher ambitions possible.

Finance has also gotten in on the SDG action. PGGM, a Dutch pension fund manager, has $225 million in investments that it has lined up with six of the SDGs. And Credit Suisse has specific “impact investments” aimed at every single Goal

Sometimes these SDG-inspired efforts are aimed at specific industrial niches. 17Goals, for example, is partnering up with the Norwegian Center for Design and Architecture (DOGA.no) on a new initiative called the Oslo Manifesto. This program translates the SDGs into design language, encouraging people in those creative fields (and the companies that use their services and sell their products) to start thinking 'SDGs' before they start a new project, and to search for innovative ways to make the Goals part of their professional reality. The Manifesto has already attracted high-level supporters, including leading design and architecture schools, and will be launched globally this fall. You can watch a video of me introducing the SDGs and the Oslo Manifesto to designers in Oslo, earlier this year.)

That’s on the “higher ambition” side. On the “keep your nose clean” side, I (like many other consultants) have also worked with companies to help them review their strategies afresh, with the SDGs in mind, to find holes they can fill or bars they can raise. The SDG Compass, launched last year by WBCSD, Global Compact and GRI can help with that, because those folks have done the hard, nerdy work of matching up metrics and standards with SDG Targets.

The SDGs may be voluntary, and they may not have been designed specifically for business, but many businesses have begun to treat them as part of the compliance landscape. 

To be a bit more critical, I also know companies who have looked at the SDGs, found one Goals that sounds like their ordinary business agenda (say, contributing to economic growth or building infrastructure) and said, “See? We are supporting the SDGs.” (Yeah, right. Go back and read the part about how the agenda is intended to be integrated, with all Goals linked indivisibly, and transformative — meaning, it’s time for you to do something seriously new and different.)

But on the whole, it is not an exaggeration to say that there is momentum and power building up around the SDGs in the business world.

Civil society, research, and education: Common ground for mobilization

It is also not an exaggeration to say that the SDGs have completely rewritten the rules for how civil organizations should engage with trying to change the world. Nearly all of them seem to be referencing the SDGs at every relevant juncture, to underscore the validity of their reason for being and the importance of their specific issue. Water groups say “Goal 6” and forest activists say “Goal 15,” of course, just as some businesses like to say “Goal 8”.

But more importantly, most of these civil society groups are also saying, “it’s all connected — and here’s how.”

Water groups are drawing systems diagrams that show how their Goal affects the other Goals — and gets affected by them. Climate activists (Goal 13) have a new tool for partnering up with food people (Goal 2), or gender activists (Goal 5). Everyone is pointing to the need for peace, justice and functioning (i.e. non-corrupt) institutions as a sine qua non for the other agendas they are promoting (Goal 16). And the linking goes on and on: The UN has registered over 2,000 partnership initiatives (Goal 17) that bring together multiple groups, usually around more than one Goal. 

And all this connection-making is creating a field day for researchers, especially systems modellers, whose existing products  such as the “Climate, Land, Energy and Water strategies” or “CLEWS” model, developed by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and which the UN has adopted — are suddenly in much greater demand. This is a direct result of all that talk about “Integration” in the 2030 Agenda. And to try to tackle the wicked complexity of the 17 SDGs and their interactions, bold

This is a direct result of all that talk about “Integration” in the 2030 Agenda. And to try to tackle the wicked complexity of the 17 SDGs and their interactions, bold new research programs are going where no modeler has gone before, such as the “World in 2050” program now being launched by the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). (This is just one of many programs I have heard about that are taking the SDGs as a starting point — or rather a finishing point — as they bring the power of analysis, computers and higher math to search for “pathways to transformation.”)

Will they succeed? Let’s hope so. If they don’t, let’s not worry:  There will be a whole new generation of school kids growing up soon, knowing these 17 Goals by heart, and having already absorbed the notion that it’s all inter-connected.

A recent 500-page UNESCO report on global education issues mentions the SDGs about once per page, on average... and I suspect that kids in today’s school systems, in some countries, are going to hear about the SDGs hundreds of times in the course of a normal school year, while having those ubiquitous SDG posters in the background of their classroom experience. They won’t need computer models; many will emerge into the working world with working models of sustainable development and its interactions already hardwired into their worldviews. 

One of the most important indicators? Even some of my deeply skeptical academic friends are starting to acknowledge that the SDGs are making a difference. “Virtually every new initiative that I hear presented,” one very senior (and skeptical) sustainability researcher from the Netherlands told me, “now references the SDGs as a framework that they have considered. If nothing else, this suggests that people are taking the Goals seriously and trying to apply them.”

Global citizens for the SDGs: Where there’s an app, there’s a way

It was inevitable, right? Of course you can access the SDGs through an app. I comes with handy, parental-sounding advice about how to make the SDGs real (“eat more locally grown vegetables”).

But for me, the more important thing is not something like an app or a website. The more important thing is the way I see these SDGs touching people. The way I explain them, the SDGs are nothing short of a diplomatic miracle. They have gifted the world with its first truly universal vision of a positive future. The are capable of uniting countries, cultures, religions and disciplines: and that’s not rhetoric. That is a description of what I have observed over the past year. The SDGs are even forcing government and UN functionaries to start truly “breaking down silos” and actually collaborating across sectoral and disciplinary lines — which is something of a miracle in itself.

And the SDGs are providing individual people, especially young people, with a sense of hope. I talked to about 30 of them just last week, as part of a conference in Denmark — young men and women between the ages of 16 and 25. They started out curious, some a bit hopeful, others openly skeptical. I told them the story of the SDGs, where they came from, what they meant, for about 30 minutes. And I watched all their eyes start to light up. They were daring to think that the world might actually become a better place — especially if they got involved, and pressured their government to keep its promises.

That “daring to hope” look is one that I’m starting to see a lot: business people, university students, even tired and cynical government officials can show a splash of it once in a while. They see, in the SDGs, a vision. A way forward. And a very serious to-do list, to which literally everyone can contribute, in which everyone has a role.

Will the SDGs lead to global transformation? I certainly don’t pretend to know. But I have learned one thing in all these years of zipping around the planet, working with people and organizations of all kinds on sustainable development:  

Never, ever underestimate the power of a good, clear set of goals.