Goal Keepers

A team of researchers is re-envisioning the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to make them more achievable

August 29, 2019

4:22 pm

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a wide-ranging blueprint for tackling the planet’s most intractable problems. But the complexity of the Global Goals — also known as the 2030 Agenda — has stirred debate over just how effective the Goals can be.

The internationally embraced SDGs — 17 in number, which collectively represent a milestone in both diplomacy and forward-thinking preparation for the future — address everything under the social-good umbrella, from Poverty (SDG #1) and Health (SDG #3) to Climate Action (SDG #13) and Peace and Justice (SDG #16). But while the SDGs have been hailed as a critical path forward for saving the planet since they were officially adopted by the UN in 2015, as Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs notes, “no country is currently on track towards achieving all [the] SDGs.”

“The SDGs have become the world’s shared framework for sustainable development,” says Sachs, “but countries need more clarity on how to operationalize and track progress towards the 17 goals.”

How, then, can governments, the business community, and civil society — all of which need to buy into the SDGs, and quickly, if they are to be achieved in the next 11 years — help move the needle on these Goals if they are too complex or vague to gauge?

A new report, co-authored by Sachs and five colleagues (four of the six are on the Leadership Council of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network), notes that “achieving the SDGs will require deep, structural changes across all sectors in society. This raises the critical question of how strategies to achieve the 17 SDGs can be organized.” The report thus proposes “major interventions needed to achieve each SDG” and has suggested six “transformations” to help achieve them (it is officially titled “Six Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”).

Essentially, this new proposal respects the boundaries of each individual Goal, but also groups them together in ways that the authors believe will make them easier to understand and operationalize.

“The six transformations provide an integrated and holistic framework for action that reduces the complexity, yet encompasses the 17 SDGs, their 169 Targets and the Paris Agreement," notes Nebojsa Nakicenovic, one of the six co-authors. “They provide a new approach to shift from incremental to transformational change; to identify synergies using sustainable development pathways; formulate actionable roadmaps; and a focus on inter-relationships to uncover multiple benefits and synergies."

In other words, the report suggests ways to group together the various SDGs and some of their interdependent hoped-for outcomes, and looks for ways to articulate pathways to success. One example would be the sixth transformation, which recognizes that technology and artificial intelligence present great potential benefits to the world, while posing difficult challenges, as well. “The sixth SDG Transformation calls for a comprehensive set of regulatory standards, physical infrastructure and digital systems to capture the benefits of the digital revolution for the SDGs while avoiding the many potential pitfalls,” the latter including loss of jobs, identity theft, cyber warfare, and election manipulation. None of the latter are addressed in the SDGs, and thus the “Six Transformations” report contextualizes the SDGs in a way that is helpful and relevant to what is happening economically and politically right now.

This is not the first time that one of the report’s co-authors has reimagined the SDGs. Johan Rockstrom, the Director of the Potsdam (Germany) Institute for Climate Impact Research, had previously co-authored a model that grouped the SDGs together as a tiered “wedding cake,” and concluded that all 17 Goals “are directly or indirectly connected to sustainable and healthy food.

Subscribe to get notified of our weekly blog posts.