Shaping the future of sustainable development: the launch of the SDSN UK chapter
By Gabriel Del Castillo
This blog is a contribution from one of IIPP’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) students. To find out more about the course, click here.
O n 31 January 2022 the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) hosted the launch of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) UK chapter. During his keynote speech Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, President of SDSN and author of ‘The End of Poverty’, pointed out that “getting institutional designs right, how to do foresight analysis, how to write white papers, how to actually think ahead, is a core function of SDSN.” In highlighting the importance of taking a long-term view to sustainable development, Professor Sachs brought up an issue which might seem self-evident to many but in practice is widely misunderstood or even neglected.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are long term by nature, in part due to the scale of the grand challenges they represent. Even if we had the exact answers on how to achieve zero hunger (SDG 2) or how to end poverty across the globe (SDG 1), it would take years to reach these goals.
However, the more significant obstacle is the inherently wicked nature of these grand challenges. Be it reducing inequalities or creating sustainable cities and communities, these are complex issues where the most obvious answers might not achieve the desired outcome or even not work at all. They require a systemic approach — looking at the forest, not just the tree. Sometimes the required technology is still evolving as it has been the case with achieving a clean energy transition for a long time. And sometimes we need to reconcile the scale and long-term nature of a challenge with the urgency to act, as is the case with climate action.
The foresight needed to address the wicked features these challenges present does not simply refer to building the capacity to think about the long-term. Future studies is a field rich with methods, principles and people that can help understand the evolving nature of the future, and the challenges at hand, in order to make better decisions and plans in the present. Methods such as horizon scanning can help uncover emerging issues and driving forces that might lead to opportunities to make progress on the SDGs. Scenario planning — along with tools such as forecasting, backcasting or windtunnelling — can help build more robust sustainable development national strategies and plans to tackle specific issues. Well-constructed images, narratives and visions of the future can inspire action and rally support.
As Professor Mariana Mazzucato, founding director of IIPP, often points out, addressing the grand challenges which the SDGs represent requires ambitious missions that galvanise society around them and drive action across multiple sectors. Setting these missions, and in fact framing them in the right way, requires foresight. In my own work at Instituto del Futuro , a futures and policy think-tank in Peru, we echo this sentiment in the way we frame and work through the issues on which our research focuses, in our work with various stakeholders and in the training we deliver to professionals from various fields.
In recent years we have created a programme to help Peruvian universities adopt foresight principles and methods to adjust, or even create, research programmes focused on generating impact in relation to the SDGs. Having the SDGs as a set of missions around which higher education institutions can mobilise is highly effective in generating the insights necessary to address these challenges. In the case of Peru, most universities didn’t pay much attention, or didn’t have a need for, well-crafted research programmes until new regulation was passed in recent years. The outcomes include a shared urgency to act cohesively towards common objectives, as represented by the SDGs, the capacity to incorporate futures principles and methods to academic research and institutional strategy, and an understanding of how to organise research and action systemically across multiple time horizons. This helps prioritise quick wins in the short term without neglecting to nurture early-stage innovations for the medium-term or early action to plant the seeds needed for more meaningful transformations in the long-term.
The recently launched UK chapter of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network already boasts a network of world-leading universities doing meaningful work to tackle the SDGs. The launch event showcased impactful projects such as Newcastle University’s work to achieving just transitions in the forestry sector through climate policy integration and learning, IIPP’s mission-oriented framework for the Scottish National Investment Bank, University of Strathclyde’s vertically integrated projects for sustainable development and the University of Manchester’s curriculum innovations to empower students to address SDGs. A networked and solution-oriented approach such as the one taken by SDSN not only has the power to make substantial contributions to addressing the SDGs, it can in fact shed light on ambitious questions such as what comes after the SDGs, what new approaches to addressing wicked problems at home and abroad might emerge, and how the field of sustainable development could and should mature in face of constantly evolving intertwined economic, social, technological and environmental challenges.
Considering the UK is home to some of the most renowned academic institutions focusing on sustainable development, SDSN’s UK chapter aims to act as a leader within the wider SDSN global community — which after ten years of work now has nearly 50 chapters across various countries and regions — and leverage these strengths to work towards addressing the SDGs and rethinking the future of development practice. The network fosters a collaborative approach and is open to all those willing to act as champions for sustainable development and indeed, as stewards of the future.