Reflections on SUII’s SDG Conference

Conference live illustration by Katie Chappell

SUII’s purpose is to support researchers from our member universities to join with policy makers and practitioners to exchange knowledge and generate fresh insights to improve outcomes. Alongside co-investment partner Zero Waste Scotland, SUII’s last three calls for proposals have supported projects aimed at accelerating progress towards the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

On 25th November we held an online conference to share some of the insights from these SDG projects and weave together some of the threads from the programme as a whole to consider how the knowledge shared and insights generated could be translated into practice. The SDG programme involves eleven projects, covering a wide range of areas. An online poster room provides a summary of some of the main outputs from the projects, with more details about each project being available on the SUII website.

The conference involved a mix of plenary contributions from partner organisations and a series of workshops organised around a number of broad themes, which were hosted by members of the project teams. With memories from the conference relatively fresh, I thought I would try to capture some reflections in this blog. For more in-depth feedback, the conference recording and illustrations can be accessed in the poster room.

It was ambitious to try and distil and synthesise the insights from such a diverse programme into a three-hour event. This diversity reflects the nature of the SDGs themselves. They reach into every corner of our lives and they are inextricably tangled up and intertwined with each other. 

One theme that emerged from the conference which exemplifies this is the degree to which justice, in a much wider sense than purely legal considerations, is at the heart of so much of what the SDGs are trying to achieve. This includes the eradication of poverty, better health outcomes, reduced inequalities, decent work and democratic institutions to allow potential trade-offs and synergies between goals to be considered fairly. These are all individual SDGs in their own right and they all contribute to each other. If tackled effectively they can support a virtuous circle of development – if not, the circle operates in the opposite direction.

This broader concern for justice in the wider sense is reflected in Scotland in the desire to ensure that the transformation needed in the way the country lives and works to achieve net zero carbon emissions is a just transition. The conference heard from a member of the Just Transition Commission, which has called for a national mission with social justice at its heart. This will require a clear plan, with people being given a genuine voice, that puts equity at the heart of decision-making.

Thinking and acting systemically is vital to achieving a fairer, greener Scotland with self-reinforcing, upward circles of sustainable development. Breaking down silos between organisations and having organisational structures and objectives which facilitate collaboration is part of achieving this, but it’s also critical to invest in relationship-building between individuals who have different areas of focus. ‘Listening with empathy’ was how one delegate described the key skill for greater collaboration. Indeed, in taking action to achieve the SDGs, how we do it might be just as important as what we do. In this regard it was noted that we have learned a lot about different ways of engaging creatively with each other in response to the Covid crisis.

We are fortunate in Scotland to have a collaborative SDG Network alongside a National Performance Framework, which provides the context and support for a more collaborative, outcome focussed approach to the SDGs and should help enable greater policy coherence. Indeed as was emphasised in the conference, the NPF is designed to translate the SDGs into a Scottish context. However, as the Auditor General observed recently, perhaps too many of our public sector leaders still don’t feel truly empowered or sufficiently emboldened to do what’s really needed to collaborate effectively.

The conference also considered the need to build a more circular economic system with a much greater emphasis on reducing consumption alongside recycling, reusing and repairing goods to reduce the human footprint, as highlighted in a recent Zero Waste Scotland report. We were reminded that it would require three planets like earth to support the current lifestyle of the average Scot for all of the world’s current population. Such an economic system would be much less focussed on growth in material output and more concerned with improving societal wellbeing within the boundaries of what the planet can sustain.

Innovation alongside behavioural change to significantly increase resource productivity will be at the core of achieving a wellbeing economy. Quality education will have a key role to play in supporting behavioural change, another example of something being an SDG in its own right as well as being key to the achievement of many other goals. The vital role of education and skills was also highlighted by the Just Transition Commission.

Places provide a focal point for drawing the Global Goals together – they are quite literally where the SDGs hit the ground, as a number of the projects explored. Some issues require globally coordinated action, others are more national or regional in focus, but many are much more local, and this is where the bulk of the population can get involved.

The core of any place is the communities within them. Another theme the conference considered was the right combination of top-down policies to set the context for everyday decisions (for example, a price for carbon which fully recognises the social costs of private activity) and bottom-up involvement of communities to make change actually happen. 

Achieving the right combination will require the engagement, enablement and empowerment of citizens to ensure they have what they need to contribute meaningfully to key decisions and take the action to achieve the SDGs. Interestingly this combination of engagement, enablement and empowerment was one of the key themes of an earlier SUII programme looking at the promotion of wellbeing – now at the core of the National Performance Framework alongside the SDGs.

We heard of examples of communities mobilising to address issues and get involved, such as the Torry People’s Assembly in Aberdeen. The experience of these initiatives suggests that the enabling of communities to meaningfully engage will require resources to build capacity, perhaps through the employment and training of young people to act as social change agents. Schools and teachers were also recognised as having a key role to play, further highlighting the contribution of education and skills to the achievement of the SDGs.

Meaningful engagement will also require individuals and communities to have the time and resources to effectively get involved. This can’t just rely on the voluntary action of those with resources. Concerns over whether people have enough to meet the basics of a good life led to calls for a basic universal income to help ensure that this was not a constraint on wider involvement. Another example of something contributing directly to the achievement of specific goals, while also enabling the achievement of others. Other ideas discussed that had a bearing on this were the greater availability of a four-day working week and a land value tax to generate resources more equitably.

These reflections only scratch the surface of the ground covered at the conference. Despite the challenges we face there are reasons to be hopeful – hope may indeed be a necessary condition for progress. There are plenty of imaginative ideas about what’s needed to achieve the Global Goals and how they might be implemented to ensure a just transition to a more sustainable world. However, time is now really tight; the 2020s will be a critical decade; we can’t allow short-term considerations, complacency or feelings of hopelessness to stand in the way of taking the actions to accelerate progress towards the SDGs.

Charlie Woods, November 2021

Author: scotinsight

The Scottish Universities Insight Institute supports programmes of knowledge exchange which address and provide insight on substantial issues that face Scotland and the wider world. Our programmes break down disciplinary and organisational barriers in bringing together academics from different backgrounds, policymakers and practitioners to mobilise existing knowledge in fresh ways through sustained and collaborative focus on a shared issue. Our member universities are: Aberdeen, Dundee, Heriot Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde, and Glasgow School of Art.

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