Integrating the SDGs and finding lost Einsteins

“…there are many “lost Einsteins”…especially among women, minorities, and children from low-income families.”(1)

There is an increasing amount of evidence that there can be considerable synergy between SDGs (2). The potential of the reduced inequalities of SDGs 5 and 10 to have a positive impact on wellbeing and social justice (SDGs 1, 2, 3) is well recognised. Perhaps the impact of reduced inequalities on the economic progress represented by SDGs 8 and 9 is less well appreciated.

A recent book (3) by Heather Boushey of the Washington Centre for Equitable Growth focusses on how inequality ‘obstructs, subverts and distorts’ economic growth. For example, she argues that inequality lowers aggregate demand as the better off have a lower propensity consume and save more than those at the bottom end of the income distribution. This also forces the less well off into debt to finance consumption.

She also cites a study by Alex Bell and others, which was published last year, that adds a further interesting dimension to this issue. By analysing data from patent records in the US and linking them to tax records, they found that children’s chances of becoming inventors are heavily influenced by characteristics at birth, such as their race, gender, and parents’ socioeconomic class. Children from families in the top 1% of income were 10 times more likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families. Even more tellingly they found that these gaps persisted even among children who performed similarly in maths tests in early childhood – maths ability was found to be highly predictive of innovation success in later life.

This work suggests that there is significant innovative potential being stifled by inequality and led them to coin the term ‘lost Einsteins’ to capture this waste. It is further evidence of the need to see reduced inequality not just as an important goal in its own right to improve wellbeing and social justice, but as a contributor to more innovation, higher productivity and better economic performance.

1 Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation – Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, John Van Reenen -The Quarterly Journal of Economics (May 2019)

2 Bond SDG Network April 2020 webinar

3 Unbound: How Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do About It, Heather Boushey (2019)

Measuring what matters and making connections between SDGs

To what extent should economic indicators be used to measure how well an economy is doing? While this might seem a rather strange question, it could be argued that this only makes sense if the economy is the end in itself. If on the other hand the economy is seen as a means to an end than it is arguable that other ‘end’ outcomes should be used to measure progress. 

If the overall objective is sustainable wellbeing, then a focus on wider social and environmental measures may give a better indication of how well the economy is contributing to this. A clearer idea of social and environmental progress, relative to economic indicators, may then allow you to look at how different approaches to organising an economy work in terms of achieving desired ends.

This is the approach the Social Progress Imperative have taken in developing their index of social progress, which they see as a practical tool to track and report progress towards the UN’s SDGs. They don’t use any purely economic measures in constructing the index. Instead they look at 51 indicators across three broad categories: basic human needs, the foundations of wellbeing (including environmental quality) and opportunity. 


The top ten performers are Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, New Zealand, Germany, Canada and Japan. All high income countries but not necessarily the ones with highest economic output per head.

At low levels of income there appears to be a strong relationship between social progress and income but as income increases this relationship appears to weaken (see graph chart below from the SPI’s latest annual report). This relationship between income and wider wellbeing (measured either subjectively or objectively) has been widely commented on (often termed the Easterlin Paradox) after it was first highlighted in the ‘70’s.



A decent level of income would therefore appear to be a necessary condition for wellbeing but not a sufficient one.

A related question concerns the degree to which there is an often assumed trade-off between strong economic performance and wellbeing, sometimes referred to as efficiency v equity? This need not be the case, indeed there could be a strong synergy between the two, for example, secure employment, where employees having a stake in the success of the employer, may help boost innovation and productivity at both the level of the company and the wider economy. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have argued this type of relationship is at the heart of economic development processes and distinguish between the long term performance of ‘inclusive’ and ‘extractive’ economies. While the IMF have highlighted that too much inequality can also damage economic performance.

Understanding the connections within complex socio-economic systems (both positive synergies and negative trade-offs) is vital to the design and implementation of policy and practice. There is growing interest in looking at links between the SDGs and the processes that help make the connections∗. One such process could be the supply chains of goods and services, which, for example, could bring together:

  • The use of natural resources and the disposal of waste (SDGs 12, 14, 15)
  • The skills and conditions of workers throughout the chain (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10)
  • Production and distribution processes (SDGs 7, 9, 12, 13)
  • Reuse and recycling of products  (SDGs 11, 13, 14, 15)
  • Trading arrangements (SDGs 16, 17)
  • Supply chain resilience (SDGs 3, 9)

The more action can be geared towards promoting the synergies between the SDGs, while being alive the potential trade-offs, the more effective and efficient it is likely to be. Hence the current SUII call for proposals aimed at integrating the SDGs to accelerate progress.

This was highlighted in a recent Bond SDG Network webinar looking at new evidence on SDG synergies and trade-offs by Joseph Alcamo, Director of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme

Covid-19 and the SDGs


“It is the greatest test that we have faced since the formation of the United Nations, one that requires all actors -governments, academia, businesses, employers and workers’ organizations, civil society organizations, communities and individuals- to act in solidarity in new, creative, and deliberate ways for the common good” – Shared responsibility, global solidarity” – United Nations March 2020

While most attention is currently focussed on the short term challenges of getting to grips with the Covid-19 pandemic, it may also be helpful to think about this in the context of the longer term objectives of Agenda 2030 as set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As the chart below (from the UN’s recent report on the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 quoted above) shows, all of the goals will be impacted in some way by the disease and the response to it. Making significant progress on the goals will also enable humanity to be better able to cope with similar challenges in the future.

The report looks at the impact on the goals and also considers how best to respond to the crisis in ways which will support the goals. Recommendations include: significant economic stimulus measures (aimed in particular at poorer countries and those most vulnerable), resisting protectionist temptations and protecting connectivity, supporting businesses (in particular SMEs), making supply chains more resilient, protecting human rights, supporting decent work and education and prioritizing social cohesion.

The report emphasises the importance of partnerships at all levels (in different places, within and between countries, between research organisations, between public, private and third sectors) in responding to the short term crisis and the longer term implications. Indeed there may be ways of working more collaboratively and with greater solidarity, to respond to the pandemic, that stand us in good stead for the longer term. It will certainly help highlight shared interests and priorities.

The world will not feel the same or be the same after the crisis. We will face the choice of trying to turn the clock back or to go for something better to make us less vulnerable in the future. The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs provide the framework for building a better future.


Click to access sg_report_socio-economic_impact_of_covid19.pdf

Dr Steve Kirkwood – Top Tips for Potential SUII-funded Projects

In this guest blog, Dr Steve Kirkwood provides advice from his experience of being a programme lead on one of our Knowledge Exchange programmes.  Steve is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.


Our project

I was the joint lead on a Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII)-funded programme in 2017 entitled ‘Developing Restorative Justice in Scotland’. In case you’re not aware, restorative justice is a process for facilitating safe communication between the direct victim of a crime and the person who committed a crime. It is well used in various parts of the world, and the evidence for its effectiveness is relatively strong, however it is little used in Scotland. The purpose of our programme was to explore and share the international evidence on restorative justice with policy makers, practitioners and academics in the Scottish criminal justice scene, with the hope of informing local policy and practice.

Continue reading “Dr Steve Kirkwood – Top Tips for Potential SUII-funded Projects”

ANNOUNCEMENT – New Knowledge Exchange Programmes – 2018, Round 2

Last autumn we released our second call for proposals of 2018, on the theme of “Cooperation and Interdependence”.  We are delighted to announce that we have funded new knowledge exchange programmes from this round of applications.  These programmes include experts from across the disciplinary spectrum; among them clinical practice, disability studies, education, nursing, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, politics, product design, psychology, public health, sociology, sport and exercise, and translation studies.

Continue reading “ANNOUNCEMENT – New Knowledge Exchange Programmes – 2018, Round 2”

Joining the Dots in 2030 – Charlie Woods

We are about to embark on the decision making process for our next themed call around the broad topic of interdependence and cooperation.  Applications close on 23rd November and following our Programme Committee meeting in December the projects selected will run for the first nine months or so of 2019.  With this in mind, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the projects that were part of our last themed programme carried out in 2018, which was in support of Scotland’s Futures Forum’s work on Scotland in 2030. Continue reading “Joining the Dots in 2030 – Charlie Woods”

Citizens Basic Income – Where we are now?

Basic Income, under various monikers, has attracted a growing level of global attention in recent years.  At times referred to as Universal Basic Income or Citizen’s Basic Income, it represents an innovative approach to many pressing issues in contemporary society.  In September 2017, the Scottish Government committed £250,000 to allow four local authorities to explore the feasibility of Basic Income pilots.  In theory, a Basic Income would replace many current benefits and tax allowances with an unconditional, non-withdrawable payment to each citizen.  This foundational income would not be means tested, allowing all to rely on a stable, partial income.

Continue reading “Citizens Basic Income – Where we are now?”