Art, history and the SDGs

Photo: Whitaker Museum by Charlie Woods

It’s not every day you walk into a museum or gallery and see the Sustainable Development Goals graphic on the wall. This is what met me when I visited the Whitaker Museum and Gallery in Lancashire recently. They have ‘undertaken a re-development of interpretation with a focus on the SDGs, connecting people, heritage and ideas with the past, the present and the future.’ The aim is to explore the relationship between people, planet and prosperity in the context of a particular place – in this case Rossendale, the location of a number of former mill towns alongside the River Irwell. 

The strap-line on their website is: Explore the past, meet the present, create the future. They see the museum and gallery as being as much about the future as it is about the past. By building on an exploration of the past and the present, the aim is to make it a place for people to take part in the development of the community – where they can share their hopes and visions of a better future, and to work together to create the community they want to live in.

The framework offered by the SDGs offers a way for communities to consider the seemingly disparate goals in a more coherent way. They help us try to make sense of the interrelationships between the goals and possible trade-offs and potential synergies between them. They also help us to consider the relationship between short-term emergencies and longer-term objectives to achieve a balance between the urgent and the important. 

Community engagement to help understand and achieve the SDGs is at the heart of many of the projects that make up SUII’s recent SDG Programme. The programme comprises eleven projects, covering a wide range of areas including: climate change, place-making, land and sea management, social justice, health, education and food.

Community action and learning to develop sustainable places is one of the breakout themes that we will be exploring further at our conference to conclude the programme on 25 November. Other breakout sessions will cover:

  • Improving outcomes through collaboration – bottom-up engagement and top-down governance
  • Health and wellbeing in an ageing society
  • Justice in its widest sense
  • Educating now and for the future

The conference will provide the opportunity for policy makers, practitioners and the wider public to:

  • learn about the policy and practice insights from the projects;
  • consider the interrelationship between projects and some of the cross-cutting themes and insights to emerge from the programme;
  • explore the ways in which the insights generated by the knowledge exchanged in the programme can influence action to tackle the Covid recovery and achieve fairer, more sustainable outcomes;
  • share ideas with academic researchers to take the insights from the programme forward.

More details of the conference can be found here.

Charlie Woods, October 2021

The times they are a changing

Image Chris Lawton CCO

If we are going to have any chance of hitting the UN’s global goals the behaviours and attitudes of individuals and groups are going to have to change. What is the most effective way of achieving this and what are some of the challenges that will have to be addressed? This is the essence of SUII’s latest call for proposals aimed at accelerating progress towards the SDG’s. We are very grateful to Zero Waste Scotland for co-investing with us in this programme.  

The context in which the call is set is the Covid pandemic and successful projects will, like others in the SDG programme, have to adapt to the constraints and opportunities offered by undertaking knowledge exchange events online. The impact of Covid-19 may offer an opportunity to stimulate change, given the shock to the system. However, while the pandemic provides important context, we are looking for longer term outcomes which help achieve the goals. 

The pandemic also offers an interesting context to the whole agenda of behavioural and attitudinal change. Governments at all levels are currently wrestling with how to promote and encourage action from across their populations that will best keep the virus under control. We have already seen how some people can react badly to restrictions when, from their perspective, they see their personal freedoms being constrained. Are sticks or carrots the best tools to employ? To what extent do underlying cultural norms have a role to play? For example, much has been made of the Swedish approach to society that has facilitated a more voluntary approach, in contrast to other countries with a more individualistic culture.  

The work of behavioural psychologists and economists should be able to offer insights. How things are framed is likely to have a significant bearing on how people react. Who messages come from will also be important, ‘reactive devaluation’ is well recognised as a very influential cognitive bias. As is ‘confirmation bias’, which appears to be all too evident in the various conspiracy theories that are growing arms and legs. 

At one level the pandemic has diverted attention from some of the critical longer term challenges articulated in the Global Goals. Yet hopefully as we try to come to terms with its impact on our health and economy we can also build on the knowledge and experience of our academics, policy makers, practitioners and the wider public to learn more about how we influence the changes in behaviour needed to achieve the fairer, healthier, safer, greener, more resilient world inherent in the SDGs.  

Circular and cumulative causation, the SDGs and Covid-19

It’s over sixty years since Gunnar Myrdal wrote about the principle of circular and cumulative causation in his book ‘Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions’ (in the USA it had a more catchy title – ‘Rich Lands and Poor’). This work still seems extremely relevant when considering the SDGs and in particular their interrelationship.

The basis of the principle is that changes in socio-economic systems have a tendency to be self-reinforcing, rather than self-correcting. This results in either vicious or virtuous circles of development , which often gather speed at an accelerating rate.

In a number of respects the Covid-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on this. According to ONS analysis poorer areas in England have tended to suffer more from the virus, with mortality rates in the most deprived areas more than double the least deprived areas.


There are likely to be a number of factors involved, which feed on each other: cramped living conditions, people being under greater pressure to return to work to avoid loss of income, more precarious employment, having to work in close proximity to colleagues etc. The recent example of the textile workers and their families in Leicester would appear to be a case in point.

Good health and wellbeing is inextricably linked to reducing poverty and inequality and providing decent work and quality education, while improving the environment and the sustainability of cities and communities. Progress towards these goals helps in the achievement of others, as they feed off each other in a positive cycle. The flip side of this is a steady deterioration in conditions as they reinforce each other in a negative direction.

Important as they are in their own right the achievement of the UN’s Global Goals is likely to be much more successful if they are tackled in a coherent and integrated way, which reflects the systemic nature of the natural environment and human society.

A road map for reimagining capitalism?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals lay out a coherent road map – widely embraced by the business community – for building a just and sustainable world. We have the technology and the brains to address our environmental problems, and we have the resources to reduce inequality. The question is not what should be done the question is how. – Rebecca Henderson

One of the most popular courses at Harvard Business School is ‘Reimagining Capitalism’. Course leader, Rebecca Henderson (author of a recent book on the subject from which the above quote is taken) is hopeful that Covid-19 could be a catalyst for reimagining a more inclusive and sustainable form of capitalism. In a recent talk for Ceres she argues that it could provide the jolt needed to the inertia of business as usual, by providing a stark warning that bad things can happen quickly and without much warning, while also reminding us of how much we depend on each other for our security and survival.

This view is echoed in the forward of the recently published report of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery:  “If the monumental scale and nature of this economic shock is not a catalyst to accelerate change and to find new bold, radical interventions that will transform Scotland’s economy, then nothing ever will be. We must be willing to revisit old demarcation lines without bias, and to discover new methods and levels of collaboration as we navigate our path of rehabilitation, recovery, and re-imagination.”

Scotland’s Auditor General has also highlighted the opportunity presented by current circumstances:

It feels as though this may be one of those rare times, like the creation of the welfare state after the Second World War, when major change suddenly becomes possible; our challenge is how to make the most of the current moment.

Nicholson argues that free market capitalism has been the greatest source of prosperity the world has ever seen, but that it is on the verge of destroying the planet and destabilizing society. She sees three broad problems, which are linked and have intensified over the past forty years that have diminished capitalism as a force for good:

  • externalities, like the true cost of carbon, not being fully priced into market decisions
  • the growing exclusion of large sections of society, partly due to not having the right skills to provide freedom of opportunity and an inequitable distribution of rewards
  • firms using lobbying and other forms of influence to fix the rules of the game for their benefit, to allow them to extract economic wealth, over the wider needs of society

She thinks business has a catalytic role to play, alongside others, in stimulating a re-imagination of capitalism to make it more purpose driven to make outcomes fairer and more sustainable and address these issues*. She recognises, however, that markets alone can’t achieve the required outcomes without the right institutions to provide the legal and regulatory frameworks, within which markets can operate fairly, alongside the necessary investment in public goods.

Action by individual companies can be an important starting point, demonstrating that it is possible to run a business in a way which respects the environment and benefits society at large while still making money**. Co-operation between companies across industries will be critical to scale up the impact, for example in setting supply chain standards and isolating free riders. Finance will also have an vital role to play in investing in firms that are acting sustainably, in part because there is increasing recognition that in the long run it will be impossible to diversify away from some risks, such as those associated with climate change***.

Reform will also needed to ensure the right institutional environment. Nicholson identifies the importance of a more participatory democracy and the need to reduce the ability of those with deeper pockets to purchase influence. She senses a growing recognition among far sighted businesses of the need for change in the political environment in which business operates.

It’s sometimes hard to be optimistic given the short term stresses and strains of coping with the immediate health and economic impacts of the Covid pandemic. However, the recovery phase offers opportunities for improvement driven by innovation, investment and increased resource productivity.

The pandemic has caused massive disruption to demand patterns and supply chains (some temporary, others more structural) and has demonstrated that interventions that months ago were unthinkable are possible. So there are reasons to be hopeful that purposeful businesses working alongside the public sector, third sector and academia can build a fairer, healthier and more sustainable society – but they can’t be taken for granted.

*A number of business have already indicated that this is a direction of travel they intend to pursue

**This ties in with Peter Lacy’s argument that firms can adopt circular economy approaches and prosper Alex Edmans reaches similar conclusions about profit and social value

***There are indications that the attitudes of investors and central banks are beginning to change

Making Hay…or clutching at straws

This year’s Hay Festival took place online, rather than in its normal home in the Welsh border town. The literary festival provided a platform for a wide ranging group of authors of different backgrounds. Many of their contributions had implications for the UN’s Global Goals and helped demonstrate their inter-connectedness.


The adaptability of the festival setting provided evidence to support Tim Harford’s contention that the Covid pandemic could well be a shock to the system that will spawn plenty of innovation in both products and processes. Innovation was also central to Peter Lacy’s vision of a more circular economy, which reduces material inputs and waste, protects nature, increases productivity and provides business opportunities. The lessons of the pandemic may well have a significant impact on many supply chains as they become less ‘just in time’ and more ‘just in case’.

Historian William Dalrymple used the example of the East India Company to demonstrate the positive and negative impact of innovation (from weapons and military strategy to corporate structures and financial systems) on development and the early stages of modern globalisation. The story of the EIC provides evidence of the unsustainable nature of processes that are essentially extractive, rather than inclusive, along with the dangers of the capture of governments by powerful vested interests.

Despite some of the lessons of history, Rutger Bregman’s new book ‘Humankind’ is based on the premise that deep down human beings are basically decent and are hard wired by evolution to cooperate. Along with evidence from numerous academic sources to support this, he cites the experience of six Tongan boys shipwrecked for fifteen months on a Pacific island in a real life ‘Lord of the Flies’ with a very different outcome. He remains a supporter of measures such as a universal basic income to provide security and to allow people to realise their full potential.

Nobel prize winning economist Esther Duflo reflected on the connections between inequality, poverty and health. She emphasised the importance of using well designed trials to understanding what policies work best, to allow budgets to be well targeted, lever other resources and generate outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise have happened, or would have been slower or to a lower quality. She has concerns that a universal basic income may not be sufficiently well targeted, but supports a universal ultra-basic income to reduce poverty.

Statistician David Spiegelhalter emphasised the importance of collaboration in sharing intelligence to better understand the virus, reduce uncertainty and carry out well informed risk analysis to support public policy and individual responses to the pandemic. He also warned about the selective use of statistics and how they are framed. He advises to always ask why a particular number is being used, and in what context. For example, is a small number being made to look bigger, or a large number smaller?

Professor of Global Public Health Devi Sridhar also highlighted the importance of collaboration at this time, particularly between scientists, governments and companies to develop vaccines and cures as quickly as possible and make them widely available at low cost. The scale and geographical reach of the pandemic makes it essential that the response to it isn’t framed as a zero-sum game between countries.

For Paul Krugman the global dimension of the pandemic was clear evidence of the need for effective multi-national institutions to co-ordinate action between states to promote health and development and reduce the risk of inefficient competition between states, free riders and protectionism.

Social justice which balances the freedom of the individual with the common good requires effective institutions at all levels of government. According to AC Grayling ‘The Good State’ needs a genuinely representative democracy, which gives everyone a voice and doesn’t allow itself to be captured by powerful interests. He identifies a written constitution, proportional representation, clear separation of functions and a voting age of 16 as key components of such a democracy.

This is just a flavour of what took place at this year’s festival and its relationship to the achievement of the UN SDGs. For those interested in exploring further, all the contributions are available on the Hay Player.

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”

Promoting Wellbeing: What Works? – Charlie Woods

I recently attended a conference organised by ‘What Works Wellbeing’, which looked at the emerging evidence of what promotes wellbeing and quality of life for individuals and society more generally. The conference was organised around the themes of the What Works programme – work and learning, culture and sport, communities and cross cutting methods.

The idea behind a wellbeing focus is that it goes beyond narrow measures of economic output. Scotland’s National Performance Framework illustrated below is an excellent example of just such an approach.

Continue reading “Promoting Wellbeing: What Works? – Charlie Woods”