How to understand and manage the interactional effects of having so many SDGs and targets?

The International Council on Science (ICSU) has published a report illustrating how researchers are documenting, visualising and evaluating the interactions between various sustainable development goals and targets, a simple scale for which is reproduced below. 

The scale and report offer a series of timely reminders to those facing competing demands on their priorities, efforts and understanding across a range of fronts.

First, there’s the usual concern that having multiple and many goals isn’t automatically good (particularly if you need not just fingers but toes to cover them all).

Second, each and every goal can’t easily be pursued simultaneously as if they were somehow isolated from each other or had no spill-over effects.

Third, as the report highlights, paying attention to interactions is crucial. A simple starting point is whether strategies and targets reinforce or undermine each other on a pair-wise basis. But the bigger challenge is facing up to the likelihood of complex chains of effects across multiple goals, where follow-on questions include the degree of uncertainty associated with modelling and understanding these, if not how important each and every scenario for these are (17 goals, 169 targets = how many possible interactions?).

So while a few circles and scales can get the conversation started, expect the 2030 Agenda to require more sophisticated and rigorous debate on what is possible to represent and understand here, for the experts and the public taking on the Sustainable Development Goals. Don’t be surprised if that requires further and new forms of learning, deliberation and inquiry in civil society and government – something that wasn’t quite what the authors of SDG4 had in mind as its remit or horizon?




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