UN SDGs - A Passing Fad?

UN SDGs – A Passing Fad? 

By Rose Boyd, Arup

Seventeen squares, a spectrum of colours, collected in a rectangular shape. An alternative circular design with the colours in a 17-point array form the shape of lapel pins that resemble membership of a secret club. Appearing in the Version 2 ISCA manual, and at the recent ISCA Conference, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) logo is stamping its appearance on the infrastructure landscape. The UN SDGs are currently trending, but what will be the fate of the goals within the built environment sector over the coming years? Will we continue to display the poster at future conferences?  Will our social media move to the next shiny thing, and will the lapel pin lie forgotten in cluttered desk drawers? More importantly, will the SDGs create meaningful change? 

The preceding goals, the Millennium Development Goals, focused on alleviating poverty and were less mainstream than the SDGs. The SDGs came into effect in January 2016, with 191 Members States reaching a consensus on 169 targets. Mandate for the goals: end poverty, protect the planet, ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity.  Deadline for the targets:  2030,  11 years to go.  To put that in perspective, that is the same length of time that ISCA has been in development.  In some respects, it represents a long journey; in other respects, that time will flash past.

So why the rush, and why is it important to the built environment sector?

The United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) bridge the SDGs from a ‘government somewhere else’ issue, into a roadmap for the future.  Their insight has provided a business guide to the SDGs, which translates the targets into business themes, key business actions and solutions.  The economy needs to transition, and we can either lead, follow or lose. 

Bill Gates' ‘recommended book list’ recently included Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, a narrative that explores basic global facts to explain that our perceptions of populations and poverty are often outdated and skewed.  World populations have grown richer and healthier over the last decades, and a massive emergent new wealth is on the horizon. Rosling argues humans are fundamentally similar: every person wants nutritious food, efficient and reliable energy and transport, education for children and -  holidays.  When you consider that 3 billion people are moving into a higher level of wealth, there is obvious tension between the linear economy of take, make, use and dispose, and provision for this lifestyle.

The SDGs golden egg opportunity is creating solutions for these basic necessities for the new wealth.  Our infrastructure planning, methods and products need to innovate and fill the gaps in an economy that will be willing to pay because of constrained options.  The shared value philosophy of making profit while doing good will continue to accelerate in the next decade, and collaborative and future thinking companies will ride the wave.

At Arup, we believe that the UN SDGs provide a radical agenda that sets the pace for future business planning. We see the interconnectivity between the SDGs that tie together infrastructure solutions for communities with increased renewable energy, public and active transport, reduced resource use and maintenance of biodiversity.  Acting alone impedes progress, and with 11 years until 2030, we need to join forces to influence action. 

During the recent 2018 ISCA conference, the Australian UN SDG representative, Michael G. Smith, pointed out that Australia had dropped down the global dashboard, from 17th place in 2015, to 37th in 2018.  Michael asked the conference attendees to identify which groups we represented:  Federal Government, State Government, Local Government, academia, business, social enterprise, and then urged us to mobilise as a team.  We were a microcosm of potential collaborators.

Are the SDGs a passing fad? I suspect not. In the next decade, we will regard the SDGs as a roadmap, in a race to the top to mainstream the circular economy and shared value. If this happens, maybe the logo – the symbol - will also evolve with stripes of colour woven together to emphasise integration and interconnection.