One of the most revolutionary aspects of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is that its goals and targets should be treated as an indivisible, and integrated, whole. Back in September 2015, this principle was broadly welcomed, particularly by those worried that too much focus on economic growth was harming long-term environmental and social sustainability – or vice versa.

Insect
Photo: Sam Dredge / Flickr

But faced with the reality of governance and policy set-ups and the sheer variety of ways that the 169 targets under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can interact, policy-makers tasked with drawing up national implementation strategies have often found themselves quickly overwhelmed.

“From the policy-makers we’ve spoken to in Sweden, and from what we’re hearing from partners around the world, there is a real demand for practical ways to translate this integrated agenda into realistic policy ambitions,” says SEI’s Nina Weitz.

To meet this urgent need, SEI is developing a range of decision-support tools and methods to help identify strategic priorities, high-synergy pathways and cross-sectoral partnerships for practically implementing the 2030 Agenda.

Understanding interactions

Much of SEI’s pioneering work in this area builds on a 7-point scale proposed by Nilsson et al. in the journal Nature last year for characterizing SDG interactions. This scale rates interactions from the most positive, “indivisible” (scored as +3), through “consistent” (0) to the most negative, “cancelling” (–3). In doing so it moves thinking about interactions beyond the language of trade-offs and synergies to allow far more nuanced, and policy-relevant, assessments.

A forthcoming SEI Working Paper applies this scale to characterize interactions emanating from six SDG goals. It looks at how targets under these goals interact with other SDG targets, how far this interaction is affected by context, and the state of the evidence and knowledge base around the interaction.

Based on analyses by Måns Nilsson for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the paper focuses on the six SDG goals that will come under the spotlight at this year’s High-Level Political Forum process: Goals 1, 2, 3, 5, 9 and 14.

“This work highlighted the very different ways goal areas interact. For example, we couldn’t find a single target that would suffer from more gender equality and empowerment of women – Goal 5 – or poverty reduction – Goal 1– and several targets that would benefit significantly,” says Nilsson. “In contrast, there are risks of severe negative interactions with environmental and water access targets if we go about meeting the targets under Goal 2, on food, the wrong way.”

From complexity to practical policy options

While the 7-point scale makes it easier to talk about interactions, applying it to more targets only emphasizes how difficult it is to translate them into policy options in a specific context.

“It’s like a jack-in-the-box,” says Weitz. “Once you recognize that any two SDG targets could influence each other in one or both directions, and then rate each of those interactions on the 7-point scale, and then recognize that each of those targets potentially interacts with yet other targets in ways that might feed back on the original pair, the number of interactions to consider becomes astronomical.”

To try and pull actionable insights out of this complexity, a team including Weitz and Nilsson, along with Henrik Carlsen and Kristian Skånberg, is applying cross-impact balance analysis methodology, combined with network analysis tools, to map and visualize key interactions between a selection of SDG targets in the Swedish context. “By treating them as a system, way we can identify and visually map the interactions that have the biggest influence in a given context or for a given actor, helping to identify strategic priorities for investment and policy action,” says Weitz. The team hopes to publish a paper and brief from the study in the spring of 2017.

In another project, SEI is working with the Swedish Steel Producers Association, Jernkontoret, and Swedish steel producers to develop a “societal value compass” for the industry – a methodology and set of tools to assess how the industry as a whole, or a given steel producer, could influence sustainability and societal value. The “compass” will utilize cross-impact balance analysis applied to the SDGs and social capital theory to define sustainable pathways.