Seventeen experts on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) walk into a conference room. What might be the premise of a lukewarm joke was actually the start of the next critical stage in developing a new tool for sustainability-minded businesses, governments and beyond: the Agenda 2030 Compass.

The SDG Expert Panel workshop, which took place in October, had two main objectives. The first of these was to identify how contextual factors influence the way the 17 SDGs – adopted by UN resolution as the centrepiece of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – interact. The second was to refine the methodology for developing the Agenda 2030 Compass and build a shared understanding of how the different inputs will contribute to the finished product.

The Agenda 2030 Compass project is developing a process and interactive tool to help stakeholders in business, government and other sectors to maximize the “societal value” of their operations, with reference to the sustainable development agenda. They will be able to test how different strategic options could affect overall progress on the SDGs – not just progress on individual goals or targets, but on the agenda as a whole, taking into account the many interactions between them in a given context.

Interactions: context counts

In the workshop the experts were paired up to discuss interactions between their assigned SDGs. After 90 minutes the pairs were broken up and, in an intellectual game of musical chairs, new pairs were formed to look at a new set of interactions.

It seems intuitive that the SDGs and their 169 associated targets would be mutually supportive. However, while this is true in most cases, contextual factors can mean progress on one can sometimes hinder progress on another – especially at the level of the 169 targets under the SDGs.

Consider SDG target 7.2, to increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Solar photovoltaic cells are a prime renewable energy candidate in areas where space and sunlight are abundantly available. But in hot, dusty conditions, the substantial amounts of water needed to clean and maintain them could exacerbate water scarcity, potentially working against target 6.1: to ensure universal access to safe and affordable drinking water.

However, experts pointed out, such a negative interaction could be made more positive if water used to clean the solar installations were treated and recycled. In water-scarce coastal and island contexts, renewable energy-powered seawater desalination plants could create a very positive interaction between the same pair of targets.

Such contextual factors will be at the heart of the Agenda 2030 Compass. Armed with a comprehensive understanding of how these factors can influence interactions between SDG goals and targets, the Compass team will then look for relevant global data sets, making it possible to model real-world interactions in a given context – and so help stakeholders to discuss and test their strategies.

Developing the Agenda 2030 Compass

The expert panel meeting was just part of a three-pronged approach being used to assess interactions and contextual factors, a crucial step in developing the Compass. The first prong comprises expert panel meetings combined with crowd sourcing. In the second, SEI will scour the literature for insights into historical trends that can advance our understanding of SDG interactions. And thirdly, SEI will identify global data sets that can provide quantitative support to the findings from the first two processes. This comprehensive and multi-faceted methodology is necessary to do justice to the complexities of interactions between the different SDGs.

The Agenda 2030 Compass project builds on previous work carried out in cooperation between SEI and Jernkontoret (the Swedish Steel Producers’ Association) on the assessment of SDG interactions in the Swedish steel industry, and SEI work piloting the SDG Synergies approach with policy-makers in countries from Sweden to Colombia. The project is being implemented by a partnership including SEI, Jernkontoret, the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and Swedwise, a software developer, with support from the Vinnova-funded Strategic Innovation Programme on Metallic Materials.

Back at the workshop, after two long days, the 17 panelists had analysed a huge variety of interactions and contexts, and the project team had learned a lot to take into the next stages of developing the Compass.