Our work on understanding how the Sustainable Development Goals and their targets interact allows for a more detailed assessment of interactions that goes beyond current tendencies to analyse these only in terms of synergies and trade-offs. By exploring interactions the framework aims to help policy-makers to design more coherent and resource effective policies to generate progress on the 17 SDGs overall. Several governments and practitioners have already picked up and tested the approach as they develop their national action plans. Learning from these applications and from exploring theoretical extensions the method is continuously developing.


In 2017 SEI published a paper in Sustainability Science “Towards systemic and contextual priority setting for implementing the 2030 Agenda”. The paper demonstrated a practical approach for gaining a systemic and contextual perspective on the SDGs by using a 7-point scale on the nature of interactions developed by ICSU and SEI, a cross-impact matrix and network analysis techniques. The approach offers decision-makers and practitioners a systematic way to analyze interactions and to be transparent in the process of interpreting the global targets for their own context. But it is only a start. It is a first step towards full systems analysis and towards a tool that can support integrated decision-making on the SDGs or other societal objectives. Below we describe the method and in the tab ‘Ongoing pilot studies’ we describe how it has been applied in a number of cases.


How targets play out and interact depend on the context. 169 targets is too much to handle in a qualitative analysis of interactions. As a first step we therefore selected the two most relevant targets for each of the 17 SDGs for the specific context in focus. These 34 targets already result in 1122 interaction points to analyze.

Gathering stakeholders

A strength of the method is its potential to bridge different sectors, highlight shared interests and build ownership amongst stakeholders. It is not, however, an exercise that is necessarily aided by a large number of people, but the right competency to assess the interactions and the involvement of those who will use the results, is paramount.

Systematic collection of data

In order to understand the dynamics of the network of SDG targets as a system, we need information about how each target interact with every other target and vice versa. Systematic analysis of these interactions is at the core of the method and the information is collected in a cross-impact matrix.

Figure shows the cross-impact matrix of 34 targets and their interaction in Sweden

Completing the matrix can be a tedious task but there is no short-cut and the result is only as robust as the information in the matrix. In order to keep the analysis coherent there is one guiding question and seven possible answers to be applied for each assessment. The answers consist of seven types of interactions, shown in this scale below.

Figure shows the seven-point typology of SDG interactions

Together, the guiding question and the scale provide a common language which helps to make the assessment transparent.

The selected targets are listed along both rows and columns of the matrix. Then, posing the question “if progress is made on target x (rows in the matrix), how does this influence progress on target y (columns in the matrix)?” to each target interaction, the best fitting type of interaction is selected from the scale, and the corresponding number noted in the intersecting cell.

There are many possible ways of gathering the information needed to assign a score, and the choice is related to the purpose of the exercise. For example a group of experts may make the assessment, it can be based on secondary sources or stakeholders can discuss and arrive at a shared view. Each interaction merits validation and discussion and this can be time-consuming. It is therefore important that there is agreement within the group on the level of ambition given the purpose of the exercise. For transparency, the logic behind the score should be noted and if possible referenced.

Showing targets’ influence

Having compiled all the information in the matrix results are generated by simply summing up the columns and rows. A target’s row-sum indicates the influence of that target on all other targets. A target’s column sum indicates how it is influenced by all other targets. The summing up of rows and columns provide an overview of targets’ net influence on other targets and whether their progress is strongly influenced by progress in other targets.

Highlighting the respective scores in different colors gives good overview of the distribution of the types of interactions and whether they are predominantly positive or negative.  It will also show if there are certain targets that have many negative links, and interaction points that are critical because they are cancelling for example.

Analyzing the network

The matrix further serves as the basis for network analysis techniques. This requires additional expertise and software. In the original paper we describe in detail the type of analysis that can be applied and how. For example, you can abstract a figure showing the most critical interactions only (either positive or negative) or look at the network from a specific target’s perspective. A government official in charge of integrating climate change measures in national policy may be interested in knowing which other targets make achieving target 13.2 more or less difficult, or how it is influencing other targets. This helps to identify “friends and foes” across sectors and suggests where collaboration is needed. Another application that also guides collaboration between actors is to look at how targets cluster based on the concentration of links. To support priority-setting of actions, we can rank targets based on their positive influence on the network. This can also account for how a target is not just influencing another target but how that target in turn is influencing targets. This gives better account for the systemic effects and allows you to assess how effects ripple through the network. This is important since you don’t want to invest in a target that stimulates progress in a target that in turn has large negative influence on the network as a whole.

Work in progress – next steps

We keep thinking about how deep into the network it is useful to delve. We continuously improve the application of the method by learning from a number of ongoing case studies and we develop it further by considering theoretical expansions. We also work on a visual language for interactions, that will help to communicate the insights and lay the basis for an interactive tool. We stay committed to supporting strategic decision-making that take into account the systemic effects amongst various sustainability targets. Help us do our work well by letting us know how you experienced applying the method.

For more information on the method, see the scientific paper.

Ongoing pilot studies

Sri Lanka pilot study

Why Sri Lanka?

SEI was approach by UNDP Asia to do a pilot study, applying the SDG interactions framework in a comprehensive way across a range of the 17 Goals in a country case study in Asia. UNDP Sri Lanka and the Government of Sri Lanka found that the proposed pilot study fit very well within their collaboration for advancing the SDGs in Sri Lanka. The Government of Sri Lanka has made a clear commitment to sustainable development and to advancing Agenda 2030. A Ministry of Sustainable Development was established in 2015, and a parliamentary committee has been convened to oversee the government’s advancement of SDG implementation.

 Who are we working with?

SEI, UNDP, and the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), a Sri Lanka-based research institute, are working closely with the government to use the framework to support the national planning process. This is done by assessing interactions between SDG targets across multiple sectors, and the process will involve participation from a number of ministries and departments. The key governmental owners of the process are the Department of National Planning, under the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs, and the Ministry of Sustainable Development.

Where are we in the co-creation process?

To ensure that the project is highly relevant for the national policy-making process, we have designed a study that will be government-led at each step.  An inter-agency expert working group has been convened by the Sri Lankan government and a workshop to support the working group’s selection of 30 to 40 SDG targets for analysis occurred in early 2018. The government of Sri Lanka is currently in the process of finalising this target selection step. Once the final list of targets is ready, the pilot study team will organise a second workshop, now with expanded participation from line agencies relevant to the selected targets. Participants will be trained on the SDG interactions methodology and do the actual scoring of interactions. For the scoring process CEPA will provide background research for each of the SDG targets selected for the study, while SEI will provide methodological support. In a third workshop the results of SEI’s and CEPA’s analysis of the working group’s scoring, including network analysis, will be presented to the expert working group and other stakeholders. During this final workshop, the project partners will facilitate a policy dialogue among governmental agencies.

Dr. Yalegama, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Sri Lanka in a short interview with SEI. How is the Sri Lankan Government working with the SDGs and how can the interactions method be useful?

Mongolia pilot study

Why Mongolia?

SEI was approached by UNDP Mongolia and the National Development Agency (NDA) in October 2017  about applying the SDG interactions method in the water sector. More specifically, NDA and UNDP was looking for a framework to test and refine the overall methodological approach to policy alignment and target setting in the water sector related to the objectives in Mongolia’s Sustainable Development Vision (SDV) 2030. The Mongolian request resulted in the conduct of a workshop on 5-6 December 2017 in Ulaanbaatar. The workshop was attended by 40 participants, including government representatives from 10 ministries and government bodies as well as representatives from NGOs and university. The workshop was facilitated by three SEI researchers.

Who were we working with?

The Mongolian core team supporting the workshop was composed by UNDP officials, UNDP consultants and officials from the National Development Agency (NDA). During SEI’s mission week in Ulaanbaatar, the core team attended preparatory and follow-up meetings with SEI.  A debrief of the workshop was also held with the UN Development Programme Resident Representative and the deputy Resident.

Photo from the workshop in Mongolia, December 2017. Photo credit: UNDP Mongolia

What have we learned so far?

The SDG interactions framework demands strong government commitment from multiple ministries and departments to ensure sufficient expertise and avoid sector-driven biases. If key stakeholders are missing from the process, this can risk the quality and credibility of the results.

Selecting targets for scoring

The impact of the exercise will likely be affected by the level of government ownership in the selection of targets to be analyzed. Strong commitment and a more formal process might strengthen policy impact but risk a political and time-consuming exercise. Conversely, framing the selection process as one input into a broader investigation of SDG target interactions can make it easier to execute but may limit the potential impact of the analysis.

Flexible to national needs

A core strength of the framework is its ability to be adjusted to different national contexts. In Sri Lanka, it is being applied on SDG targets to support overall national planning. In another application of the methodology in Mongolia, it was applied on a set of targets derived from their national development vision and focused specifically on water.

The process itself is valuable

The process of applying the framework may be just as important as the resulting analysis. By bringing together government stakeholders it provides a new platform for cross-sector dialogue and can contribute to consensus building around policy priorities.

We must avoid over-complication

The exercise requires considerable investment of time. Perhaps our biggest challenge going forward is to find a balance between a process that is inclusive and comprehensive, and based on sound arguments and evidence, while at the same time not being overly complex and time-consuming.

Regardless, the experience has been encouraging, and we look forward to testing and refining the approach further, together with UNDP country offices, government partners, and other stakeholders.


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