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We have permission, we have the possibility, and we have the power. Using Sustainable Development Goals to drive all decisions

By Suzanne Maxted6 December 20235 min read

My name is Suzanne and I like frameworks. They serve me as an aide memoire, gentle guidance, and structural scaffolding for my work. A good, endorsed framework can give me a place to start from and an authority and permission that I don’t have the audacity to assert. As a Business Architect, I have my secret favourite.

As an environmentalist, I have my favourite and it is no secret. Not knowing how to combine my fundamental beliefs and personal values with my work, I was thrilled when the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were published in 2015, a universally recognised policy framework. Now I had an authoritative guide, a fairy godmother if you will, for my family, for my life, and at last, for my work.

For a long time, I have been thinking and writing about how to bring sustainability into government strategy and planning, aiming to make it easy for anyone else to do the same. That’s my number one requirement – make it easy for people to do something good and right, especially – because we are running out of time – to address the twin crises of climate warming and biodiversity loss, no matter what work people do. Otherwise, we find inertia and apathy …. because it seems overwhelming and too hard.

In 2016 I completed some contracted work for New Zealand Police. The goal was to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to recover and refresh their lives. Afterwards, I started scribbling. I sketched out the intentions of the work and related them to the SDGs. I played with causal loop diagrams. I read an academic article that scored interactions between SDGs and decided to combine that technique with my causal loops. The result was an assessment of the police work in relation to relevant SDGs, which can be seen in this article published by the NZ government in 2016 and which appeared again in Digital Leaders in 2017.

By the end of 2017, I was living in England and working for Methods Business and Digital Technology Ltd, the company I had contracted to before I moved to NZ to raise my children. Methods encouraged me to write and publish articles about my ideas even though I couldn’t quite articulate at that time what was needed – how on earth could all the work we do be relevant to saving the planet?

The Board agreed that I could set up and run an Environmental Responsibility Community of Interest focusing on helping our clients embed environmental responsibility into their transformation programmes (no matter which government department, scope, or subject matter).

Crucially, I was also given time to develop my idea that I had tested in 2016 on the NZ Police work, into a client service which was inspired by a fortuitous Masters lecture I attended at the Centre for Alternative Technology, delivered by Pavan Sukhdev. Sukhdev, is an author of UN reports and a former Deutsche Bank Managing Director, who currently holds leadership roles in WWF and UNEP. I joke about it, but I really would marry him.

I decided to use the SDGs as a framework to either design a programme or to assess strategy and planned programme work for benefit, not in relation to the organisation’s strategic goals, but in relation to the other goals, the most important goals, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their 169 targets. The United Nations and the UN Secretary General say they are the most important goals, so I believe I have permission to say that too.

It becomes impossible to isolate our jobs from the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate warming when we use the SDGs as a guide for every single decision that organisations make. No matter which organisation people work for, every role, and every project is relevant – it is up to us to ensure that our projects are contributing well and not expose our work, through inertia, to reputational damage or worse.

The service idea was all well and good as a theory. I needed to do this for real. The happiest day of my career was when a key client agreed to let me trial the service with them after an introductory workshop. The team really understood the importance of what I was trying to do, and unexpectedly, bravely succumbed to what I asked them to do next. As a simple warm-up exercise, I asked them to pick and explain their choice of two favourite SDGs (because it is really difficult to choose only two as they interact with each other). Yet what emerged was a beautifully raw expression of personal values. It was quite an emotional day. Not only did this group want to try the idea, but their hearts were also utterly committed to it.

I was not surprised when the impact assessment of my client’s programme found huge benefit beyond the intended scope i.e. positive contribution to the SDGs. This affirmed the aspiration of my client for it to be an exemplar programme.

The approach also gives us a chance to step back and uncover any unintended consequences or harmful impact; this would result in negative scores but this is where the gold lies! I think that there is a lot to gain reputationally from acknowledging such findings along with the willingness to address them – an important addition when improving contribution to the SDGs through what we are already planning to do. Transparency can be powerful in shifting paradigms and behaviours. Being comfortable with any negative assessment results and publishing them, at least inwardly, can remove programme risk because any negative scores can be easily corrected – flipped to positive contributions to the SDGs through subtle enhancements to how things are done.

My hope is that this becomes standard practice in every government department setting up new programmes. After all, there is a requirement to implement the SDGs but little, if any, guidance on how to do so.

If this snowballs, as I hope it will, any naysayers, laggards, or luddites will, in the words of the UN Secretary General, look like “dangerous radicals” … peer pressure can be a marvellous thing.

The causal loops are still dancing around my head tying my brain in knots as they fill the pages of my Masters’ dissertation, but for now, the service is up and running with new clients signed up. Having developed the service in work time, Methods has copyright of the method of course, as well as a commercial interest in developing the service.

But I’m a rubbish salesperson. I couldn’t sell a raspberry to a starving toddler even if I wanted to. I so badly want this way of thinking to spread, just as much as I want a small child to taste heaven in a raspberry. That’s why I am writing this. To encourage you to take the power you have and use it.

In the words of Jonathan Williamson at the Environment Agency “at home I am one, at work I am 3,500”. I believe things can turn around quickly if all of us drive decisions from the SDGs and correct unintended consequences before they happen.

My call to you dear reader, is simply to look at the SDGs, pick two favourites and explain to yourself why they are so important to you. Then do this exercise with your colleagues ensuring some bog roll or handkerchiefs are at hand. Then immediately start talking about your work projects and … watch the magic happen.

You have the power. All we need is collective imagination.

UN SDG Goals