UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Global Goals: Take Action! Review

13 May 2016

A blog by Hannah Sender.

Global Goals: Take Action student conference

In a short 15 years, the international community will have rallied together to achieve 17 goals including the ending of poverty, gender equality, and access to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy for all. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are ambitious, wide-ranging, and laudable but they are not frameworks for action. What the SDGs do is demand a paradigm shift in the way we think about and aim to achieve prosperity.

Until recently, prosperity had been measured by GDP growth. The IGP is part of a community of thinkers who believe that prosperity, in reality, includes wellbeing, happiness, equal access to resources, and the capacity to aspire for change in one’s personal life as well as for the world one lives in. Importantly, prosperity in all its forms is impossible without environmental sustainability.

This community of thinkers has been focused on measurements of prosperity in all its forms. However, the SDGs also demand action to be taken across different disciplines, sectors and geographies. Some of the best-placed to generate the necessary action - whether in research, in business, or in the public sector - are so-called Millennial generation: young people who are currently developing the skill sets and awareness necessary to create transformative change, and who will be in the business of driving innovation over the next 15 years.

There needs to be joined-up thinking between Millennials and the established researchers and practitioners whose work currently contributes towards sustainable development in order that transformative change can happen. At IGP, we are aware that this joined-up thinking is not necessarily conflict-free: that work and creative thinking is needed to facilitate it. To generate conversation between research and Millennials around the themes of the SDGs and potential frameworks for action, IGP has collaborated with research institutions, not-for-profit organisations and young people to deliver conferences and workshops. Countdown 2030, a dual-location conference in London, kick-started this effort in November 2015. You can read the review here.

In April 2016, IGP collaborated with the London International Development Centre to deliver the Global Goals: Take Action! conference. The Global Goals: Take Action! conference invited students from UCL, Birkbeck, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, SOAS and the Royal Veterinary College to take a day away from exam revision in order to engage in a series of panels and workshops, themed on the SDGs.

Following a welcome from Director of London International Development Centre, Jeff Waage, the conference started with a panel of speakers. Dr Sarah Bell, whose endeavours to enhance local community engagement with engineering research earns her a strong reputation in both practitioner and academic sectors, presented her position paper on the SDGs. Bell and her co-authors (including Jeff Waage) have concentrated on potential interactions between the SDGs, and proposed a framework conceived around three scales (individual, built/human environments and the natural environment) that shows the interdependency of the goals.

The interdependency and interactions of the SDGs was a recurrent theme throughout the day. Some speakers indicated the problematics of this interdependency - which, it was argued, is not only a positive relationship, where progress on one goal would necessarily mean progress on another/others. Speaking on the panel alongside Dr Bell and Karen Newman, Professor Sir Andy Haines indicated that there might be trade-offs between goals: that progress on one would impede, or even reverse, the progress on another. However, like Dr Bell and her colleagues, Professor Haines emphasised the fundamental importance of natural ecosystems in realising the sustained success of any other goals.

Following the panel, participants were invited to workshop with one another, under the guidance of academics and practitioners whose work pertained to a single goal, or set of goals. The workshops were divided into Environment, Innovation and Technology, Governance, Education and Gender, Poverty and Economic Growth, and Health and Population. In the workshops feedback, advocacy for interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaboration, and concern around the ‘invisibility’ of some individuals or groups was a common theme (as it has been in most conversations I have heard about the SDGs).

Less discussed, but significant ideas that emerged were: a questioning of the growth-based economy as a sufficient backbone for sustainable and inclusive development; the role of private business in delivering sustainable development; the need to recognise a diversity of value systems and principles for governance within and across nation states; and from Dr Tom Pegram: whether we rely on incremental reform-minded change, or transformative structural change to meet the goals? In answer to this, Professor Richard Kock finished the feedback session with a warning: rate of change is the issue. For us to achieve the environment goals, there is no time for incremental change, he argued.

Finishing, then, with a discussion between Director of IGP Professor Henrietta Moore and Nik Hartley, CEO of Restless Development, was an effective call for youth-led action for sustainable development. Pitching the effective responses of grassroots youth networks to major challenges like Ebola against the bureaucratic behemoths like UN, Hartley demonstrated the power of youth as campaigners and awareness raisers.

In Professor Moore’s words, the Sustainable Development Goals will ultimately reflect the political will of nations. What emerged through conversation with Nik Hartley is that youth represent a significant proportion of engaged and willing bodies. Through all of our activities at UCL, including our new MSc in Global Prosperity, IGP aim to advise and develop the transition leaders whom nations need to achieve sustainable and inclusive prosperity.

While we are certain the MSc will contribute towards sustainable and inclusive prosperity, there are things that IGP, UCL, and other higher education institutions can and need to do in order to jump-start the paradigm shift the SDGs demand. More focused interdisciplinary discussions around the grand challenges presented by the SDGs need to take precedence, and be meaningfully connected to practice and teaching from beginning to the end. Sustainable and inclusive prosperity has to be the outcome of all our efforts in research, communications and teaching if we are to achieve the SDGs.


With thanks to Patricia Whitehorne and Sam Mardell from LIDC for all of their hard work putting the conference together.