UCL Grand Challenges


The Humanities and the SDGs

Exploring the contribution of the humanities to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Two rows of brightly coloured boxes

3 October 2020


Grant: Grand Challenges Special Initiatives - UN SDGs: Pathways to Achievement
Year awarded: 2020-21
Amount awarded: £8,466


  • Professor Nicola Miller, Institute of Advanced Studies, Social & Historical Sciences
  • Professor Maurice Biriotti, SHM Foundation

This collaborative project set out to explore and demonstrate the major contribution that the Humanities can make to achieving the UN SDGs. It premised that the 17 SDGs have gained remarkable traction since their launch in 2015. Far more than their predecessors (the Millenium Development Goals), the SDGs have had a major impact both on policy-makers and the general public. This crop of ideas speaks to a set of genuinely urgent problems and has transformed public debate over the last seven years.

Yet few of these discussions are informed by the type of thinking that takes place in the humanities. UN Reports on the SDGs advocate technocratic, resource management solutions, referring to human behaviour only insofar as it impedes policy implementation. Little attention is paid to the human factors —social, political and ethical— essential to any prospect of lasting success in transforming what people can or will do. The UNESCO Hangzhou Declaration of 2013 championed culture as ‘an enabler and driver of sustainable development’, but policy-makers rarely draw upon the vast reservoir of cultural expertise that is the Humanities. 

While there is widespread recognition that the Humanities could make a major contribution, their integration into the work is still patchy, partial and far below its true potential. To do so, the project explored three related questions:

1) What do we miss by not including the Humanities in the debate?
2) What could the Humanities already be adding to the work on SDGs?
3) What more should be done to include the Humanities?

Findings were brought together in a major research report and an app has been developed as a collaborative resource for gathering critical perspectives, grounded in humanities thinking, on the SDGs.

The Humanities & The SDGs project exhibition panel at the Grand Challenges, Grand Impacts exhibition, 2023