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Are we on track with SDGs?

Are we on track with SDGs?

 Dame Polly Courtice, DBE, LVO, Director, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

25 July 2016


This week the UN launched its first report tracking progress against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were launched in September last year. This is really the starting point from which we will measure progress in tackling the 17 Goals from now until 2030.

We still have a long way to go. The latest data show that ‘about one in eight people still lives in extreme poverty and nearly 800 million people suffer from hunger.  1.1 billion people are living without electricity, and water scarcity affects more than 2 billion’.

But the overall message from UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon was clear – ‘we are off to a good start’ but in order to address the challenges of sustainability, governments, business and civil society need to ‘learn to think differently’, break down silos and collaborate more.

So how prepared are economic leaders from across business, finance and government to play their role in delivering the outcomes envisaged by the SDGs? What are the challenges they face?  How will they align finance with the transition to a zero carbon economy and secure the sustainability of vital resources? And do they view SDGs as an opportunity or a duty?

We explored these questions with over 200 senior leaders from across CISL’s international Network last month on the theme Leadership for Change. Our Network event marked the first anniversary of CISL’s Rewiring the Economy plan which starts from the principle that the economy can and should be delivering the outcomes demanded by the SDGs.

The event addressed the individual and collective leadership, collaboration, action and innovation that will be required to lay the foundations for a sustainable economy.

Our Rewiring the Economy plan is built on ten interconnected tasks, delivered by three key groups of economic leaders from business, government and finance. It shows how these tasks can be tackled collaboratively over the next decade to lay the foundations for an economy that encourages sustainable business practices and delivers positive outcomes for people and societies.

Here are some of the key messages that emerged from our discussions with our Network:

We need a managed transition

Demographic, technological and climate change drivers imply that business-as-usual won’t be good enough to deliver the SDGs or for economies to transition away from high carbon dependency. It is inevitable that this transition will have winners and losers – so government has a crucial role to play in managing the potential resistance to change and building understanding amongst business and civil society of the action required to address the critical challenges of our time.

We need to build knowledge

Business schools and universities must play a stronger role in equipping future leaders with the knowledge and capacity to respond to this new context for business and society. Businesses themselves also need better tools now to help them understand SDGs and how to measure their own progress against the goals, and share this information transparently with their stakeholders. We need a common vocabulary – underpinned by common metrics – across business, government and finance to unlock consistent behaviour change.  Greater knowledge of the commercial and market implications of sustainability is necessary to embed it within business decision making – a good example of this is the relationship of business with biodiversity.

In order to align finance with the transition to a zero carbon economy, an ability to better predict impacts on financial systems is required, alongside the need for financial institutions to future-proof new financial products by ensuring that product development, innovation and client relationships are informed by science-based research on the sustainability risks and opportunities.

We need to collaborate and innovate

Across individual sectors such as power, transport and industry, and in our consumption patterns and business models, making real progress on SDGs will require radical innovation. A competitive and sustainable future, which enables the conditions needed to unlock innovative business models fit for the 21st century, is possible for many industries.  But to deliver this requires collaborative action by business, finance and government. 

There are ever-more examples of collaboration for sustainability, between companies, NGOs, and cross-sectoral groups.  All of these groups need a safe, pre-competitive space in which to work together, with a neutral convenor to tackle a common goal. Concepts such as the circular economy require companies to form new types of relationships – moving from a traditional supply chain approach to thinking about their value chain network. This alters the traditional client and customer transaction based on power and hierarchy and requires trust to innovate together.

We are off to a good start in our progress on SDGs and the positive feedback from our network of leaders last month left no doubt in my mind that there is a collective drive from organisations across sectors to make this happen.  But there is still a lot to do and a lot to change if we are to rewire our economy to meet the needs of a growing population within a finite planet.  CISL’s mission is to help leaders take up this challenge with energy and enthusiasm.

About the author

Polly Courtice

Polly is Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). She is also Founder Director of The Prince of Wales's Business and Sustainability Programme, and Academic Director of the University’s Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership

Polly is a member of the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee and the Board of Executive and Professional Education. She is a Director of Jupiter Green Investment Trust and a Non-Executive Director of Anglian Water Services Ltd, and is on the environmental/sustainability advisory boards for AstraZeneca, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, Lloyds Banking Group and Nespresso. In 2016 Polly was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), and in 2008 a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order (LVO), both announced in the Queen's Birthday Honours list. Polly was awarded the 2015 Stanford Bright Award.

Polly is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and has an MA from the University of Cambridge.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.