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August 29, 2023

Setting priorities through “systems thinking” at the SDG Summit

While every bit of progress on the SDGs by 2030 matters, easy fixes may not be the best place to focus Member States’ efforts. A systems-thinking approach is required to determine where to prioritize action to accelerate progress across the Goals.

Published on 14 April 2023


  • All SDGs need attention, as the 17 Goals are inseparable and integrated, but in each context, some Goals matter more than others to boost progress.
  • In setting priorities for accelerating the SDGs, Member States should consider the systemic role each Goal plays.
  • The scientific community now has an important role in supporting “systems literacy” and bringing practical ways to incorporate systems thinking in policymaking to support SDG acceleration.

Before the September UN SDG Summit in New York, US, UN Member States must decide on their priorities for accelerating progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We argue that Member States can prioritize some Goals above others to boost progress on the 2030 Agenda. To do this while maintaining the commitment to achieve all SDGs, they need to incorporate “systems thinking” into SDGs and national decision- and policymaking processes.

The SDGs are indivisible, meaning progress on all 17 Goals is necessary for building a sustainable future. Because many of the Goals are also interlinked, one or a handful of Goals may have the capacity to “push progress” and make development more sustainable across many or even all the Goals. At the same time, some Goals merit additional attention as they are more isolated and will not receive that push from other Goals, while some may even be constrained by progress in another Goal. The interplay between the Goals matters as Member States aim to achieve them all while acknowledging that in each context, progress on some Goals will be more important for accelerating the SDGs than others.

Despite the Goals’ indivisible and integrated nature, we haven’t seen systems thinking broadly applied to the SDGs. We argue that even though prioritization might sound like cherry-picking, it can be done in such a way as to create far-reaching actions across the whole 2030 Agenda. Member States have the responsibility to progress on the SDGs, and they have much to gain from considering the systemic role each Goal plays within the 2030 Agenda. With an increasingly challenging geopolitical context and a rapidly changing world, decision-makers need to rethink their approach to priority setting in the next half year.

Prioritizing for greater impact

The 2030 Agenda remains an ambitious and uniting global sustainable development framework that would likely not be adopted today. Member States must take this opportunity to deliver on their responsibility to make as much progress as possible on all SDGs up to 2030. The temptation will be to do the easiest things to showcase progress – which may be counter-productive.

Prioritizing progress on SDGs that are more easily achieved or because they serve short-term political or economic interests will not take us far in achieving the vision of the 2030 Agenda and could conceivably threaten progress on other Goals. Systems thinking can help set priorities for actions on the SDGs by showing interactions, both synergies and trade-offs between the Goals. Seeing the whole and understanding relationships, rather than breaking systems down into separate parts, is basic systems thinking.

The relationship between the Goals varies in each context. Results from our work with the tool SDG Synergies in Sweden represent one context-specific example of how taking a systemic view can capitalize on how the indivisible Goals interact. Our tool offered decision-makers a number of perspectives on the Goals’ systemic impact. We found that SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) had the most positive impact on progress across all 17 SDGs for Sweden. The next most impactful Goals were, in descending order, partnerships for the goals (SDG 17), quality education (SDG 4), peace, justice, and strong institutions (SDG 16), and climate action (SDG 13).

While these five Goals were considered important accelerators to progress on all the SDGs in Sweden, our results also showed the trade-offs that progress in these highly synergistic Goals posed for some other SDGs. We saw that clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), life on land (SDG 15), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), and life below water (SDG 14) all suffered. Seeing how SDG 13 can both work to accelerate progress across the system as a whole, pose trade-offs with some Goals, and be negatively influenced by progress in some of the other accelerator Goals illustrates the complexity of the SDGs as a system. With our tool, we could show which SDGs received a strong push by progress in other Goals and, therefore, may not need much-targeted efforts. We were also able to pinpoint the Goals that would not receive such boosts through progress in other SDGs and, therefore, risk falling behind.

Based on how all the Goals interact, this type of analysis can help decision-makers see the impacts on all SDGs by moving towards certain Goals. Such information is necessary to guide priority setting to focus actions for the most widespread positive impacts – and avoid unnecessary costs from missteps, as well as balance the needs of all kinds of stakeholders, from civil society to businesses and more. SDG Synergies is not the only tool that helps leverage SDG interlinkages. The iSDG modelSDG Interlinkages Analysis & Visualisation Tool, and others provide science-based assessments that can help policymakers and other stakeholders see the whole picture while they prioritize next steps.

Setting priorities through “systems thinking” at the SDG Summit

Posted by ACASA on August 29, 2023 at 10:45 PM in blog post | Permalink


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