Over coffee on a warm and windy day, Albert Soer and I talked with Joachim Spangenberg, Vice President of the Sustainable Europe Research Institute, on how to unpack sustainable development so these abstract ideas can transform how we govern our societies.
The overall orientation of our governance structures and unsustainable consumption and production patterns is entwined with each nation’s history and culture.
Development agencies are not used to stimulating debate on these fundamental levels. Typically, our assistance aims to strengthen organizations and improve the mechanisms by which decisions are taken While these are valid and needed forms of assistance, what can be achieved will be limited without the accompanying social change.
The upcoming national level discussions on sustainable development goals are a rare opportunity to think about the social change needed to achieve sustainable development.
To begin a discussion on a sustainable development strategy, we might begin by identifying the most unsustainable trends – sources of vulnerability – for a country (or jurisdiction). This isn’t typical scenario building on business as usual.
Not only should scenarios consider various shocks – manmade, natural disaster or combinations such as climate change; the main change is the strong likelihood of shocks.
So the sustainable development strategy moves from aspirational and environmental niceties to preserving natural and human capital, core elements of quality of life, by reducing vulnerability of society to shock.
Preserving quality of life is not the same as preserving the current level of consumption.
We confuse human needs with human satisfiers. While we have a need for food, this can be satisfied in different ways and it is our cultural orientation that tells us how to satisfy this need.
Can UNDP broaden the discussion on the ways in which human needs can be satisfied? For example, when we speak of mobility needs, can we help governments to think out-of-the box and explore all forms possible, not just different types of technology (hybrid car, bike, tram, rapid bus), but also how society uses technology (bike or car rentals with convenient parking, free public transport).
Also related is opening up the debate on what the government considers a public good.
While the sustainable development strategy can define some broad directions for change (to reverse or mitigate the most unsustainable trends), the hard work is then finding the role of different groups in addressing this.
Here is an opportunity for supporting social entrepreneurs, social innovation, crowdsourcing and other ways to bring more individuals and groups, each with a particular perspective or expertise, into the problem solving.
What about involving designers whose approach to work is much closer to the “safe-to-fail environment” that we want to promote than the “must succeed” approach of a typical public administration official?
What about involving local governments that may not be as innovative as other actors, but certainly familiar with the realities of everyday challenges?
Who will be the driving force behind social change? Many will be local heroes. They may come from existing power structures or businesses or the community. It is not the position of the person that is important, but people’s perceptions of their ability to articulate their interests.
But let’s not forget the role of the “used-idea dealers.” They are able to pick up ideas from the idea generators and transport these into understandable messages to the public domain. They might be journalists, academics, or others who know what resonates with the majority of the population. The used-idea dealers are the link between the driving forces and the broader social change.
Back to the governance question, how can donor agencies help provoke change that will move societies from a frozen situation to one more fluid, where adaptation is more possible?
Local development work that empowers communities is one way. Another way is to address information imbalances, as equal access to information is part of creating a platform for sustainable development.
In Kyrgyzstan, people were suspicious of government-provided data on mining in their territory. Only by opening up the data and the monitoring process, were people able to feel more confident and better understand the risks. Presenting data through maps has been another way of making data more understandable.
And not to ignore the elephant in the room, we discussed how corruption will fundamentally affect what is achievable under sustainable development goals. A recent paper analyzing Compliance of Member States with European Environmental Law (pdf) concludes that the level of corruption is more important than administration efficiency in explaining compliance. While we can never eliminate corruption, we can try to make it more costly and risky.
Finally, social change will not happen without changing what we measure. Instead of measuring gross domestic product (GDP) growth, we can measure the livelihoods we create and sustain, as well as monitor our level of resource consumption to ensure that we are developing within sustainable limits.
Who are the local heroes and “used-idea dealers” in your country that can stimulate social dialogue on sustainable development – and more sustainable consumption?
How do development organizations need to change to support local innovation?