This behind-the-scenes Q&A about how the SDG Lab came to life, its methods and some of its early successes and most fruitful partnerships reveals some key moments that established the SDG Lab’s success over the past five years.
By Nadia Isler, co-founder and director of the SDG Lab, and Lynn Wagner, senior director of the Tracking Progress program, IISD
This behind-the-scenes Q&A between Nadia Isler, the co-founder and director of the SDG Lab, and Lynn Wagner, the senior director of the Tracking Progress programme at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), shares how the SDG Lab came to life, its methods, and some of its early successes and most fruitful partnerships.
The SDG Lab has launched an educational resource called the SDG Lab Learning Journey. This online resource helps individuals and organizations learn practical tips on how to establish their own SDG Lab-inspired initiative.
For this Q&A, Isler and Wagner sat down to reflect on some of the key moments that established the SDG Lab’s success over the past five years.
Could you please introduce yourselves and explain how the SDG Lab and IISD partnership came to be?
Lynn Wagner (LW)
I came to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) through watching the negotiations in New York, beginning with the decision to include them in the outcome from the Rio+ 20 Meeting in 2012, and then the negotiation of the SDGs up to their adoption in 2015.
The SDGs are so compelling. They bring together the distinct parts of sustainable development we work on at IISD, so it became clear this is a framework we should use. We looked specifically at what civil society’s role could be in collaborating and providing convening space so people could come together and learn from each other and create new partnerships around the SDGs.
Pre-SDG Lab, a young consultant hired by IISD, Kali Taylor, who later co-founded the SDG Lab with Nadia, went knocking on doors, visiting stakeholders to ask what they needed and what they saw as missing pieces and opportunities to come together around the SDGs. This listening exercise was the basis for the creation of the Geneva 2030 Ecosystem and fed into how it should be organized with the SDG Lab at UN Geneva to maximize the opportunity of the SDGs.
Nadia Isler (NI)
I’ll concentrate more on why we decided to join forces with IISD. At the time, I was a Swiss diplomat working for Switzerland’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. The UN, through the former head of the Geneva office Michael Møller, as well as IISD, through Geneva-based team member Mark Halle, realized we had similar thoughts and ideas about the untapped potential in this unique “ecosystem” of Geneva. The city had its diversity of actors, and immense potential, but not enough was happening to embrace the newly adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. There seemed to be a common appetite for someone to bring all these actors together to collaborate.
We also realized that this diverse Geneva ecosystem brought together different expertise, capacities, networks, entry points, and ways of operating. IISD, as an NGO, had a better-established entry point with civil society. What united us was that we believed in changing the status quo: walking the talk of collaboration while recognizing that the spaces the UN or IISD alone offered—or the spaces Member States alone offered—didn’t allow this interaction to foster enough improbable encounters.
It was based on those observations that the idea emerged of doing something together. The partnership between the SDG Lab and IISD was always based on that mutual understanding that we had an extraordinarily strong common denominator and we complemented each other.
What was the timeline between these initial conversations and the more formal creation of the SDG Lab?
NI: About six months; it was extremely quick. It was an unheard-of alignment of stars, and there was just this shared belief that we had to move quickly, and we had no time to waste in thinking about it.
The idea of creating a ‘Lab’ within the UN system is quite rare and innovative. How did you get through to the right people? What steps did you take to fit within that larger system?
LW: The steps started with the listening exercise, meeting people to find out their strengths and what they thought was needed. The challenges were recognizing the strengths we brought to the partnership and defining how to best use them. We had a different voice and trust level with the civil society organizations, but they saw the value of being aligned with the UN, so the question was: how do you manage that to get the best of both parts? It was in those conversations and recognizing different strengths and distinct roles that we sharpened what we ended up with.
NI: I agree. We cannot preach to others what to do if we are not doing it. It was also a good example to say, “See, we joined forces with IISD, and IISD joined forces with the UN, so we are the first to be trying this out.” And then there was a big part of the work, at least on the UN side, to create the political space to operate. Indeed, it is a complex area to operate in, not least because you have 193 governments, and you have the UN system’s complexity too. I devoted a lot of my time, including with Michael Møller to create high-level champions who communicated we were genuine from the outset. People saw it was not just lip service. Creating that political space was indeed a challenge, but essential.
Do you have any recollection of how the early relationships were established in the first place and what was learned from that process of showing up and knocking on the door?
LW: Part of it started with people IISD already knew in Geneva. As Nadia said, the diplomacy was incredibly open in that there was not a behind-the-scenes agenda, making it clear this initiative was trying to build something that would really help everybody and not compete. With each meeting, we asked, “Who else should I talk to?” and from there, doors continued to be opened.
NI: We decided to listen and, above all, test our hypothesis that there was a need. As we were meeting people, it emerged there was an appetite for something or someone to act as that connector. Our hypothesis slowly strengthened as we tested it with different stakeholders. Lots of our now-partners said, “It is no one’s day job to be proactive in identifying opportunities to collaborate—and we need someone to do that.”
It made a lot of sense for it to be grounded in the UN physically because of the neutrality of the UN. Being this hybrid, multi-stakeholder initiative with IISD only added to that relevance.
As you both know from your own experience in forming partnerships, sometimes it is difficult to know whether those will be successful or enduring. How did you know each party would be a good collaborator?
NI: IISD is a very respected NGO, so that was already helpful. It was not an NGO we had never heard of.
Secondly, like most things in life, it boils down to people. There was good chemistry and trust from the outset—yet trust and reputation are not enough. We were open on what we each party brought to the partnership and made it clear through a memorandum of understanding (MoU).
Equally important was basic communication—what’s in it for you, what’s in it for me, and what’s in it for us. We learned if you do not go through these motions to understand each other’s incentives, the odds the partnership will fail can be high.
LW: Those initial discussions were open and essential. Having that MoU is helpful because it provides memory of what we said and what we agreed to do together, just in case there were any questions down the line.
Were there any thorny issues that you had iron out together?
LW: This was a brand new thing, so we checked with the legal offices about how to create it from scratch.
NI: What helped, too, is there was not one of the partners coming in with money and the other not. That often changes power dynamics. We were in it together for better or worse, and there was an equilibrium from the outset.
Has your partnership brought about other interesting collaborations?
NI: Thanks to our strong partnership, we have been able to bring together different stakeholders in Geneva on many issues, notably on sustainable finance. We created this space where people who know a lot about the SDGs but not much about finance were able to meet people who know a lot about finance yet little about the SDGs. That mix created a phenomenal collaboration that has since grown into a partnership exemplified in the Building Bridges movement.
This partnership grew organically, starting with IISD and the SDG Lab, then we brought in Sustainable Finance Geneva, the City and Canton of Geneva, and Swiss Federal authorities, all collaborating around a common vision of advancing sustainable finance to address the SDGs.
Do either of you have advice for organizations, groups, or individuals who are thinking about developing similar lab models?
NI: How much more time do we have?! The most important piece of advice is to invest time in the initial partnership. Too often, in this fast-moving world, where everyone must demonstrate impact before we have time to say good morning, people underestimate the time needed to seal a strong partnership. If we had not done that with IISD, we would not be where we are today. Invest in the founding partnership.
Speaking of advice—you have just launched the SDG Lab Learning Journey. Can you tell us more about this and why you are putting this product out into the world?
NI: We developed the Learning Journey to share what we’ve learned since our inception in 2017 and to transmit that knowledge, know-how and expertise to others. It’s designed to help others benefit from our experience and, at the same time, avoid some of our mistakes that we made along the way.
Importantly, we structured the Learning Journey based on the requests and feedback we’ve received from organizations and individuals interested in replicating the SDG Lab model or simply wanting to use some of the methods that we deploy through our activities.
This includes step-by-step modules on how to build an SDG Lab-inspired initiative, how to use practical tools and techniques to act for the SDGs, focusing on aspects like convening and communication, and how to understand the strengths and benefits of a lab-style approach.
It is my hope – and the entire team’s hope – that the Learning Journey will serve as a compass or a roadmap to help other organizations, entities, start-ups, and individuals to bring the SDGs to life in their own contexts.