The SDG Lab’s new dialogue series, ‘So What’s Next?,’ co-hosted with the Geneva Graduate Institute, kicked off on 12 June with an intergenerational exchange on putting future generations at the heart of long-term sustainability.
Opened by UN Geneva Director-General Tatiana Valovaya and Geneva Graduate Institute Director Marie-Laure Salles, the discussion focused on how to strengthen long-term sustainability from the perspective of future generations.
By the SDG Lab
The SDG Lab’s new dialogue series, ‘So What’s Next?,’ co-hosted with the Geneva Graduate Institute, has kicked off with an intergenerational exchange on putting future generations at the heart of long-term sustainability. Opened by UN Geneva Director-General Tatiana Valovaya and Geneva Graduate Institute Director Marie-Laure Salles, the discussion focused on how to strengthen long-term sustainability from the perspective of future generations.
The panelists put forward the following three key recommendations to help infuse long-term thinking:
- Increasing youth representation in decision making and strengthening intergenerational participatory policymaking and inclusive multilateralism as the norm;
- Moving away from dystopian narratives and instead developing positive, constructive narratives that envision desirable and preferred futures, to inspire action and engagement for the SDGs and long-term sustainability; and strategically applying futures thinking and designing systems around human and planetary values; and
- Strengthening accessible knowledge about the SDGs and connecting people to the concept of sustainability, empowering them to become agents of change.
Why future generations matter for achieving the SDGs and long-term sustainability
The original definition of sustainable development, set out in the Brundtland Report in 1987, envisions that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. In essence, it is about ensuring that decisions taken today are future-proofed and aligned with a long-term sustainability vision for people and the planet. It is also about anticipating, assessing, and mitigating the long-term impacts of our decisions today.
Taking the future into account is both an urgent necessity and an ethical obligation, for the sake of those already alive and those yet to be born. There is a sense of accountability, a social contract between generations, on the need to preserve and pass on resources needed to ensure a desirable future for young people and those to come – just as modern-day societies have inherited the resources from previous generations. By factoring in the possible needs and perspectives of not only young people but also future generations, we can design more sustainable systems now that are aligned with the vision of the SDGs.
The key catalytic and transformative role of future generations for the SDGs and long-term sustainability is recognized by a growing number of policymakers and practitioners. As part of Our Common Agenda, the UN has produced a dedicated policy brief on future generations, and the SDG Lab, together with its institutional partner, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), recently published a commentary on the brief. In May this year, the UN system also published Common Principles on Future Generations.
To make systemic progress towards the SDGs and long-term sustainability, a mindset shift in thinking and acting from the perspective of future generations is required. But what does this mean, and how can it be put into practice?
This question was at the heart of the SDG Lab’s new ‘So What’s Next?’ series, launched on 12 June. The SDG Lab and the Geneva Graduate Institute co-hosted the first edition of the series, which aims at unpacking new perspectives and insights on the SDGs and long-term sustainability through intergenerational dialogues. The event brought together policymakers, academics, youth activists, and Member States who delved into the question of how best to place future generations at the heart of long-term sustainability. The panel included: Tatiana Valovaya, Director-General, UN Geneva; Marie-Laure Salles, Director, Geneva Graduate Institute; Ambassador Suphatra Srimaitreephithak, Permanent Representative of Thailand to UN Geneva; Shefali Nandhra, Development Studies MA student at the Geneva Graduate Institute and podcaster; and Quentin Knight, Swiss Climate Youth Delegate.
Recognizing the catalytic importance of greater accountability to future generations in achieving the SDGs and the long-term sustainability agenda, the SDG Lab is increasingly looking at sustainable development with an intergenerational impact and future generations perspective as a key priority of its work.
Reflections on pathways for change
The panel highlighted three key elements for overcoming short-termism in policymaking and upholding commitments to sustainable development:
- Intergenerational participatory policymaking;
- Constructive hope and the application of futures thinking and envisioning to build systems around human and planetary values; and
- Global awareness and inclusive access to knowledge about the SDGs and long-term sustainability.
Intergenerational participatory policymaking
One of the key issues discussed by the panel was the need for inclusive participation in policy- and decision making. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in 2020, 49% of the world’s population was under the age of 30, but only 2.6% of parliamentarians belonged to that age group.
This shows a significant under-representation of young people in decision-making bodies, even though a key principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to ensure that “no one is left behind.” Furthermore, as Quentin Knight highlighted, youth participation often degenerates into youth tokenism, where decision makers involve young people for show and young people have little or no say in the outcome.
As the panel noted, this should be strongly resisted by policymakers, especially as young people are arguably the most affected by current and future challenges. In view of this, intergenerational participatory policymaking and inclusive, effective, and representative multilateralism must be strengthened to address today’s global challenges. Young generations need to be involved long before policies are decided, and their participation balanced vis-à-vis other groups. When young people come together, they can help unblock negotiations by bringing new ideas and ways of seeing things.
Constructive hope and redesigning systems around human and planetary values
Another important point raised concerned envisioning desirable futures. Shefali Nandhra explained that dystopian narratives about climate, biodiversity loss, and environmental and other challenges exacerbate feelings of apathy, fear, climate anxiety, and climate grief, leaving many people paralyzed and inactive.
In addition, various stakeholders praise young people as the leaders of tomorrow and urge them to find solutions, but do not give them the tools or resources to participate in decision making. This leaves young people in a state of inertia and encourages short-termism. Research shows that a shift towards positive narratives, narratives of constructive hope, and envisioning desirable and preferred futures and the systems needed to achieve them will help inspire action and commitment to both short-term and long-term sustainability goals.
However, this requires a multifaceted approach involving all stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, civil society, and individuals. It calls for collaboration, empowerment, and the recognition that everyone has a role to play in shaping sustainable and desirable futures, including by daring to dream different futures as a prerequisite for critical thinking, as Geneva Graduate Institute Director Marie-Laure Salles pointed out.
Different futures may vary within and between nations, but sustainability and shared human values, such as courage, integrity, and benevolence, should be the common denominator. According to Ambassador Suphatra Srimaitreephithak, shaping the future we want will also require a shift towards a growth mindset, which helps overcome the fear of making mistakes. Such a shift emphasizes humanity’s ability to correct errors and the understanding that growth and development start at the personal level, leading to individual action.
On the theme of values, the audience took part in an interactive exercise to consider what values they would prioritize and create for young people and future generations today – if today’s world were a company and young people and future generations were its shareholders. Values identified as catalysts for systems change included accountability, care, collaboration, creativity, empowerment, sustainability, solidarity, trust, empathy, opportunity, and benevolence.
Word cloud results of 12 June interactive exercise
Making access to knowledge about the SDGs and long-term sustainability more inclusive
The panelists also discussed the lack of accessible knowledge on the SDGs and long-term sustainability. A 2019 study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that while 74% of people globally aged 16 to 74 are aware of the SDGs, only 26% are somewhat or very familiar with them. UN Geneva Director-General Valovaya stressed that the SDG framework is the tool to make sustainability a way of life. Therefore, knowledge about the SDGs and long-term sustainability should be mainstreamed and made accessible to everyone. While tremendous progress has been made in raising awareness about the goals, there is still a long way to go. Governments have a particular responsibility in this regard, including through education on sustainable development in schools. Only by connecting people to the concept of sustainability can they be empowered to act as agents of change.
Forward-leaning reflections and next steps
The event was concluded by the SDGs Lab’s Director Özge Aydogan who prompted the audience to assess whether current generations will be seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ancestors by future generations. While participants had mixed views and tended to see the current generation as ‘bad ancestors,’ one speaker said, “We are still in the shifting space, it could go either way, and we can still do the right thing.”
In her closing remarks, Aydogan highlighted how reflecting on issues such as these should encourage everyone to live more consciously and in greater solidarity with future generations. She stressed that our common goal should be to ensure accountability to future generations and to redefine and redesign values around systems for enhanced well-being not only tomorrow, but also today, in alignment with the core principle of sustainable development. By thinking about future generations, we improve our systems today, she added, which would have a positive and sustainable impact on generations to come.
Building on the insights from this dialogue, the upcoming ‘So What’s Next?’ event on 31 October will delve deeper into rethinking economics for the SDGs, such as going beyond gross domestic product (GDP) and exploring alternative economic systems and indicators.