12 April 2023
Setting Priorities Through “Systems Thinking” at the SDG Summit
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All SDGs need attention, as the 17 Goals are indivisible 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 to play to support “systems literacy” and bring practical ways to incorporate systems thinking in policymaking, in support of SDG acceleration.

By Nina Weitz, Therese Bennich, and Henrik Carlsen (Stockholm Environment Institute)

Before the UN SDG Summit to be held in New York, US, this September, 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 be able to do this, while keeping to 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 is more important for accelerating the SDGs than on others.

Despite the Goals’ indivisible and integrated nature, we haven’t seen systems thinking being broadly applied to the SDGs to date. 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 framework for global sustainable development, one that would likely not be adopted today. Member States must take this opportunity and 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) came out as having 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 were able to 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.

This type of analysis, based on how all the Goals interact, 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 model, SDG 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.

Seeing the whole 2030 Agenda

A recent UN elements paper that hints at the final content of the political declaration of the SDG Summit indicates that Member States want to protect the principles of integration and indivisibility going forward. We think these are signs of growing systems thinking and awareness of the Goals’ systemic roles, and an important outcome of conversations generated by the SDGs. Systems thinking can complement, not replace, concerns over individual Goals’ status and risk of not progressing, over financial viability that takes into account the cost of inaction, cost efficiency, and returns on investments, and over technological and governance options, as well as the wider policy and political landscape.

The UN and Member States should now build on the growing awareness of systems thinking, with efforts to support improved “systems literacy” and practical ways to operationalize systems thinking during the second half of implementation of the SDGs. That effort could pay off in the long run, turning the SDGs into a launchpad for systems thinking that promotes sustainable development beyond 2030.

We recommend the following:

  • Put systems thinking to practice as an integral part of priority-setting and policymaking for SDG acceleration.
  • Find science-based tools and methods for systems thinking that can assist in policymaking. The scientific community can provide additional support and better align their tools with decision makers’ realities and processes.
  • Share knowledge and experience across national and regional levels.

We think that countries could report on their approach to priority setting in their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) to facilitate peer-learning at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). Member States should share their experiences of how their strategies are informed by systems thinking, and how approaches for managing trade-offs and synergies are institutionalized. They can and should share their policy assessments, analytical tools, and coordination mechanisms, among other tools and actions, to foster SDG implementation in other nations.

If Member States, with the support of the scientific community, seize this opportunity and take responsibility, perhaps one of the legacies of the SDGs in 2030 will be how they made us think more about systems and interconnections. That shift in outlook would put us in a better position to deliver on all of the SDGs, in all parts of the world, while leaving no one behind, and to achieve conditions and policy to drive transformative changes for sustainability in the longer term, beyond 2030.

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Nina Weitz is a Research Fellow and Team Leader, Global Goals and Systems team, SEI-HQ.

Therese Bennich is a Research Fellow, Global Goals and Systems team, SEI-HQ.

Henrik Carlsen is a Senior Research Fellow, Global Goals and Systems team, SEI-HQ.

This perspective piece is part of a series authored by researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), published in partnership with IISD. In the series, SEI researchers examine ways to implement the 2030 Agenda without abandoning principles, diluting aims, or leaving people behind.

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