By Özge Aydoğan, Eleonora Bonaccorsi, and Trine Schmidt 

In an effort to deliver the 2030 Agenda through a reformed multilateral system, the UN Secretary-General will publish eleven policy briefs between March and July 2023. The policy briefs are intended to propose concrete actions under Our Common Agenda and to inform the discussions of Members States in advance of the 2023 SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future in 2024. The first brief, published on 9 March under the title, ‘To Think and Act for Future Generations,’ provides a number of suggestions and practical steps in ensuring that intergenerational solidarity becomes the guiding star of sustainable development and renewal of the multilateral system.

Based on the Secretary-General’s paper, this Policy Brief aims to shed light on why it is important to adopt a future generations approach in policy design as a way to achieve long-term sustainability and to examine how the UN intends to embrace this approach in practice. 

Future generations are at the heart of sustainable development. The definition of sustainable development, as frequently quoted from the 1987 Brundtland report, is centered on the notion of future generations. It defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (emphasis added). Taking this definition into account, one might question why we are stuck in a short-term mindset when it comes to achieving the SDGs and a sustainable future.

The current dominant political, social, and economic systems favor short-term gains and quick fixes at the expense of longer-term planetary and human wellbeing and prosperity. A paradigm shift is required in how we measure and value what matters to peoples and the planet. To uphold the initial promises of sustainable development, it is crucial to awaken to the fact that future ways of living, interacting, and doing business are non-linear and will look very different from now on. Thus, it is of utmost importance to re-think systems based on intergenerational solidarity.

Responding to questions raised by Member States on balancing responsibility between generations, those living today and those not yet born, the policy brief highlights that the needs of present and future generations are not at odds, arguing that efforts to consider the future will leave all generations better off. It poses the need to think and act with future generations in mind as an imperative to fight inequality as “[p]rivilege and poverty both transmit powerfully across generations.” The brief also cites the elements paper for the declaration for future generations to remind us that the “intergenerational transmission of inequality, including gender inequality, is well documented.”

This is an important recognition of the structural nature of inequality, one which cannot be overcome by individuals, communities, or even countries alone. To fight inequality, we need to apply a long-term perspective, one which uses hindsight to adequately account for the injustices of the past – and foresight to understand how to transform our societies so that they become just and inclusive, now and in the future.

What’s next: Making commitments to future generations actionable

The UN Secretary-General’s policy brief recognizes that we do not lack commitments to take future generations into account, listing the many references to future generations and pointing out that nearly 400 UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions explicitly cite future generations. Some of the most notable commitments are found in the adoption of UN Charter itself, the definition of sustainable development as outlined above, and the 1997 UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations.

What we lack is practical mechanisms and concrete steps. The Secretary-General’s policy brief proposes four steps to be taken at the global level. The first step is the appointment of a special Envoy for Future Generations. The envoy would have an advisory capacity focused on: intergenerational and future impacts of policies and programmes; facilitating collaboration and best practices on the topic of future generations; and better use of foresight methods. The brief recognizes that there are many examples of this approach from Member States. One notable example is the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.

Related to the mandate of the special envoy, and linked to the notion of long-term sustainability, the brief argues that it is necessary to enhance the capacity of the UN system in applying strategic foresight methods. Strategic foresight can help us assess, understand, and adapt policies and practices that will affect generations yet to be born. This will require a significant shift in mindsets towards the long term and moving away from our current short-termism. A combination of forecasting models and foresight practices within institutions and society will help expand our collective thinking and policymaking towards systems that are centered around human values and aligned with the planetary boundaries we live in, ultimately securing the needs of present and future generations.

Third, the brief encourages Member States to adopt a political declaration on the “duties to the future.” This declaration should serve to put existing commitments made to future generations into action by making these concrete, including clearly defining what is meant by future generations.

Finally, and related to the political declaration, the Secretary-General’s policy brief suggests establishing an intergovernmental forum on future generations. This forum would play a key role in making sure commitments in the political declaration do not just add to the extensive list of previous commitments made to future generations but are put into practice. Again, in this regard the brief acknowledges the inspiration from Member States that have been working to implement a future generations perspective into policy. Examples include the Committee for the Future, a standing committee in the Finnish Parliament since 1993.

It is noteworthy that in the Welsh and Finnish examples mentioned above, working for future generations is associated with bringing in a diversity of voices, including civil society, to understand and jointly assess the impact of current activities on future generations. Thus, in addition to supporting long-term thinking, this model can also serve to encourage multi-stakeholder collaboration, with the recognition that we need diverse expertise and diverse representation to adequately consider the effects of our actions on the future. Furthermore, Wales’s Well-being of Future Generations Act aims to improve the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being. This is distinct from the 2030 Agenda, as it specifically includes culture as an additional dimension of sustainability.

The 2024 Summit of the Future and the preparatory processes ahead of it represent a unique opportunity to ensure that we uphold the core principle of sustainable development by ensuring that the decisions we take today are future-proofed and aligned with a long-term sustainability vision. It will be important that global civil society have an equal voice in the process and at the Summit, in particular to (re)introduce alternative ways of thinking about time, the future, and generations, including by drawing on Indigenous knowledge and considering the cultural sustainability of our policies and actions.

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In preparation for the 2023 SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future in 2024, the UN Secretary-General is launching eleven policy briefs between March and July 2023, offering “concrete ideas” on how to advance Our Common Agenda. Timed accordingly, the SDG Knowledge Hub is publishing a series of policy briefs of its own, offering insights on the issue areas covered in these publications.

Özge Aydoğan is Director of the SDG Lab at UN Geneva.

Eleonora Bonaccorsi is Program Officer at IISD and part of the SDG Lab.

Trine Schmidt is Policy Advisor at IISD and part the SDG Lab.