On 25 September 2015, the largest gathering of heads of government in history was held at the UN General Assembly in New York. Together, they ratified a 15-year global framework for sustainable development – something of unprecedented scope and ambition. The resulting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now have more than 12,000 signatories – both companies and supporting institutions – worldwide.
The SDGs resolve to end poverty and hunger everywhere, drive inclusive economic growth, advance human rights and gender equality, and protect the planet and its natural resources. In other words, they set out a vision for sustainable development. And, unlike their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, they are not just applicable to emerging economies: instead, they apply to all economies, and all nations.
The sheer ambition of the SDGs will require unprecedented collaboration between the private sector, voluntary organisations and government. The UN estimates implementation will cost a cool $3.5 trillion – which in turn means new forms of partnerships between the private and public sectors. Much of the financial capital that flows through our casino economy will need to be diverted to implementation of the goals, as will the risk-tolerant capital of trusts and foundations, too much of which often goes to address the symptoms of unsustainable development, rather than the causes.
Add to this the new impetus for change unleashed by the first universal, legally binding global climate deal, signed by 195 countries in Paris in December. The level of commitment differs across these nations, but the implication for global industry is clear: we need to work together to be part of the change, and not be left behind by it.
Creating new partnerships and collaborations is easier said than done. At Forum for the Future, after 20 years of working in partnership with both public and private sector organisations, and of establishing new collaborations in sectors as diverse as tea and shipping, we’ve learnt this the hard way. Twenty years ago, NGOs just didn’t work with business. Business was seen on a spectrum from something close to evil, the root of all society’s ills, to an inconsequential actor: government decides how things are done, right?
Creating partnerships in this climate was tough. What we learnt was that building trust is essential, and takes time. And that the fiercest critics were often former friends. But, 20 years on, partnerships between business and NGOs are the norm.
Looking forward, then, to 2030, and to a world where the SDGs are at the heart of all global activity, what will be the new normal for partnerships? My guess is that we will see partnerships and collaborations characterised in four ways:
- Unusual suspects coming together. We’ll see more allegiances such as that between the activist Naomi Klein and Pope Benedict in 2015.
- Decentralised power. The digital revolution is handing power to the masses, and meeting an appetite for innovation (see ‘Citizen innovation’ in this volume). Being established will no longer equate to being powerful. The speed at which society can register its voice, and amplify it through networks, means civil interests will be prominent in new partnerships. (Powerful networks aren’t necessarily benign, though, as the rise of militancy reminds us.)
- Impact investing v2.0. Philanthropy as we know it won’t deliver the SDGs. Simply donating a ton of cash doesn’t fix a problem, but using capital to create self-sustaining enterprises can.
- An ability to work with capital markets, not against them. Fifteen years probably isn’t long enough to redraw the rules of capitalism, which is why we need to co-opt capitalism to deliver sustainable development.
We are already seeing ways in which this last shift might work, ecosystem valuation techniques and social impact bonds being two examples. Powerful and pervasive brands creating citizen pull for sustainable products and services is yet another.
Which is all to say it’s time to think creatively, imaginatively and ambitiously about new partnerships. In turn, this means not just talking to each other. If you’re reading this, then you probably ‘get’ the need for sustainable development. And we are incredibly grateful. However, it’s time to stop preaching to a converted choir, and to take our messages to new audiences, to reach out to parts of our society and economy that may, up until now, have been anything from hostile to indifferent to the sustainability agenda.
That’s what we will be trying to do at Forum for the Future in the next few years. We will engage with new actors necessary to solve complex sustainability challenges; we will work with new organisations capable of shifting the system around them; and we will share compelling stories to inspire others to act. Finally, through our Futures Centre we will be sharing small flashes of tomorrow and questioning their implications, in order to inform foresight-based action today.
This is how we plan on playing our role in delivering the SDGs. The post-COP 21 and post-SDG landscape is one where the new systems we envision for the future stand a solid chance of becoming reality. What will you do to accelerate the pace of change?
Art by Gisele F