ERGAPOLIS: What is sustainable development?

This article was published on FCC Singapore's website on April 2020.

The basics of sustainable development

The Earth is a closed ecosystem that needs time to regenerate itself, as demonstrated by economists Kenneth Boulding in “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” in 1966 and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process” in 1971.

Population growth coupled with our consumption-based lifestyles, especially in Western countries, puts pressure on natural resources to feed, clothe, house, entertain, move, stay connected, etc. Energy and water needs are increasing tenfold, while natural resources and biodiversity are decreasing drastically.

In less than 100 years, when our planet is 4.5 billion years old, humanity has created a vicious circle. Our lifestyles and production methods increase pollution, the climate warms up, and there are hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

We want more and more, individually and collectively. Companies must be ever more competitive to the detriment of the quality of their products, their means of production or their relationship with their stakeholders. Consumers must consume more and more in favour of abundance and in favour of waste. Countries must be increasingly influential, securing more resources, especially water and oil.

This reality is no longer sustainable, especially in view of developing countries that legitimately aspire to the same living conditions. It implies that we need to think about a new development model.


What are the three components of sustainable development? 

In 1987 the UN Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway published a report, “Our Common Future”.

This report defines a new development model called Sustainable Development:  Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. While this definition will be the subject of much controversy over the meaning of the words, two new concepts are emerging. The notion of needs: What is a need? Is it the same for an inhabitant of a country in the north or a country in the south? And, the notion of limitations imposed on the environment’s ability to meet those needs, now and in the future.

Three principles result: a principle of intergenerational social equity, a principle of interdependence between the economic, social and environmental spheres, and a principle of uncertainty about the effects of action.

This definition will result in the reconciliation of environmental, social and economic issues as shown in the diagram below:

Since 1987, this new paradigm has been struggling to find its practical place in our societies. The main difficulty is how to approach it, knowing that everyone had a different perception and interpretation of it.

In 2009, the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, otherwise known as the Stiglitz Commission, pointed out the inadequacy of GDP to account for wealth and measure the value produced in our societies.

Focusing on production and consumption, GDP does not take into account social and environmental issues, the notion of vital global public goods, and conceals the negative effects of productivity. Studies have thus highlighted the need for an alternative or complementary approach, which can take into account the sustainability of actions and the improvement in the quality of life. Several indicators have been developed: the Human Development Index (HDI), created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); the Better Living indicators proposed by the OECD. However, they do not yet seem to have found their full legitimacy and have not succeeded in replacing GDP.

Many international summits have been held to try to make progress on all these issues. In 2015 during the Paris Climate Conference, a balanced agreement was reached between 195 countries around the world plus the European Union, to limit global warming to +2°C from 1850 to 2100. This Paris Climate Agreement is historic and remains the cornerstone of global efforts to effectively combat climate change and cannot be renegotiated.

A roadmap comprising 17 sustainable development objectives has been defined.

Countries have to implement these objectives and promote their implementation at all levels: governments, civil society, scientific and academic communities and the private sector.


What are the 17 sustainable development goals?

Sustainable development goals are a call to action for all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognise that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that enhance economic growth and address a range of social needs, including education, health, social protection and employment opportunities while combating climate change and protecting the environment. The 17 objectives are interlinked and integrate the whole population without exclusion.

They are broken down into 169 targets (“sub-objectives”) and supported by a list of 244 statistical or qualitative indicators to monitor progress worldwide.

They are all to be achieved, including their targets for 2030.

The 17 sustainable development goals (SDG) adopted by the United Nations are:

  1.   No poverty
  2.   Zero hunger
  3.   Good health and well-being
  4.   Quality education
  5.   Gender equality
  6.   Clean water and sanitation
  7.   Affordable and clean energy
  8.   Decent work and economic growth
  9.   Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  10.   Reduced inequality
  11.   Sustainable cities and communities
  12.   Responsible consumption and production
  13.   Climate action
  14.   Life below water
  15.   Life on land
  16.   Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17.   Partnerships to achieve the goal

At the international conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July 2015, the total cost for development was estimated at $2.5 trillion over 15 years.

 Why SDG17 is important (Partnerships to achieve the goal)

The government, civil society, the scientific and academic community and the private sector must join forces to achieve sustainable development goals.

Goal 17 of sustainable development, which reads as follows: “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development”, recognises that multi-stakeholder partnerships are important vehicles for mobilizing and sharing knowledge, expertise, technologies and financial resources to support the achievement of sustainable development goals in all countries, in particular, developing countries. Goal 17 further aims to encourage and promote effective partnerships between the public sector, the private sector and civil society, building on the experience and financing strategies of partnerships.

Urgent action is needed to mobilize, redirect and unlock the trillions of dollars of private resources to achieve sustainable development goals. Long-term investments are needed, such as foreign direct investment in key sectors, particularly in developing countries. These sectors include sustainable energy, infrastructure and transportation, and information and communications technology.

This objective comprises 5 pillars: Finance, technology, training/capacity building, trade and systemic issues such as policy coherence and institutional structures, multi-stakeholder partnerships, data, monitoring and accountability.


Will we make a collective impact?

The collective impact underlines that, in facing the complexity of the problems, no single structure, however powerful, will be able to provide a more relevant response than a bringing together of actors, pooling their resources and skills.

There are five conditions for the success of collective impact:

  • Sharing the same vision of the problems, strategy and objectives
  • Setting up a shared evaluation system to measure the achievement of objectives
  • Developing activities that are mutually supportive
  • Having relevant communication
  • Having a support and coordination structure

Despite strong trends towards the development of new ways of doing things together, its success requires a rigorous, methodological framework and the change of mindset to converge efforts towards shared objectives and the deployment of professionals able to carry out a mediation assignment. The collective impact is a relevant approach to be developed in order to place our actions within a collective framework.


Examples of public and private partnerships, the backbone of the sustainable development objectives

Various organisations and institutions have experience and expertise in certain niche areas such as public health, city building and territorial organisation, education, deforestation, waste management, etc. However, all problems have multiple components. Working together with partners from different backgrounds allows for a more global approach to the problem.

The private sector has a good understanding of consumers which, combined with strong marketing skills, enables it to find innovative solutions.

NGOs have in-depth knowledge of the reality on the ground and of standards. They are well experimented in working with governments through their extensive networks. They can also have a great deal of influence on policy.

Using these assets, public-private partnerships can combine different perspectives and skills to produce the positive impact of sustainable development.

Programmes can be better aligned with consumers, adapted to the local level and generate a much greater effect. With careful planning, they bring together the best skills in each sector, from policymakers to experts, preparing the way for truly effective interventions.


What are the challenges to achieving a successful public-private partnership?

To ensure that you are pursuing the same objective as your partners and to recognise the different expertise that each brings to the project. It is essential to agree, at an early stage, on the criteria, language, expected results, contingencies and measures, and to allow time for concerted decision-making. But it is also very important to have a clear understanding of the partners and their secondary objectives.

From the outset of collaboration, there must be frequent and effective communication to avoid confusion and to address potential problems. Ideally, there should be good communication with funders so that the approach can be adjusted as the project evolves.

At Ergapolis, we care about keeping our planet healthy. If you have any questions regarding what is sustainable development or how to achieve sustainable development goals, do get in touch.

You can also visit our website to learn more about what we do.

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