Major Science Document on Transformations, SDGs and 2050


For those who value science and policy as presenting important ingredients to developing transformations, Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is an important reference.  It is the product of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) with over 150 participants (coordinating authors include Johan Rockstrom, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and Jeff Sachs). They explain the document is the beginning of a longer-term activity:

“Today, no science-based pathways exist for successfully achieving all SDGs simultaneously. The global transformations necessary to achieve the SDGs urgently need a robust scientific foundation and fact-based way forward. The World in 2050 is a global multi-year, multi-stakeholder, interdisciplinary research initiative designed to help address these issues.”

Pointing to the SDGs as “necessary but insufficient to lead humanity towards long-term sustainable development”, the report focuses on the world in 2050 (TWI2050).  It advocates the need for transformation in the sense that the Forum uses the word. It points out that “Only with transformational changes will humanity be able to close the sustainable development gaps. But such deep change can be a double-edged sword – changes will imply winners and losers as history tells.” It summarizes the SDGs as encompassing six transformations:

  1. Education and health care.
  2. Responsible consumption and production.
  3. Energy system decarbonization while providing clean and affordable energy for all.
  4. Access to nutritional food and clean water for all while protecting the biosphere and the oceans requires more efficient and sustainable food systems
  5. Transforming cities.
  6. Science, technology and innovations directed to support sustainable development.

Why these six? The authors explain “the six exemplary transformations give a people centered perspective: building  local, national and global societies and economies… Each transformation will require Herculean governance efforts and imply deep societal, cultural, and normative dynamics of change…” The core concept to address each of these transformations is Sustainable Development Pathways (SDPs), which the 154-page report elaborates along with a large focus on analysis of trends in a trend forecasting tradition.

The audaciousness of the authors in the face of the complexities deserves applauding. Forum participants will resonate with the statement: “the real danger for our societies is that a collision between several such non-linear tipping points will generate colossal disruptions, leading to a period of global chaos in all areas of human activity;” and “We have to move from designing for control of system dynamics to designing for change in these dynamics!” The systems and pathways approach is important, as are the strong framing of sustainability as a societal rather than an environmental issue, and the calls for attention to governance, intellectual fusion between disciplines, and learning  much more about human perception, cognition and decision-making. Moreover, there are valuable nuggets, such as the one pointing to nexus such as water-environment-food as potential mega-drivers and the places to look for transformed governance.

Perhaps the report says more about the current state of science, rather than a sufficiently developed roadmap to operationalize. It raises questions about how we further strengthen it. Some thoughts:

  1. Deepen understanding of how transformation happens – Certainly we have insufficient knowledge about the “how” of transformation, but a clearer theory of transformational change requires articulation. We know that there’s a big black box about the relationship between knowledge and change, although traditionally knowledge developers often have acted as though simple knowledge production/recommendations and dissemination are sufficient. The report identifies some important issues (see the Table It’s the Politics, Stupid), but doesn’t say much about how to address them. Such things as change agents, meta-narrative, innovation system logics and measurement are not ancillary, and deserve core attention; rather than talking about changing the logic of the finance system, the report focuses simply on raising and redirecting finance as though this will happen with the current logic. Great to see the attention to governance systems.
  2. Integrate and elaborate social science perspectives into the existing physical science base – While physical science is valuable to describe problems and support technological solutions, transformation is largely a social science issue. The report points to the importance of governance, social and inter/intra-human dynamics, but it focuses almost entirely on the traditional, physical science “out there” issues of new technologies and traditional physical indicators…it doesn’t address the human development challenge except in the tradition of poverty and economic development, rather than focusing on the need for (resilient) learning societies as a societal change process.
  3. Approach transformation from a broader complexity perspective – The solution focus is public policy. This is certainly valuable. Yet, in the face of increasing complexity, it appears that policy – and national policy in particular –is weakening, not strengthening in terms of its change capacity; policy does not usually lead change, but rather enables it after complexity of activities that are not really addressed; policy in most locations is dysfunctional in its development and implementation (the report even labels the U.S. as a “semi-functioning state”). Policy weakness to deliver was seemingly a message from Copenhagen 2009 and its role in change requires much more nuance in the context of an array of actions and stakeholders. Complexity science emphasizes the importance of whole system perspectives, with other actors with their distinct system roles receive much more attention.
  4. Trend extrapolation, whereas the future is discontinuities – The report is based very heavily on extrapolating current trends, whereas transformation has to do fundamental disruption of such trends. Extrapolating trends is useful to focus the mind, but must be done very carefully with transformation; it can simply reinforce the managerial/administrative control mindset recognized as problematic, limit imagination and distract from the basic need for creating resilient, learning societies that can deal with the opportunities and challenges for positive discontinuities.
  5. Simplify for Action – The report’s complexity is numbing – a problem any of us working with such scale and complexity have to deal with, but is a particular problem with science. There needs to be some simple vision (again, the theory of transformational change) that ties together and guides all. Think of the simple guidance of Meadow’s leverage points. Or maybe a simple shift from creating “sustainable” societies, to creating ones with resilience and transformation capacity to respond to opportunities and challenges.

Is the promoted science and policy packages approach itself part of the problem, as well as holding answers? While the authors recognize key blockages (see the Table from the report “It’s politics, stupid”), they have little to say about how to address them. The nagging suspicion is that there are indeed critical missing ingredients. It’s not that the document ignores the metanarrative-mental model-social-spiritual-values-people questions of transformation; it’s that the emphasis on the physical, out-there issues is overwhelming. It’s as though bodybuilders focused on developing one side of their bodies, and then only latently realized they should pay attention to the other. And there are so many societal issues that are core, replete with free riders, abusers, short-termism, self-interests, and adversaries.

A couple of thoughts about why this should arise with such a great group of people:

  1. Simple inertia of relationships and ways of approaching issues, which are very hard to overcome – the report is the product of Northern established global science and network connections and authors (despite a workshop in Africa);
  2. Almost all of the high profile authors are known for their physical science, not social, transitions or transformations science, and there is a lack of engagement with those who are credited with much of the knowledge in those traditions such as with the Sustainable Transitions Research Network – so the question arises why this would be the case when the emphasis is upon sustainability as a societal issue?

This raises the challenge to act with humility, although reputation is driven by being “expert”; to recognize that we are all being part of the problem – recognition that our mental models, relationships and historic ways of acting are limiting us​. We need to do some deep action learning that develops really robust relationships involving the physical science, policy makers, transformations/transitions and social sciences with other stakeholders to develop the powerful transformation pathways the report calls for. The report gets the challenge right when it says:

“…we have to open up, our complete sets of societal norms, practices and values, all levels of our societal institutions, to fundamental change. It is not only a question of our systems of societal and social-environmental governance, but also of our collective and individual ‘truths’, the nature of our social interactions, and (in short) everything we hold dear about our current way of life.”

This blog is written by Steve Waddell, Lead Staff for the SDG Transormations Forum. His last book was Change for the Audacious: A doers’ guide to large systems change

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1 thought on “Major Science Document on Transformations, SDGs and 2050”

  1. I appreciate your ability to telescope the key issues. Thank you. My own experience has me add that the primary emphasis we see here on “understanding” our challenges may be misplaced. Understanding is important, and it is not enough. Marja Liisa Swanz (who coined the term participatory action research) understood that in participatory research we can help people in seeing their own problems. We do not tell them, ‘This is your problem,’ but we work with them in a way that they become active. The document you refer to, however, is written from a mindset of experts who believe that their understanding is enough to provoke others to action. (Said so simply it doesn’t make sense. Who, after all, really listens to experts?! If we did we’d all eat better and sleep more!). Participative action itself is not considered as anything other than an afterthought. So, just how are we to come to action together? We’re a species inside a system that has over-emphasized competition and individualism, reinforced by neo liberal politics. Naturally our system of education is no longer fit for purpose when it reinforces that observation of the external world and conceptualization equals knowledge (much like the expert model that produces all the insights and no action!). My own view – as an action researcher – is that it is time to make space for participation. How? Our internal worlds are key. Our subjective sense of what’s important is not an afterthought, yet it is not even mentioned in traditional education. Then connect purpose to collaborative action. I believe that the human heart knows how to get beyond the urgency of the moment. But we hobble ourselves when we confused education with arid insights of experts, and remain disconnected from the very zest of life – what we truly care about. It’s a stretch for us as a species to take our own hearts seriously! I see hopeful signs in the schools that take experiential learning seriously and its natural ally, teamwork. In the world of action research, we honor experience and collaborate practice. It looks like engaging stakeholders in solving their problems, honoring their ways of knowing. And helping them learn beyond their own biases. (We are all biased!). None of these locals efforts are enough on their own -but connected up, it may become possible to leapfrog. Experts insights can come alive in stakeholder engagement, especially if there is attention to learning. Can we listen enough to our sense of purpose and to one another enough to help? Can we start rapid drawdown of carbon with one another? What if that became an everyday conversation, an everyday decision point for all our actions together – from what we eat to how we listen to one another?

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