What If We Really Meant It? Transformative approaches for the SDGs


By Mille Bojer, Director (Geneva) – Reos Partners

“The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a disruptive agenda, whether or not you use that word. This isn’t business-as-usual and status quo. To the extent that it is, it’s a fiction. Let’s not discover in 2030 that we didn’t mean it.”   

These words stayed with me as I walked out of the Wilson Palace recently, having just conducted one of a series of dialogue interviews as part of a strategy project with the SDG Lab in Geneva, Switzerland. The SDG Lab is a multi-stakeholder initiative that contributes to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by providing Geneva-based actors with a platform to innovate and experiment. It creates space for interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral collaboration while testing assumptions and asking questions about what is needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

It has been eye-opening to delve into the substance of the SDGs. If you think, as I did at first, that the SDGs are just another set of international policy goals, it’s worth thinking again. And if you are, as I was, focused on the 17 colorful boxes, each reflecting a different theme, I can tell you that’s not where the juice is. It’s at the deeper level, in the mindset behind the SDGs, and at the practical level, in the specific targets and their interrelationships. It’s when looking at these two other levels that the urgency of transformative approaches, such as those advocated by the SDG Transformations Forum, becomes clear.

The Mental Model of the SDGs

The mental model underlying the SDGs is different from that of their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and from the mindset by which most development institutions are wired.

First, while the MDG mindset focused on the “problems” of “developing countries” and how the “developed world” could “help,” the SDGs are a set of global challenges that are common to us all and are present everywhere to varying degrees. This is the Universality principle. It finally breaks with North-South thinking, which was outdated a long time ago but which is still very pervasive. The good news is that when we see how we are part of the problem, we open up new ways in which to be part of the solution, too.

Second, if you read through the 17 goals and their associated targets, you will notice the two most common words are “for all.” The two words “for all” reflect the “leave no one behind” principle – a break from the technocratic mindset that progress that leaves a certain percentage of people behind is acceptable.  These goals haven’t been set according to what is realistic, given current trends; they have been set to be so ambitious as to require transformation.

Third, the idea with the SDGs is that they are indivisible. They all depend on each other, which demands a systemic and holistic approach. We each experience this integration as community members in our daily lives. It is as professionals that we split things into boxes. Many of the world’s best academics and consultants are now busy developing complex systems maps linking the SDGs and their targets. We need to be careful not to get stuck in our heads with this analysis. But there’s also something refreshing about this recognition of complexity, something exciting about the possibility of drawing uncommon connections, and something liberating about the permission and stimulus this process is giving for multi-stakeholder collaboration. It’s not about everyone working on everything, but about everyone working in an interconnected way.

Finally, in relation to accountability, the SDGs represent an opportunity for a new social contract, where the focus is not on accountability from “South” to “North,” nor from “recipients” to “donors.” Rather, the focus is on accountability from leaders to their people, and from people to each other.  This implies a shift in power structures. It is also an invitation for all of society to engage and share responsibility for reaching the goals, each with our contribution.

The SDG mindset deserves contemplation, slowing down, digestion, dialogue, and of course conscious practice. Many individuals working in the realm of the SDGs are buying into the ideas but get stuck in habits, comfort zones, or structures that aren’t designed along these principles. As one of our SDG Lab interviewees expressed, “The ‘it’ is not the SDGs – it’s the way of thinking, working, and leading implied by the agenda, and it’s not a small shift. It’s a fear-inducing, uncomfortable thing to make this shift, even for young people.” 

The good news is that there are processes that can help put this shift in practice.

Transformative Approaches for the SDGs

Steve Waddell, author of Change for the Audacious, distinguishes between incremental and transformative approaches to change.  Incremental approaches aim to improve performance and replicate best practices within existing rules, mindsets, narratives, and power structures. Transformative approaches aim to make the previously impossible possible through visioning, imagination, experimentation, and dynamic engagement of diverse stakeholders, causing shifts in rules, mindsets, narratives, and power structures.

The 169 SDG targets associated with the 17 goals together provide us with a map of change issues.  How do we know where transformative approaches are most needed?  To find some of these areas, we decided to look at the targets through the lens of four characteristics:

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has developed a useful framework that assesses whether targets are in need of “reform,” “revolution,” or complete “reversal.” The targets in need of reform are those where current trends will get us more than halfway there. Those in need of revolution are ones where some movement in the right direction is taking place, but it’s far too slow. Those in need of reversal are moving in the entirely opposite direction (examples are waste, inequality, and marine protection). Here, incremental change will never be enough.


This characteristic refers to targets that are highly multi-causal, dependent on and interlinked with many other goals, where a systemic or nexus approach is needed, and where broad coalitions of actors from different disciplines and spheres of influence could make a significant difference. Examples include violence against women and non-communicable diseases.


Leverage refers to targets where even limited progress can have a highly synergistic impact on many other targets. An example of a target with high leverage is Target 9.C., “Internet Access.”  Internet Access itself is moving forward rapidly, but to what extent are stakeholders working on the other goals and targets sufficiently aware of how this target impacts their work in so many dimensions, with both potential negative and positive consequences?


Where a trade-off exists, it’s possible that progress on one target/goal could undermine progress on another. Win-win solutions are achievable, but only if work on the targets is systemic and creative. This means that the work requires multi-stakeholder dialogue across divergent interests and logics. The environment-economy dilemma is full of such trade-offs.

The Need for Transformation

The four characteristics of the SDG targets listed above show the need for engaging diverse stakeholders in processes of collective re-imagination and experimentation. Our intention in working with these characteristics is not about creating a hierarchy or quantifiable index of targets, or about coming to consensus about which target is more important than the others.

Rather, it is about building our perception and applying a fresh lens to the targets in order to understand where and why the need is greatest for transformative approaches.

The 2030 Agenda is entitled “Transforming our World.”  What if we really meant it?

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2 thoughts on “What If We Really Meant It? Transformative approaches for the SDGs”

  1. Thank you for clearly stating the transformative nature of SDGs which I believe not have gotten enough attention to generate accesses to let us invent our own actions given by the nature of Transformation that’s SDGs is.

  2. “[The real juice is] lies in the mindset behind the SDGs, and at the practical level, in the specific targets and their interrelationships.” – Thank you Mille!

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