Bringing About the Desired Future: The Value of SDGs
Many people feel that we live in very uncertain times. The world is changing too quickly. We hear about the threats of automatization and artificial intelligence that might replace even the jobs of radiologists and bankers. We witness the rise of extremism and populism. And we see people on the move – escaping poverty and droughts due to climate change, violent conflicts, or just seeking better job opportunities abroad.
The exponential future
What is the role of international organizations and global community, and the new set of global targets called Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030? There are some economists like Esther Duflo, William Easterly and Angus Deaton who view these goals with suspicion, as overambitious and unrealistic. There are other thinkers, like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamantis, who see the future of exponentially improving technologies that might bring about the era of abundance.
When they talk about the abundance they mention the metaphor of digital photography that changed the paradigm as we take photos. Before we were very careful to take a good picture, because developing the film was quite expensive and every additional photo cost money. Digital photography changed this calculation completely and now the marginal cost of taking additional photo dropped to practically zero. They use this metaphor to inspire imagination – what other technologies could revolutionize the domain from the scarcity model to abundance?
People are generally not well equipped to predict exponential growth. We experienced for millennia only the linear growth – more people meant larger fields of crops and more resources that needed to sustain their livelihoods. With the cost of solar energy dropping exponentially we might see in the near future the abundance of energy and countries near the equator might suddenly have manufacturing advantage.
Some people might be too optimistic about the future, others might be overly pessimistic. But SDGs are a great way how a global community sets a clear picture of what we want to achieve in 2030 in terms of eliminating global extreme poverty, hunger and illiteracy. These 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their related targets and indicators help us to set a fixed point in the future, a vision that we coordinate around and bootstrap towards as we make intentional efforts to achieve this desired future. Companies are a vital part of this effort and the next part explains what tools they can choose to select the particular SDGs that are a good fit to their business and represent important, solvable and neglected problems.
SDGs are the first universal set of global goals for every country, rich or poor
The very novel feature of SDGs is that they represent the first set of universal development goals. It means these are the first goals that are valid for economically richer and poorer countries alike. SDGs are a successor to Millennium Development Goals that operated under the logic that richer countries help poorer countries. Under SDGs each country needs to improve to attain them. In order to select specific priorities, representatives of a particular country or a company can look at various indexes, such as Social Progress Index, Good Country Index or SDG Index.
SDG Index, published by Bertlesmann Foundation, has a scorecard for each country where each of the 17 SDGs and each of the related indicators is coded according to the traffic lights logic: red, orange and green. Red means that the country falls behind in this indicator, orange means that still some progress is needed and green means the country is on track.
For example, Slovakia falls behind in prevalence of obesity, youth unemployment, R&D spending, low numbers of researchers and scientists, and low number of patents. Slovakia also generates too much e-waste, carbon emissions and we import too much emissions due to high levels of intensive manufacturing. Slovakia falls behind also in government efficiency, low levels of official development aid and low financial transparency.
How can a company approach SDGs? The ideas for Massive Transformative Purpose
Company of any size can find inspiration in SDGs and search various targets and indicators to select one “massive transformative purpose” (MTP), that could drive the ambition and mission of the company to change the world. The need for MTP is outlined by Salim Ismail and Yuri van Geest from Singularity University in their book called Exponential Organizations. Apart from traffic light metaphors and tools like SDG Index what other tools can a company use to select the right SDG and related target(s)? One way would be to try to estimate cost effectiveness by looking for SDGs targets’ rankings produced by Copenhaagen Consensus Center (CCC). These rankings could serve as a useful guide, but one needs to be careful not to over-interpret the findings and see the limits of cost-benefit calculations.
For example, providing contraceptives might indicate a high cost benefit, but might be controversial for some audiences or might not be a good “personal fit” for the company and company culture. Another example, a target of “Reducing child malnutrition” produces, according to CCC, 63 dollars for each dollar of investment. Increasing migration is seen by CCC as also very cost effective, but might be out or reach for a company and also might be seen as politically sensitive. But a company might commit to use specific social sourcing providers of digital work or give opportunities to specific communities in developing countries, or to displaced people, to work on specific tasks and projects from distant places.
Prioritize problems that are important, solvable and neglected
Peter Thiel in his book called From Zero To One explains how technology differs from globalization. Technology is helping in the vertical “zero to one” competition. “One” is here a metaphor for the monopolistic power. Globalization, on the other hand, is a horizontal competition – zero to n (many), and applies for example to restaurants. Technology allows for vertical improvements – a jump to radically better results due to some brand-new technology. On the other hand, globalization is seen as a horizontal competition and mimetic behavior – consumers in developing countries get richer thanks to manufacturing opportunities from the offshoring and get inspired by citizens of Western countries to demand bigger and better cars. This creates new opportunities for western automotive companies that profit from cheaper labor abroad, and also from a stronger demand for their products in developing countries. But it can create a second order effects – for example an increase of price of natural resources due to higher demand from China that is felt also by the western consumers. Or it can create new risks, like infringement of technology patents.
So companies that want to make a great contribution to SDGs shall have bold goals and prioritize radically better technology. But what problems to focus on? Before we mentioned SDG Index and also cost-benefit analysis by CCC. But a company can decide to chart their own path and start from the very beginning – with considering three aspects – what global problem is currently the most important, solvable and neglected. And which is closest to a personal fit of the company? This is also called the Important-Tractable-Neglected Framework (or ITN Framework).
Come up with ideas and rate each from one to ten. Imagine that one is the least important and the difference between one and ten is like a difference of size between a grain of sand and a meteorite. So for example if you rate a problem 3 and another problem 4, the difference between them is tenfold. This is how the Richter magnitude scale measures Earthquakes.
Take the fact that traffic accidents kill around 1.2 million people annually. This is three times as many people die due to wars and violence. Improvements in autonomous driving and software that can assist drivers to avoid accidents can have a great positive impact. But there might be many other undiscovered low-hanging fruit opportunities like that. Some problems require radical improvements in technology. Some might require fresh perspectives and a paradigm shift. Maybe a one from ownership to renting, or from scarcity to abundance. Or from paid services to freemiums. Some might create innovative partnerships and communities that co-create new products and services with the companies.
SDGs might be seen by critics as overambitious and unrealistic. There are also communities optimistic about the exponential technologies that might bring the era of abundance. But most probably we need efficient coordination, hard work and fresh thinking to keep on track to achieve all of the SDGs by 2030. The biggest issue is to set a fixed near future goal for e.g. 2020 and 2025. If this goal is highly important, solvable and neglected, the chances are higher that companies will achieve high positive impact in these goals.
Author: Jakub Šimek / Pontis Foundation