In September 2015, 193 countries agreed on a new development agenda, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its core. The Agenda, now in its third year of implementation, strives for a world that is just, equitable and inclusive, committing stakeholders to work together to promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development and environmental protection.

However, as of today, more than 760 million people continue to be undernourished and live on less than 1.90 USD a day; gender inequality remains deeply entrenched, and women and girls still face violence in all societies. Further attention also needs to be paid to migration, climate change and sustainable consumption and production, and it is essential to make quick progress towards sustainable energy systems.

So how valuable is the global roadmap, and can it foster the transformative change it aspires for a better world for people and planet? My answer is very firm. The global roadmap is incredibly important, and provided it is interpreted and implemented in a meaningful way, it will have enormous potential to facilitate transformative change towards the world we want.

But what does implementing in a meaningful way really mean, and how is science an indispensable part of this?

Sustainable Development Goals and the 5 P’s

By endorsing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world community reaffirmed its commitment to the three pillars of sustainable development, economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection, fostering peaceful societies through a new global partnership.

The 2030 Agenda is based on a principle of universality. This means that every country should contribute to achieving the larger vision of sustainable development. It encourages all of us to take bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. And it implies that all relevant actors must go beyond a business-as-usual approach to achieve this change.

The Agenda is a transformative, rights-based and concrete call to action. The Outcome Document of the 2030 Agenda, which is called “Transforming our World” touches on five dimensions - people, prosperity, planet, partnership and peace, also known as the 5P’s, as the essence of sustainable development. Genuine sustainability sits at the core of these five dimensions.

But what does this mean?

Dimensions of the New Agenda

It is fundamental to realize that the 2030 Agenda is about more than the 17 Goals alone.

Policy interventions and solutions that touch on one dimension inevitably affect other dimensions. For instance, a policy aimed at cutting carbon emissions within a city by encouraging the use of public transportation concerns more than just environmental issues. It also touches upon matters such as class divides, and public perception of safety, among others.

The idea of sustainable development means that for an intervention to be sustainable, it must take into account the social, economic, and environmental consequences it generates, and lead to conscious choices in terms of the trade-offs, synergies, and spin-offs it creates. In other words, action is to be guided by proper public policy with long-term gains in view, while protecting the worlds’ planetary boundaries. It requires us to reflect on both political and technical dimensions of choices, as there simply is no technical solution without an associated political solution; and the resolution of political problems will always require technical support and implementation.

Many believe this to be straightforward, but unfortunately current practice, particularly in the development domain, isn’t showing that in abundance. An enormous amount of human and financial resources is currently devoted to implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through relatively basic technical approaches to the SDGs, its targets and indicators, while ignoring the broader political economy, and the truly transformative notion of sustainable development itself.

The SDGs on their own do not represent the Agenda in its entirety.

They are not a summary of the Agenda, but rather focus areas necessary to achieve sustainable development. The SDGs are a network of interdependent, indivisible, mutually reinforcing targets, and they do constitute the DNA of the sustainable development agenda, but SDGs approached outside their broader context of sustainable development do not add up to the transformation that is asked for. Sustainable development is not merely about following a recipe with 17 ingredients, but is demanding a real paradigm shift.

The Rubik’s Cube

We have to change this one-dimensional approach, so let us now look at it from a “Rubik’s cube perspective.” What would happen if one handed out 17 Rubik’s Cubes in a classroom?

Chances are that several students could solve one side, or maybe two, but the likelihood that there will be a completed version is actually relatively small. This is exactly the situation we are facing in addressing sustainable development through all its dimensions. There is an incredible amount of knowledge available, but somehow we are still not consistently bringing it together. We cannot solve problems by focusing on one side or one dimension alone as action on one side immediately leads to a reaction on other sides. It means that we need to break out of our silos to work together, and particularly with those with whom we may not necessarily be familiar with.

In solving the Rubik’s cube, sometimes we even have to undo what we have already solved to get to the ultimate solution.

Innovation, trust, co-creation and collaboration are of paramount importance and things may even look or feel worse before getting better. But if we are to move forward in the true context of sustainable development we must be more open to think and act differently to reach our goal. It is by pursuing our economic, social and environmental goals separately that has resulted in repeated trade-offs between goals. Instead sustainable development is about addressing progress across all dimensions of the 2030 Agenda, while acting in concert with all segments of society. This is not to say that combining approaches is per se better than focusing on particular dimensions of a development challenge. What it means is that as we focus on a challenge we need to ensure that we think it through in terms of its environmental, social and economic dimensions as well as think about its governance structure and institutional set-up to ensure it can be long-lasting. We also need to identify who needs to be at the table in order to benefit from the means of capacities and knowledge required, while building trust and fostering synergies in order to address the issue under scrutiny successfully.

Moreover, the Agenda isn’t meant as a rigid prescription for technical assistance, but rather as a means to facilitate genuine guidance for priority setting. It inspires us to think creatively by leveraging innovative approaches and critically rethinking the way we approach the development challenges of today.

So can this be done in reality?

The Case of Eschweiler

We, at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre, use the case of the City of Eschweiler, a city heavily impacted by Germany’s decision to completely restructure the country’s energy sector through the so-called “Energiewende” (energy transition), as an illustrative case in our trainings for senior management. We believe it highlights some of the complexities in process and progress to achieve transformative change. The case demonstrates the interrelatedness of the different sides of the Rubik’s cube, and studying the case may help us further in determining which questions to ask, and what answers to seek to guide a transformative transition.

So what is the example all about?

The City of Eschweiler is a city of 58,000 inhabitants in the westernmost part of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia. Eschweiler and its surrounding region are rich in resources, particularly coal, limestone and ores; resultantly, mining has been the region’s economic foundation for centuries.

At present, the open cast lignite coal mine and the coal power plant contribute significantly to the city’s present-day economy. The open-pit mining site called Inden extends up to 1681 hectares, and is permitted to expand up to 4500 hectares. The lignite extracted in Inden is exclusively used for power production in the city’s Weisweiler coal power plant. Yearly, 19 tons of lignite are extracted in Inden, and according to estimates there are 320 million tons of coal still to be found in the mining site of Inden. Mining will end in 2030.

Along with the region, the city has developed a master plan to transform the surrounding area of Inden up to 2050. The plan aims at replacing fossil fuel with renewable energies and attracting new economic opportunities and innovation, as well as making the region more attractive from a touristic perspective. At the same time, the city and region aim to remain true to their character as a worker’s city in the Rhineland with its particular traditions.

The master plan was developed through various multi-stakeholder consultations. The stakeholders, being the city, civil society, academia, trade unions, nature conservationists, the mining company etc. determined an overall vision statement and development outcomes to harness the potential, leverage strengths and address weaknesses. Its aim is to bind the population to the Indeland by influencing the structural change foresighted and ensuring that the region remains attractive from a social, economic as well as environmental perspective. The plan identifies the development of the region’s touristic and research potential as part of the avenues to act as a model for resource-efficient economies and environmentally friendly infrastructure.

So let’s look at the complexities of transformational change with the 5 P’s and the Rubik’s cube in mind, taking in consideration the trade-offs and synergies.

Eschweiler through the lens of the five P's

The mining pit of Inden has shifted over the years, and the reclamation and restoration efforts have transformed the landscape of the city to a great extent. The damage caused to the environment in terms of loss of biodiversity, contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes cannot be ignored.

After the excavation at a site finishes, the company makes reclamation efforts to restore the ecological integrity of the disturbed mine land areas. However, this process takes many years before becoming home to different species of flora and fauna. Even after the mining pit is refilled with soil, residents have to wait several years before the soil is compact enough for agriculture or construction to resume.

Once all the coal is extracted, depending on the type of envisaged usage, different cultivation methods are applied: first, clay, sand and gravel are used to fill the former extraction site; for reforestation, a special layer of loose soil is then laid down.

This, however, does not yet suffice for agricultural activity. In a second step, farmers employed by the mining company will grow pioneer plants to root the soil and enrich it. Later, cereals and other crops are grown. After this preparatory phase of at least seven years, the new farmland is given to farmers, who previously had provided some of their terrain for mining activities.

Thinking of our Rubik’s cube, it isn’t hard to see the environment- economic growth nexus here.

Another consequence of the extension of the mining pit is that several villages have been abandoned and their population has been resettled. Today the population of the city is a mix of newly arrived refugees, original residents, and residents who had to relocate over the years because of the mine. Even though the power company compensates the inhabitants, the resettled families cannot escape the social and emotional consequences of resettlement.

With the anticipated closure of the mine, current mine workers and the refugees face uncertainties around their future and therefore, the city is making constant efforts to integrate the population and to ensure social cohesion.  The city of Eschweiler has attempted to improve its integration process by providing adequate housing opportunities as well as opening a community centre which is used by the residents to socialize and organize community gatherings. In order to help the younger population, efforts are made to meet their educational and language requirements so that they are qualified for professions in the region. Efforts for social cohesion are also evident in the residential complexes that have been created for the refugees who have arrived in the city. Vocational clubs and playgrounds have been created to keep citizens across all age groups engaged and active. The city is also strengthening collaboration with neighboring universities and research institutes to model itself as a resource efficient economy by investing in environmentally friendly infrastructure and by building a society that is forward-looking and efficient at the same time.

In other words, and please continue to keep the Rubik’s cube in mind, the transition requires the City, at the same time that it is reflecting upon several environmental-economic questions, to reflect on numerous socio-economic impacts of possible choices made.

Genuine progress requires a multi-dimensional mindset.

But that’s not all, as the city prepares for the time when the mining pits are re-filled or no longer actively used, it is implementing innovative ideas to boost its economy and to generate employment opportunities. On the one hand, it is attracting industries and research institutions in the area of renewable energy and on the other, it aims to become a popular tourist and recreation destination of the region.

‘Blausteinsee,’ an artificial lake, has already been created from a part of the mine pit with the intention of drawing tourists and locals to use it for leisure activities. The original plan was to use a major part of the land from this enormous pit for agriculture. But after realizing that the land would be too degraded for agriculture to be economically viable, creating a 100-hectare lake seemed to be a better option.

The Blausteinsee is a pilot to create a much bigger lake in the eastern part of the Inden open mining pit. This lake will be labelled ‘Indesee’. The expected time to complete the project is 25 years after the end of mining activities in 2030. From a layman’s perspective, while the approximate size of the Blausteinsee is about as big as ten football fields, the new Indensee is estimated to be more than ten times bigger - or three times the size of Central Park in New York.

The lake is expected to create investment incentives along with employment opportunities. Villages around the future lake will develop lakeside housing, restaurants as well as sports and leisure activities. Stakeholders envisage that the lake will improve the landscape of the area, provide new economic opportunities and boost the quality of life.

In essence, Eschweiler looks at the ultimate outcome of the transition as the completion of their Rubik’s cube.

Eschweiler isn’t approaching sustainable development as a linear process of implementing SDGs, but rather took the different dimensions of sustainable development to heart as it was felt to facilitate a better long-term solution towards transformative change. Using the Rubik’s cube analogy also changes the sustainable development narrative from one focused on “money changing hands” to one focused on “ideas changing minds.”

Finally, and let me then close on the example of Eschweiler, let us not lose sight of how all of this started. The energy transition in Eschweiler needs to be seen in the context of the “Energiewende,” which refers to a decision to completely restructure the country’s energy sector faster than most industrialized countries. As a part of this plan for restructuration, nuclear power and fossil fuels will be phased out step by step, and will allow renewable energies to take over. Moving forward in its transition from non-renewable to renewable sources of energy, Eschweiler also welcomed solar and wind energy. The Indeland Wind Farm was inaugurated in 2017, and the city’s collaboration with Rurenergie, a private sector energy company has also resulted in the creation of the Solar Park Inden.

In summary, Eschweiler provides an interesting example of a city, exploring its sustainable development policy space in partnership with stakeholders and institutions at all levels, aiming to reach vertical and horizontal policy coherence through the political compromises it negotiates. To borrow some of the words found in Scotland’s Climate Change Plan of February 2018; Its’ focus has been one of “maximizing opportunities and minimizing disruption while leaving no one behind”.

So where does science, and particular science with a soul come into play?

Science with a Soul

Through our work at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development with a diverse group of stakeholders such as Governments, the private sector as well as the UN itself, we have learnt a few interesting lessons that bring us very close to an express need for what Tilburg University’s Impact Program has coined “Science with a Soul.”  We fully subscribe to the notion that advancing society requires specialist social and technological knowledge and an innovative mindset, collective commitment and co-creation by all stakeholders.

For people to fully support the idea of sustainable development they need to be convinced and genuinely believe in and understand the need for change. This can only be done once arguments are fully backed up by science and grounded in evidence, and when people are allowed to arrive at their own conclusions on what changes need to happen. Over and above that, we must make sure that we also have the right tools to make the change.

Science can help to identify what the sustainability challenges are in different contexts, what are the root causes and how they relate to other challenges. It can help ensure coherence in implementing the SDGs, and universities can also offer a neutral forum for cross-sector dialogue. But science also has a key role in, for instance, the provision of data and models, as well as in the process of tracking progress. It can reflect on matters of scalability and foster innovation, as we simply do not yet have all the solutions we need to make this agenda a reality.

All of our wonderful efforts risk being in vain if people do not genuinely believe in the need for change. In fact, unless we are in it for real, we are unlikely to witness the transformative change that we all hope for. We must put dignity, prosperity and peace on a healthy planet at the centre of advancing society as well as recognize that while Governments must take the lead, they alone cannot deliver on the ambitious vision of the 2030 Agenda. Finally, we must not forget to team up with partners in the Global South in our efforts to facilitate our communities to think and act differently.

The Agenda isn’t a rigid technical prescription, but rather it is a call to action to rethink the right questions and to create innovative, holistic solutions for the development challenges of both today and tomorrow.

This blog is based on Patrick van Weerelt’s key note “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” at the Impact Conference Tilburg University 2018 “Advancing Society: Science with a Soul,” which took place on 14 June 2018.

A full overview of the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development courses for 2018 is available here.

The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.