During the heat of the last week of August, the United Nations Summer Academy took place for the fourth time in Bonn. Organised by the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC), the Academy offered five intense days of learning and knowledge-building around the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year’s theme, ‘The 2030 Agenda: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead’, focused specifically on reviewing progress made so far in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, discussing opportunities to accelerate it, as well as proposing ways to tackle persisting challenges. Particularly timely and relevant in the context of the first high-level SDG Summit at the UN Headquarters in September, the discussions not only contributed to a deeper understanding of issues and questions around the agenda but also proposed concrete action points and pathways to achieve sustainable transformations.

Set in a historic castle on the side of the river Rhine, the ‘Haus Carstanjen’, the UN Summer Academy gathered a multitude of different actors from the realm of sustainable development. Drawing on the diverse experience of representatives of international organisations, different national and regional governments, civil society organisations, research institutes, as well as private companies, the Academy served as a platform for different stakeholders to meet and exchange and opened up a space to discuss issues from multiple perspectives.

The recurrent theme was the joint search for pathways and strategic entry points to realise the necessary structural transformations that involve all stakeholders and achieve synergies between the SDGs. Different speakers throughout the week accentuated the need to discard the often enduring ‘silo-thinking’, and to embrace instead integrated and holistic approaches towards the SDGs.

Opening the Summer Academy with a keynote address, Ibrahim Thiaw, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), discussed the topic of sustainable land management and its interconnections with all SDGs. While he drew attention to the fact that most developmental decisions are taken without full considerations of the demands of the land and land transformations are accelerating, contributing to an ever-increasing land imbalance, he did offer some cautious hope for the future: “There is still time to turn land into part of the solution. We can use land to integrate and accelerate the achievement of the SDGs – the key is to keep land in balance.” Ibrahim Thiaw thus joined the choir of proponents of a more comprehensive approach towards the SDGs, with sustainable land management taking centre stage.

In this vein, another keynote speaker, Moira Faul, Deputy Director of the Public-Private Partnership Center at the Geneva School of Economics and Management, addressed the complex, at times tense relationship between policy coherence on the one hand and policy space on the other hand. Posing the questions of “How do we have policy coherence while also respecting countries policy space at the same time”, she underlined that it is critical to preserve individual countries’ policy space while ensuring coherence across boundaries and generations. To attain this balance, partnerships are a crucial component. However, instead of blindly embracing any partnership, Moira Faul urged the audience to unpack and critically assess each partnership, mutual expectations on the partnership and power relations within it. Genuine partnerships are not to be confused with transactional relationships, where one partner delivers what the other requires.  In fact various speakers underlined the importance of the UN definition of partnerships, which defines partnerships as “voluntary and collaborative relationships between various parties, both public and non-public, in which all participants agree to work together to achieve a common purpose or undertake a specific task and, as mutually agreed, to share risks and responsibilities, resources and benefits” (A/RES/70/224, para. 2).

After a week of engaging discussions, different strands were drawn together during Friday’s panel discussion on how to catalyse resources for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. Speakers from the private sector highlighted the important role private finance could play and how important it is to leverage the innovative capacity of the private sector.  Massamba Thioye, Manager of the Sustainable Development Mechanism Program at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), discussed the incentive mechanisms that can enable companies, as well as individual citizens to play their part towards realising the SDGs. In this context, Mr. Thioye stressed that new technologies should be implemented in such a way as to benefit those that are most left behind. As an example, he presented innovative ways to use distributed ledger technology such as blockchain to distribute direct benefits for the use of clean energy through energy-efficient cookstoves to the populations using this technology, even in the most remote rural areas.

Beyond high-level expert panels, the unique format of the UN Summer Academy allowed participants to heavily draw on their own experiences in working towards sustainable transformations, to share inspiration, ideas and best practices, as well as to form new partnerships. Notably, during the over 20 App Labs (Application Labs), conducted by participants themselves, as well as selected guest presenters, participants had the opportunity to deeply engage with specific topics. App Labs covered a broad range of topics within the realm of sustainable development. While some introduced participants to innovative and efficient tools and methodologies such as App Labs on Design Thinking or Results Reporting, others looked at specific sectors or countries such as sessions on Women’s Health in Conflict Zones or Civil Society Self-Regulation in Turkey, and still others employed particular perspectives towards analysing current challenges and opportunities, such as an App Lab on the Political Economy of Sustainable Development.

With the key support of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) and the Energy Agency NRW, the UN Summer Academy also offered three site visits in the region. These exposed participants to prominent examples of sustainable projects and successful structural transformations in the area of sustainable energy, energy efficiency and climate protection. A site visit to one of Europe’s most modern waste management centres in Lindlar shed light on a major restructuring effort, coupled with the exemplary usage of new environmental technologies, as well as to a sustainable housing project employing innovative ways of energy generation. Another excursion visited the World’s Largest Artificial Sun in Jülich, where researchers are developing new methods of generating sustainable energy. A second stop at an energy and climate research centre allowed participants to gain a better understanding of how human-made processes impact the air quality and climate in the region and wider world. A third site visit, conducted by bike, included visits to companies, which are successfully managing the energy transition, notably a hotel that utilises geothermal heat generation and the DHL tower, where experts presented the innovative electromobility concept of the DHL Group. These site visits brought concrete strategies to the fore that actively contribute to achieving the 2030 Agenda, equipping participants with practical knowledge of successful and potentially transferable sustainable development practices.

The week of intense learning and knowledge building was complemented by a series of social activities that provided ample opportunities to network and connect with actors from different countries and sectors. Particular highlights included an evening-long boat ride on the river Rhine and a reception at the Old Townhall of Bonn. 

For more information about the UN Summer Academy 2019, please click here.