Kate Roll: University and sustainability: travelling companions for a great mission

“Six key transformations to achieve the sustainable development: reflections for public universities

Kate Roll, Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP). University College London) (UCL) - Head of Teaching and Assistant Professor in Innovation, Development and Value

The TWI 2050 group has designed a document that collects six transformations to achieve the SDGs. Can you briefly summarize these transformations? What is the contribution or the novelty of this document?

The TWI2050 group has identified six key transformations, which were further refined by a set of scholars, including Prof Jeff Sachs and Prof Mariana Mazzucato of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, in a paper in Nature. The core idea is that the SDGs are strongly linked, and to address them we need significant, systemic transformations to how we live, including how we work, consume, and value common resources. These demand action across private and public sectors and civil society. Piecemeal efforts won’t be enough.

To summarise, the six transformations in the Nature paper are:

  1. Expanding education, boosting innovation, and strengthening social safety-nets
  2. Creating universal health coverage, ensuring disease surveillance and control, and encouraging healthy behaviours.
  3. Transforming energy generation, use, and efficiency, and curbing pollution.
  4. Improving the resilience of food systems and reducing hunger.
  5. Building healthy, safe and smart cities.
  6. Managing the impact of digital technologies and AI and promoting digital inclusion.

Across these six areas are the principles of changing production and consumption to be more circular and leaving no one behind.

Just over 10 years to go until 2030. Do you think it is still possible to achieve the goal? Would it be a failure if it is not achieved or should the mere act of getting started be considered a success?

I see the purpose of the goals as ‘agenda setting’ – which means that they focus attention on issues that may have been neglected and create demands on political leaders and institutions (including universities) to respond to these issues. For me, the success of the SDGs will really be about the extent that they are able to shape and re-direct policies towards addressing these challenges. While the goals may or may not be achieved – which has to do with many variables including funding and even exogenous events like a pandemic – what I am really looking for is: Did they shift the political conversation? Did they change how we think about development? Did they drive resources and attention to issues that were not getting enough attention? So far it looks like the answer to those questions has been ‘yes’!

In some countries they have been making progress towards obtaining the SDGs for years, but a factor that can delay all this work has appeared. How do you think the pandemic caused by Covid-19 will affect the achievement of the SDG

This is a great question, because it is not clear how the pandemic will affect progress on the SDGs. It is entirely possible that the effects will be mixed. For example, economic distress, high unemployment rates, and a slowdown in production will certainly make more workers vulnerable and reduce their abilities to access needed services or education, for example. Economic pain also reduces tax income for states, meaning that there is less money to spend on important SDG investments in infrastructure, health, education, R&D and environmental remediation, for example. This could also pressure governments to look to short term solutions to reduce economic pain, perhaps at the cost of longer-term investment in sustainable solutions.

On the other hand, I think that the pandemic has shown us new ways of living and working that are greener. We have seen decreases in air travel and commuting, for example. Many of us who are able to work from home don’t want to go back to the way things were. Most of us have just spent a few months breaking our normal consumption habits – for example fast fashion, doing more cooking at home, and eating less meat– and perhaps this pause will be useful for reorienting towards new, more sustainable habits. This has been a reminder of the importance of family, friends, community.

Most importantly for the SDGs, I think that the pandemic has shed light on the vital importance of legitimate, well-informed and effective states and their central role in protecting citizens. For example, I think that it will be increasingly difficult to defend under-investment in healthcare or health systems, as in the US, that rely on employers. This is making us look again at the gig economy. We are also becoming aware of our ability to take dramatic action in the face of a threat, and so there may be renewed hope that we can find similar solidarity and fortitude, along with the mobilisation of governments and resources, to face the climate emergency and other issues that are at the heart of the SDGs. There is the opportunity, the opening, for governments to make major investments and build back better.