Education and keeping the “leave-no-one-behind" principle in mind is key in order to acheive the Sustainable Development Goals, says a new study in Nature. It presents six SDG Transformations that demand change within governments, businesses, and society in order to secure sustainable development. Photo: J. Severns/US Air Force/Wikimedia

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The ABCs of the SDGs

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through six actionable steps

Story highlights

  • The Sustainable Development Goals represent central objectives for global sustainability, but a mutual understanding on how to achieve these goals is missing
  • Researchers present six SDG Transformations that demand change within governments, businesses, and society in order to secure sustainable development. Transformations provide guidelines and suggestions on how to translate goals into action
  • Central to reaching these transformations is the need for science to create methods of applying and tracking SDG Transformations overtime

In an era of extremes such as environmental destruction and public health challenges, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can seem somewhat idealistic and distant. While they do provide examples of essential sustainability targets, the 17 goals lack the practicalities of how to achieve global sustainability. Ideas regarding how to attain these goals differ across governments, science, business, and general society.

In order to draw out potential paths toward the sustainable development goals, a study published in Nature Sustainability designed six “SDG Transformations” that map out actions necessary to achieve them.

The study, co-authored by centre researcher Johan Rockström, is based on two reports published by the project The World in 2050, a global research initiative in support of a successful implementation of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda.

The reports, entitled The Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges (2019) and Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (2018), are the result of efforts by an international network of researchers coordinated by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, Austria. Several researchers from the the Stockholm Resilience Centre are involved in this network.

Deep, deliberate changes needed

In the Nature article, the authors focus on crucial changes that must occur at the foundation of society before transformation can take place. Aiming to communicate these steps to related stakeholders, these scenarios offer ways of putting the sustainable development goals into practice.

Education is central as a goal on its own but also supports the economic system and reduces poverty and inequality—keeping the “leave-no-one-behind principle” in mind is key.

Health and wellbeing: universal health coverage that supports an integrated health care model will direct care and focus toward cultivating healthier lifestyles.

Creating access to sustainable sources of energy, decreasing carbon emissions, and eliminating the contamination of natural resources are critical steps for securing efficient use of energy.

Increasing sustainable use of land, food systems, and oceans demands more integration and a switch to environmentally sustainable diets.

Securing access to clean water, sanitation, and efficient waste systems within urban areas is a main theme along with strengthening cities’ resilience to extreme climate events.

Artificial Intelligence is pervading the modern economy, but this “digital revolution” demands regulations, protection, and methods of channelling technology into monitoring SDG progress. The authors suggest worldwide broadband accessibility, increased digitisation of industries, along with strong leadership and partnership supporting this shift.

These six transformations require deep, deliberate, long-term structural changes in resource use, infrastructure, institutions, technologies and social relations that must be undertaken in a short period of time.

Johan Rockström, report co-author

Shared goals and governance

Applying these transformations toward practical steps of action, the authors present some primary methods of governance. One such method is to set targets within a reasonable time span, around 2030 for the SDGs and 2050 for the Paris Agreement. This places the goals within a set time frame and allows for constructing a back-casting plan—a path that starts with the vision of sustainable development targets and follows each step required to arrive at the goals.

When it comes to financing these endeavours, government budgets must match their visions of sustainable development goals. Collaboration among policymakers is crucial for a shared goal of future sustainability. However, this matter is not limited to policymakers alone, and must include the public’s voice in major decisions. This is where technology also plays a role in guiding change via a bottom-up process.

This also ties into the role of social movements, where social activism is a critical aspect of governance. A change in belief systems, norms, and cognitive behaviour is the first step in securing international peace and diplomacy. Reinforcing this idea, the researchers state that transformational change stems from grass-roots movements, considering “large-sale societal change is often achieved first in the hearts and minds of the people, and only afterwards accepted in legislation and economic policies.”

The science of transformation

Ultimately, the SDG transformations aim to unite businesses, governments, and society over a mutual understanding that realises essential actions for transformational change. This paves the way for science to discover methods of enacting SDG Transformations and tracking their progress overtime. Involving governments, business, and general society will offer the best chance of creating successful plans toward the goals.

An essential component of this transformation puzzle is the ability to observe data that demonstrates the transformation process, much like the Climate Action Tracker with its success of tracking efforts to reduce green-house gas emissions.

It is therefore crucial to develop an innovative tool to measure the progression of the remaining SDG Transformations over time. Having this ability to analyse pathways toward the Sustainable Development Goals will play a fundamental role in their fulfilment.


In order to operationalise the SDGs, researchers identified six SDG Transformations: “(1) education, gender and inequality; (2) health, well-being and demography; (3) energy decarbonization and sustainable industry; (4) sustainable food, land, water and oceans; (5) sustainable cities and communities; and (6) digital revolution for sustainable development.” Firstly, the transformations were then supported by the areas involved in the transformations. The next aspect involves the SDG interventions, which provide methods of action to impact the overall outcomes of each transformation. SDG interventions lead to intermediate outputs, which then translate into impacting the SDGs. These outputs are assessed based on how they relate to the SDGs, indicated by a four-point scale that measures the degree they either target or have no impact on the SDGs.

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Published: 2019-09-13

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