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Transformative approaches for the Sustainable Development Goals

Mille Bojer
December, 2017

“The SDGs are a disruptive agenda, whether or not you use that word. This isn’t business-as-usual and status quo. To the extent that it is, it’s a fiction. Let’s not discover in 2030 that we didn’t mean it.”   

These words stayed with me as I walked out of the Wilson Palace last week. I had just conducted one of a series of dialogue interviews as part of a strategy project with the SDG Lab in Geneva, Switzerland. The SDG Lab ( is a multi-stakeholder initiative that contributes to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by providing Geneva-based actors with a platform to innovate and experiment. It creates space for interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral collaboration while testing assumptions and asking questions about what is needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

It has been eye-opening to delve into the substance of the SDGs. If you think, as I did when I first heard of them, that the SDGs are just another set of international policy goals, it’s worth thinking again.  One of our interviewees who was close to the SDG negotiations went as far as calling them a “magical creation” – words I’ve heard used many times, but never in relation to a UN-negotiated document.

And if you are, as I was, focused on the 17 colorful boxes, each reflecting a different theme, I can tell you that’s not where the juice is. It’s at the deeper level, in the mindset behind the SDGs, and at the practical level, in the specific targets and their interrelationships. It’s when looking at these two other levels that the urgency of transformative approaches (such as those applied by Reos Partners and others around the world) becomes clear.

The Mental Model of the SDGs

The mental model underlying the SDGs is different from that of their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and from the mindset by which most UN institutions are wired. Actually, not only UN institutions, but international civil society organizations, foundations, governments, and private companies as well.

First, while the MDG mindset focused on the “problems” of “developing countries” and how the “developed world” could “help,” the SDGs are a set of global challenges that are common to us all and are present everywhere to varying degrees. This is the Universality principle. It finally breaks with North-South thinking, which was outdated a long time ago but which is still very pervasive. How do we need to transform, and what do we need to let go of, to acknowledge the accelerating expertise and leadership in the Global South? What changes when we acknowledge not only that we all “have problems” but that we are all part of shared challenges? One interviewee asked, “If the exquisite products sold by the leather industry in Switzerland are produced in poisonous ways in Bangladesh, whose pollution is that?” The idea that the sustainability of different countries can be measured separately, as some indices try to do, is an illusion. The good news is that when we see how we are part of the problem, we open up new ways in which to be part of the solution, too.

Second, if you read through the 17 goals and their associated targets, you will notice the two most common words are “for all.” Does this sound like more unachievable platitudes from the UN? Of course, this phrase is intentionally aspirational. The two words “for all” reflect the “leave no one behind” principle. This principle is a break from the mindset that some people are dispensable, that progress that leaves a certain percentage of people behind is acceptable, that it’s just too bad if some islands sink into the sea. Another interviewee said, “It’s more than philosophical; it means from a development practitioner point of view, you can’t just go for low-hanging fruit anymore. We are good at working efficiently and effectively, but we don’t have the skills to leave no one behind. We need to wrap our mind around that.” These goals haven’t been set according to what is realistic, given current trends; they have been set to be so ambitious as to require us to reprogram our minds and rewire our institutions.

Third, the idea with the SDGs is that they are indivisible. They all depend on each other, which demands a systemic and holistic approach. This is of course the reality of the world – everything is connected. We each experience this integration, as individual citizens and in our communities, in our daily lives. It is as professionals that we split things into boxes. Many of the world’s best academics and consultants are now busy mapping linkages across the SDGs and their targets, leading to complex systems maps with arrows in all directions, some more useful than others. We need to be careful not to get stuck in our heads with this analysis. On the other hand, there’s something refreshing about this recognition of complexity, something exciting about the possibility of drawing uncommon connections, and something liberating about the permission and stimulus this process is giving for governments to work across ministerial divides, for UN agencies to work collaboratively, and for different sectors to get involved. It’s not about everyone working on everything, but about everyone working in an interconnected way.

Finally, in relation to accountability, the SDGs represent an opportunity for a new social contract, where the focus is not on accountability from “South” to “North,” nor from “recipients” to “donors.” Rather, the focus is on accountability from leaders to their people, and from people to each other.  This implies a shift in power structures, potentially enabled by the transparency of new technologies and the mounting pressure on corruption. It is also an invitation for all of society to engage and share responsibility for reaching the goals, each with our contribution. One interviewee emphasized that “Different stakeholders will design their own plans of how they are going to contribute to this. The Agenda is too ambitious and comprehensive to be done the way we did the MDGs.  It won’t work if everyone is not on deck.” At a more intimate level, this principle makes me wonder if I’m doing the best I can with what I have, and where the locus of my own accountability lies?

The SDG mindset isn’t philosophical dreaming. It deserves contemplation, slowing down, digestion, dialogue, and of course conscious practice. Every day, I see small things that we would do differently if we were really thinking this way – if we really meant it. Many individuals working in the realm of the SDGs are buying in to the ideas but get stuck in habits, comfort zones, or structures that aren’t designed along these principles. As one of our interviewees expressed, “The ‘it’ is not the SDGs – it’s the way of thinking, working, and leading implied by the agenda, and it’s not a small shift. It’s a fear-inducing, uncomfortable thing to make this shift, even for young people.” 

The good news is that there are processes that can help put this shift in practice.

Transformative Approaches for the SDGs

Steve Waddell, author of “Change for the Audacious” and leader of the SDG Transformations Forum, distinguishes between incremental and transformative approaches to change.  Incremental approaches aim to improve performance and replicate best practices within existing rules, mindsets, narratives, and power structures. Transformative approaches aim to make the previously impossible possible through visioning, imagination, experimentation, and dynamic engagement of diverse stakeholders, causing shifts in rules, mindsets, narratives, and power structures.

How do we know where these transformative approaches are most needed?

This is where we get to the targets. There are 169 SDG targets associated with the 17 goals, and they are imperfect, as targets set by global political negotiations often tend to be. Nevertheless, they provide us with a map of issues where change is needed.

In addition to the systems mappers, the world is now full of different sets of criteria to help governments and other stakeholders prioritize targets within the SDG agenda, including cost-benefit analyses, etc. When we look at where to focus transformative approaches, the lens is different. It’s not necessarily about what’s most important or how the goals will be reached the quickest. It’s about asking, where’s the need for re-imagination, for new connections, for experimentation?

To find some of these areas, we decided to look at the targets through the lens of four characteristics:


The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has developed a useful framework that assesses whether targets are in need of “reform,” “revolution,” or complete “reversal.” The targets in need of reform are those where current trends will get us more than halfway there. Those in need of revolution are ones where some movement in the right direction is taking place, but it’s far too slow. Those in need of reversal are moving in the entirely opposite direction. Target 14.2, “Protecting Marine Environments,” is one such target. According to the ODI, based on current trends, 90% of reefs will be threatened by 2030, and a turnaround in the trajectory will require an ambitious mixture of leadership, reforms, and innovation. The work of Reos Partners in the SDG14 (Oceans) space, as referenced by the article in this newsletter by David Obura and Lerato Mpofu, aims to contribute what it can to this turnaround, within the specific geographic region of the Northern Mozambique Channel.


This characteristic refers to targets that are highly multi-causal, dependent on and interlinked with many other goals, where a systemic or nexus approach is needed, and where broad coalitions of actors from different disciplines and spheres of influence could make a significant difference. This of course applies to many targets, but examples include violence against women (a topic that Reos Partners works on in Brazil, South Africa, and Australia) and non-communicable diseases (which Reos Partners works on in Australia and Suriname).


Leverage refers to targets where even limited progress can have a highly synergistic impact on many other targets. An example of a target with high leverage is Target 9.C., “Internet Access.”  Internet Access itself is moving forward rapidly, but to what extent are stakeholders working on the other goals and targets sufficiently aware of how this target impacts their work in so many dimensions, with both potential negative and positive consequences? Should we be convening as stakeholders more often to understand the trends of these high-leverage targets and their consequences? Through scenario processes or other dialogue approaches, might we identify creative ways to leverage them more efficiently? Two goals that are full of leverage are Goals 16, “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions” and 17, “Partnerships for the Goals,” as Fernando Rossetti refers to in his article in this newsletter.


Where a trade-off exists, it’s possible that progress on one target/goal could undermine progress on another. Win-win solutions are achievable, but only if work on the targets is systemic and creative. This means that the work requires multi-stakeholder dialogue across divergent interests and logics. The environment-economy dilemma is full of such trade-offs. An example is Target 2.1, “Ending hunger” and 2.4, “Sustainable agricultural practices.”  One of the very first systemic multi-stakeholder processes we were engaged with as Reos Partners was the Sustainable Food Lab, launched in 2004, and our engagement with the crucial and challenging domain of sustainable food has continued since then at community, national and international levels.

The Need for Transformation

The four characteristics of the SDG targets listed above show the need for engaging diverse stakeholders in processes of collective re-imagination and experimentation. Our intention in working with these characteristics is not about creating a hierarchy or quantifiable index of targets, or about coming to consensus about which target is more important than the others.

Rather, it is about building our perception and applying a fresh lens to the targets in order to shine a light on new possibilities and connections, and to understand where and why the need is greatest for transformative approaches.

The 2030 Agenda is entitled “Transforming our World.” What if we really meant it?

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