Behind the Paper

Six Transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

We propose six integrated transformations that together can achieve the 17 SDGs and foster greater coherence across governments, business, and civil society. Science has a big role to play to design and implement these transformations.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by all governments in 2015, cover a broad range of issues, including poverty, health, education, social inclusion, infrastructure, economic growth, and environmental sustainability. One goal is dedicated to climate change. Governments around the world are embracing the goals, and a growing number of businesses and civil society organizations have committed to their achievement. A wide scientific literature is emerging on the SDGs. Yet, as underscored by the 2019 Sustainable Development Report, the world remains off-track to meeting the goals, and no country is currently on track to achieving all SDGs.  

While the SDGs have become widely known and referred to, our work suggests that governments are unclear about how to operationalize such a complex agenda. Many find 17 goals and 169 targets overwhelming, and some respond by cherry-picking a few goals or targets. Tough but crucial issues like inequality or climate change may get pushed aside. Beyond the limited ability of governments, business, or any other organization to pursue a large number of goals in parallel, there are also analytical challenges. Many goals are interdependent, so the SDGs cannot be pursued through 17 discrete strategies – one for each goal.

In the end, one has to recognize that the SDGs are the outcome of a complex negotiation process by 193 UN member states. They map out the right objectives for the world and every country, but in themselves they are not an action agenda, as is sometimes said. Instead, it is up to the scientific, policy, and business communities to determine how the SDG outcomes can be achieved at global, national, and local scales.

Several scientific publications focus on inter-linkages between SDG outcomes. They show, for example, that improved education outcomes contribute towards the achievement of many other goals. Similarly, increased agricultural production may have adverse impacts on marine and terrestrial biodiversity. These insights on synergies and trade-offs are important, but they don’t answer the question of how governments should set themselves up to achieve the SDGs. How should they organize the interventions needed for each of the 17 SDGs?

To answer this question, we identified the most critical interventions needed to achieve each SDG, rating their contribution on a scale of 0 to 3. Every goal requires a large number of interventions, and every intervention contributes to many different goals. Next, we grouped the interventions so that they align with the way governments are organized and address major synergies as well as trade-offs. This led us to six SDG Transformations described in the paper, which together achieve all 17 SDGs.

The Six SDG Transformations and how they achieve the 17 SDGs (Source: Sachs et al. 2019)

Our work builds on the 2018 report by The World in 2050 Initiative, which presented an initial set of six transformations. Over the past year we have tested the SDG transformations with many policymakers, business leaders, scientists, and other experts. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and has helped us improve the transformations from the initial version in 2018.

We hope that our paper can foster greater alignment in how the SDGs are framed operationally to ensure that all goals are pursued. This will also enhance learning and collaboration across countries, civil society, and business. Science has a bug role to play to support the design and implementation of the Transformations. We therefore close with a call to improve long-term pathways, generate better metrics, and improve governance tools for long-term transformations.