The SDGs can transform our universities, if we accept the challenge


The following is the text of a speech I recently gave on the role of universities as leaders on the Sustainable Development Goals, when I was invited to the 2016 International Sustainable Campus Network Conference, themed “Leadership for a Sustainable Future” (Siena, Italy, 13-15 June). This post originally appeared on

Good morning to you all and thanks for having me. It is a pleasure for me to be able to follow in the footsteps of my fellow presenters to discuss a few key points for what I think should be the main focus of universities (and epistemic communities more generally) as they take on a leadership role for sustainable development and seek to transform themselves, aligning themselves with the historic shift which I am convinced is under way, even if not always so visible, across all spheres of our societies.

Some of the points that I will give resonate in particular with what SDSN Executive Director Guido Schmidt-Traub said yesterday. I will try to build on some of his arguments and please don’t get bored, this was inevitable since I am, as he mentioned, a Project Leader for SDSN Youth (which is the global youth chapter of SDSN) and I also worked with SDSN Mediterranean when I was here in Siena. Organizational culture, you might say.

Along with my work with SDSN Youth and SDSN, I am also an M.Sc. student at the London School of Economics, a future PhD candidate in international law, and I have been a young leader ever since I was here at the University of Siena, where I worked closely with the Rector and the university staff to bridge the gap between academia and youth and engage with the challenges of sustainable development at the local, national, and global scales. In this sense, my arguments will be a synthesis of the different perspectives and angles of observation deriving from the sum of such different experiences, focusing at the same time on the role of higher education for sustainable development, on the role of youth and young innovators, and of course on the substantive issues which comprise the subject of my academic career.

I want to start by pointing out that there are two important areas on which I think we should devote our attention. The first one is the role of epistemic communities, in terms of how they lead on sustainable development, through their research, their advocacy and policy standards, their delivery systems, their shared goals and metrics, their road-mapping and implementation strategies, their monitoring efforts, and so forth.

The main challenge here, which is what Guido also referenced yesterday, is that you need a paradigm shift in the way universities plan their activities. It is not enough to think in terms of the quality of research, of how well-equipped, and skilled, and visionary our researchers are. We must think in terms of what they are working for, whether the long-term goals that they are setting as the blueprint for all their research activities are (i) policy relevant, (ii) consistent with the transformative change which is urgently needed in our countries and at at the global level, and (iii) bold and self-reinforcing, in order to create positive feedbacks and innovation and not just incremental developments.

From this perspective, there are three key points which can be outlined. The first point is that you should have a goal, a clear goal which allows you to undertake the stocktaking and prioritization exercise that can help shift the behavior of complex societal systems, and the behavior and practices of universities as a primary step. Goal-based planning has many advantages. In the simplest terms, you need to have a guiding light, something which explains what vision of society and the future you are presenting, one around which all activities of a university need to rally around, promoting integrating thinking, facilitating the building of coalitions and partnerships, mobilizing stakeholders, fostering system innovation and above all providing a shared narrative and normative framework. This is crucial, and this is also why I feel so enthusiastic about the Sustainable Development Goals. The real strength of the SDGs is precisely that they build a shared vision and are finally freed from the silo mentality that shaped the Millennium Development Goals. Their holistic framework of economic, social and environmental targets has the potential to inspire coherent, result-driven action, and to advance that kind of technology-driven development we so desperately need.

A second point relates to what kind of activities universities should engage in. We are used to think that R&D and planning is the main step of the innovation process, and of development in general, where universities and research can play their traditional role. This is simply no longer possible. Universities must be key actors in implementation and monitoring processes, engaging with other stakeholders, and harnessing the power of data to support countries’ efforts towards sustainable development. We are witnessing a true data revolution, and the SDGs call upon that data revolution (through the 169 targets, the indicators developed by the Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators, and the work of the High Level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for Statistics for the 2030 Agenda) to be directed towards monitoring, impact measurement, and implementation processes which will allow communities at all relevant scales to progress towards sustainable development. If we don’t know what we are doing (and often this is the case, with non existent, non reliable, non disaggregated data), we simply don’t know what are the needs and strengths, and where we are failing.

Finally, we need to promote dynamic ecosystems of universities interacting with each other, the larger epistemic community, and national/local governments. These are essential for translating knowledge into action. Universities must reinforce their role in multi-stakeholder partnerships, national strategies and local pathways through higher degree of mobilization and organization, through filling gaps in policy dialogue, and through efficient delivery systems. In other words, we must start to think of universities which engage in problem solving, universities that act IN society and not just for society. Building critical masses through networks and partnerships, undertaking that kind of solution-driven exercise, that kind of backcasting, is fundamental in explaining to policymakers what to do, as they often don’t know (and I am thinking of the problem of climate denialism, for example, which in part has been driven by the confrontational approach taken by the different positions and the failure of scientists to engage more deeply with the wider public opinion).

The other big area I want to focus on is concerned with the need to involve young people, and students, a hell of a lot more in what universities are doing. I have heard yesterday that universities build future leaders, but let me be clear, I think this is totally wrong, because young people must be recognized as TODAY’s leaders. There are 1.8 billion people aged 15-24 in the world, 25 percent of the global population, and they are arguably part of the most educated generation that has ever existed! As young people, we now have unprecedented access to knowledge, which is also spreading out (albeit with great inequality and daunting challenges) to developing countries, and the bottom line is that while we usually hear a lot about youth needs, wants, problems, and while leaders usually call only upon youth “creativity” and “enthusiasm”, young people are also incredibly skilled, have capacity to adapt, and possess that kind of fluid intelligence which is crucial to solve today’s complex problems.

In other words, universities don’t merely have to equip students for the labor market or to be professionals when they graduate. They have to put them to work now, and they have to empower them to contribute from the outset, for two main reasons. On the one hand, because young people’s stake in sustainable development is not one materializing in the distant future, but rather one which is already visible today, in terms of massive unemployment, unhealthy and risk-prone neighborhoods, climate change impacts, and so forth. On the other, because young innovators around the world are already playing a major role for their communities, and the problem is simply that we don’t communicate and disseminate those efforts enough, that we don’t create an environment which is conducive for investors, supporters, and institutions to partner with young people to help them unleash their full potential. So there are three points here as well.

The first thing that universities have to do is curriculum change. We have heard about it yesterday, but we miss one point. Curriculum change is the most powerful means of promoting transformative change through youth leadership across all sectors of society, but we don’t need just more courses on sustainable development, we need to transform the wide gap that exists between some subjects and others, particularly with respect to the way economics and finance are still taught in many institutions. In addition, we have to put emphasis on linking interdisciplinary knowledge and professional practice, making a positive case for sustainable development to be seen as an opportunity to build skills, specialize, get into a challenge which is simultaneously a personal and a social one. We need students from all disciplines to engage with sustainable development, and from this perspective high-quality Massive Open Online Courses, like those created by, are crucial, and could be adopted tomorrow if all universities wanted.

Secondly, we have to create inclusive internal decision-making processes which facilitate exchange of information and fruitful cooperation between students and institutions and which may fill gaps in university strategies. Moreover, institutions involved in local pathways for the implementation of the SDGs must streamline the skills and creativity of young people in those pathways. There is a movement around the world of young people, which we don’t see, especially in developing countries, and that movement is ready to contribute now. It is important to remember that these movements, think for example of divestment groups, become protest only if universities are not able to effectively engage with them.

Third, the positive impact of young innovators must be showcased, assisted and incentivized in both academic and extracurricular activities: innovation prizes, competitions, and assistance in securing financial and managerial capital should become the norm for universities training a new generation of sustainable development leaders. We have to adopt the same solutions-driven mentality we advocate for countries to put students to work in practical problem-solving, allowing their skills to be employed while already in university, when there is an environment which can help them. The risk here is they get out of education and they find themselves out of work, or not immediately supported, and thus their ideas can’t be put into practice. Universities are the ideal ecosystem to promote entrepreneurship, applied research, and other student ventures (including educational programs aimed at kids and children). I am thinking, for instance, of Solar for Life, a brilliant non-profit organization launched by students at the University of Toronto to deploy renewable energy to rural communities in developing countries, promote developmental research, and foster sustainable entrepreneurship, which SDSN Youth partners with. Without a meaningful backing from their university, it would have been a lot harder for our friends at Solar for Life to scale up their efforts and kick-start pilot projects, and I think this and similar stories shall serve both as an inspiration and an encouragement for our higher education system to start partnering more with its pupils.

To conclude, what I outlined is a big challenge, because it confronts some of the path dependencies that universities are locked-into, and calls for transformative, not incremental change. But it is also a great opportunity that we have to make universities relevant again in the public debate, and to let them step up to the challenge of influencing business and governments in the implementation of sustainable solutions and mobilizing the youth skills, energy and visions that exist within themselves. This is the greatest opportunity we have, I would argue, because by doing so we would also boost our chances to achieve the 2030 Agenda and secure a sustainable future for our generation and those to come. Thank you. 


Accounting for ecosystem services to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo Credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) “The Páramo ecosystem of southwestern Colombia”

This post originally appeared on Sense & Sustainability on December 9, 2015.

When 193 world leaders gathered in New York this last September to agree on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, fittingly entitled “Transforming Our World“, the atmosphere was one of celebration and great optimism. After all, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and 169 targets) that are included in the new Agenda have been developed under conditions that are much different from those that led to adoption of the Millennium Development Goals back in 2000, when the latter were criticized due to the absence of a clear action plan, lack of previously defined means of implementation and monitoring, and the largely arbitrary set of challenges they sought to address.

First of all, the comprehensive, far-reaching commitments enshrined in “Transforming Our World” logically required a huge amount of preliminary groundwork and behind-the-scenes bargaining that in turn allowed the draft agreement to be in place well in advance of the Sustainable Development Summit. In addition, the entire process was punctuated by increased emphasis on the urgency to mobilize the financial, institutional and technological resources needed to implement the SDGs and establish an effective monitoring framework, as shown by the inclusion of a specific goal concerned with the revitalization of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (Goal 17), the endorsement of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, and the colossal work on data and indicators that is being put forth by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators. Finally, the SDGs themselves have the ambition to be indivisible, that is, to acknowledge that economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability can not to be pursued in isolation if mankind is to embark on a sustainable development trajectory; and universal, as the burden of their implementation (as well as the risks of a failure) will clearly fall upon the international community as a whole.

In this perspective, it is important for countries to set their priorities straight right from the outset, making sure that none of the goals is left behind even when geographical disparities and different capabilities will inevitably lead to uneven progress in their achievement. As a matter of fact, although some commentators have already argued that we shall only focus on those measures which will prove more cost-effective in the face of limited resources, the creation of fragmented pathways for the implementation of the SDGs would actually undermine the entire process, and the separation of social and environmental targets in particular would prove disastrous in the long-term.

The problem here is the same that led Goal 7 of the MDGs, which was tasked with ‘ensuring environmental sustainability’, to become one of the greatest failures of that agenda: it is way more difficult to convince governments and communities to invest in the protection of ecosystems and adopt policies that regulate the exploitation of natural resources than it is to tackle extreme poverty and advance human rights, where progress apparently yields more visible -and immediate- results.

Think of biological diversity, for example. Target 7.B of the MDGs explicitly recognized in 2000 that a surge in protected areas was needed to preserve ecosystems, species of flora and fauna that inhabit them, and their contribution to human societies. Yet that target, which the vast majority of countries had in the meantime pledged to achieve by 2010 by committing to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, still remains largely unmet. Should this be of some concern to us, if the meantime we lift people out of poverty and create more opportunities for developing countries?

The long-eluded answer to this question is a simple one: it should, because without halting biodiversity loss and safeguarding the integrity of the biosphere we actually won’t be able to do the latter. Indeed, while it is very common (and legitimate) to reduce the question of conservation to one of compassion towards living beings, our relationship with nature is one of (inter)dependence, not stewardship. Through their complex structure and functioning, ecological systems are in fact the building blocks upon which societies have developed since human beings first appeared. Discounting their value is a sure way for policy-makers to neglect the contribution of such systems to the well-being not just of future generations, but of present ones as well. In other words, it is due time we move towards a systematic accounting of ecosystem services and integrate it into national and local policies and processes.

This is not a new idea at all. Broadly defined as the direct and indirect benefits that ecological systems provide to humanity annually, ecosystem services have been conceptualized and assessed by researchers for several years now, even if there is still much to do in terms of refining methodologies and overcoming scientific uncertainty. In 1997, for instance, a seminal study led by ecological economist Robert Costanza estimated that US $33 trillion per year is the average value of these renewable goods and services (most of which are directly related to the role of living organisms within their ecosystem, such as nutrient cycling, pollination, biological control, food production, raw materials, genetic resources, and so on), and that figure was recently raised to US $125-145 trillion per year when Costanza used updated data to revise his own assessment. The same paper also hypothesized that the global loss of ecosystem services caused by land use change may already be costing somewhere between US $4.3-20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used.

Yet, countries have so far been reluctant to incorporate this way of thinking into their development and poverty reduction strategies, planning processes, national accounting, and reporting systems, as mandated in 2010 by the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Even if some examples of local and national policies, whether resulting in the appointment of specific advisory bodies (like the UK Government’s Natural Capital Committee) or the establishment of partnerships with organizations and programs such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, indeed point in this direction, achieving the SDGs will necessarily require more than that, and will especially entail placing biodiversity into the mainstream framework for decision-making through an unprecedented focus on the role of data for sustainable development.

In order to do so, accounting for the flow of ecosystem services at the global, national, and local level must become a central concern for the implementation of Goals 14 and 15 of the new Agenda. Adopting Target 15.9, which essentially reiterates Target 2 of the Aichi Targets, was one first step. Making sure that the indicators proposed within the umbrella of the Inter-agency Expert Group keep track of the number of national plans and processes that integrate the values of biodiversity and ecosystems (although there was no agreement over this point during the latest meeting of the Group) will be another. The most important role, however, is going to be played by international platforms like the newly-established IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which will be tasked with strengthening science-policy interfaces and building capacity for the effective use of science in decision-making at all relevant levels: without their contribution, and the necessary willingness on the part of countries to participate in such processes, renewable natural capital will continue to decline at an alarming rate, and the likely consequences for human well-being of are all but certain to be dire.


  • Costanza, R et al., ‘The Value of the World’s Ecosystems and Natural Capital’ 387 Nature 253
  • Costanza, R et al., ‘Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services’ (2014) 26 Global Environmental Change 152
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends (Washington DC: Island Press, 2005)