Let's learn from each other to build a better future

We spoke to our network about the impact of the Covid19 pandemic on the UK and how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can help us build a better future. This blog captures 5 important themes of the discussions and what these mean for the Decade of Action.

The Covid19 pandemic has caused the greatest social and economic upheaval in modern times. At the start of the UN’s Decade of Action, UKSSD launched its SDG Action Plan – three pillars of activity for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the UK. When we launched it, we were filled with optimism and had no understanding of how significantly life would change. The need for this plan has not lessened if we still want a future that is fair, just and environmentally sustainable. But we must think about what actions we can take as individuals, organisations and as a community of SDG advocates, that reflect the changes the pandemic has brought about, and the opportunities to do things differently as we recover.

Over the course of two weeks we hosted conversations with our network to explore their observations and insights of the impact of the Covid19 pandemic on the UK. Despite the varied nature of the conversations, several themes emerged which complement one another and show where our collective efforts could be most beneficial.

1. Cracking the communications challenge

Awareness levels and engagement with the SDGs remains low. While there has been a definite uptick in the last two years, the rates are not increasing fast enough. Despite the clear link between other agendas the SDGs are often seen as irrelevant to influential stakeholders, such as some umbrella organisations from business and civil society, whose support could make a big difference to their implementation in the UK.  

At the same time, the language of the SDGs means little for the public and lessons from movements such as the school strikes and Brexit show that simple and emotive stories are needed to galvanize wider societal support.

We need to find a way to crack the SDGs communications challenge. Leading with entry-points such as net zero, inequality and resilience give us an opportunity to share and embed “SDG thinking”. Practical and relatable examples, metaphors and stories are more powerful than SDG jargon in engaging audiences who have not seen the relevance to their own lives or work.

2. Working together

Collaboration is essential to the success of the SDGs and, though it has challenges, finding new ways of working non-competitively will be necessary to realise their ambition. We need to find real-life examples that show how collaboration can create a change in systems which benefit all of us and lead to outcomes that align to the SDGs. These should be communicated widely.

Collaboration and partnerships which aim to impact on a specific place or are ‘hyper-local’ in their scope are vitally important. These are more likely to be based on a deeper sense of the needs and context, and therefore create more effective solutions. Local collaboration will be crucial in supporting groups who have been left behind.

3. Thinking coherently

The SDGs should be a tool for policy coherence and the Government should be responsible for understanding and working coherently, but this is arguably not the case. Local governments have a better understanding of the need for coherence and work in a more joined-up way because of their size – though this can still be improved.

During the pandemic some of the relationships between SDG issues have been highlighted – the vulnerability of specific demographic groups to the virus is one obvious example. And recovery campaigns have tried to highlight the co-benefits of certain actions (eg the jobs potential from a green recovery).

We must find a way to help government understand the importance of a coherent approach to our recovery and future policies. Real-life examples are one way of doing this, particularly where these are poignant because of the pandemic or where there is already good evidence of cross-departmental working.

4. Getting local

There are so many ideas about how to create resilient and thriving communities, including: the creation of new civic and social spaces, reimagining high streets, increasing access to green space and nature, satellite offices or remote working hubs, and better cycling or walking infrastructure. Ultimately however, the recovery of communities will be reliant on reimagining local economies particularly those that are reliant on specific industries or consumer economies which may take time to recover, or even be unfit for purpose in the future.  

Emerging research shows the cities and towns which will struggle to recover are those that have a low volume of exporting industries, as these act as engines of economic growth. The decisions about where and how to invest for our economic recovery could intensify existing inequalities if they do not reflect the context of a local area. While the Government plays a crucial role in enabling this, we need to work collaboratively, including with local governments and City Mayors, to support our local communities in a way that recognises their differences and truly “localises” the SDGs. 

5. Leaving no on behind

The deep-rooted structural and systemic inequalities that exist in the UK will never be addressed without the coherent and proactive efforts of all sectors. The Government’s response to the pandemic has shown that we can reform social infrastructures and welfare systems, so they are more effective. This is a politically complex area and will be hard to navigate but we can use the SDGs as a tool for framing and prioritising our focus towards a fairer and more just future.

The unity that has developed in response to the pandemic has also shown that there is great potential for people to work collaboratively and support the most vulnerable. We need to invest in the social capital in our communities to make sure no one is left behind.

Keeping a sense of perspective

While the themes of our discussions reflect the way we need to work as individuals, organisations and a community, one of the messages that came through all conversations was the need to remember the experience we are living through and to learn from the evidence and data that is emerging.

One participant encouraged us to think about the spring of 2020 whenever we make a decision in our private or professional lives and use this to have a better sense of perspective for the future. Another told us about pre-pandemic research which showed people perceived their neighbours as caring less about their community than them, she hoped the pandemic has proved us all wrong.

The themes of our conversation, though often reliant on other organisations or stakeholders and particularly government, also showed that we need to work collectively to continue to learn from each other. It is only with this learning that we can overcome the barriers which are preventing the SDGs from being a tool to help us achieve the future we want.

As part of our campaign to put the SDGs at the heart of the UK’s recovery from the pandemic we’ve recorded a special podcast series in partnership with Planet Pod, listen or subscribe to hear us in conversation with an impressive line-up of guests from business, civil society and local government.