Why should cities bet on the Sustainable Development Goals?

The UN Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) aim to vastly improve outcomes in poverty reduction, healthcare, climate action and urbanization by 2030. One of the SDGs specifically addresses cities: Goal 11 is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Within 30 years, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in city spaces. So clearly, for the SDGs to succeed, cities must get involved. The UN Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) aim to vastly improve outcomes in poverty reduction, healthcare, climate action and urbanization by 2030. One of the SDGs specifically addresses cities: Goal 11 is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Within 30 years, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in city spaces. So clearly, for the SDGs to succeed, cities must get involved.

But there’s currently no law that says cities must co-operate, or show their progress on the goals. So why should cities bank their resources on the SDGs? We know the SDGs are the right thing to do: what some call our “moral obligation” to improve conditions for disadvantaged countries and for future generations. But here are five reasons why all cities can directly benefit from committing to the goals.

1. Regulations will come

It’s not mandatory for cities to track SDGs – yet. But international law experts say there is a “new trend towards new and innovative laws ensuring outcomes similar to SDGs”. At international level, many covenants and treaties already promote the goals. It’s likely that this will translate into direct international directives, from the EU and other organizations. Malcolm Preston, global sustainability leader at PWC, says that governments will also develop new national regulatory policy based on the SDGs framework. This will include both incentives and deterrents: “As the governments of the world attempt to implement the SDGs, they will most certainly use levers such as subsidies, fines, regulations, taxes.”  

2. Cities can identify local needs and attract investment

By using the SDGs as a framework, cities can work out which areas they fall short on, and tap into the right investments to improve their cities’ resources. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate describes how new, sustainable infrastructure, for example, “offers a great opportunity to “leapfrog” the inefficient, sprawling and polluting systems of the past.” The Commission says that cities with a strong SDG-inspired policy can “boost investor confidence and attract the scale of investment needed” from national institutions and private investors.

 

3. Opportunities to draw new business talent

As more and more companies adopt the SDGs, sustainable cities will become more appealing places to headquarter, set up offices, or do business. Companies will choose to operate in sustainable cities, because this makes achieving their own sustainability goals easier. Plus, cities who improve their infrastructure, mobility, education and equality offerings attract businesses who need these resources, says the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

4. Ways to build civic engagement

Tracking progress on SDGs means city governments can clearly show their citizens they are working to create a better city. It also means that citizens have a clear framework for what a sustainable city should look like, and they can compare their experiences with this framework to tell cities what needs to be done. World Vision International say that “citizen monitoring will be essential to making sure that the goals are realized”. The SDGs are an opportunity for city leaders to engage citizens, and to build trust by responding to their concerns.

5. A framework for connecting cities

Before now, there has been no universally-recognized benchmark for how a sustainable city should be. Using the SDGs lets cities put themselves on a global map of other cities. This means they can compare their “scores”, problems and solutions with other cities around the world. The U.S. Cities SDG Index, for example, brings together “universities, governments, think tanks, and community leaders” to track cities’ progress and “help urban leaders” to find new strategies. The United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities platform is a global initiative that offers participating cities “knowledge sharing and partnership building” opportunities.

By using the SDGs as a large-scale framework, cities can comply with future regulations, find investment, attract business, engage citizens and connect with other cities. But city leaders will also need to understand the small-scale, everyday concerns that contribute to the overarching SDG structure. Citibeats lets governments listen to their citizens, by analyzing the concerns they post online, and so is a tool for any city leader banking on the SDGs.