Tag Archives: SDGs

The Decade of Action: Cities Humanizing SDGs

We are 10 years away from delivering the 2030 sustainable development Agenda. Yet, the pace of progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is slower than sought. In January 2020 and in an attempt to expedite progress, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres inaugurated the ‘Decade of Action’. The Decade is built on three levels of action: global action, local action, and people action.

Weeks after, the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the globe and magnified pressure on achieving all SDGs across borders. While human well-being lies at the heart of the sustainable development Agenda, the global extreme poverty rate is projected to be 8.4-8.8% in 2020, which is close to the level in 2017. This means that an estimated 40-60 million of people may be pushed back into extreme poverty, causing the first increase in global poverty in more than 20 years. This alone can shake most – if not all – of the SDGs targets across the globe.

Experts and reports are highlighting this marked poverty increase along with the following important consequences as priorities that we all need to understand and tackle: women and girls suffer the most economic shocks, around 90% of children are affected by school closures and associated stoppage of nutritional supplements and vaccines, inequalities of all types are amplified, hunger rate is increasing, and climate honeymoon might be shorter than expected. It is time to identify those left behind and ways to mobilize local actors to take the lead towards a global sustainable recovery.

Why Cities?

Cities are vital engines for economic growth and social welfare. Cities that plan, manage, and maintain hard and soft infrastructure services offer tremendous opportunities for poverty reduction and human prosperity. Within the sustainable development framework, Cities can drive the transformation needed to achieve the SDGs and more importantly stimulate local action for strong, healthy, and just societies.

Why SDGs Framework?

The evolving risks and challenges associated with hard and soft infrastructures, social cohesion and safety, climate change, and migration; create new complexity for local governments. SDGs can be the common language and comprehensive framework for understanding and tackling development challenges.

While the SDGs overarching principles and objectives are unified across the globe, they allow for a lot of innovation by Cities in response to their complex and localized needs. Innovation is triggered by endless synergies and interlinkages between the different SDGs to optimize solutions that address more than one priority. Moreover, fiscal constraints that most Cities face are triggers for innovation and deployment of technologies that would further contribute to economic recovery and social justice.

Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs)

A Voluntary Local Review (VLR) is a tool for local governments to report their progress on SDGs. In 2018, New York City launched the first Voluntary Local Review as a way to localize the reporting of SDG progress. They define VLR as a tangible product for engaging citizens, peer cities, and the global community around the SDGs.

However, the journey turned out to be as valuable as the destination. The VLR process stimulated collaboration between various line institutions on data collection and analysis, mapping local progress, and raising awareness among relevant staff members. Such momentum continued beyond the completion of the report demonstrating other significant outputs from VLRs.

The VLR is also a practical platform to publicize knowledge and information and promote transparency and accountability as core sustainability values.

Unlike the Voluntary National Review (VNR), the VLR – to date – has no official status at the UN. Therefore, there are no formal processes or standards in place for producing a VLR, leaving the door open for each City to create and customize a VLR to its own needs and priorities.

Cities Leading The Way

Cities like New York and Helsinki are pioneering the marsh towards SDGs implementation. Many Cities from all around the globe are joining the movement through various networks and platforms. Smaller Cities with limited resources and less visibility are taking small but solid steps on the same path. While VLRs are meant to report on progress, they also provide the right context for collective dialogue and agreement on priorities, targets, and Key Performance Indicators.

Some of the commitments reported by New York City in its VLR include: reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 by pursuing steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from buildings, and by sourcing 100% clean electricity, while creating green jobs and holding polluters responsible for climate-related costs; finding ways to beneficially reuse 100% of the City’s biosolids by 2030, so these investments would contribute to both renewable energy and zero landfill goals; and several other commitments related to environment, health and financial inclusiveness. The VLR defines 10 KPIs to track progress on SDGs targets.

The city of Helsinki, on the other hand, values sustainability as a driver for being renown as a global innovation hub. Its VLR puts quality education and decent work and economic growth on the top of the list, in addition to several other targets that would contribute to achieving the City’s vision.

A close-up on our part of the world, and specifically on Jordan, reflects a spectrum of initiatives by the city of Amman and a few other Cities. Amman joined several networks and platforms to strengthen and promote its clean energy, low Carbon, and resilience strategies. Other important players, such as the Cities and Villages Development Bank, are embarking into the sustainability field to enable stronger action by local municipalities. On a smaller scale, Sahab City is demonstrating real leadership in the transformation towards sustainability.

Sahab suffers a poverty rate of 54%. Its total area is 12 Km², where around 75 thousand Jordanian Citizens are living within this limited area in addition to another 40,000 Syrian refugees. The City is home to two of the largest industrial zones in the Kingdom and is combating several environmental challenges. Despite the limited resources available for Cities like Sahab, it is emerging as a role model in designing and kickstarting the implementation of clean energy (energy efficiency and renewable energy) strategy. Driven by its team’s passion and commitment, Sahab joined the Covenant of Mayors initiative that aims to support and engage Cities and Towns to reaching energy and climate targets.

Big or small, Cities are the collective DNA for SDGs. Through putting Cities and their interactions in the front seat, we humanize the SDGs framework and bring it closer to local issues and actors. It cannot be timelier to leverage the SDGs framework to create and foster partnerships and collaboration among people and institutions to co-create and implement common sustainable development plans.  

My latest article on EcoMENA: https://www.ecomena.org/cities-humanizing-sdgs/

Science for Sustainable Development: Are We Ready for the Change?

When the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was launched in 2015, it was based on five key elements: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. At the time, none of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were solely dedicated to science or scientific research. However, this does not undermine the role of science in development. In fact, the Sustainable Development Agenda calls for strengthening the integration of science and technology into the various aspects of life so that they can maximize their impact on human development. Moreover, SDG 9 — build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation — calls for countries to measure their spending on research and development.

Nowadays, people look to science, technology, and innovation as enablers for economic development and as a means to improve quality of life. Scientists and researchers are not only able to propose knowledge-based solutions for current challenges, but more importantly, they own the knowledge, data, and credibility needed to embark on the rapidly changing future.

In 2019, the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) published a report titled ‘Improving Scientific Input to Global Policymaking with a Focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.’ This report discussed a number of ways scientists and researchers could contribute to inclusive sustainable development. These include channeling research towards the identification and analysis of the interactions between different SDGs as well as proposing solutions that can enhance development impact.

Additionally, the report called for new approaches to engaging researchers in the design, measurement, and analysis of the SDGs indicators. These recommendations include carrying out more research in the area of ‘complex systems sciences’ to deepen the understanding of the earth’s carrying capacity and enable more innovations in the area of natural resources management. In addition, the report asks for the maintenance of a readily accessible electronic database of all studies and research related to sustainable development and SDGs.

Some countries have already started research projects around complex sustainable development challenges. Through this, they are attempting to better understand the interactions between SDGs and to propose solutions and/or scenarios with calculated trade-offs. For example, researchers in India are analyzing potential compromises between the expansion of agricultural land and biodiversity conservation and low carbon practices. Researchers in Africa tackle the impact phasing out fossil fuels may have on job creation, while others investigate food security within cities in relation to urban planning.

In my country, Jordan, we aim to strengthen the role of social sciences and humanities in applied research and innovation through a collaborative initiative called “El Hassan Research Chair in Sustainability.” Such research projects and initiatives not only enrich the contributions of science into the SDGs, but more importantly, influence the impact of the sustainable development agenda locally, regionally, and globally.

Beyond individual projects, strengthening the role of scientific research and science institutions in the development agenda is will help the enhancement and coordination of the supply and demand of science and technology. Several measures can assist in this endeavor, provided it is backed up by collective ownership and strong will.

Such measures may include transforming planning and decision-making processes to become more science and evidence-based, building trust and feasible partnership models between the generators and users of knowledge (industry, government, civil society organizations, and other national actors), institutionalizing national dialogue around development priorities and their interactions with science, and ultimately reaching a revolution in how researchers and innovators design their projects for maximum social impact.

So, are we ready to bring the discussion around the role of science and technology in sustainable development from global to local? Do we have the luxury of time to re-think our planning approach for both sustainability as well as research and innovation, or should we seize the time of crisis to infuse the aspired change? And, how would such change contribute to making the world a better and more livable place?

My article on Medium as part of my Plus Social Good contributions. “Science for Sustainable Development: Are we We Ready for the Change?” by +SocialGood https://link.medium.com/8RkqUipUD6

#InspireMENA Story 1: Humanizing Architecture – Through the Eyes of Abeer Seikaly

View of tent structures (day)

By: Ruba A. Al-Zu’bi
Through the jasmine-scented roads of L’weibdeh (Jordan) I navigated my way to Abeer Seikaly’s studio, an old house that resembles Jordan’s genuine and inspiring identity. Abeer Seikaly is a young Jordanian architect who has been featured on several global and local media platforms because of her innovation “Weaving a Home” that was shortlisted for the 2012 Lexus Design Award.

Influence of Education and Local Knowledge

Top architecture schools in the Arab world are heavily influenced by international trends in built environment and sustainability, and unfortunately Arabic reference material is largely ignored in teaching. The emerging thinking around built environment and its relationship with people and nature rely largely on digital and virtual practice leaving students with minimal interaction with communities and building materials. Moreover, the growing disconnect between research and market requirements in most developing countries magnifies the gap between engineering and sustainable development. Acknowledging the uniqueness of traditional Arab architecture and its historical importance in shaping sustainable building concepts raises concern on the diminishing role of local knowledge in responding to contemporary sustainability challenges.

For Abeer, having the chance to study abroad provided her with new insights not only about architecture but more importantly about her own potential and abilities within a larger context. What her culture-rich home environment gave her, on the other hand, was respect and appreciation for art, creativity and surroundings. With time, exposure and experimentation, Abeer defined her own architecture. Emphasizing that the pure definition of technology is craft, weaving, and making, her definition of innovative architecture combines old and new, traditional and contemporary. It is also thinking about architecture as a social technology.

Re-defining Success

When people are focused on the product, they usually tend to neglect the joy and benefit of the process itself. Focusing on the process boosts self-confidence and self-awareness and yet requires diligence and mindfulness while enjoying experimentation. It enables us to engage more deeply with the present, and thus, allow us to learn faster and experience life to the fullest.

According to Abeer Seikaly, architecture is not about the building itself but more about getting into it and experiencing its metaphysical nature with time. “Ordinary architects nowadays are inclined to use computer software to design buildings while sitting in closed offices. This is only dragging them away from people and from nature. As a real architect, you need to be out there to feel, interact and test your designs”, says Seikaly. “Creating is about the process and not about the outcome.”

Thinking through Making: The Tent

As a firm believer in the process, Abeer Seikaly has been working on her creative structural fabric for years. When the time was right, she used this creative work to bridge a gap in human needs. Participating in the Lexus Design Award was part of engaging her fabric with people and nature. Disaster shelters have been made from a wide range of materials, but Abeer turned to solar-absorbing fabric as her material of choice in creating woven shelters that are powered by the sun and inspired by nomadic culture. The use of structural fabric references ancient traditions of joining linear fibers to make complex 3-D shapes.

Tackling an important issue like shelter for a humanitarian purpose can’t be more relevant to both innovative architecture and sustainable development. With Jordan being host to more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees, this is about humanizing architecture and meeting basic human needs. Abeer has explained everything about her fabric and its use in disaster relief on her blog.

Study model showing movement of the system and its collapsibility
She passionately mentions her ultimate inspiration: thinking through making. “Experimenting, looking at material’s behavior, testing, and slowly you are there”, says Seikaly. “It is about thriving and not about surviving. Revelation results from years of hard work and continuous perseverance throughout the process”, she adds.

Recipe to Innovate

There is no recipe for innovation, Abeer Seikaly explains, but Jordanian engineers and architects need to ask themselves the following: What are you about? What is local/sustainable? What is Jordan about?

When asked about role of engineering firms, Seikaly stressed the fact that most corporations nowadays do not provide an enabling environment for youth to learn and grow. Emphasizing the importance of innovation, she says “With no personal attention and coaching, engineers are disconnecting from themselves and from community. Despite all the difficulties we face in our country, innovation goes back to personal drive and motivation: if you need it, you will make it”.

“Define your role as an Architect in a developing country, I have discovered mine and became an aware human being. To serve society and improve well-being is who I am”, concludes Abeer.

Architecture and Sustainable Development

The straightforward link between architecture and sustainable development goals is Global Goal No. 11 i.e. Sustainable Cities and Communities; nevertheless, a deeper look at how architecture influences and gets influenced by other elements brings about a link with almost each of the other Global Goals. The unique relationship between built environment, people and nature makes it an opportunity to demonstrate real sustainable development, as highlighted by Abeer Seikaly’s innovation. Around 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities in 2030 which dictates a new and integrated way of thinking about urban design and architecture.