Cities To Lead A Decade of SDG Action

By +SocialGood Connector David Connor

Call it prescience or maybe it is just the way things have always been, but Charles Dickens nailed it in 1859 with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That famous quote launches A Tale of Two Cities, yet it is the rest of the paragraph that really defines our current moment.

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Our spring of hope must be local. No ifs or buts. Awareness, understanding, relevance and ownership at every grassroots level is essential to deliver progress for all through the Decade of SDG Action on the horizon. The SDGs need to be made real. And, for clarity, trickle down initiatives don’t work. What we need is a coordinated bottom up program of fire-lighting.

A Fridays For Future protest in Bonn, Germany.

Greta Thunberg is a teenager not a President, a Prime Minister nor even a Mayor, yet has ignited a worldwide movement that created tangible action. Countries, cities and businesses alike jumped on to the Climate Emergency Declaration bandwagon with only time to tell how this translates to authentic action and accountability. It is also crucial we do not forget that teenagers are not the only passionate disaffected stakeholders. There are millions of ‘everybodys’ out there from every walk of life that are the kindling for change that requires nurturing and support. 2020 needs to be the start of the evolution of the Global Goals to become the People’s Goals, the Local Goals, and now!

Local in practice means cities. By putting a fence around such an agenda and translating into an accessible language it immediately creates a palpable SDG ownership wherever you are in the world. On the ground in most cities today awareness beyond those close to the sustainability lexicon communities is poor. The SDGs just haven’t penetrated debate much below national conversations in too many countries. Cities on the other hand have been under-supported nurseries for independent early adopters and networks.

My home city of Liverpool.

Every city, regardless of GDP stature or geography, has its social, environmental and economic challenges, often with pockets of extremes at the very least. In my home city of Liverpool, once the second city of the British empire and once with an economy bigger than London, it then spiraled to almost to an infamously allowed ‘managed decline’ around the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was only through a massive regeneration program provided by the EU that Liverpool once again began to climb upwards. The city is now in full-speed renaissance mode, the home of the Beatles, a declared climate emergency, a once again thriving port and a resurgent Liverpool Football Club, yet infant mortality is on the rise and one in three children live below the poverty line. Like the airlines tell you every time you fly, put the oxygen mask on yourself before you attempt to help others.

Imagine a world where every city had a SDG plan?

In September this year a key element of that cities movement took a significant step forward as 20 cities signed up to a Voluntary Local Review (VLR) Declaration alongside the SDG Summit in New York. The three commitments that each have agreed to are:

1. To identify how existing strategies, programs, data, and targets align with the Sustainable Development Goals

2. To provide at least one forum where stakeholders can come together to share experiences, lessons learned, and information gathered using the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals

3. To submit a Voluntary Local Review to the United Nations during the United Nations High-Level Political Forum

The initial cohort of cities includes New York, Los Angeles, Santana de Parnaíba, Helsinki, Freetown, Accra, Bristol, Amman and Yokohama, with many more expected to sign-up soon via an open call to action. Maybe Liverpool soon too.

New York had taken the lead back in 2018 by creating and publishing the first ever VLR and is now leading the cities movement by example. “We are living in a time when national governments are abdicating their responsibility on urgent issues. That is why cities are stepping up,” said New York City’s International Affairs Commissioner Penny Abeywardena.

Mayoral and Local Authority leadership is essential but are not the answer in isolation though. Cities are not just local government offices or the contents of strategy documents, they are wonderfully diverse, vibrant, disruptive and often unpredictable groups of people, including our flaws. Just like the CEO of any truly progressive organisation the real pathway to success is always a unified people, or employees. Strong leadership comes from empowerment, nurturing and commitment to lead by example.

Inside every city there are SDG early adopters and champions across every sector connecting independently with or without local civic leadership. As Mayors and Local Authorities accelerate their understanding of the benefits of the SDGs and better align their local strategic plans, we can more effectively convene the grassroots actors, many already years into SDG activity — even if (and often when) they haven’t heard of the them!

2030hub brings together local stakeholders to promote local action on the SDGs.

Our 2030hub model was built to specifically stimulate city-level adoption and provide support and rapid implementation. For nearly four years we have engaged the stakeholders of a 2 million people population and challenged the 52,000 local businesses to lead the way. In 2017 we received recognition as the first Local2030 Hub through the Local2030 initiative to better corral multiple UN agencies and partners to accelerate sub-national impact. We have brought a city to the brink of formally joining the emerging VLR community whilst convening public, private and social sector organisations.

As cities begin step up, collaborate and effectively empower their communities the Decade of Action can truly deliver a sustainable prosperity for all.

A global community of changemakers united around a shared vision for a better world in 2030. A project of the UN Foundation in support of the United Nations.