Blog Posts Johanna Kohl General

Lately, I have heard scientists often say that SDGs are nothing more than nicely coloured icons, and not that useful for future research and concrete steps towards increasing sustainability. Another comment from scientists is that SDGs are just aimed at developing countries. Are they though?

First of all, I think SDGs are great! They are ideal for starting the conversation on our current and future challenges, either at a national or global level, with young or elderly people, or with industry or politicians. Why does having a common setting of shared goals bother scientists?

The goals are admittedly on a very general level, but the sub-targets are more precisely defined. Some of the goals are more targeted at solutions for developing countries, but don’t we have anything to offer as scientists for those challenges in developing countries, regarding such issues as natural resources and gender equality?

Researchers with an interdisciplinary background like me often look for the benefits of thinking in a systemic way. I see that SDGs are just like an open playground for innovative research solutions both for specific issues, but at the same time for more general and holistic purposes. It can be both/ and not either/or, as many specialists seem to think. Especially now, the collaboration of generalists and specialists is more and more valid, if the SDGs are really to be achieved. The world is complex, and SDGs are one way of get the pieces of a puzzle to fit together, e.g. to communicate, research and implement the target of stopping the climate warming by 1.5 degrees.

I utilise SDGs as a sort of puzzle: different pieces can be combined, and the solutions are where the pieces meet. Achieving “zero hunger” may require really an understanding of “industry, innovation and infrastructure” coupled with “gender equality” and also special research of future “life on land” and the “climate actions”, just to mention a couple of them on a very general level. What is new in this? Maybe nothing as such, but I am wondering, if we could use our innovativeness and creative capacity much more to achieve the goals. If everything is that clear, and nothing is new – why then do we have this agenda and goals. More nexus and less silos, please.

So, the future is also on the edges of the SDGs, as they often do have integrated and cumulative impacts to be ex ante assessed from all angles of sustainability. There we also need a better understanding of the socio-cultural sustainability impacts integrated into other sustainability dimensions. Also, the indicators of socio-cultural sustainability are to be further developed. However, it is also obvious that the quantifying socio-cultural sustainability aspects do not give us the big picture. Attitudes, behavioural issues, implicit knowledge and irrationality are not easily quantified. Why should they be? Why would quantifying and measuring everything give us an explanation of the world? Yes, it is good to measure and quantify issues that are measurable, but to achieve the SDGs we must accept that implicit knowledge, irrationality, prejudices and attitudes are motors of change. So, the need for researchers from generalist and multidisciplinary backgrounds is obvious, and collaboration between natural and social sciences will not disappear any time soon.

The interdisciplinarity is seldom well implemented in research. On R&D agendas interdisciplinarity has been already for decades, but would now be the time to no longer see generalists as “secondary, unclassified” people, but as main drivers together with specialists? I believe so. For system level changes, we also need a holistic understanding of the complexity of change and cumulative and integrated ex ante impact assessments. SDGs are about researching future crops, animal migration, warming climate, forest policy and social policy. All these are needed separately, but also together in a big picture by someone having this kind of system level, forward looking capability. Holistic sustainability not only includes all the sustainability aspects, but also system-level thinking.

Natural resource literacy can be embedded in each of the SDGs and this could be Luke’s goal. We have expert knowledge in all of the sustainability dimensions and raw materials as well as the capability of combining expert knowledge from different disciplines. SDGs can be utilised to promote and target future research. Let’s do it together! #holisticsustainability #foresight #moretogether



  1. It is up to all of us to fill the SDGs with life! For some of them it is still a long way to go but as Chinese are saying: A journey of 10000 miles starts with one step.

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