Cities on the World Stage: Using the SDGs as a ‘north star’

This week, we’re looking at the ways in which cities and regions collaborate to push global standards. Part two of three looks at how cities can lead the way when global challenges — such as those identified by the Sustainable Development Goals — feel intractable. 

By: , /
October 17, 2018
Last month, the mayor of the city of Helsinki, pictured here on July 13, 2018, committed to a "voluntary local review" of SDG contributions. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

If the political thunderstorms across advanced economies have shown one thing in recent years, it’s the cost of leaving communities behind. When people experience persistent stagnation in local living standards or discrimination in life opportunities, social tensions can fester, with repercussions felt far beyond national borders. Such problems are too complex for national and even provincial governments to address alone. Durable solutions require concerted action and international cooperation among cities and communities as well.

The localized challenges of economic, social and environmental progress are the same tasks articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 17 key outcomes all UN-member countries agreed to achieve by 2030. At their core, the SDGs emphasize the universal imperative of “no one left behind.”

Canada’s federal government recognized this when presenting its SDG “voluntary national review” (VNR) to the international community this past July. Fittingly, the VNR stressed that there are millions of Canadians struggling at the bottom of the income scale while also highlighting the broader challenges of global inequality and sustainability. In August, the government added specificity to the domestic task by announcing the first-ever national poverty line and a goal to cut Canada’s poverty rate by half by 2030, consistent with SDG target 1.2.

In Canada, it is notable that the SDGs were agreed by the Harper government and are now being pursued by the Trudeau government. There is no need for political debate over “what” targets to achieve by 2030, only for policy debates on “how” best to achieve them in communities across the country. The SDGs offer a common “north star” to focus attention across electoral cycles and levels of government.

For instance, in the formal SDG framework, Goal 11 is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” This goal is partly a nod to fast-growing cities in many parts of the world and the need to get growth right. It is also a nod to the work of municipal leaders around the world, including the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, in highlighting cities as agents of change. Cities are the places where many citizens feel the most direct contact with government and see the greatest variations in their own quality of life.

Many cities are beginning to align their policy efforts with the SDGs as a common language and reference point. New York City, for example, recently became the first municipality to report its SDG priorities and contributions directly to the United Nations in the form of a “voluntary local review.” Last month, the mayor of Helsinki, Finland committed to do the same soon. Los Angeles is building its global credibility by pursuing the SDGs in the run-up to its hosting of the 2028 Olympics, and Japan’s national government has selected 29 “SDGs Future Cities.” Communities in many other countries are generating local evidence-based scorecards and using the SDGs as a frame of reference for achieving economic, social and environmental objectives.

"Many cities are beginning to align their policy efforts with the SDGs as a common language and reference point."

Community leaders across Canada are also starting to take the SDGs seriously as a neutral framework for tracking long-term local outcomes. Winnipeg, for example, has launched a municipal data portal to benchmark progress and inspire action, mypeg.ca, aligned explicitly with the SDGs. Other municipal leaders in cities across provinces like British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec are considering similar efforts.

Part of the momentum has been spurred by the Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), which has adopted the SDGs as an integrative tool for framing citizen feedback through the Vital Signs surveys and for connecting local, national and global priorities. Working with partners such as the McConnell Foundation and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (and provincial counterparts), the CFC has played a crucial role in launching Alliance 2030, a national network of organizations and individuals dedicated to achieving the 2030 targets at home and around the world. 

Earlier this year, the CFC also partnered with counterpart organizations in the United States and Mexico to host the first-ever North American Community Foundation Summit, centered on the SDGs as the primary theme. Under a banner of “Leaving no one behind,” the event offered a platform for sharing lessons across borders and highlighted the power of applying the goals universally.

But the power of cities to solve SDG challenges remains underleveraged. A new SDG-focused international cities’ alliance could propel progress across Canada and around the world. Working both in parallel and in concert to tackle local respective challenges, cities could learn from each other, develop joint approaches, and promote “cooperative competition” to see who can make the most progress.

Such an alliance could foster new communities of practice — collaborative networks of practitioners aiming to solve common problems across diverse geographies. Imagine, for example, if people working to achieve reliable clean drinking water for Canada’s Indigenous communities were to share experiences with counterparts working to ensure the same objective in Flint, Michigan and in the townships of South Africa. Sharing lessons across borders could strengthen communities at home while providing trust and momentum for broader international cooperation.

As a global political force, city-level international alliances have a precedent in the context of climate change. For more than a decade, the C40 global network of large cities has been driven by local political leaders willing to act even when national counterparts might waver. Such alliances recognize that cities’ own direct infrastructure and regulatory decisions form many of the front lines for the planet’s fight against climate change, while also representing a huge opportunity for advancing local economic and technological dynamism.

An international SDG cities’ alliance could potentially achieve even greater geopolitical impact than those for climate, because local citizens would feel the benefits more directly. Municipal decisions on issues like poverty, housing, health, education, sanitation and air pollution often have more immediate consequences for local quality of life than actions for pooled global challenges like climate change. And if the goals help to spur local progress, an added benefit could be increased public support for the international cooperation necessary for tackling SDG challenges elsewhere.

At a time of considerable strain in the global political environment, many societies around the world are looking for beacons of reasoned debate. This vision of city-driven diplomacy is based on pragmatism and problem-solving. Cities can lead the way in helping to fuse local and global priorities.