Davos: We Need A Global Operating System Reset To Make The SDGs Work

The political earthquakes of 2016 highlight the shocks that are possible when deep-seated challenges are left unmet for too long. In the absence of reliable, inclusive and long-term progress, societies can rapidly pivot to reject foundational norms. As we navigate through a period of considerable international uncertainty, many people are scrambling for reference points to guide essential long-term decision-making.

Fortunately, the world already has a crucial reference point at hand, even if only modestly known outside certain policy circles. In September 2015, all countries agreed on a set of 17 goals that would help them tackle common economic, social and environmental challenges. These are the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and while each country has committed to applying these goals in a way that best matched its own situation, the broad outline is to eradicate extreme poverty, build prosperity for everyone and safeguard our planetary resources for the future. The deadline for achieving the goals is 2030.

As with all useful goals, the SDGs are stretch targets. A recent study looking at a subset of priorities found that 80% of the world’s countries are off track on at least one among four targets for child mortality, maternal mortality, access to water and access to sanitation. Thirty-seven countries are off track for all four.

Source: McArthur and Rasmussen 2016

Due For A Systems Upgrade

At the same time, almost all countries face core challenges in tackling issues like jobs, obesity, mental health, girls’ education and sustainable cities. On many social and environmental issues, trends are actually moving in the wrong direction. In many countries, inequality of incomes has spiked to record levels; atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are the highest in several million years; almost half of global fisheries have collapsed or are overfished.

Incrementalism won’t be enough to achieve a new generation’s goals. A more fundamental re-think is required, one that can generate progress at exponential rates. We need a new operating system – an upgrade to the way modern capitalist economies are working. The global economy delivers an impressive volume of output – some $75 trillion this year and almost $100 trillion by 2021, according to IMF forecasts. But its outmoded operating system is constraining its ability to deliver adequately fair social outcomes, or protect the planet.

Part of the upgrade needs to shift from adding efforts to reorienting efforts. For example, international development and more recently sustainable development has long been considered a process of adding on. Add renewables to the power supply. Add more foreign assistance so that more schools can be built and more children can be vaccinated. Add a focus on institutions and open government. Add dialogue space for civil society.