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  • Writer's pictureDavid Marlow

How to use the UN Sustainable Development Goals in local economic strategy and placemaking

David and Mike speak with Alex Hiniker, Director of the Sustainability Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, and facilitator of the first ever globally published Voluntary Local Review (VLR) of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when she was in the New York Mayor’s Office in the late 2010s. What are the SDGs and the VLR? How can they be an important and relevant driver for LED and Placemaking? Why should we use them more proactively now and in the future? Our full episode with Alex is not to be missed!

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Alex has had an illustrious and diverse career and can genuinely claim to be at the forefront of translating the SDGs into local practice. The SDGs can sometimes seem too global and too dominated by UN member states for local geographies. But our discussions with Alex explored how they can be applied locally and become a driving force for place-based inclusive and sustainable growth and development.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?


SDGs are successors to the Millenium Development Goals. There are 17 of them and they were adopted by the UN in 2015 as their agenda and blueprint for 2030 success. The 17 global goals aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030. They are not legally binding or mandatory for any country, but some countries have taken steps to incorporate them into their national laws and policies. The UK Government claims to have integrated them in departmental planning processes, and is committed to publish its Sustainability Disclosure Standards for them later in 2024.


Why are they relevant for cities, towns and regions sub-nationally?


At one level the SDGs provide a useful checklist against which local places can define their vision, values and what success looks like. The primary 17 goals include items like health and wellbeing, education, poverty and hunger elimination, climate action, alongside more traditional LED and placemaking themes like good work, industry innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, responsible production and consumption.  The SDGs are not unlike any number of place-based indexes of wellbeing and vitality. However, they are broader, more comprehensive, and have advantages in terms of international status and therefore comparative analysis and measurement.


In their more advanced form the SDGs have 169 detailed targets and 232 indicators of achievement. They have been translated and adapted for cities and regions internationally, including a Voluntary Local Review (VLR) process. Over 200 cities and regions have used the VLR process and uploaded their results to the UN SDG VLR site. As of the episode with Alex, only Bristol and London in the UK have uploaded their VLRs, but further UK local authoritiy experience is showcased more fully here.

What is Alex’s experience of the VLR and might it be helpful for UK cities and regions going forward?


Alex sees the application of the SDGs to place-based strategy and prioritisation as an opportunity, not an obligation. Mapping existing strategies and plans on to the SDGs can help position priorities within a bigger picture long term framework. It can surface obvious omissions, and make more novel connections (e.g. how can your place champion issues like peace, justice, human rights etc.,?).


The VLR process can strengthen partnership working and community involvement. It enables regions, districts, towns and villages to share a common language, experience and learning with a global network of other VLR places and institutions. Within institutions it can be a strong driver of interdisciplinary working on cross-cutting goals like poverty reduction or sustainability.


One of the strengths of the SDGs and VLRs are that they can be both a powerful hook on which leadership teams can advocate their visions, values and priorities; but also provide actionable insights for front-line operational teams.


What is likely to be the future for the SDGs and VLRs?


Having been adopted by the UN in 2015 as a 2030 agenda, the time for the next iteration of the SDGs is fast approaching. Alex spoke about new sub-national iterations of the process – for instance her university is doing a ‘Voluntary University Review’, and one could imagine this being relevant for anchor institutions individually and collectively more generally.

The UN Secretary General is seeking local and regional contributions to the thinking about the future of the SDGs and the VLRs post-2030. This might be a major opportunity for LEDC listeners’ institutions to position themselves more prominently in this undoubtedly critical global and local agenda. 

This episode responded to a number of requests from LEDC listeners for an episode on the SDGs. Having spoken with Alex, we are both delighted to present the episode and this blog. Please share your places’ experience of the SDGs amd how you might use them differently in the future. And what should be our advice and ask of the UN and our national government as the post-2030 successor agendas are elaborated?

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