Five things we’ve learned about Localising the Sustainable Development Goals

Kristina Diprose reflects on lessons from a recent workshop on Localising the Sustainable Development Goals, co-organised by Realising Just Cities and UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development.

Cities and the SDGs

This month the UK Government will publish its first Voluntary National Review of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. We already know that some of the key messages of the UK VNR will be about keeping the vision of the SDGs connected to people and places, and about using the leverage of government, civil society and private sector at different scales.

Cities have a vital role to play in achieving the SDGs. Whether or not it is badged as ‘sustainable development’, shared concerns around social justice, inclusive growth and the climate emergency frequently drive local ambition to transform our cities and leave no one behind. The SDGs present an opportunity for cities – in the UK and internationally – to speak a common language about the future we want for our citizens, and the power we have to create systemic change in the next 10 years.

While the UK Government has so far done little to facilitate the adoption of the SDGs by local actors, there are pockets of activity emerging from the bottom-up to make our cities and communities more inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Our recent workshop on Localising the Sustainable Development Goals brought UK local and combined authorities and other city stakeholders together for the first time to share experiences of working with the SDGs and ideas for action. We also invited international contributions from early adopters of the SDGs in Baltimore and Utrecht, and from a Mistra Urban Futures’ initiative that explores SDG localisation across seven global cities.

Here are five things we've taken away from this workshop:


Use the SDGs to tell the story of your city

The SDGs are a powerful communications tool, offering a unified language and shared vision that is about creating better places for the future. By connecting local commitments to global consensus about the kind of world we want to live in, the SDGs challenge place-makers to be ambitious in our actions and to work together for the common good. At the same time, the SDGs need to be locally meaningful and relevant. Hans Sakkers from the City of Utrecht reflected on the importance of translation, and how cities should develop a local imaginary inspired by the global Agenda 2030.


Ask the early adopters

Some city administrations and local actors have been working with the SDGs since they were adopted in 2015, which means there’s plenty of existing knowledge to draw upon. Whether it’s Baltimore’s experience of using the SDGs to highlight inequality, or Utrecht’s success in doubling the number of citizens aware of the SDGs, the global reach of the SDGs means there will be cities with comparable challenges and initiatives that others can learn from. Closer to home, Liverpool2030hub can share experience of working across sectors to raise awareness, London is eager to connect with other cities to develop comparable SDG metrics, and Bristol will soon be the first UK city to publish a Voluntary Local Review of progress towards the SDGs and a handbook for other cities interested this process.


Build alliances

As Goal 17 recognises, the SDGs can only be realised with strong partnerships and cooperation. Among the UK and international cities at this workshop were several examples of productive cross-sector and cross-city partnerships. In Baltimore, Bristol, Sheffield and Mistra Urban Futures’ partner cities, university-city partnerships have driven local engagement with the SDGs, with a dual research and advocacy role that supports local authorities’ implementation capacity. In Bristol and Liverpool, the engagement of the private sector has helped to mobilise political support for the Goals. Nationally, UKSSD’s connections through its cross-sector network of organisations who work together to drive action on the SDGs was vital in making this first conversation between UK cities possible. Many of those present are now eager to explore future opportunities for city-to-city collaboration.


Avoid 'SDG washing'

Sandra Valencia from Mistra Urban Futures cautioned against ‘SDG washing’. This refers to cherry-picking SDG Goals, targets and metrics that best align with your mission and support business as usual, for example retrofitting the SDGs to existing local strategies and commitments. There is a danger that such approaches can lull us into complacency by focussing on what cities are doing well, reducing the SDGs to a branding exercise. Ben Carpenter from Social Value UK reminded us that, while there is nothing wrong with using the SDGs to celebrate success, their real value is as a catalyst for change.


Think Beyond 2030

For those who have seen Local Agenda 21 come and go, it is tempting to be sceptical of the SDGs as simply the latest UN fad. Taking a long view, it is helpful to reflect and learn from how previous sustainable development initiatives gained traction only to fall by the wayside. How can cities protect the legacy of the SDGs for future generations? A pragmatic way of looking at it is to think of the SDGs as a tool to mobilise sustainability over the next 10 years. Something else will succeed them, but meanwhile cities can use this opportunity to create real and lasting change.



The Localising the Sustainable Development Goals workshop took place on 4-5 June 2019 at the Leopold Hotel in Sheffield. It was organised by researchers from the Realising Just Cities programme at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute in partnership with UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development, with funding from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.

Participating cities included Aberdeenshire Council, Bradford Council, a Bristol City Council and University of Bristol partnership, Canterbury SDG Forum, Glasgow City Council, Leeds City Council, Liverpool 2030hub, Greater London Authority and London Sustainable Development Commission, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Sheffield City Council and Sheffield City Region, South Lanarkshire Council and City of York Council, along with international contributors from Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute, Mistra Urban Futures, and the City of Utrecht, and representatives from the Local Government Association, Social Value UK and Social Progress Index.