The SDGs are radical. They emerged as a sort of ‘to-do-list’ full of priorities for taking on the world’s problems. In response to the motherhood statements and unfulfilled promises of the Millennium Development Goals, they were ushered in through a human rights-based approach to relaying the power that a commitment a State could make to a collective goal and their citizens. It’s a complex thing to disentangle, but the goals are built on ending poverty, promoting equity and equality, tackling the climate crisis, and generally looking after our global public goods.
We find ourselves working with a variety of multistakeholder partnerships, committed to advancing action in tackling sustainable development challenges. Recently, with Wasafiri, we’ve been working with The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) which brings together governments, businesses and civil society to translate commitments to addressing plastic pollution into meaningful and tangible action. GPAP operates both globally and locally through National Plastic Action Partnerships (NPAP) that bring the GPAP model to specific countries. Through key activities in convening, building roadmaps, and identifying financing solutions, GPAP aims to contribute to reducing plastic pollution, and ultimately improve the environment and the quality of life of people who depend on it.
In our work with GPAP, we have been evaluating progress, learning about what is working and what is not in this burgeoning field of plastics solutions, and probing for what might be useful instruments that will help us understand the work of multistakeholder partnerships and collaborations. The UNDP Accelerator Labs in partnership with Nesta have recognised the role and value of collective intelligence for navigating sustainable development challenges. Their recent report sets out some of the design principles and considerations for deploying collective intelligence approaches in these spaces.
“At its simplest, collective intelligence can be understood as the enhanced capacity that is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilize a wider range of information, ideas and insights. Collective intelligence emerges when these contributions are combined to become more than the sum of their parts.”
For tackling plastic pollution, the need for collective intelligence efforts is urgent. Each year, approximately 8 million tonnes of plastic waste leak into the oceans, leaving devastating effects on the environment and the health and lives of millions of people around the world. The value chain that underlies plastic generation, use, disposal, re-purposing and recycling is complex. Actors from across multiple sectors and settings — including formal and informal — all play key roles that collectively influence the level of plastic pollution in the environment. Given this complex dynamic, intentional efforts to engage across sectors is a critical step toward creating plastic pollution solutions that are responsive to local environments, and ideally, scalable across different jurisdictions, levels of action, and populations.
The complexity of the shared problems we see in sustainable development, inhibit efforts to identify a single metric, measure, indicator or target for demonstrating a goal is being reached. Indicators suggest change and alert us to where deeper excavation is needed. We are often asked to find the golden ticket — or to prioritise the most important thing to measure. There isn’t a one size fits all — especially in sustainable development. So far, (and we’ve got 10 more years to get this right), we thought it might be useful to share some lessons we’ve learned from work with GPAP and others that may be applied to any collaborative effort that are looking to find a set of meaningful measures they can track progress on and align themselves to the SDGs.
1. Measure what you’re doing
There is a propensity to measure the results of projects, programs and implementable solutions in the sustainable development space. Much of this is driven by the funding agreements of development organisations or multilateral banks. We’ve collectively (excuse the pun) found ourselves embroiled in formulating quantitative indicators of progress for complex issue. Much of the unique value of multisector partnerships lies in their ability to convene diverse and disparate voices, and elevate ideas. The intentional collisions that occur within the cogs of an MSP, like GPAP, are where the magic happens. Instead of measuring the long-term benefits or changes to the plastic pollution space, we would recommend focussing in on the areas where the partnership is advancing collective intelligence:
- Healthy, inclusive convening
- Targeted, active commitments
Measuring what works for different challenges with diverse actors collaborating is essential to advance learning, and to meet the ambitious goals for sustainable development.
2. Report on what you collect
We are privy to some fantastic examples of reporting on what is collected, and as Steve MacFeely from World Economic Forum suggests, rules and standards for reporting on the SDGs need a rethink.
A key contribution of multistakeholder platforms, like GPAP, is its ability to advance knowledge through the sharing of progress against collective goals. Given that no single indicator can speak to the health or value of a platform, it’s useful for those working in platforms to share a range of data about what they are doing and achieving. Making clear what data have been gathered or accessed, and from what sources, is useful for those in other MSPs, and is an important step in promoting ongoing learning and improvement among the community of actors who are working in and through MSPs.
Sustainable development is aspirational, seemingly unattainable and completely fraught with complexity — so, ensuring information about what is working is shared is critical.
3. A problem shared etc.
The culture of measurement collides constantly with the culture of competition. We see it playing out in philanthropic foundations, where ownership for delivery of public goods become mantras. We see it in competitive reporting at country level in OECD SDG reporting where members are compared and contrasted — what did you do to save the world today?
Global, public goods are shared. We all own these assets, collectively and we are all responsible for their upkeep. In the world of measurement and management, changing our mindset to a place where we can comfortably share success and failure has many benefits, not least that duplication of efforts can be reduced so that resources can spread across areas of need. When we don’t need to stake our claim, we can share learning across sectors and between silos so that the things we have learned in our project can be implemented faster and at greater scale elsewhere.
Measure what you do. Report what you collect. Share what you’ve learned about your contribution.