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Blog: The UN is 75. The global goals are 5. We are 1 – Reflections on progress at the Institute for Global Sustainable Development

Preface by IGSD Director and Professor for Global Sustainable Development, João Porto de Albuquerque

It has been a year since we launched the Institute for Global Sustainable Development as a hub for transdisciplinary research for sustainability transformations in Warwick – and what a year! Much has changed in the past months, but amidst the current uncertainties and global challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for transdisciplinary transformative research has never been more certain.

Even before the current global pandemic, no country of the world was on track to accomplish all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development signed by the United Nation’s Assembly in 2015. Now, the consequences of the pandemic are not only hampering further progress in several SDGs, but also threatening to reverse decades of progress achieved in key areas such as poverty reduction, water and food scarcity. In IGSD, we are well aware of these impacts which we hear first-hand from the research partners in our active projects in every continent of the world. As the devastating consequences to livelihoods, economies and societies are becoming increasingly visible, the World Bank estimates that COVID-19 will push 71 million into extreme poverty. The UN’s SDG report 2020 concludes that there is an even greater need to forge the transformative pathways needed to create a more liveable world.

One year ago, in the IGSD launch event, I proposed the question of whether we as an academic community are doing enough to tackle our biggest challenges such as climate change and the SDGs – and I thought we could do more. Stephanie’s blog below brings a nice summary of the great more things we did last year together with our partners in Warwick and beyond. I’m also very pleased to have co-chaired the Climate Emergency Task Force and to have worked with colleagues to produce the first SDG report of the University of Warwick, which we are launching today with a list of important contributions to all SDGs made by colleagues across various departments at Warwick. Even if I’m really proud of these accomplishments, particularly in such challenging circumstances, I’m also very conscious that we can and must do much more to tackle the challenges ahead. Therefore, I’d like to reiterate the question made one year ago and invite you to work together with us at IGSD in the next year towards our, more important than ever, vision to create knowledge that enables transformations towards a more sustainable, prosperous, healthier and just world for all.

Best regards


Blog: The UN is 75. The global goals are 5. We are 1 – Reflections on progress at the Institute for Global Sustainable Development

Stephanie Whitehead, Programme and Evaluation Manager, Institute for Global Sustainable Development - September 2020

The University of Warwick’s Institute for Global Sustainable Development (IGSD) had its launch event on 25th September 2019. It is no accident that we chose the International Day of Action for SDGs for the launch, it was a great opportunity to highlight the important role that research can and should play in contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is huge potential for research to have a positive impact on sustainability challenges, whether that is through new innovations and technology around energy and transport or by providing robust evidence to inform policymaking for the benefit of society (and everything in between).

As we come to the end of Global Goals Week and mark our first ‘birthday’, I find myself reflecting on where we (IGSD) have been, what we have achieved and, crucially what remains to be done. How are we progressing towards our vision to be at the forefront of knowledge creation that enables transformations towards a more sustainable, prosperous, healthy and just world for all?

Measuring our progress against our goals

In the early days, we invested time in considering how we thought the Institute could make a useful contribution to sustainable development. The outcome of this process was four goals.

  1. Generate cutting-edge research on transformations of human-environment interactions to sustainable development
  2. Cultivate cross-border transdisciplinary networks and facilitate equitable partnerships
  3. Contribute to transformative impact by addressing global challenges
  4. Develop capacity and collaborative learning
Generate cutting-edge research on transformations of human-environment interactions to sustainable development

Progress against goal one has been significant. Since setting our agenda last September, IGSD's Director, Professor João Porto de Albuquerque, has started work on an additional five UKRI funded projects under the Global Challenges Research Fund programme dedicated to research that benefits countries on the OECD’s DAC list of ODA eligible countries. The total value of these projects is just under £2m across all partners and institutions. Each of these projects seeks to transform the use of data in different scenarios for the benefit of marginalised communities in a range of countries across Latin America and Africa. The start of these projects has been challenging in the context of the pandemic, but it has been incredible to see how the research teams have come together not only to consider how work can be adapted to the new environment, but also to re-orient activity to support the COVID response. A good example of this is the participatory mapping process that URBE Latam has been doing in Morro do Preventório, Rio de Janiero (Brazil). Not only have community leaders in the informal settlement been trained in mapping, but the maps produced have been used locally to target provision of food parcels to those most in need. The new willingness to engage virtually has also enabled us to facilitate dialogue between community groups in marginalised communities in Brazil and Colombia, something that only twelve months ago might have seemed impossible. In addition, following devastating landslides this week in the El Pacífico community in Medellin, Colombia that have left some 30 families homeless, it was good to know that the community maps the project team co-created with residents played an important part in ensuring that no lives were lost.

We have also been pleased to begin working more closely with colleagues from the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and Universitas Indonesia, developing transdisciplinary partnerships for urban water transformations and working more closely with European institutions through the EUTOPIA Alliance that Warwick is part of. Both in their early stages, we look forward to working more closely in the coming year.

Cultivate cross-border transdisciplinary networks and facilitate equitable partnerships

We have made solid progress towards our second goal, developing a resource bank on equitable partnerships and integrating conversations on this key area in to the workshops we have delivered. Fortunately, we were able to adapt our workshops from f2f to an interactive virtual format with the help of our facilitator, Christine Bell. The new format worked well and I think the researchers involved got a lot out of the experience (as did the IGSD team.) The workshops focused on Theory of Change and connecting to the SDGs using the thematic areas of informal settlements and zero hunger as entry points. One benefit of going virtual is that we were able to add content that we recorded for the events to our resource bank (see ToC and SDG content here.) Our network of IGSD Fellows, whose expertise spans Law, Life Sciences, Engineering, Politics and Business, are all pursuing research that contributes to at least one SDG, are playing an increasingly important role in our community, sharing their expertise and exploring the many different ways that their research connects with other disciplines.

Our collaborators and partners are essential, and we make sure that roles, responsibilities and recognition is shared and that funding flows to them. In fact, at least half of the total budget awarded for the majority of our projects flows to our partners and we invest time in setting up structures that allow our collaborators to have an equal voice and equal participation. Often we have found that systems and processes in the research-funding life cycle do not always reflect the reality of our partners as they are predicated on the assumption that systems, regulations and frameworks will mirror those of the UK. This is at best frustrating and at worst a significant barrier to participation and progress. These challenges are often difficult to address and our work in this area is ongoing.

Contribute to transformative impact by addressing global challenges

The spotlight is this week on the significant, urgent and global challenges of sustainable development. While this week is a celebration of 75 years of the UN and 5 years since the Global Goals came in to being, it is also a sobering reminder of just how much work needs to be done and how little time there is left to do it. For our part, and in contribution to our third goal, we have consistently spoken at every opportunity about the value of the SDGs as an internationally recognised policy framework with which the academy can engage. However, connecting immediate research objectives to the longer-term goals of the SDGs can feel difficult for many, and we have invested time in conversations about this. We have also begun to explore how SDGs can be embedded in to the research culture and associated research infrastructure at Warwick. This started with the IGSD Fellowships that we launched this year, where applicants were required to explain how their research connected to the SDGs. Simply ticking a box against an SDG is no good – we believe that we should be thinking about how our projects connect to the longer-term targets and indicators of the goals. We have delivered a series of interactive, thematic workshops aimed at connecting research to the SDGs and we intend to continue and expand these conversations as we move in to our second year. Our Director co-chairs Warwick’s Climate Emergency Taskforce and also sits on the SDG advisory group, which will launch on 25th September Warwick’s first annual SDG report, reflecting on the contribution the university makes towards the SDGs.

Develop capacity and collaborative learning

Continuing our programme in respect of goal 4, we have delivered the workshops on Theory of Change (ToC), exploring with researchers how ToC can be useful in explaining how we expect change to happen in research projects and also how ToC can be a really helpful tool for engaging with stakeholders throughout the project lifecycle (see Q&A on ToC for a useful intro.). We have started to develop a PhD in Global Sustainable Development in partnership with the School for Cross-faculty Studies that will offer an exciting opportunity for those who share our passion for transdisciplinary research. As an output of some of the research projects, the research teams have co-created new training materials on participatory mapping for resilience (one example is the Tutorial on the use of OSM and HOT for online mapping.) As the finale to our first year of activity, we are launching this Friday 25th September a new geospatial Information science (GIS) helpdesk, using the expertise of our research team to provide advice and support to colleagues across Warwick who are keen to use GIScience in their research.

A busy year ahead

While we have had a productive first year, there is still so much to do, so I am grateful that our four goals were part of a five-year plan. As we enter our second year, we will seek to expand our programme of activity, working with the communities of interest we have begun to establish and developing new ones. This will certainly include more on Theory of Change, but will expand in scope to reflect the needs and interests of our communities.

In particular, we will focus on partnership building. We are very keen to engage externally with academics and with stakeholder groups who share our interest in contributing to global sustainable development through research. We will do this in collaboration with other research institutes and centres at Warwick, in particular the Global Research Priorities programme, which focuses on ten key research strengths at Warwick so that we can ensure that we are facilitating useful exchanges.

We will continue to champion the SDGs as a practical agenda with which researchers can and should engage, but we will also make space for critical reflection.

My personal reflection would be that IGSD has got off to a flying start but that there is huge potential to do more. I am passionate about bringing people together to explore and engage with the global sustainable development agenda and how it connects to research. If you are too, and you want to have a chat with us about how we can work together, please get in touch with me s dot whitehead at warwick dot ac dot uk

Team photo

A team photo from the start of the year - already out of date, we have grown since then!