March 6 to 10th marked SDG Week Canada, our country’s first large-scale mobilization by universities and colleges for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More than 100 SDGs-oriented events were organized across the country, showcasing the important role they play in all aspects of our campuses.
The 17 colour-coded SDGs, introduced in 2015, lend themselves neatly to teaching and learning about climate change – an issue that universities are built to solve.
This may seem obvious when it comes to faculties such as environmental studies but it’s the unexpected places where the SDGs are being used where a transformation in postsecondary education is happening. This is what has me optimistic for the future.
For the past five years I have served as the manager of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in Canada, hosted by the University of Waterloo. SDSN’s role is to build a network of universities, colleges, and knowledge institutions to advance SDGs research and teaching, and to showcase Canadian sustainability expertise back to a global audience.
The U of Waterloo is lucky to have many leading experts in the kind of fundamental science that pushes the boundaries of discovery. From nanotechnology to artificial intelligence, astrophysics to quantum computing, tomorrow is being mapped out on our campus today.
But what if there isn’t a tomorrow? That’s the question the SDGs ultimately raise, and they are framing the academic work needed to solve it.
SDSN’s remit is to support all participating Canadian universities and colleges, but upon joining the U of Waterloo, a school best-known for STEM, one of my first observations was how much teaching and research was being done using the SDGs as a framework.
Thanks to their universal design, the SDGs set the stage for the kind of collaboration we need to solve the planet’s biggest challenges. Their framework of 17 problems, 17 colours and 17 numbers has everyone speaking the same language. Thanks to them, researchers across vast geographic, cultural, and disciplinary distances can break down traditional siloes and come together and follow the same roadmap to solving problems. Our actuarial sciences department is using data and advanced financial tools to fight climate change in Indonesia. The Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics hosts experts in psychology, racial equity, and economics, all working to make air travel sustainable. Even Donna Strickland, the 2018 Nobel Prize winner and physicist, has turned her attention to the SDGs and is employing her ground-breaking laser technology to learn about polar ice melt.
In another example, in 2021, an international, interdisciplinary team of scientists released Nanotechnology for a Sustainable Future: Addressing Global Challenges with the International Network4Sustainable Nanotechnology. The ambitious report details nanotechnology’s potential to improve vaccines, water purification, alternative fuels, transport, biodiversity, and waste management. It lays out ways nanotechnology can do more than isolate a problem and solve it, by strategically maximizing impact across as many SDGs as possible. Here were some of the top Canadian scientists, as well as professors from Japan, the Netherlands, Australia, and the United States, all devoting their precious time and rare expertise to accelerating progress toward the goals.
Would this kind of work be happening without the SDGs? I think it would be in some form, but having a heuristic that allows researchers to both isolate challenges and see them as interconnected is incredibly valuable in a discipline of seemingly boundless potential like nanotechnology.
What the SDGs teach us is even if we can solve a particular issue with a technological silver-bullet, our sustainability challenges are interconnected in a way that does not allow us to fully achieve one goal without achieving them all.
The SDGs also have an enormous impact in curriculum development and experiential learning. In survey after survey, students across Canada point to sustainability as one of the challenges they are most eager to work on. Some choose to jump directly into programs focused on sustainability such as ecology, urban planning, or geography. For others whose ambition lies in fields such as engineering, applied math, and health, the SDGs provide an academic programming lodestar that can inject sustainability thinking into any discipline.
In 2020, Engineering Deans Canada, a 44-member pan-Canadian organization of deans of faculties of engineering launched their latest Canadian Engineering Grand Challenges. Each decade engineering deans gather to choose what they will collectively challenge students to achieve. This decade they chose to ask students to concentrate on and solve specific challenges related to multiple connected SDGs across six climate-related crisis areas.
This past fall, McMaster University created its first course on exploring the SDGs. The students come from all academic backgrounds and levels of study – proving that one does not need prior knowledge to start learning about SDGs. York University’s SDGs in Action Student Challenge offers up to $8,000 to support student study, research or work in the communities of independent projects related to the SDGs.
These are just a few examples. Across Canada, nearly every university has offered innovative programming aimed at tackling the SDGs.
It is also worthwhile noting that as useful as the SDGs are, they are not perfect. Some say the goals aren’t ambitious enough, or there is no reliable mechanism to measure our progress as a voluntary framework vulnerable to fraudulent self-reporting.
It’s also been argued that because the goals are presented in an appealing way, they can be co-opted by those who only care about looking sustainable – what’s known as greenwashing (or in the case of the colourful SDGs, “rainbow-washing”).
These criticisms are true to varying degrees, but in my opinion, the SDGs are the best tool we have now. When the mandate of the goals ends in 2030, we may not have reached all our targets, but we will have a new generation whose education was grounded in the SDGs ready to take that knowledge and apply it in the wider world.
Whatever the next iteration of the SDGs looks like, it will be tested and informed by this new generation. I am confident when that time comes, the impact of the SDGs will continue to be felt and that our next set of collective global goals will be even better.
Jon Beale is the manager of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network of Canada, hosted by the school of environment, enterprise and business at the University of Waterloo.