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  • Writer's pictureSarah Patterson

A Fresh Look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Updated: Mar 29


We recently delivered a workshop at a downtown Toronto private school. The students are spending some concentrated time on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which in turn got me thinking about them some more.


I have long struggled with these goals for several reasons. The first reason is that some of them strike me as being necessarily in conflict with one another. Given the emphasis we place on whole system change at the paradigm level, I also find that they don’t challenge any of the assumptions that have got us into this mess in the first place. As an example, SDG number 8 is good jobs and economic growth.

While I think having commonly stated goals that every country can strive for is admirable, the ways in which these goals are measured and enforced are also problematic for me.

Having said that, in preparing for the workshops, we came across two tools that I think are useful additions to the discourse and will share them with you here.

The first is the Stockholm Resilience Centre's SDG Wedding Cake (their title not mine). What I appreciate about this reimagining of the SDGs is that it presents them hierarchically.


This image underscores the futility of working on economic goals if we are surpassing our planetary boundaries. Seen this way, it is reminiscent of Kate Raworth’s donut model where we must not be overshooting these finite resources, while at the same time moving toward global societal minimum thresholds that must be met for all people. Seen this way the SDGs make more sense to me.

The other tool that I would like to share is the SDG Report.


This interactive tool allows you to have a dashboard report of how each country in the world is progressing toward the achievement of each goal. It is a fascinating exercise to look for patterns that emerge. Which countries are doing better on the achievement of which goals (or wedding cake tier of goals)? How are these measured? Can Canada honestly say it has achieved SDG number 1, which is no poverty?

I invite you to spend some time with these two tools and see what insights you have.

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