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By Jessica Espey and Guido Schmidt-Traub

On September 25, 2015, over 140 world leaders came together at the United Nations in New York to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that promise to set the world on a path to a more sustainable and inclusive future. It was a terrific week, which mobilized thousands of people all around the world at events, concerts, light shows and political meetings – all in celebration of a historic global agreement for people, planet, and prosperity. The week was capped off by a landmark US-China joint statement on climate change, committing both countries to preparing long-term strategies for decarbonization. This commitment was subsequently reiterated by 44 heads of state convened by the UN Secretary-General and the Presidents of France and Peru.

Having been deeply involved in the framing of the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) is now mobilizing its global network of knowledge institutions to help fulfill the ambitious SDGs. And we firmly believe in the necessity to move quickly. Decisive action in the first year of the SDGs, led by governments but in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders, will demonstrate how the SDGs can become a powerful framework and tool for sustainable development, including ending extreme poverty, at local, national, regional, and global levels. We therefore commend the Swedish-led initiative of mobilizing early action in at least nine countries through the creation of a High-Level Group. Proactive engagement with the SDG framework over the next 12 months will ensure that the goals resonate beyond the United Nations and intergovernmental fora to mobilize local governments, business, civil society, and science for action.

We see three critical opportunities for early action. First, every country needs to consider the full set of 17 SDGs, but priority needs differ, and the goals and targets must be adapted to national contexts. To operationalize the SDGs and to ensure no one is left behind, governments at national and local levels can engage a wide range of stakeholders in an open and inclusive dialogue on national implementation of the agenda. SDG inception workshops can kick-start these discussions in every country.

Since 54% of the world population lives in cities, which generate 70% of world GDP, the success or failure of the new 2030 agenda rests in large measure on making the SDGs work in cities and mobilizing urban creativity and innovation for novel solutions. City leaders and other local government representatives should therefore be actively engaged. Knowledge institutions and businesses will also be critical; the SDSN is establishing national and regional networks of knowledge institutions, working with business, to support the SDGs. Many of our networks are already helping initiate local dialogues on how to get started with the SDGs. In support of these efforts, we are finalizing a first handbook on “Getting Started with the SDGs” to provide suggestions on how to start the process of implementing the world’s shared agenda for sustainable development and ending poverty.

Second, each thematic or epistemic community must get to work to explain the quantitative outcomes that must be reached to achieve the SDGs by 2030. For example, what does universal secondary school completion (SDG 4) mean and how can it be measured? Epistemic communities should then support governments in working backwards from the quantitative end goal to map out the policies, investments, and interventions needed to achieve the goal. Such back-castings have become common in the health sector, but they are much less common in other areas. The SDSN has helped pioneer a back-casting methodology for energy transformation through our Deep Decarbonization Pathway Project, and we are now exploring a similar approach to map out the transformations required for sustainable agriculture. Such work is needed in every goal area to support the implementation of the SDGs and ensure that are taken seriously as quantitative, time-bound goals – not just considered high-level principles or broad areas of activity.

Third, the world must start measuring progress towards the SDGs through sound indicators – perhaps drawing on our global study of Indicators and a Monitoring Framework for the SDGs – and harness the data revolution to support implementation. The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data has been established to bring together governments, private companies, academia, scientists, and civil society in support of data-driven decision-making, by catalyzing more open, new and usable data, that will help all countries to monitor and meet the SDGs. SDSN is proud to be a founding member of the Partnership, and our new Thematic Group on Data for Sustainable Development will help identify practical ideas for making better data more widely available.

These three priorities for early action – starting national and sub-national dialogues on operationalizing the SDGs, undertaking serious back-castings for how each goal can be achieved, and mobilizing the data revolution for the goals – can set the world on a course towards achieving the SDGs. They will help demonstrate how the goals can be useful tools for officials in government or international organizations, leaders of civil society, business leaders, and the scientific community.

The 2016 High-Level Political Forum provides an important opportunity for taking stock, but by then the world needs to be out of the starting blocks. At the SDSN we look forward to working with our partners to get as far as possible within the first year. Let the race to achieve the SDGs begin.