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On July 15th, 2016 the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), with the Ford Foundation, Office of the Mayor of New York City, and 100 Resilient Cities, convened a 2.5-hour workshop on SDG localization. Ten months since its adoption by 193 UN Member States, the SDG agenda is now in full swing. Cities are poised to play a critical role in their implementation, and the time is ripe to elevate the level of attention being paid to local government action on the SDGs. The focus of this event was for cities, and those who are supporting sustainable urban development initiatives, to exchange strategies, lessons, challenges, and best practices for city-level implementation of the SDGs. The workshop also provided an opportunity to reflect on a range of practical tools to support implementation, including a new SDSN guide for cities getting started with the SDGs, available at SDGCities.Guide. The overall intention of the event was to bring city representatives together to share their experiences and to build a peer-to- peer network in support of SDG implementation in cities. The event was convened during the High Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development 2016.

Workshop attendees included: city officials working on sustainable development issues, including Sustainability Directors, technical specialists and policy makers; partner organizations supporting SDG city initiatives, including foundations and their affiliate programs; academia and think tanks; and UN and other intergovernmental organizations.

Outcomes and Guidance:

The presentations and roundtable discussion covered a range of issues and activities concerned with SDG implementation in cities. Participants articulated several specific points of guidance for achieving progress when implementing the SDGs at the local level:

  • Align existing sustainable development efforts with the SDGs. The group discussed the value of building the SDG effort from existing sustainable development work in the city, as many SDG concepts and targets are already being implemented in these locations. The SDGs provide a framework for assessing current efforts and identifying new and improved sustainable development initiatives. They can be used to coordinate cross-sector initiatives, improving efficiency and best practice in sustainable development. Topical working groups can be a useful way of linking development efforts within a city, integrating overlapping initiatives and facilitating discussion on common issues that different actors are addressing.
  • When appropriate, phase SDG implementation to achieve early wins. In some locations it may be prudent to prioritize a select group of SDGs at the beginning of the SDG initiative, to be leveraged through a current or new sustainable development effort of the city. This can facilitate “quick wins” that build awareness of the SDGs, as well as the social and political capital required for a more comprehensive initiative. However, while certain SDGs might take precedence for a city just embarking on implementation, and a phased approach may seem pragmatic, the “other” SDGs should not be left by the wayside. Rather, the purpose of focusing priorities and achieving quick wins in the beginning is to pave the way for cities to scale out their efforts across the 17 goals over time.
  • Build on social and political capital for sustainable development. Local champions are necessary for achieving the SDGs. These champions may be community leaders, political figures, or renowned experts. Their credibility and social capital can help to disseminate the message of the SDGs and engage a wider community of practice. Sustainability officers and other sustainable development leaders in government were highlighted as a particularly important group that should be brought into the process early. Vertical integration with national-level SDG efforts was also highlighted as important for fostering political capital and maintaining momentum. Public and community champions are essential to disseminate information on the SDGs and to help encourage community participation in the endeavor (as per the recommendation below).
  • Consider the opportunities and limitations of a local government’s mandate when strategizing for the SDGs. The specific mandates of local authorities can have implications for their ability to implement certain SDGs. It can be helpful to identify where there are interdependent relationships with the state or National Government at the outset, so as to clarify what is and isn’t feasible for any individual city to achieve. These relationships also reinforce the necessity to encourage vertical integration (cooperation between the various levels of government) and to highlight necessary governance reforms, which might enable greater decentralization and could improve SDG implementation in the long term.
  • Align budgeting processes with sustainable development strategies. To more effectively achieve development targets, there is benefit in lifting budget discussions out of their sectoral and departmental silos. Budget justifications should relate to the overarching development strategy, and strategic discretion should be used to allocate funds accordingly. During the ‘OneNYC’ implementation process government entities were asked to explain how a budget item facilitates growth, sustainability, equity or resiliency (the four lenses of the strategy). With this approach the budget is continuously aligned with the language of that strategy.
  • Utilize performance indicators to track achievements, motivate progress and improve efficiency. Data is fundamental to SDG strategy and planning. SDG indicators that are aligned with the global SDG monitoring effort, but are tailored to local circumstances, will be crucial to monitor progress over time, to improve performance and to drive action. This data should be publicly available so that residents can use it to hold their local governments to account, but also so that city departments are aware of each others’ activities and can coordinate action. Poor data sharing across government was highlighted as a common challenge amongst a number of cities. Efficient, user-friendly data platforms and display tools can help to overcome these challenges, improve data utility and, ultimately, support target achievement. Such platforms have the additional benefits of: (1) highlighting data deficiencies (e.g., insufficient coverage of locations or sectors), and (2) micro-data solutions associated with pilot investments can be more efficiently scaled up. Additionally, such a platform can help governments reconcile multiple sustainable development monitoring methods that may be in operation (e.g., STAR and ISO).
  • Build awareness and consensus through participatory methods. For there to be meaningful and broad public participation, stakeholders of all types (e.g., government, civil society, academia) need to be aware of the value of the SDGs and the modalities for getting involved in sustainable development planning. A key first step is to identify and prioritize local SDGs through local consultation and by utilizing ongoing participatory methods. At the start, it can be beneficial to capitalize on sustainable development topic areas where there is momentum, civic interest and willingness to engage such as inequality or climate change. But it is also important to avoid consultation fatigue and to respect the fact that some stakeholders (e.g., those from lower income households), may have limited time resources to participate. To prevent participation fatigue and improve efficiency, for example, Baltimore is tapping into and synthesizing the outputs of existing sustainable development consultation processes in the city.

Next Steps

City representatives and attending partners expressed broad enthusiasm for learning from each other’s examples of developing and implementing SDG plans, and building data and M&E systems. Going forward, this effort would benefit from an established community of practice, that would be supported by a knowledge platform which allows parties working on SDG cities initiatives to access practical guidance, replicable examples and experienced experts. SDSN’s new SDGCities.Guide was highlighted as a starting point for the knowledge platform.