• Cities are the dominant force of change for human societies.

• Cities, not nations, should secure the SDGs for the world.

• COVID-19 has given a stimulus for cities to push harder on many SDGs.

Where the majority of the world’s population now live, cities will play a leading role in the drive towards a more sustainable future. Powerhouses of economic growth, they consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global carbon emissions.

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are vital to achieving a prosperous future for all. Only one, SDG #11, explicitly addresses cities – but in fact, 65% of the SDG targets can only be accomplished if cities and regions get involved.

COVID-19 has brought the SDGs’ importance even more clearly into focus. Given the severity of the crisis, one might expect cities to abandon them in order to concentrate on the pandemic. Interestingly, instead of this, cities are reporting a shift in priorities: Local authorities are now emphasizing health & well-being (SDG #3), and decent work & economic growth (SDG #8).

Only SDG #11 directly impacts cities – but many of the others are concerned with them too
Only SDG #11 directly impacts cities – but many of the others are concerned with them too
Image: UN

However, cities worldwide are falling behind on delivering overall the 2030 agenda. After five years, the SDGs are still not on the agenda of cities in a “business as usual” sense. So how can cities overcome this? New research reveals that:

1. Cities should approach the SDGs step by step. City leaders recognize that their attention needs to extend beyond SDG #11 (cities). But trying to tackle all the SDGs at once can be overwhelming and actually hold cities back. Cities should approach the journey component by component. Allan Macleod, a young SDGs leader who has worked on Bristol's One City Plan, recommends concentrating on specific goals like #13 (Climate Action) as part of a "bottom-up approach" that will achieve more concrete results than a "top-down" one that attempts to get everything done at once.

2. Being accountable for SDGs does not necessarily mean extra work; more an adjustment of focus. SDGs can be easily aligned with current city priorities. For example, New York City pioneered the Voluntary Local Review for SDGs, a tool for cities to report directly to the UN on their efforts to achieve the goals. According to Penny Abeywardena, the Commissioner for International Affairs and a key figure behind the review, aligning the city’s green plan with the SDGs was relatively simple..

3. Cities must share SDG successes and failures. City action on the SDGs is not well-documented. Experiences are insufficiently and inconsistently captured, variably communicated, and often recognized under a different agenda. Yet learning from past experiences and failures is critical to success. Cities need to document and share their local experiences on furthering the SDG agenda. This will inspire other places and help accelerate action across the globe.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

4. The voice of women and young people needs to be heard to drive the SDGs agenda. Most capital city leaders in the world are men over 50. While older generations hold a wealth of experiences, more balanced and inclusive governance mechanisms must be sought in cities to develop solutions that work for everyone. Helsingborg in Sweden, for example, has created a youth council to engage people in local sustainable development – an easy set-up that can be replicated anywhere.