top of page

The Ecology of Thought and Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Insights from our 'Sustainable Development Goals - An Interactive Workshop'

“As Aristotle put it long ago, human beings are distinguished from other species by our ability to use language. Yet too often, at our jobs and in our business, we don't listen to one another. Invested in our views, we explain when we should inquire. Caught up in our own preconceptions, we disguise our feelings and fears, and hide our very meaning. Our talk, in fact, drives us apart.”

Change Agents UK convened a collaborative workshop in April, with a group of sustainability practitioners, based on the principles of effective dialogue. Or in simpler language, it held a daylong event of good listening and conversation around the SDGs! The event was based on ideas promoted by William Isaacs in his book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.

In his engaging book, based on over ten years of research with corporations, managers, business and community leaders, Isaacs explores how problems between managers and employees, or between companies or divisions within a larger corporation, stem from an inability to conduct a successful dialogue. He eloquently demonstrates that dialogue is more than just the exchange of words; it is the embrace of different points of view - literally the art of thinking together.

Rather than making a power point presentation or having questions and answers, this event was based on a conversation around how the delegates assessed how they and their organisation were implementing the SDGs. Essentially, what was working and what was not. We met in a room arranged in a circle of chairs and started the conversation with everyone making short introductory statements about their assessment of sustainability within their organisation (universities, local authorities , professional bodies to wild life conservation charities).

So for the first hour or so we mostly listened and as we all became more relaxed we began to critically analyse what we had heard. We discussed good sustainability practice and how it had created traction within each organisational context. Then we explored what was inhibiting further engagement and action in relation to the SDGs. We avoided trying to voice solutions at too early a stage, perhaps tacitly embracing Daniel Kahneman’s ideas on thinking fast and slow? Finally, we shared ideas on how we might enhance understanding of the SDGs and their implementation. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most aired ideas involved a critical appraisal of how best to communicate the SDGs in ways in which inspire and motivate action. Examples included short film, games and social media, perhaps inspired by the sustainability communications consultancy, Futerra.

“From gender equality to ending hunger, via climate action, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have got it all. The world’s governments, civil society, stakeholders and business did a pretty good job of creating a To Do List for humanity.

Except that list is written in a way which excludes the most important change-maker of all – YOU.

Because sustainability won’t be solved by institutions without individuals. Because each of us need to be invited to take part. Because we all have the right, the responsibility, and the opportunity to change the world for the better.

Because ‘people power’ is as important as ‘powerful people’ when it comes to progress.

At Futerra we know the incredible impact millions of folk working together can make. So, a few months ago we hacked the 17 Global Goals into a set of Good Life Goals.”

Perhaps the most important message from this innovative event was that we need to avoid technical and academic language. And we should couple this with acquiring an understanding of group behaviour - an understanding that any group will include movers, opposers, followers and bystanders. And, as such, these characterisations of group behaviour and dynamics are an important means of understanding the roles we tacitly assume and are an essential element of an effective and healthy ecology of thought which can lead to innovative and inspirational solutions to the implementation of the SDGs.

Dr Stephen Martin Hon FSE;FRSB;FIEnvSci.

Find out more about how the UK is performing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals here

bottom of page