Systems Thinking, Geospatial Science and the Complex Nature of the Sustainable Development Goals

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I sat in on a panel discussion at the AAG conference (Las Vegas, 2009) between the US State Department, Jack Dangermond from esri and a number of international organisations.  The subject was “Continuing Global Dialogues on Geospatial Science and Sustainable Development”.  Again, the aspiration for unified sustainable development goals was evident.  What was also clear was the level of complexity of such goals and the intricate role systems thinking and geospatial science would play in achieving them. 

The eight UN Millennium Development Goals were replaced 7 years later by 17 Sustainable Development Goals [1].  However, to date the achievement of these goals remains a challenge, whether it is due to systemic barriers [2] or issues around prioritisation and accountability [3].  In addition, I argue that a holistic view of and complex systems approach to these 17 goals are predominantly absent and contribute significantly to these deficiencies.  Considering the familiar image of the Sustainable Development Goals (Figure 1), it is hard not to envisage a list of subjects to be addressed through a reductionist approach:  decomposing these goals into 17 or more pieces, solving them separately and putting them back together as a consolidated solution. 

Figure 1: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

However, such an approach ultimately overlooks the complex interrelated nature of these 17 goals – multiple causes and effects between them, feedback loops and autonomous actors.  A systems thinking approach would allow for the relationships between these goals to be identified and also prioritised in terms of importance.  Hence, the consideration of network theory (link analysis potentially) would optimise prioritisation. Furthermore, the influence related goals have on each other will reveal leverage points to guide attention and decision-making.  How would Goal 1 (No Poverty) be achieved without consideration of Goal 3 (Good Health and Well-being) or Goal 4 (Quality Education)[4]?  How do different goals compete?  How will ecological sustainability and inequality reduction potentially be influenced by the aspiration of a high level of economic growth?  These goals should thus be viewed in a different manner.  Figure 2 provides one of many examples, showing the relationship between goals and the level of significance [5].  Fu et al. (2019)[6] regarded sustainable development as a societal outcome, produced through the assurance of a balance between human development and environmental protection, and in doing so revealing that goal implementation is an optimisation process within a complex global system.  

Figure 2: SDG Network Analysis (Jeff Mohr  @kumupowered)

The application of Geospatial Science in studying complex geographical systems offers far more than merely the analysis and visualisation of static or even basic temporal geographic dynamics. Increasing convergence of spatial data science and methodologies for studying complex systems enhances the possibility of considering and understanding better the interrelated and non-linear dynamics of phenomena.  This is particularly important, given the eye-watering 169 targets set out for the 17 SDGs.  Advancement in techniques for the incorporation of GIS data into agent-based modelling and cellular automata toolkits resulted in a significant increase in spatially explicit modelling. 

Furthermore, the benefits of GIS and BIM (Building Information Modelling) integration extend far beyond the optimisation of sustainable designs, assurance of collaborative workflows and efficient life cycle management of infrastructure (promoting Goals 9 and 11).  Combining BIM and GIS not only optimises the assessment of urban energy performance in smart city planning [7] for example, but also aids sustainable management of the complex relationship between the built and natural environment.  The practice of GeoDesign applies systems thinking to the collaborative consideration of complex environmental dynamics and subsequent enhancement of sustainable design.  The IGC (International GeoDesign Collaboration) adopted the SDGs as a standard format for assessing the impacts of more than 2 000 scenario-based designs [8].  Hence, all IGC projects should indicate how efficiently design scenario outcomes would address the SDGs.

The intention of this discussion is to promote systems thinking in terms of the SDGs and the consideration of these goals and related targets as interrelated components of a complex system. Thus, a broad overview is provided of subjects for deliberation, rather than an in-depth study of each.










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