Navigating towards the Safe Operating Space: Systems thinking and the SDGs

Abstract: Can the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals be reached within the Planetary Boundaries? This licentiate thesis aims to explore this question by navigating towards the safe operating space, as defined by the planetary boundaries, through integrating issues, disciplines, scales, models and stakeholders. The thesis is a milestone within the European Union financed project “Adaptation to a New Economic Reality (AdaptEconII)”. Besides the SDGs and planetary boundaries, I embark from a curiosity about systems and their dynamics and explore the interface of system dynamics formalism and global social-ecological systems resilience applications. A practical aim is to also inform the SDG implementation process by guiding cross-scale SDG implementation through offering modeling insights (the Human Needs Paper II) and a stakeholder approach for goal implementation (the African Dialogue Paper I). In the African Dialogue paper, I present the first stakeholder-based approach of visioning and exploring Sustainable Development Pathways to meet the SDGs. I embark from the Three horizons framework - a participatory approach which involves participants in visioning and unpacking complex issues to elicit views about future aspirations, current challenges and pathways to addressing and achieving them. The paper first introduces how the Three horizons approach was built on, and adapted to, the 2030 Agenda. Together with the co-authors, I developed the method to enable addressing a spectrum of challenges for SDG implementation and incorporate alternative narratives with a wholistic view of the 2030 Agenda’s implementation. We wanted to facilitate the discovery of a few alternative pathways and include a discussion on global pathways to contrast them against. In the paper, I discuss the benefits and challenges of the adapted approach in relation to its implementation in an illustrative case study, the 2018 African Dialogue on The World In 2050, which deliberated on future pathways for agriculture and food systems in Africa. The process enabled discussions on commonalities and differences between a diversity of future visions for Africa, grounded in different cultural contexts, and their implications for the global scale. All four stakeholder groups included the importance of youth and women empowerment, and the need for climate adaptation to reach the SDGs in their pathways. The groups diverged when it came to whether future population growth should be seen as positive or negative for African futures, and whether agribusinesses or cooperatives should dominate the agricultural sector. The developed frame, Three Horizons for SDGs (3H4SDG), represents a versatile approach for a participatory design of future pathways to reach SDGs, inclusive to marginalized voices and facilitating a context-sensitive exploration of alternative futures. In the Human Needs paper, I accentuate that sustainability means meeting human needs now, and in the future. The 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent global ambitions to meet human needs, but prospects are unclear for meeting SDGs without worsening environmental deterioration. In constructing a world model to explore SDG-related risks to Earth system resilience, I examined historic correlations, 1980-2015, between production measured as income per person and advancement on the human-needs goals, SDGs 1-7, for seven world regions and the world as a whole. In the paper I present uniform patterns of saturation for all regions above a clear income threshold – at a level where human needs and capabilities are met, consistent with happiness economics and the Easterlin paradox. I observe stark differences with respect to scale: the world as a whole behaves differently from all its seven regions. And I argue that these differences between historical regional patterns give vital hints on how SDGs can be reached within Earth’s safe operating space.