You need to understand SDG interactions – here’s why

Image: Rubis Cube

Conversation on SDG interactions has just started

A new interactions framework could be key to effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals by G20 governments. In this blog Måns Nilsson and Martin Visbeck explore possible ways of empirically tracking degrees of policy coherence between the 17 SDGs, and propose ideas as to what the G20 might do to promote accountability of member governments in upholding the 2030 agenda.


The 2030 Agenda has thrust these policy interactions into the spotlight with its call to implement the 17 SDGs as “an indivisible whole”. UN agencies, NGOs and researchers have begun to think about what this means in practice; but early attempts have rarely gone further than simply identifying whether there is a link between two SDG targets, or roughly characterizing those links as either synergies or trade-offs.

For the ICSU study, we developed a more structured and nuanced framework that aims to meet the needs of policy-makers and facilitate dialogue on interactions. Based on a comprehensive review of the literature, we score the nature of each interaction, from the most negative, “cancelling” (-3), to the most positive, “indivisible” (+3), as well as noting the “direction” the interaction works in. This scoring is based on a seven-point typology presented in Nature last year. Further, we look at what contextual factors might affect the interaction – for example related to geography or policy interventions. Finally, we assess the level of scientific consensus and knowledge about the interaction.

Thus, we present not only a framework for assessing and describing interactions in a particular context, but also the beginnings of a generic but science-based library of possible interactions, and the evidence behind them.  

Why this matters to the G20

So why is all this important to G20 policy-makers? Here are six reasons:

  1. If you want policy coherence, you need to know how the pieces fit together
    Policy coherence has become a holy grail in public policy – it even has its own SDG target (17.X). When it works, it reduces the risk of policy actions undermining each other, and can unlock synergies. But building policy coherence depends on first understanding how policy areas interact. And they need to be unpacked in a way that is intuitive and clear.
  2. More effective policy dialogues and learning processes
    Policy coherence requires coordination and even cooperation between government departments, but this is often tricky. Inter-agency coordination and other types of dialogue exist but often lack structure. An SDGs interactions framework can help provide this structure and establish a common language and reference point. It can trigger and reinforce the process of learning about and engaging with each other’s agendas.
  3. Knowing your friends and foes
    Identifying the positive interactions that you have with other sectors, both how you affect others and how others affect you, will show you where to build partnerships for cross-sectoral implementation strategies. Negative interactions tell you where you need to negotiate, and whose concerns you need to take on board.
  4. More bang for your buck
    The 2030 Agenda underlines the fact that policy-making is about manipulating an integrated system. Policy interactions are not just between two areas but can ripple through this system, with second- and third-order interactions creating feedback loops or affecting yet other policy areas. A framework that captures interactions across the whole system can reveal opportunities for investments with disproportionately high rates of return. For example, applying the framework on Goal 5 (Gender Equality) reveals that lost-cost investments to boost gender equality and women’s empowerment can trigger progress in areas as diverse as economic productivity, children’s education, and new business development (for more on this, see a new SEI Working Paper by Måns Nilsson).
  5. Opening up the scientific knowledge base
    Scientific research relating to development, environment and economy is essentially about interactions. For example, in development research, large bodies of scientific literature exist on relationships between infrastructure investment and productivity growth, or between women’s education and maternal health outcomes. However, this knowledge is fragmented and mostly inaccessible to planners and decision-makers. The 2030 Agenda, combined with an interactions framework such as that proposed in the new report, offer a logical structure for organizing this knowledge in an understandable, policy-relevant way.
  6. Decision support when data is limited
    There may be a wealth of scientific evidence on interactions, but it tends to be very contextual. Ideally, policy decisions are made on robust, recent local data; but it is not always available when the decisions need to be made, including on SDG implementation. A generic interactions framework like the one we propose provides some flexibility, especially if it can be expanded and perhaps institutionalized. By linking well-supported interactions with contextual factors, it offers a guide to likely interactions when more specific data is unavailable, as a basis for policy dialogue and deliberation. For example, in Stockholm or Berlin we know quite well how a shift in transportation patterns from private cars to public transport will impact air quality and health. In emerging economies such as Indonesia or India, basic data on vehicle emissions trends and model simulations are often lacking. The evidence from Stockholm, Berlin and a range of other cities, nuanced with an understanding of contextual dependencies, could help stakeholders in other cities to make the necessary policy decisions.

What next?

The new ICSU report lays a foundation by piloting an inventory of the scientific knowledge base on a selection of SDG goals and their interactions. Also, a number of governments are now planning to use our interactions framework for policy assessments as they gear up to deliver substantive strategies for the SDGs. And at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York in July, the OECD will host an event where the interactions framework will be tested within their policy community on Policy Coherence for Development.

This kind of road testing, along with continued scientific assessments of interactions, for example through the newly created Science Platform for the SDGs in Germany, will generate learning that will help to develop our frameworks further. The conversation on SDG interactions has just started.


Måns Nilsson and Martin Visbeck are co-editors of the new International Council for Science (ICSU) report A Guide to SDG Interactions: from Science to Implementation.

Image: Måns Nilsson

Måns Nilsson is Research Director and Deputy Director of Stockholm Environment Institute

Image: Stephan Klasen

Martin Visbeck is chair in Physical Oceanography at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel and Kiel University

1 comment

  1. Philemon joseph - Antworten

    New thinking will be required to achieve the SDGs.
    Achieving the SDGs requires the partnership of governments, private sector, civil society and citizens alike to make sure we leave a better planet for future generations. Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. New thinking and collaborative actions will be high required to achieve the SDGs. Philemon Joseph CSR Strategy Consultant.( SDG Fundraising Consultancy)

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