Cities can ‘hack’ global sustainability goals for their own purposes, report says

Students participate in the 2014 Future City New Mexico Competition, where school teams from the U.S. state compete to offer new urban visions. (Randy Montoya/Flickr/cc)

The U. S. Census is an immensely powerful data-collecting tool that can cough up some strange statistics, such as the fact that the northern state of Wisconsin’s top foreign import is sweaters. But how well does the decennial census in one of the world’s largest countries prepare its cities to track their progress on global sustainability goals? Surprisingly well, say researchers at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

In a report released last week, “Hacking the Sustainable Development Goals: Can US Cities Measure Up?”, a pair of researchers argue that even though the Sustainable Development Goals — the SDGs, a global framework that went into effect last year — were designed with national governments in mind, the majority of SDG targets are relevant to U. S. cities. Further, they find, data is indeed generally available to track progress locally, although gaps exist.

“We used the ‘hacking’ metaphor to suggest this really wasn’t a framework designed for cities, but it is one that they can creatively engage with and use to their own purposes,” co-author Solomon Greene told Citiscope.

The findings are important because for years top U. N. officials have been insisting that the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities. So if city officials can’t measure their headway — or backsliding — the world will have an incomplete picture.

[See: First-ever index ranks urban areas on SDGs implementation]

The SDGs are made up of 17 goals, which sit atop 169 more-detailed targets. The researchers found that 61 percent of those targets are relevant to U. S. cities, and 66 percent of these relevant targets are measurable across the nation’s largest cities and metros using publicly available data sources.

This suggests that data limitations should not be the main barrier for U. S. city leaders who want to engage in the SDGs, something already underway in places such as Baltimore, New York, and San Jose.

“We’re not solving the motivation challenge — that has to come from local leadership,” Greene said. “We’re trying to show that data shouldn’t be the primary obstacle.”

That said, there is work to be done. Although the SDG targets for Goals 6 (water), 12 (consumption), 13 (climate) and 16 (justice) are highly relevant for U. S. cities, less than half of the relevant targets under each of these goals are measurable in cities or metros using existing national data sources. Baltimore, for instance is in the midst of an intensive process to come up with local indicators for Goal 16, spurred in part by concerns around police violence in that city.

[See: Are cities on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030?]

Local administrative data can help fill gaps across several of these goals, suggesting that city governments can paint a fuller picture of progress across the SDGs by supplementing nationally available data with local sources.

City-to-city comparisons

Crucially, the report finds that city leaders cannot rely on the official U. N. indicator system for tracking local progress on the SDGs — a system that itself remains a work in progress. Only 19 percent of the relevant U. N. indicators across the SDGs are measurable in U. S. cities and metros using national data sources, the researchers warn. And for five of the goals, none of the relevant U. N. indicators are measurable across U. S. cities and metros using national data sources.

“We used the ‘hacking’ metaphor to suggest this really wasn’t a framework designed for cities, but it is one that they can creatively engage with and use to their own purposes.”

Solomon Greene
Urban Institute

To that end, the Urban Institute researchers recommend that the U. S. data platform for the SDGs be updated to reflect comparisons across cities. For example, that platform provides data on just three of the 15 targets for Goal 11, the “urban SDG, where city-to-city comparisons are most important. On a target such as the one for urban air quality, the national average does not offer any way to distinguish between, for instance, smoggy Los Angeles and crystal-clear Burlington.

[See: If cities are to ‘leave no one behind’, disaggregated data is invaluable]

Without such changes, any eventual U. S. report on the SDGs runs the risk of providing an average picture that is somewhat meaningless in a country as big as the United States. It would be hard to know where to improve in such a scenario, although recent efforts such as a first-ever index of U. S. cities toward SDG implementation are a start, while many communities are working toward locally relevant development indicators.

And that’s assuming the United States under the Trump administration even prepares a report. The SDGs are a voluntary agreement among the United Nations’ 193 member states, albeit one with considerable political traction. In practice, that means countries report on how they stack up against the SDGs on a strictly voluntary basis. As yet, there is no indication either way about the Trump administration vis-à-vis the SDGs.

Other countries are considerably more advanced at this stage. The Urban Institute researchers highlight Kenya and Colombia as two countries that are working hand in hand with local government when it comes to tracking SDGs-related data.

[See: How ISO standards for city data are starting to make an impact]

Greene says such efforts serve a valuable purpose for cities to benchmark their efforts against a common marker, and also to generate a healthy competitive streak. “National platforms incentivize a race to the top,” he said. “You want cities to compete with each other so that they do better.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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