Sustainability: everything, everywhere, all at once?

25 October 2023

Ahead of the AMRC Summit 2023 in November, bringing together a cast of industrial leaders to discuss the future pathway for moving UK manufacturing to a net zero environment, the AMRC’s sustainability lead Dr Andy Bell, takes a closer look at the United Nations sustainable development goals and their implications for industry. 

Article featured in the latest issue of the AMRC Journal.

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) member states agreed a path forward to achieving, in their words, a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity, for both people and planet, adopting  17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). It recognised that our future depends upon not only tackling the climate crisis, but also on reducing other inequalities that pervade society. It is for this reason that I find the idea of selective engagement with the 17 SDGs problematic.

When we undertake sustainability discussions, we typically cherry pick SDGs based on a skewed perception of the reality of its problems and our perceived control over it. No one would argue that we need to address goal 12 - responsible consumption and production, but goal three - zero hunger, is abstract in relation to what is in our perceived control. This results in a kind of sustainability tunnel vision that we see across sectors with clear net zero goals but a weaker, wider agenda. The truth, in fact, is that if you are engaged with one of the SDGs you are engaged with them all.

Whilst this is a fairly new idea in the literature, dating back only to the late 2010s there is a sound logic that supports it. The SDG wedding cake from the Stockholm Resilience Centre shows visually how the SDGs can be organised into broad interrelated themes of biosphere, society and economy and goes some way in defining the prioritisation of these activities in relation to reaching the goal of a sustainable future. Yet, this is a broad brush that does not specifically consider the application of the high-value manufacturing sector.

As part of my current exploration of sustainability within the AMRC, I have been considering the implications of the SDGs for our industry and manufacturing organisations - particularly how these SDGs interlink and should be approached by a manufacturing business, a concept we will be exploring at the AMRC Summit 2023. By understanding only a little of the complexity of the SDGs, the SDG interaction diagram I’ve created proposes an approach to understanding how they are linked in our context.

By separating the SDGs into four groups, encapsulated within the concept of creating the necessary partnerships to achieve these goals, we can chunk the problem and better understand our place in the story. My proposal is simple: we have a set of key enablers that create the backdrop for achieving a sustainable future, supporting three priority areas that we must act on to realise the vision of the SDGs.

So, what is a key enabler? The key enablers provide a foundation upon which to build a response to the rest of the SDGs. The three elements under this cover our ability to innovate and create wealth, which is built on the strength of world class education systems and will generate the necessary funding to support sustainable transitions. We cannot, in truth, realise innovation and growth without the people to support it, which is driven by higher educational standards. What this also says is that the three key enablers are linked. For example, by focussing on SDG nine and four, SDG eight must be a natural byproduct.

This interlinking is also true for the proposed priority areas. Caring for our planet, aligned with the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s perspective of a foundation built on the biosphere, is critical and needs an immediate response. Interestingly, I believe that the six elements of caring for our planet are also being undertaken together, whether intentionally or not. We cannot, for example, reduce plastic consumption  - SDG 12 -  without unintentionally or otherwise impacting on SDGs six, 14 and 15. The reduction of plastic waste that follows sees an associated reduction in plastic reaching both landfill sites and the oceans and has the necessary impact of improving land and water quality.

Whilst I appreciate that our priorities of caring for people and places are more abstract, the logic also follows that they are linked back to our pursuit of priority one and the proposed key enablers. Investment in education is always an investment in people and although abstract, we know that improving educational standards, whether in pursuit of innovation and economic growth or not, improves outcomes for the people involved. The same is true of priority one: a clean and healthy planet means healthy people, closing the loop between the key enablers, goals under priority one and the goals of priority two.

Priority three is the priority that I have the most difficulty in giving a title. I’ve referred to it as caring for our places, but what it really means is that we make sure that the places we inhabit can support the people that live there fully. Perhaps being the most abstract of the priorities, it is also difficult to visualise the links for it. But when we pursue priority one and draw on the key enablers, we inadvertently create the conditions for priority three to take place. A planet that has a clean environment, is innovating through education and providing people with the greatest opportunities, will naturally deliver zero hunger and poverty in a sustainable community.

Looking back to my previous article in the AMRC Journal discussing Sir Titus Salt’s mill and Saltaire, gives a glimpse of what this idea of fully interlinked SDGs could be. There are significant benefits to be had from simply understanding that if we are targeting only one SDG we are effectively beginning to enable them all. This is something that I believe can be seen in Saltaire and the approach that Sir Titus Salt explored 150 years ago. However, there are natural differences between the 1800s and today, not least the idea that an individual could simply build a town to support their manufacturing plant.

Today sees a new dawn of ever accelerating digital technologies. So, do the ideas presented hold true for a digital future? I would argue that yes, they do. The sustainability agenda will be driven over the coming decade by our ability to embrace the benefits of digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. These technologies will be used to isolate areas of waste in our systems that were previously invisible or ill understood, driving the environmental efficiencies of our manufacturing plants and new products to previously unthinkable levels. They will support us to create new and novel solutions, and quickly assess target areas for intervention. Digital will be the key to unlocking the vision of the SDGs.

Take for example the benefits seen at AMRC Cymru through the implementation of a digital framework under the Ffatri 4.0 project. The simple act of monitoring, digitalising and assessing energy use across its research building has resulted in a near 20 per cent reduction in electricity consumption. This is without the benefit of any advanced analytics to really explore the full potential of energy savings using optimisation approaches.

A digital future will require education, innovation and investment - our key enablers and the foundation of achieving our priority areas. It will specifically support the minimisation of material consumption and target interventions on health and wellbeing. In fact, we are already seeing some of this happen today as apps and wearable devices begin to take over control of our insulin delivery, nutrition and sleep quality to name only a few. 

Digital technologies will also provide the ability to predict where interventions may be needed to support agricultural outcomes, for example, to ensure food supplies, avoid pandemics and shuttle energy supplies to where they are needed at the right time.

Understanding the SDGs and the way in which they interlink is critical to achieving net zero and more so by 2050. The AMRC is now recognising this as a problem area that needs to be addressed. Educating our partners in the interactions of the SDGs will become a critical part of our future as we build towards not just net zero, but on impacting on all inequalities globally.  So, look again, are you just targeting a handful of the SDGs, or are you unavoidably engaging with them all?

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