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The significance of urban development in achieving SDGs

Hiroki Nakamura
Associate Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Social Systems Engineering

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted at the 2015 United Nations Summit. Interest in the SDGs is increasing rapidly both in Japan and overseas as issues and objectives for all countries in the world, including developed countries. By focusing on universities as centers for creating knowledge and examining research activities by researchers of Chuo University, this special feature explores the role which must be fulfilled by universities in order to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

In the second installment, Associate Professor Hiroki Nakamura (Faculty of Commerce) discusses regional and urban development for achieving SDGs, as well as the role that must be fulfilled by universities.

2020 is a milestone year for the achievement of SDGs

"2020 will be a major turning point in terms of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. 2020 is a milestone year--five years after the SDGs were adopted by the United Nations in 2015, and ten years for the achievement of goals in 2030. Up until 2020, we have been laying a path for the achievement of SDGs; 2020 is the year when we place all of our focus into taking action. The first five years after 2020 will be a period of shifting all of society towards major changes, with the final five years committed to actual achievement of the SDGs."

The above text is an excerpt from a lecture given by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus at the science council hosted by him in Berlin, Germany in November 2019. Mr. Yunus is a former member of the SDGs Advocates appointed by the UN Secretary-General, and continues to support and participate as an alumnus.

Mr. Yunus also mentioned specific activities which he plans to take. For example, he plans to hold a large social business festival in Munich, Germany in June 2020. Also, by collaborating with the city of Paris, which will host the Olympics in 2024, Mr. Yunus seeks to hold the most inclusive Olympics in history by integrating diverse people and confronting various social issues. Through the Olympics, he will implement various activities aimed at the global expansion of social business.

Through cooperation among the Mayor of Paris, Mr. Yunus, and the Chairperson of the Olympic Organizing Committee, the city of Paris will create an Olympics with collaboration from social entrepreneurs. The goal of such an Olympics is to expand a social innovation model of inclusion and responsible social development from Paris to throughout the world. Furthermore, the city hopes that such activities will remain as a legacy in the regional community of Paris.

Photograph 1: Together with Muhammad Yunus at the science council in Berlin, Germany

Setting indicators is necessary for achieving SDGs

To begin with, SDGs are not regulations or rules; rather, as the name suggests, SDGs have the nature of goals. The SDGs present 17 goals along with 169 targets and related indicators. For example, Goal 11 is entitled Sustainable Cities and Communities. This goal aims to realize inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements.

Goal 11 also has targets set for developing infrastructure, preventing disasters, and improving the environment. For example, Target 11.1 states the following: "By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums." Target 11.2 reads as follows: "By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons." Corresponding indicators are also presented.

Specific indicators include the percentage of urban population living in slums, informal settlements and inappropriate housing and the percentage of population with easy access to public transportation (by gender, age, and disability).

Photograph 2: Many areas in the world lack sufficient infrastructure (The photograph shows areas that I visited in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Mumbai, India)

Since SDGs are a global goal, some of the defined indicators can be handled at the organizational and regional levels, while others can only be handled at the national and global levels. However, what is important here is that the characteristics of SDGs are goals, not regulations or rules. Therefore, even if it first appears that certain organizations or regions cannot achieve a certain goal or target, those entities can set their own appropriate indicators and work towards their achievement. This creates a platform to express the ideas, idiosyncrasies, autonomy, independence, sociality, commitment, and leadership of individual organizations and regions.

Importance of regional perspective in achieving SDGs

Against the background described above, the concept of localized SDGs has been emphasized to promote SDGs at the regional level, mainly in Europe. This refers to the process of adapting SDGs to individual local contexts, of developing and implementing strategies for achieving SDGs at the local level, and of measuring the outputs and outcomes of such strategies.

According to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), there are many fields of SDGs which require localized activities in order to achieve goals. Examples include education, health, hygiene, infrastructure development, and environmental measures. Without involvement of municipalities and other regional organizations, 65% of SDGs are considered difficult to achieve.

Localized efforts towards the achievement of SDGs and the positive evaluation of those efforts will lead directly to greater recognition for the region. Indeed, SDGs can serve as a common platform for making comparisons between regions. For example, a prototype for evaluation of European regions implementing SDGs efforts published by the SDSN contains rankings of European regions and cities based on clearly-stated evaluation items (Figure 1).

Looking at the scores for each goal, the top-ranked regions were highly evaluated for achievements in areas such as Goal 1, which seeks to eradicate poverty, Goal 3, which aims to ensure health and well-being, Goal 6, which strives to ensure clean water and sanitation, and Goal 10, which works to reduce inequalities. Conversely, even in such top-ranked regions, there are still numerous remaining issues in terms of the aforementioned Goal 11, and Goal 13 which is aimed at addressing climate change. Upon examining the details of evaluation indicators for goals with remaining issues, we encounter elements such as the amount of environmental impact reduction, cultural activities, and the number of cultural facilities.

Figure 1: Top 10 regions of the European SDGs regional evaluation (published by the SDSN)

Significance of urban development in achieving SDGs

When examining regional evaluation of SDGs initiatives, we find that the evaluation indicators which have been set are sometimes insufficient. For example, the aforementioned indicators for evaluating Goal 11 may not be sufficient. Here, I would like to consider what is lacking in these indicators.

Goal 11 is entitled Sustainable Cities and Communities. The Japanese translation for Goal 11 is sumi-tsuzukerareru machi zukuri wo. However, the term machi zukuri (urban development) is an expression unique to Japanese. The concept of machi zukuri is ambiguous and varied. Therefore, the term has an expansive meaning. Taken literally, machi zukuri (urban development) means to develop a good city. Here, development refers not only to tangible facilities and infrastructure, but also to intangible elements which are part of lifestyle. Of course, city functions such as production, distribution, business, politics, tourism, and science fulfill an extremely important role. However, a good city is one that provides a comfortable lifestyle, safety, prosperity, and emergency response for all residents. A good city makes people happy that they live there, and is expected to continue providing such value to coming generations.

This means that evaluation of a good city includes subjective elements; furthermore, that subjective evaluation is important in urban development. Consequently, it is important to establish indicators for how to evaluate subjective elements. In policy evaluation and city evaluation, fields which have traditionally used objective indicators, progress is being made on the research and practical utilization of subjective indicators. Well-known subjective indicators include subjective happiness and satisfaction with life. These indicators are widely used by international organizations such as the OECD and by local governments.

Figure 2: Regional evaluation requires comprehensive evaluation

As discussed above, setting indicators is an important part of achieving SDGs. However, when setting indicators becomes difficult, new ideas are needed. One example is activities by a research group led by Distinguished Professor Shunsuke Managi of Kyushu University, who is also the Director of Urban Institute. I am a member of this research group, which cooperated with the United Nations to develop and measure a new Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) for countries around the world, and then to apply that index to regions throughout Japan. By working together with local governments, the research group is applying the indices to actual urban development.

Aiming for edge regions through SDGs urban development

As discussed above, assuming the development of a system to promote understanding and implementation of SDGs, it is important to utilize the following cycle in order to achieve SDGs: Setting goals, targets, and indicators -- Formulating an implementation plan -- Initiatives and implementation -- Measuring and evaluating output and outcome -- Setting goals, targets and indicators...

Regional industry-government-academia collaboration is essential for utilizing this cycle. In particular, academic contributions from universities and other institutions of learning may include "Setting goals, targets, and indicators" and "Measuring and evaluating output and outcome." This is because residents are the main actors in local efforts, so it is important to support them from an academic perspective. Mr. Yunus, who was introduced earlier in this article, also stressed the importance of academic contributions while speaking at the international science council.

In SDGs urban development, new ideas unique to the region will be presented. Accordingly, we must also be able to transmit those new ideas internationally. This is yet another way in which universities fulfill an important role. The concept of social business for achieving the SDGs has great meaning because it was advocated by Mr. Yunus, a Bangladesh economist, not by Western nations.

Today, the Yunus Center has been established in numerous universities and regions throughout the world as an independent organization functioning as a social business hub. In Japan, the Yunus & Shiiki Social Business Research Center was established at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, and the Yunus Social Business Research Center was established at Ryukoku University in Kyoto in 2019.

Moreover, both of these regions are designated as National Strategic Special Zones. Specifically, Fukuoka City is designated as a National Strategic Special Zone for Global Startups & Job Creation. In Kyoto City, various accreditation projects are being conducted by institutions such as Kyoto University Hospital. SDGs urban development related to health and medical care is considered to have great potential in certain regions of Japan, a country with a declining and aging population. For example, the concept of public interest capitalism which originated in Japan is advocated by George Hara, who has served as Special Advisor to the Cabinet Office and Intergovernmental Ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Hara is implementing practical activities for creating a society where people can remain healthy until just before the end of their natural lifespan.

The 2019 World Alliance Forum Tokyo Roundtable was held in October 2019 in order to report upon and discuss the aforementioned practical activities. The roundtable was attended by a large number of active Cabinet Ministers and executives. Furthermore, certain university students were given the unprecedented opportunity to attend the roundtable. The lucky students were those enrolled in the courses and seminars taught by Professor Masahiro Abiru of Fukuoka University, who has taught venture corporation theory as a practical form of education since the 1990s. Furthermore, students from my own courses and seminars also had the opportunity to attend.

Another role of universities is to cultivate the next generation of human resources. It is important for human resources who have acquired academic knowledge at universities to participate in SDG urban development in each region. In July 2019, Hino City was selected as an SDGs Future City for the first time among the municipalities in Tokyo. Hino is located adjacent to Hachioji City, where Chuo University is located. In this way, it is necessary for local governments, universities, and companies to collaborate with each other in order to promote distinguished local activities. When viewing the global goals of SDGs as fulfilling a role similar to cloud computing, it can be said that regional SDGs urban development has potential similar to edge computing.

  • The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), 2016. Getting Started with the SDGs in Cities: A Guide for Stakeholders.
  • The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), 2019. 2019 SDGs Index and Dashboards Report: European Cities Prototype Version.
Hiroki Nakamura
Associate Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Social Systems Engineering
Hiroki Nakamura was born in Fukuoka Prefecture and graduated from Kurume University Junior and Senior High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Department of International Development Engineering of the School of Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology. He then earned his master’s degree in engineering from the Department of Value and Decision Science of the Graduate School of Decision Science and Technology at the same university. He completed his doctoral course in engineering from the Department of International Development Engineering of the Graduate School of Engineering at the same university. He assumed his current position after working at the Japan Productivity Center, the University of Kitakyushu and Kyushu University.
His main written works include Inclusive Wealth Theory—Regional Revitalization through New Economic Indicators (Iwanami Booklet) (published by Iwanami Shoten, 2016), First Entrepreneurship Theory and Inclusive Wealth Theory —Wealth Viewed through Data (both published by Chuo Keizai, 2019), and more.