This section presents an overview of the findings from the analysis of the Challenge process and VLR content. Analysis established the degree to which each city addressed the policy success factors, which were assessed according to: mention of the element (verbalised, written, or not), initiative progress (implemented, or not), and the level of reporting (detailed, or not). Detailed and specific reporting on policy intent—or more reliable but less frequently reported policy outcomes—are assumed to be the greatest measure of policy success. Enabling factors, that would inhibit or accelerate policy success, were identifiable from the qualitative interview data (only)—indicative of the limitations of the VLR desktop review. A policy success scale was developed as a comparative tool to demonstrate regional variation in SDG engagement, based on the available interview and document data, and frames transformative potential in relation to SDG implementation.
The results presented below show that both approaches rely heavily on strategic elements to spearhead city-level engagement with the SDGs, whilst tactical elements were considered important, but secondary mechanisms. Operational and reflexive elements received less attention, though they were considered “key entities” (SP3) for SDG localisation. The analysis is organised sequentially to address policy elements within the four spheres of transition management—strategic, tactical, operational, and reflexive—and outlined below.
Addressing elements of policy success within the challenge process
The interview data provided important grounding for the analysis; looking at initial stages of the localisation process and providing deeper insight into what the SDGs, and indeed transformative change, can mean to city actors. The Challenge participants (and interview subjects) were each asked to identify a set ‘challenge’ for their city and a related target within SDG11 (outlined in Table 2) as part of the Challenge programme. The diversity of approaches to localisation (the ‘challenges’) are immediately evident and evolved even though all cities were given the same resources, directed to frame their localisation challenge using the same goal (SDG11), and encouraged to participate in the same collective learning process. The results from the interview analysis, mapped against transition management’s four spheres, are described below (Table 2).
Addressing elements of policy success within the challenge process
Focused on long-term actions and the whole system (Loorbach 2010), the strategic elements from the interview analysis were concerned with changes in the dominant culture of city administration. Organisational buy-in was the stand-out success factor, and five out of six interview participants identified that they would struggle to achieve significant change without widespread internal support (SP1,2,4,5,6).
Creating ownership of the goals required both top-down and bottom-up approaches (SPs 1 and 2). High-level support and coordination provided an avenue for structural changes within the organisation: “leadership buy-in is really important…if it's made a priority, and we have to report against it” (SP4). On the other hand, half of the participants identified education around and familiarity with the SDGs as a barrier to uptake across other teams, outside of those who specialise in sustainability (SP2,3,4). All city actors who participated in the interviews were policy officers (except one, an external planning consultant) and came from a sustainability or community planning team within the organisation. More than half of the interviewees positioned themselves as champions (SP2,4,5,6), and sought to build momentum by demonstrating to other teams “the practical application that will come through the localisation” (SP4). Key to this was the use of consistent and coherent narratives, to encapsulate a clear vision and translate the SDGs into local language (SP1,2,3,4 5,6).
Two interviewees also identified the importance of linking the SDGs to their city’s visionary future. The organisational vision set the precedent for action and built credibility around the intent of localisation: “this aligns with our city’s vision, hence it's very important” (SP1).
Elements within this sphere concentrate on changing system structures and building a shared agenda (Loorbach 2010). The tactical activities in this case sought to direct change through strategic engagement: setting priorities and seeking support from stakeholders. Both these activities were considered important, but approaches differed between the study participants.
Half of the participants believed that aligning Council priorities with SDG outcomes was the “real first step” (SP6) to changing system structures (SP1,4,6). Four interviewees mentioned the importance of project-based approaches to ‘seed’ policy innovation (van Buuren and Loorbach 2009), using pilot projects to integrate SDG principles into planning. These small-scale projects focused on producing tangible, shareable outcomes and provided city actors with the “impetus to just go ahead and do it” (SP3).
All participants mentioned building actor networks to support implementation efforts. Key stakeholder groups included industry, academia, non-government organisations and other local and national government agencies. Regional (or national) government bodies were perceived as “the biggest stakeholder” (SP5), required to support financial resourcing (SP3,5) or set strategic priorities (SP4,5). Intergovernmental collaboration was a crucial issue for cities to navigate (Hartley 2019) and higher levels of government could have considerable (SP1,2,4,5,6) and sometimes decisive (SP3), influence local policy trajectories. “Certainly, all levels of government need to be on board” (SP1), however most (five out of six) participants indicated that they could progress despite resistance from above.
Most participants viewed the private and academic sector as useful groups to engage for advice (SP1,2,3,6) and/or support for implementation (SP3,4,5,6), though this was seen as a supplementary process to “keep the momentum [going]” (SP5).
Community engagement was considered an important procedural process, designed to frame (SP1,5,6) or support (SP3,2,4) rather than lead implementation efforts. However, the importance of community values was often mentioned in the context of shaping Council priorities, as a “hand in hand kind of thing” (SP1). This indicated that community groups do influence the agenda setting process, “where the community thinks Council’s role is… that’s really important” (SP6). However, the ways in which community groups influenced a city government’s efforts to localise the SDGs, beyond strategic prioritisation, remained unclear.
This sphere focuses on the operational elements that support policy implementation (Loorbach 2010), which, in this context, referred to activities that directly contribute to—or detract from—SDG localisation. Inadequate resourcing, including financial and non-financial provisions, was highlighted as a limiting factor (SP2, 3, 4, 5) or at least an influencing factor (SP1) that affected a city government’s capacity to effectively localise the SDGs. Limited access to data was also identified as a barrier to benchmarking processes (SP3) and gaining traction on the ground: “there is a large data gap…and without data you’re just another person with an opinion” (SP3).
In addition to resource provision, access to technical skills and knowledge were identified by all participants as necessary tools to support engagement with the SDG framework. “Taking on the SDGs is a really big kettle of fish” (SP1). Four out of six of the interviewees (SP1,4,5,6) indicated that that knowing where to start was the most difficult aspect to implementation, due to the complexity of the framework and the need for locally relevant data: “how, as an organisation, do we implement or report or embed the SDGs?” (SP5). Many found the Challenge process useful, “the focus on SDG11 helped us to understand all the layers that are under 11, and then replicate that across all the SDGs” (SP5). Seeking support from ‘experts’ in academia and industry was pivotal to the learning process, as it provided “reassurance in terms of where we are heading” (SP1).
Focusing on system surveillance and adaptive learning, elements within this sphere are designed to reflexively monitor, evaluate and adjust activities to better enable a smooth sustainable transition (Loorbach 2010). Efforts to monitor and evaluate progress toward the SDGs was considered important to almost all the study participants “monitoring and evaluation is a very key entity … [this process] makes it easier for you to change the course if there is a necessity” (SP3). Localised indicators were considered important for benchmarking efforts and tracking progress toward the goals, and some participants suggested they would struggle to gain traction due to poor, or irrelevant, data and procedural complexities (SP3,5).
Reflexive elements also included processes of learning, and all participants indicated that city-to-city networks were important for sharing lessons learned and inspiring ongoing improvement. Peer networks fostered a culture of collective problem solving that enabled newcomers to “lean on Councils that have done work in this space” (SP6). Most participants mentioned that working with other cities provided enormous value to them, as they navigated the journey toward SDG localisation. City-to-city peer learning, facilitated by the common language of the SDGs, was also described as a useful platform elevate local problems—and seek solutions—in an international context (SP1,4,5). For some participants, access to this city-network was the incentive to start engaging with the SDGs: “if there is any doubt, we know who to reach for when we start implementing the framework … you just have to start the transition, to the SDGs” (SP5).
Addressing elements of policy success within the VLR content
The VLR analysis complimented the interview data by investigating more formalised approaches to SDG implementation. The analysis included eight Asian-Pacific cities, each with varying local characteristics and approaches to localising the SDGs. The content from each VLR was mapped against the success factors from transition management, with varied results. In general, the cities shared a common approach to monitoring progress toward SDG implementation, but each VLR had unique characteristics that demonstrate the local government’s own understanding of, and interests in relation to, the 2030 Agenda. Success factors extracted from the four spheres of transition management bring attention to elements within each VLR that could influence policy success. The results from this analysis are summarised in Table 3, and then explained sequentially with reference to the four transition management spheres.
Each city had different strengths and weaknesses in their policy approach to SDG implementation, demonstrated by the level information provided for the policy success factors (listed in Table 2). If a success factor was described with a high-level, or partial, overview of specific content, it was categorised as ‘included but with little detail’. For example, information on dedicated resources from Kitakyushu’s VLR was considered a high-level description only, as reflected in the statement that “plans are also in place in Kitakyushu to mobilize funds and human resources in the future” (Ota et al. 2018, p. 35). Conversely, VLRs that provided significant information in relation to a policy success factor and how it was linked to SDG localisation, like the comprehensively integrated vision and objectives from the Japanese VLRs, were classified as ‘detailed coverage’ in the analysis.
Strategic aspects were the most comprehensively covered by the VLRs, compared with the other spheres. This is likely because city governments had to first clarify how the global goals fit strategically into local context, which is reflective of the nascent stage in the localisation process that most cities are at in the region. High-level support was a key strategic element; all but one VLR included a letter of mayoral endorsement. Most documents were led by a vision and objectives that focused on attaining goals by 2030 (and some beyond that), but local interpretation and application of the SDGs varied with context. For example, Hamamatsu’s vision, to become “a creative city built on civil collaboration, shining into the future” was supported by three “pillars of actions” which related to the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development (IGES & City of Hamamatsu 2019, p. 3). Conversely, Shimokawa’s vision incorporated the SDG principle of inclusion and proposed to create “a sustainable town that is strong and resilient, where people can live happily, and no one is left behind” (Kataoka et al. 2018, p. 4).
Many VLRs suggested the importance of supporting strategies and actor networks but provided little information about how this impacted implementation. The tactical elements were most comprehensively covered by the Japanese VLRs, which shared structural similarities as they were all co-created with the Japanese Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES). These VLRs included a governance framework that featured the SDGs and described relevant local policies and institutional arrangements. The influencing role of national governments was noted in more than half of the VLRs, however the level of impact on local implementation was unclear. Many of the VLRs touched on the importance of engaging with different stakeholder groups, such as academia, private business, non-governmental organisations and community groups in the context of ‘leaving no-one behind’ (UN 2015). However, information surrounding the impact of engagement on localisation efforts was limited.
Operational coverage was mixed across the VLRs. For example, Suwon outlined several case studies to demonstrate existing policy mechanisms employed by the local government,Footnote 2 and yet, only mentioned that the city would need both “administrative and financial support” for implementation (City of Suwon 2018, p. 18). Conversely, Taipei provided a detailed summary of implementation activities and mentioned a plan to gather resources (City of Taipei 2019). Within most of the other VLRs, the supporting structures for implementation (means and methods for project delivery) focused on the policy environment and governance frameworks (tactical elements). Most VLRs included some case studies to demonstrate localisation efforts, and few mentioned any dedicated resources to support delivery.
The reflective elements were the weakest of the elements analysed. Efforts to monitor and evaluate SDG implementation were poorly reported, or simply not mentioned. The exception was Shimokawa who, possibly due to their small size and access to applicable data, were able to report on several indicators within all the SDGs. Interestingly, city-to-city learning was noted by almost all the VLRs, but there was little detail provided about what this involved and how it would influence SDG implementation. This supported the premise evidenced in the literature that city-to-city learning is a valuable outcome of localisation (Webb et al. 2018); an area that was able to be better explored in the interview analysis (above).