Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Sustainable Development Goals and Networks as a Collaboration Model

  • Lauren Barredo
  • Maria Cortes-Puch
  • Cheyenne MaddoxEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_530-1


Sustainable development Sustainable development goals SDGs Networks Collaboration Partnership Organizational networks Institutions 


A dictionary definition of a “network” is any system of interconnected things. However, this basic definition could also be applied to a multilateral agreement or any partnership with enough actors to be considered a system. For the purposes of this paper, the authors define networks as having several key attributes that differentiate them from multilateral agreements or partnerships. The intent of networks is one attribute; actors in networks come together to leverage each other’s strengths and pursue a common objective of mutual benefit to all participants. Another characteristic is their horizontal or lateral organizational structure, which allows members to come together as equals. Additional elements are the number of organizations involved, with a network placing no limit on the number of members, and an inclusive rather than exclusive membership structure. Clear guidelines for membership are another key attribute, including organized mechanisms for institutions or individuals to join or leave a network.

Networks exist to serve a common goal, which could be as concrete as providing safe drinking water to a particular community or as vague as advancing the cause of democracy globally. Given this diversity of objectives, the form they can take is equally vast. Groups including industry associations, professional associations, unions, social clubs, alumni networks, volunteer organizations, university consortia, political associations, and alliances of NGOs can all be considered networks. In some cases, such as a professional association, participants may be very similar in both interests and skills and emphasize the sharing of good practices and lessons learned. In other cases, members of a network could be extremely diverse, bringing together different skills, perspectives, and objectives. The UN Global Compact is a network of private sector firms, but it includes major multinationals as well as small- and medium-sized enterprises, from all countries, and in all sectors.


The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (1987). It is a complex and multifaceted challenge facing present and future generations across the globe. To tackle this issue, in 2015 all 193 Member States of the United Nations (UN) adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by all countries by 2030. The Goals encompass environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic development, with specific targets on poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, water, sanitation, energy, economic growth, urbanization, climate change, ecosystem preservation, and social inequality.

Achieving these ambitious goals by the tight deadline of 2030 will require collaboration and interdisciplinary action from all sectors of development (public, private, academic, international organizations, and civil society). Networks play a key role in mobilizing these stakeholders into action, as well as coordinating action both within and between sectors. By identifying synergies across sectors, networks embody SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals), forging pathways for partnerships and optimizing the efforts being made to achieve the SDGs.

The Key Role of Networks

Networks are a key tool for successful implementation of the SDGs. Agenda 2030 will be difficult to achieve because of the scale of ambition but also because of the interlinkages between the different goals. Because of this complexity, no one actor or sector will have all the knowledge and expertise needed to achieve the SDGs. Networks have several key advantages which allow them to more efficiently develop solutions to complex problems:
  • Rapid and efficient exchange of information

  • Bringing together stakeholders with diverse perspectives, expertise, and knowledge

  • Coordination of action, reducing redundancies, and balancing trade-offs

  • Greater resilience to change

Exchange of Information

Many researchers have demonstrated that networks offer advantages in the dissemination of information. Powell (1990) describes how nonnetwork structures of organization limit the flow of information. In a hierarchical structure, information flow is limited in direction; it can only flow up and down a decision ladder. Alternatively, in most partnerships, legal agreements limit the kind of information that can flow between participants. In a network model, Powell argues that the flow of information is both freer and richer, as the flow of information is neither limited directionally nor in substance. The emphasis is on learning by doing, and any information that is considered useful can flow between diverse actors unfettered. In the context of the SDGs, this suggests that promising implementation projects or best practices can be disseminated faster by networks than by partnerships or hierarchical arrangements.

Diverse Perspectives and Expertise

Given the interrelated nature of the SDGs, it is critical to bring together diverse expertise to foster innovation, ensure a sustainable solution, and reduce negative spillovers. Take as an example an irrigation scheme in Central Ethiopia that raised yields on farms and improved food security but had the negative consequence of increasing monthly malaria incidence by a factor of 6 (Kibret et al. 2014). The inclusion of a larger set of actors from the public health sector could have supported irrigation system engineers in developing a solution without this consequence. This theory is also supported by Hong and Page (2004), who found that diversity was a stronger factor in solving problems than ability.

Effective Coordination

Networks allow diverse actors to work together toward a common goal, capitalizing on the strengths of different partners to improve efficiency while minimizing redundancy or overlap. Büchel and Raub (2002) found that knowledge networks in particular offered increased efficiency through the compilation and dissemination of knowledge, reducing the need for actors to learn the same lessons independently. A study in Bolivia (Galway et al. 2012) found that poorly coordinated NGOs in the health sector were providing duplicative services in some areas, while other regions completely lacked service provision. A network coordination structure could reduce redundancy in such a scenario, in addition to facilitating the exchange of information and best practices.

Increased Resilience

We define resilience as the ability to adapt and change in the face of a shock or challenge, so that key functions and processes are carried out. In the context of the SDGs, this encompasses a number of challenges, such as maintaining health services during a natural disaster or civil unrest, seeing a project through to completion despite the loss of a key partner, or the provision of modern energy services in an area with an unreliable power grid. Networks can increase resilience to many kinds of shocks. Barasa et al. (2018) demonstrated that social networks and collaboration increased resiliency of health systems, as providers with larger networks had greater access to resources in times of natural, economic, and social crises. An analysis of organizational networks in Canterbury, New Zealand, by Stevenson et al. (2014) yielded similar results, finding that institutions with strong networks were more resilient following a series of earthquakes in 2010.

It is important to note that not all networks are created equally. There are many attributes of a successful network, and should any of these be lacking, there is a chance that the endeavor could fail. Three interrelated challenges are especially relevant in the context of the SDGs:
  • Trust between actors

  • Effective engagement of all stakeholders and prevention of free riders

  • Clear and equitable added value for all participants

Trust Between Actors

Both Powell (1990) and Büchel and Raub (2002) highlight the importance of trust between actors to foster successful collaboration, finding (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the strongest partnerships are those where trust is highest. Büchel and Raub (2002) argue that “trust in networks is built through repeated rounds of interaction that allow network members to make judgments about the trustworthiness of others.” In the context of the SDGs, this finding indicates that trust may be more difficult to generate; history yields many examples where trust between civil society organizations and both government and private sector partners has eroded over time based on past interactions. To achieve the SDGs, partners may need to come to terms with the past and begin a new history of collaboration and trust. Further, Sloan and Oliver (2013) examine the strong role that emotionality plays in building or losing trust. Fortunately, in the case of the SDGs, most organizations and their staff are passionate about their mission in such a way that emotionality could play a role in deepening trust over time. There is no shortcut to building trust, but ensuring that all partners accept trust as a condition for success and developing solid communication tools can lay the right groundwork.

Effective Engagement and Prevention of Free Riders

Bowen et al. (2010) describe three different levels of community-corporate engagement, but their findings can also be applied to broader network engagement. Transactional engagement aims to passively engage participants in a one-way exchange, such as informing a community, while transitional engagement is more participative and includes activities such as stakeholder consultations. To achieve the SDGs will require the third class of engagement, called transformational, which aims to generate collective action while empowering all participants to lead. This kind of deep and thorough engagement can be difficult to achieve. It requires a foundation of trust, as discussed above. All partners must be motivated to contribute, although motivation can take many forms, including the exchange of information, sharing of financial resources, contribution to achieving an organization’s core mission, or access to education and capacity building. At the same time, networks have to reduce the opportunities for free riders to benefit without having to provide input or share risk. Transformational engagement also requires participants to share a language of practice and be in consistent and relatively frequent contact, making it relatively more costly from a human resource perspective.

Clear and Equitable Added Value

Closely related to effective engagement is the clear articulation of roles and responsibilities and the equitable sharing of both risks and benefits (Bowen et al. 2010). When participants are candid about what they are willing and able to contribute, as well as what they hope to gain in return, each participant is better able to see the added value to their organization (Stibbe et al. 2018). Further, the costs of participation (staff time, financial resources, social capital, etc.) and the gains (additional staff, new funding, social capital) must be allocated equitably between partners. This is critical in the context of the SDGs, given their global commitment to both reduce inequality and leave no one behind, but also because unequal distribution of risk and benefit can rapidly erode trust, reduce the value of participation by certain partners, and make meaningful engagement of all participants more difficult.

Case-Study Examples from Different Sectors


Achieving progress on the SDGs will undoubtedly require the involvement of governments to work across policy areas. However, these commitments alone are futile without the mechanisms to steer their implementation. Decision-makers will need to be informed by policy-relevant evidence that is designed and produced by pertinent stakeholders, taking the local context into consideration (El Jardali et al. 2018). In order to fill this gap, global knowledge generating networks such as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Future Earth are essential stakeholders in achieving Agenda 2030.

Sustainable Development Solutions Network

One of the leading networks in the academic field is the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Launched in 2012, SDSN aims to accelerate joint learning and promote integrated approaches that address the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world. As the organization title states, SDSN’s purpose is to promote practical solutions for sustainable development and does so by mobilizing global scientific and technological expertise to implement the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement (SDSN 2018a). The SDSN was established by and works under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General and supports the implementation of the SDGs at local, national, and global scales through their network of over 800 universities, research institutions, nonprofits, foundations, and civil society organizations. SDSN members span all 6 continents and belong to one of the 16 national (Brazil, Canada, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong SAR, Indonesia, Italia, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey) or 10 regional networks (Amazonia, Andes, Australia/New Zealand/Pacific, Caribbean, Great Lakes, Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Sahel, South Asia, Southeast Asia). New networks are launched when the membership base in an area is sufficient to support them. According to the 2018 SDSN Networks in Action Report, upcoming new networks include Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, France, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, and the United States. Institutions looking to join may do so at any time (SDSN 2018c).

In a field where data, knowledge, and resources can be locked up due to bureaucratic nuances, an academic network is arguably one of the most important. SDSN’s ability to create a resource-sharing space available to over 800 knowledge-generating institutions adds immense value to the members involved and to their shared interest: sustainable development. Research suggests that engagement with external organizations strengthens the two core missions of academics, research, and teaching (Abreu et al. 2009). SDSN excels in their ability to engage with external organizations through their events, practical analytical tools, reports, and thematic groups. For example, the SDG Index and Dashboards report (SDSN 2018b) applies analytical tools from academia to data that is predominantly from government sources and disseminates results in a format that is easily digestible by policymakers and civil society. This takes data out of an academic setting and makes it useful for governments to set priorities and track progress, civil society groups to hold government accountable, and a diverse set of actors to identify and share good practice. The highest level of engagement from people-based activities comes from attending conferences and participating in networks (Abreu et al. 2009). In 2017 alone, SDSN and its national, regional, and thematic networks hosted 85 different events to disseminate the results of and discuss the findings of 15 separate reports. Not only does SDSN provide a space for collaboration and coordination, it provides a platform for its members to engage externally, effectively bringing the academics to those who need it most. Internally, SDSN uses the online communication tool Mobilize between national and regional network members to exchange methodologies and approaches while also hosting biannual capacity building workshops for their network managers.

Future Earth

Holding the title of the largest sustainability science consortium in the world, Future Earth is a global platform for international scientific collaboration, providing the knowledge required for societies in the world to face risks posed by global environmental change and to seize opportunities in a transition to global sustainability (Future Earth 2018b). Future Earth boasts 18 national networks with 6 in development, as well as 4 regional networks which cover Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Africa, all with the purpose of drawing on its collective knowledge. Interested researchers can join the open network or can reach out individually to Future Earth’s global hubs, regional centers, or national and regional networks for involvement. The organization displays adaptability by recognizing that various models for national networks might be preferred and welcomes innovative structures to the national model.

Future Earth’s greatest strength as a network is their ability to engage with a variety of perspectives and specializations. Their knowledge-action networks specifically aim to build on the broad range and diversity of expertise represented in the large community of researchers and practitioners associated with the projects of Future Earth (Future Earth 2018a). One specific network, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network, began with a scoping process designed by a development team. That development team was composed of members from seven global research programs, one regional center, two external partners, two representatives of the early career community, and the Future Earth Secretariat. A steering committee was then established to initiate and stimulate activities within the network; and while the steering committee may oversee the activities, individuals, organizations, and/or initiatives from research and other sectors may propose and lead activities to the benefit of the larger community. Their open-access approach welcomes collaboration, and their diverse actors create a solid foundation that increases resilience and ensures efficiency.

The Private Sector

The private sector has a major role to play in sustainability, although the SDGs are one of the first global agreements that define their role as going far beyond traditional contributions to development (i.e., jobs, tax income, and technological innovation), to include contributions such as building infrastructure and financing (Gneiting 2015). The SDGs demand a level of responsibility from businesses for their decisions. Networks developed to mobilize the private sector are helping businesses navigate these responsibilities, turn them into opportunities, and hold the sector accountable for their actions.

UN Global Compact

As the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, the UN Global Compact is the leading private sector network. The UN Global Compact aims to mobilize a global movement of sustainability companies and stakeholders to create a better world. With over 12,000 signatories in over 160 countries, both developing and developed, they represent nearly every sector and size firm for a wide-reaching impact. The network is open to any firm and works through the sharing of good practice, capacity building for executives, and voluntary adoption of ambitious targets, including the ten principles. Their membership grows as they demonstrate value for participants; by supporting the private sector, companies are able to take strategic actions to advance broader societal goals, such as the SDGs, with an emphasis on collaboration and innovation.

According to a survey conducted by Corporate Citizenship, creating new business models and partnerships is the best way that business activities can contribute to achieving the SDGs (Guar and Rajewska 2016). The UN Global Compact has developed more than 600 guides, case studies, and reports to support their members. Through tools, resources, and trainings, companies learn to do business responsibly and align their strategies and operations with Global Compact’s ten principles on human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption. This not only adds value to Agenda 2030, but a company’s commitment to sustainability increases consumer trust. Participation in the UN Global Compact is a win-win situation.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development

WBCSD is a global, CEO-led organization of over 200 leading businesses from 6 continents working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world, with an objective of ensuring 9 billion people are living within planetary boundaries by 2050. With their members representing a combined revenue of more than US$8.5 trillion and over 19 million employees, the network maintains an unparalleled reach across the globe (WBCSD 2018a). WBCSD differs from the UN Global Compact with its inclusive policy that allows all companies to join for free regardless of their legacy.

WBCSD has a strategic focus to tackle the private sector from the top down. Their CEO-focused approach creates effective engagement among stakeholders and employees. Walls and Berrone (2017) discuss how CEO power based on environmental expertise and formal influence over executives and directors spurs firms toward greener strategies. WBCSD regularly publishes CEO Guides to bring a high-level perspective to issues. Their guides cover topics such as water, climate-related financial disclosures, and the SDGs (WBCSD 2018b). WBCSD also embraces the key function of a network to provide diversity through a content stream, dubbed Panorama, which is designed for looking at sustainability from different perspectives. Through articles and podcasts that members can contribute to, companies are given an unobstructed view of the challenges facing our world and the ways in which they can make an impact (WBCSD 2018c). This both applauds companies for particularly successful programs or innovation, while also supporting the ability of other firms to adopt similar practices.


Governments are perhaps the most obvious stakeholders in implementing the SDGs, as it is national governments who adopted Agenda 2030 in 2015, are responsible for monitoring progress toward achieving the SDGs, and report their progress through Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) in the halls of the United Nations. However, even governments often find a network model useful for implementation, to better coordination across ministries and with other stakeholders, or to foster collaboration between parliamentarians of different parties. Below the authors present two well-developed municipal networks as case studies; these examples were selected as they have been effective at sharing good practice between cities and in particular on implementing sustainable development policy. Further, both networks have a positive reputation globally and are recognized for their legitimacy. Several examples of government networks from other contexts, such as the Czech Republic, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Sweden, can be found in a 2017 report from the OECD (OECD 2017).

C40 Cities

C40 Cities is a network of the world’s largest cities, formed with the objective of addressing climate change (SDG 13), adopting an overall goal to limit warming to 1.5°C. As of the writing of this article, the network includes over 90 cities on 6 continents, representing more than 650 million people and about 25% of global GDP (C40 Cities 2018a). They add value to their members by coordinating the exchange of good practices and expertise around specific topics including energy efficiency, solid waste management, transportation, and urban flooding (C40 Cities 2018b).

C40’s network approach has many advantages and allows them to drive deeper action on climate change than a partnership model would. They place an emphasis on the sharing of good practice, allowing cities with successful projects to share their experiences and advise cities in need of solutions. This motivates members to contribute both by recognizing and raising awareness of cities that are doing well in certain areas and providing useful resources to cities aiming to build their own capacity. Further, this kind of exchange fosters transformational engagement as described above; cities approach each other as equals and engage in a two-way exchange. Given the diversity of city experiences, the network members are stronger together. Any given city can show leadership and act as a teacher on topics they are strong in while taking a learning perspective on areas where they are weaker. These exchanges generate a return for all parties involved. The focus on urban planners and civil servants at the municipal level aids this exchange, as it is easier to build trust between participants when so many of their concerns are the same and they share a language of practice. One indicator of their success is the 14,000 actions to combat climate change they have registered (C40 2018a). Lee and Koski (2014) demonstrated that C40 members take “more arduous steps of implementation and monitoring in comparison with non-members” and that the increased level of ambition from C40 Cities has spillover effects encouraging nonmembers to act.

United States Conference of Mayors

The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) is a nonpartisan organization for cities with populations of 30,000 people or more, which captures about 1,400 cities in the United States. Additional cities meeting the eligibility requirements can join at any time. Similar to C40 Cities, their objectives include developing tools and trainings to build the capacity of mayors to be more effective and to share good practices between mayors and cities. In addition, they work to provide a unified voice on national urban policy through the adoption of resolutions and policy positions, which are presented to the federal government. USCM covers a diversity of topics, most of which are linked to the SDGs, including education (SDG 3), health (SDG 4), housing (SDG 11), jobs and workforce (SDG 8), environment (SDGs 13, 14, and 15), and transportation (SDG 11) (USCM 2018).

USCM’s network model shares many benefits with that of C40, discussed above, including fostering greater coordination of action among cities and effectively sharing information between mayors, especially on good practices and successful programs. There are indications that working together on policy objectives has further offered benefits. The nonpartisan nature of USCM and their political diversity increases their legitimacy and ability to lobby the federal government, likely contributing to the passing of federal legislation in line with USCM recommendations on issues including infrastructure (Wogan 2014; USCM 2008) and LGBTQ rights (Freedom to Marry 2016). In addition to increasing policy effectiveness, their greater political diversity also contributes to resilience, allowing them to engage with different administrations and making their efforts less vulnerable to political change.

Multi-sectoral Examples

Often the challenges that networks aim to solve are so complex that a multi-sectoral approach is required. This offers several diversity-related advantages, particularly the ability to bring together different areas of expertise, perspectives, and approaches and the ability to exploit different levers of influence. Further, it allows information to be exchanged between sectoral silos and ensures actors are working together rather than at cross-purposes.

Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN)

Although they characterize themselves as a movement, SUN has many of the key characteristics of a multi-sectoral network. Led by governments working in partnership with civil society, the private sector, academia, UN agencies, and donors, SUN’s overall objective is to end malnutrition in all its forms. They track their progress through indicators on stunting, wasting, low birth weight, anemia, breastfeeding, and obesity. Given the interdisciplinary nature of this objective, they call upon stakeholders with a diverse range of expertise, including health, agriculture, education, social protection, and gender equality. SUN currently operates in 57 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia but also covering Latin America and the Middle East (SUN 2016). Any country may join SUN by agreeing to ensure nutrition-sensitive policymaking across all sectors of government and committing to invest in nutrition interventions, working with SUN to adapt their evidence-based projects in diverse contexts (SUN 2018b). Other stakeholders can join SUN’s supporter networks for civil society, business, donors, and UN agencies (SUN 2018a). SUN currently works with over 2,000 civil society organizations in 39 countries, 5 UN agencies, and 164 companies.

The SUN Movement works with its members in several ways to spur action to end malnutrition. A major part of their work is brokering technical assistance to countries, including from the SUN support networks. Given the complex linkages between agriculture, gender equality, and poverty with hunger, technical assistance that can help countries integrate policies across these often-siloed areas is a key advantage of SUN’s network model. To further support advances in nutrition-sensitive policies, they also host several meetings and workshops, at the local to global scale, to facilitate knowledge exchange and the sharing of good practice. They also work directly to document and disseminate experience across their networks in publications, reports, and training materials which they distribute through their website, emails, and online discussion forums (SUN 2016).

International Network to Promote Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage

Operating since 2003, the International Network to Promote Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage (HWTS Network) aims to improve water safety through household water treatment and safe storage (HWTS), thereby protecting human health. This is a complex challenge, which requires action from urban planners, architects, providers of water and sewage services, individual residents, neighborhood associations, healthcare providers, and educators at all grade levels, among other stakeholders. HWTS Network brings together over 150 organizations, and membership is open to any organization that agrees to the Network’s mission and principles (HWTS Network 2018).

The Network’s activities include conducting research to evaluate the success of different policies, packaging the results of that research in easily understood formats, and ensuring the results reach relevant stakeholders and decision-makers (HWTS Network 2018). This is accomplished through conferences, networking events, and distance learning programs. A significant advantage of their approach is the unification of a diverse set of technical backgrounds and the development of a shared knowledge to foster interdisciplinary communication between microbiologists, public health specialists, water and sewer system engineers, and community groups.

The Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data

The Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) aims to strengthen data systems and infrastructure to support monitoring and review of SDG progress and in turn SDG achievement. As of this writing, they count 300 members from academia, civil society, the private sector, government, and international organizations (GPSDD 2016a) worldwide, and additional organizations may still join. Their diverse membership supports a broad mission, as well as multiple actions to spur advancement, including publication of policy briefs and research reports, hosting regional workshops, and implementing field projects (GPSDD 2016a).

One flagship project of the GPSDD is the Data 4SDGs Toolbox, a set of methods and resources to support countries in developing data roadmaps for the SDGs, developed through a participatory, multi-stakeholder approach (GPSDD 2016b). By working as a multi-sectoral network, the GPSDD was able to improve this resource, bringing in feedback from a large set of global stakeholders and including the different roles each type of organization can play in the data roadmap. The long-term objective would be for every country to develop their own participatory data road map for monitoring and review of the SDGs. This collaborative process increased trust between collaborators, allowing each to feel ownership of the document, leading to improved dissemination and uptake of the Toolbox.


Achieving the SDGs is the biggest challenge of our time. These goals present a “supremely ambitious and transformational vision” (United Nations 2015) of a future that will require high-level knowledge sharing and coordination of action. The SDGs should not be pursued in silos or sequentially but through integrated strategies designed with the participation of actors from different sectors. Given the relatively short time frame for implementation of the SDGs by all countries by 2030, it will be essential to move forward quickly on multiple fronts simultaneously. Among other activities, this will require pushing forward scientific research in a wide range of fields, facilitating innovation in the uptake of key technologies, mobilizing investment from multiple sources, building social and political support for sustainable development, and experimenting with and implementing appropriate regulations that facilitate concrete action.

Networks can play a key role in all of these fields by helping to quickly disseminate good practices and lessons learned, by bringing together diverse groups to work on common projects, by coordinating activities by a wide range of actors, and by ensuring the resilience of these activities. They offer a unique interface for diverse stakeholders to work together. Networks can adapt to changing needs in a more rapid and often more innovative way than more rigid structures, such as a specific multi-stakeholder partnership set up for the duration of a project. Therefore, networks may hold the key to generating the kind of collective action that the SDGs require while empowering all participants to lead.

Through a variety of examples, this article has shown how networks can amplify impact. Global sustainable development will not be achieved with small-scale projects that result in duplications and allow for gaps in action. In this sense, by providing access to knowledge and results from a range of different experiences, actors engaged in networks can avoid duplications or reinventing the wheel (GIZ 2015). In addition, networks can amplify the impact of projects by connecting successful initiatives to donors, assisting prototype models to surmount barriers of implementation by partnering with more dynamic and experienced allies, or helping to communicate the results of research to policymakers from different regions of the world. Finally, networks can successfully identify gaps in areas of knowledge or technological development and collaboratively work to fill them.

The case studies described here are high-profile examples of successful networks, most of them with global reach, but achieving the SDGs will require engagement far beyond the institutions and fields represented in this small sample. Many networks are being developed at national, subnational, and community levels, often with the involvement of civil society, the nonprofit sector, and regular citizens. Efforts to achieve the SDGs will be more successful if members of the broader public are able to engage with the challenge at a personal level via the vast range of existing networks in our societies, which may not have sustainable development as their central focus but which can still engage in the global discussion on sustainability.

Achieving the SDGs will also require engagement with the industries and fields of human activity that are not easily compatible with long-term sustainable development. Those areas in which transformational change is most required may not be well represented in existing sustainable development networks. Working with the industrial, professional, and personal networks that already exist in these fields may be a useful way to encourage conversation about the SDGs and facilitate efforts toward developing more sustainable technologies and livelihoods for those most invested in these difficult areas.

Finally, a key factor in the use of networks as a tool to achieve the SDGs will be their capacity to evolve over time. As the monitoring framework of the SDGs becomes more established, the results of existing implementation strategies will emerge, pointing at areas that will need to be further developed. Technological advancement may also bring new opportunities that networks will need to capitalize on. The capacity to quickly adapt and develop new alliances will remain essential for networks to maximize their role in achieving the SDGs.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lauren Barredo
    • 1
  • Maria Cortes-Puch
    • 1
  • Cheyenne Maddox
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)New YorkUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Petra Molthan-Hill
    • 1
  1. 1.Nottingham Trent UniversityNottinghamUK