A new approach to problem-solving across the Sustainable Development Goals

Alexandra Bracken, John McArthur, and Jacob Taylor at Brookings: “The economic, social, and environmental challenges embedded throughout the world’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require many breakthroughs from business as usual. COVID-19 has only underscored the SDGs’ central message that the underlying problems are both interconnected and urgent, so new mindsets are required to generate faster progress on many fronts at once. Our recent report, 17 Rooms: A new approach to spurring action for the Sustainable Development Goals, describes an effort to innovate around the process of SDG problem-solving itself.

17 Rooms aims to advance problem-solving within and across all the SDGs. As a partnership between Brookings and The Rockefeller Foundation, the first version of the undertaking was convened in September 2018, as a single meeting on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The initiative has since evolved into a two-pronged effort: an annual flagship process focused on global-scale policy issues and a community-level process in which local actors are taking 17 Rooms methods into their own hands.

In practical terms, 17 Rooms consists of participants from disparate specialist communities each meeting in their own “Rooms,” or working groups, one for each SDG. Each Room is tasked with a common assignment of identifying cooperative actions they can take over the subsequent 12-18 months. Emerging ideas are then shared across Rooms to spot opportunities for collaboration.

The initiative continues to evolve through ongoing experimentation, so methods are not overly fixed, but three design principles help define key elements of the 17 Rooms mindset:

  1. All SDGs get a seat at the table. Insights, participants, and priorities are valued equally across all the specialist communities focused on individual dimensions of the SDGs
  2. Take a next step, not the perfect step. The process encourages participants to identify—and collaborate on—actions that are “big enough to matter, but small enough to get done”
  3. Conversations, not presentations. Discussions are structured around collaboration and peer-learning, aiming to focus on what’s best for an issue, not any individual organization

These principles appear to contribute to three distinct forms of value: the advancement of action, the generation of insights, and a strengthened sense of community among participants….(More)”.