Forking the SDGs: going beyond sustainability protoypes?

Adrian Smith recently posted a blogpost exploring links between the SDGs and prototyping alternatives in sustainability. It reflects upon themes arising from a workshop he organised at itdUPM in Madrid in December.

Sustainable alternatives often come about through prototypes, from DIY electronics repair to ecohousing, agricultural tools to digital knowledge platforms. Prototypes are often small (at least to begin with) and local, but they can yield surprising results – sometimes becoming mainstream technologies like wind turbines, or ways of doing things like car clubs.

This makes prototypes of great interest to global efforts to work towards sustainability, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With 17 goals and 169 targets, the SDGs seem to cover almost every area where action is needed: clean water, education, cities, food, energy and so on. Prototypes could be an important step in achieving change in many of these areas. The battle is often to break out of the structures that support unsustainable practices and relationships. In theory, prototypes can break the mould because they create spaces outside the usual norms, routines and institutions.

The problem is that the SDGs themselves have pretty institutional characteristics: their goals and targets make them prone to being used as a ‘checklist’ or auditing approach. Because of their global scale, they are being taken up by governments, big businesses and NGOs, who all have their own institutional cultures too.

So what happens when small, challenging, new prototypes come up against big, powerful institutions, and is there hope for prototypes to transform the world through the SDGs? Can prototyping culture – forking, openness, collaboration – even help to transform the institutions themselves? Sustainability prototypes anticipate worlds-not-yet ready and institutions-not-yet-existing. But it’s the inherited institutions of the present that evaluate and select what to develop. How might the SDGs help bridge this snag in time and enable transformations beyond prototyping?