Business architect, Suzanne Maxted MBCS, explains how Impact Transparency is helping to connect everyday projects to the UN Sustainable Development Goals – to reverse climate catastrophe and biodiversity loss, the digital world needs to go back to the future!

The government has mandated that the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must be implemented, saying that they should be ‘fully embedded in planned activity of each Government department’. All organisations can do this: public, private and NGOs.

The problem is abdication of responsibility. Understandably, it is natural to delegate big difficult issues elsewhere when there seems an obvious candidate assigned to the task. In this country it is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) that people look to for solving environmental problems.

But DEFRA cannot solve the biggest problem all by itself, especially when other organisations and businesses are not consciously thinking about the total impact of what they do. Every government, every business, every person and every initiative of work can contribute to solving ecological collapse. Our work in the digital arena, is very very relevant. Making small changes in every digital programme can amount to a lot of lasting positive impact.

Understanding SDG impact

The only way to instil environmental responsibility into every project is to ‘give the planet a seat at the table’. We have a defined future of climate change, rising seas, deforestation, floods, fires and ecological collapse of the systems that serve humans and enable us to survive as a species. That is the reality of humans’ negative impact on the world. But, we can make nature-positive changes now to stabilise and reverse that change. It can’t start tomorrow, or next week or in a different country. It has to be here and now, and in every project, not just DEFRA’s.

Tackling such a problem may seem like an overwhelming task for many organisations, because often they don’t know where to start. But, as soon as we tell ourselves to give the planet a seat in every meeting, and always measure our business intention against the SDGs, whether it’s negative, neutral or positive, then it becomes a much easier part of the normal, the everyday. It becomes visibly achievable. Visibility, or ‘impact transparency’ as it is known, is the key and the first step in turning things around.

In business architecture, one of the standard techniques we use is benefit analysis. The strategic goals are set, and ways of achieving them are defined in terms of outcomes and benefits. In other words, we visit the future, defined by our strategic goals, and work out what is needed in the present to reach those goals.

Measure it to manage it

As the saying goes, we cannot manage what we do not measure, and the traditional benefit map is biased towards economic and business needs, such as cost reduction (which is ironic given the spiralling costs of dealing with climate change and biodiversity loss). It does not measure total impact, either on natural, human or social capita.

Had we done that in the past, we would have found that much of our well-intentioned work had a neutral or negative impact on the planet and the ecosystems humans depend on to survive. Now we must find a way of scoring environmental impact, not forgetting impact on social and human capita.

What if we use the SDGs as strategic goals? I am proposing that every programme’s intention is diligently and honestly assessed for impact on nature. And then, making digital relevant, we find ways to bend the scope, not necessarily increase it, to turn a negative or neutral impact into a positive impact.

Rethinking benefit analysis

Here , I have sketched out my proposed technique using benefit analysis on a hypothetical idea to reward schools for biodiversity and mini farm efforts. I have not included any business goals to save space, but I have included an abstract alternative to demonstrate negative impact. I also ask some questions on how exactly we best measure SDG contribution.

Impact Transparency - implementing the SDGs - rough technique based on a personal wish as an example

Click on the illustration to view a larger image

I should point out here that minimising harm, or focusing entirely on reaching net zero emissions, is simply not enough – this is not the total goal. The goal is to proactively restore and protect nature using our digital skills through, for example, data collection, circular design, user research, and influencing policy – we can do this without compromising our project objectives. We just need to find smarter ways to proceed.

Using another technique, I’ve also extended cause and effect analysis, demonstrated here with a NZ Police case study a technique which is essential for finding destructive or constructive loops of impact on the SDGs.

How do we embed environmental responsibility?

We need programme managers to put the SDGs on their plans and benefit maps, and to encourage all architects, business analysts, service designers, and user researchers to ask their clients ‘what is your sustainability brief?’.

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Through my environmental group at Methods, we are finding ways to give the planet a seat at the table in our analysis, design and research, as well as bringing impact transparency to clients for the initial assessment of opportunities. We shouldn’t wait for policy and decision makers to suggest solutions. Let’s be proactive and help these busy people.

We need everybody to think of ways to bring environmental responsibility into digital projects. And we need to find ways to properly measure impact and SDG contribution, and critically important, to avoid greenwashing.

See the United Nations’ sustainable development goals

How do we become nature positive?

The UN is now using the term ‘being nature positive’. So let’s label ourselves as nature-positive to help all our colleagues and clients to shift towards the same, and let’s be curious and honest about every initiative’s impact.

If we measure the impact on natural capita of any programme of work, including digital programmes, it may expose some uncomfortable truths. But that's okay, because if we can understand what’s wrong, we can stop doing the harm we’ve unwittingly done in the past.

Transparency begets responsibility

Without a published adherence to nature-positive policies, organisations will always appear nature-negative next to others who are being transparent.

Filling the seas with cheap plastic toys with every meal, or supporting the destruction of ancient forests to grow soy, or wiping out the ecosystems of the UK’s last wildflower meadows to build homes for private profit (we can of course, build housing without destroying the most important habitats), makes businesses look like monsters nowadays.

I am reading about the Knepp Castle Estate currently – it was a degraded farming wasteland, failing financially, totally reliant on state handouts, effectively ‘on the dole’. Only 17 years after shifting focus, Knepp is now a profitable farming and tourism enterprise and a stunning restored nature haven with high populations of endangered species. It is a profitable business because it is a nature haven.

So, this is not just an environmental wake up call, it’s one of corporate responsibility protecting the survival of humanity so that business too can survive and thrive.

In conclusion

I’m urging everyone to look at SDG impact measurement, with the intention of transparency. The purpose of impact transparency, is to ensure that we don't, unwittingly, worsen the future with nature-negative/neutral actions.

Let’s instead go back to the future, to a future where nature, humans and businesses thrive, and then, let’s go make that future happen. Let the nature-positive magic begin!

My heartfelt thanks to Pavan Sukdev for the notion of impact transparency, having had the privilege of attending one of his lectures at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. To my super bosses at Methods for allowing me to dance to the beat of my own drum, and to two of my many dear colleagues, Lili de Larratea and Lisa Astle, for the phrases ‘give the planet a seat at the table’ and ‘sustainability brief’ respectively.