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SDGs, DAOs, and Coordinating For Our Planet

Blockchain brings together many elements of transparency, stakeholder engagement, trust, and more. When looking into the growing space of regenerative finance in blockchain, we see these values applied to a positive movement for our planet: Regenerating our forests, lands, oceans, and generally ecosystems that sustain this planet of ours. On our path to slay Moloch (the demon of human coordination failure), we should take a lesson from one of the most successful coordinated efforts ever, and the widest consensus on what impact is: the Sustainable Development Goals.

A bit of background on The Sustainable Development Goals

One of the largest coordinated efforts for sustainability on our planet is the UN’s Agenda 2030, otherwise known as the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs for short. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals that touch economic, social, and environmental goals. The goals span topics such as ending hunger, good health, clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, climate action, life below water, life on land, peace, etc. These goals are to be achieved by 2030, which is ambitious considering our situation. This is why they are sometimes referred to as “Agenda 2030”.

The goals are holistic in nature, meaning, they are intertwined and affect one another. You can’t create sustainable cities (#11) without affordable and clean energy (#7), you can’t end poverty (#1) without creating decent work and economic growth (#8), and in order to create sustainable life on land (#15), you must take care of water (#6) and life in the ocean (#14), etc.

You might be thinking, this is quite ambitious, and maybe there are too many goals, but these goals were reached through a remarkable process. The goals were decided over a period of deliberation with stakeholders around the world. If you think 17 is a lot, well, these stakeholders started with just over 300 goals in mind.

The stakeholders were diverse: Representatives from nation-states, NGOs, businesses, people from the Global North and the Global South, all thinking about what is important and what can actually be achieved together. Over the course of deliberations, they whittled the goals down to the most important and pressing issues that should be achieved by 2030. The goals are a compromise between all the different groups of stakeholders and reflect globally shared values.

What resulted from this consensus is quite unique. Many interests are represented in the SDGs, those of people and those of the planet. The goals were sponsored and created by the UN. But the UN does not claim responsibility to implement them. They are an agenda that every country ratified; and so, each country is responsible for voluntarily reporting its progress on achieving said goals.

Put simply, the SDGs are a holistic consensus on the most important issues of our time. And more interestingly, they were created by stakeholders, transparently, and for the good of everyone. It is a decentralized agenda to a degree as different actors progress towards the same goals from different directions and attitudes. Due to the massive consensus around the SDGs as a framework for impact, they are many times the common denominator for different groups looking to share goals and metrics.

Moloch goes to the UN

The SDGs came about after a number of different attempts by the UN to create social and environmental agendas. About 50 years ago, in 1972 the UN convened a conference in Stockholm to discuss the “Human Environment”. This was essentially the first time there was recognition from countries of a human effect on the environment, and that our actions may affect us in the future.

Nothing much came of this for about 20 years until 1992 when the Earth summit was held in Rio. This time countries came together to agree upon conventions. These conventions had to do with biodiversity, desertification, and would you know it, climate change. The conventions were mainly interesting to NGOs and served as a basis for environmental planning and action in some countries.

At the dawn of the millennium, in the year 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were created by the UN. The UN recognized that development (i.e., assisting countries that have less economic development than other countries) is a main priority. These goals focused on issues such as reducing poverty, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, etc. Issues that plagued the Global South (a term used for the economic underdevelopment in many countries south of the equator – previously referred to as underdeveloped countries, or 3rd World, these terms are today less preferred as they hold negative language).

The MDGs were quite successful. The MDGs helped lift more than one billion people out of extreme poverty, make inroads against hunger, enable more girls to attend school than ever before, and protect our planet, according to the UN. Part of their success was that they set a decentralized agenda for the world, and they did so with partners not only from the countries but also from NGOs and people on the ground.

The gang slays Moloch

Why are the SDGs considered a success story, even though the agenda is far (and I mean far) from being completed? Building on the success of the MDGs, the SDGs were meant to take the best of the MDGs and build on them. They are more ambitious, clearer, and more detailed in terms of targets and metrics (there are 169 targets and about 232 metrics).

The SDGs incorporated stakeholders from the start and from a variety of groups. This was imperative for their adoption. Asking businesses to take responsibility, having affected stakeholders share their ambitions, and creating a voluntary agenda that created a clear vision for the world, were inspiring endeavors that already bear some fruit today.

By asking island countries to share their interests, we have goals that have to do with overfishing and climate change. By asking NGOs to contribute, we have ambitious goals to end hunger and create better sanitation. By asking businesses to take part, we have goals to do with sustainable consumption, production, innovation, and industry.

By bringing these groups together, we’ve found what we have in common, and what can be achieved together when our interests align. We, the planet, created a shared agenda, and have managed to have every country on earth agree to that agenda. This is more historic than some might suspect.

Today most countries have shared at least one Voluntary National Review (VNR), a report that details what their country has done to push the SDGs forward. You would be hard-pressed to find a company with a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report without mention of the SDGs. Many impact investors, EU grants, and foundations use the SDGs as a baseline to understand what realm of impact a project is affecting.

A mass coordination effort created mass alignment and meaningful impact in the world. It’s not perfect, but it’s making a dent in the universe.

Coordinating with stakeholders, lessons for DAOs

Every DAO playbook I’ve read so far talks of vision, decentralization, and how to slowly garner stakeholders around said vision. The example of the SDGs is a prime example of how to create shared alignment around a vision.

The SDGs were created as an agenda that is meant to be assisted and promoted by the UN Development Program (UNDP), but it is not meant to be carried out by them. It is a decentralized agenda that draws on inspiration and commitment to our shared goals. It is built to inspire a coordinated effort, without a central coordinator.

There is no one body that can say if you’re in or out. If a company greenwashes with the SDGs, it’s up to consumers to call them out, not the UN. There is no accrediting agency to say you are or you aren’t promoting the SDGs. Roles and responsibilities are voluntary and on a commitment basis.

Some lessons we can learn from the SDGs in our decentralized spaces:

- Bring in a variety of stakeholders, meaning, those most affected by the challenge we want to solve, but from different angles. Is the DAO trying to save forest land? We should make sure there are representatives that are affected by this from all angles – even those that may seem like “the enemy” need to be onboarded to a future solution. Leaving certain stakeholders out doesn’t solve the problem, it avoids the challenging conversations and possible compromises we must always make to achieve progress. Partnership for the Goals (SDG #17) means everyone.

- Project audacious goals into the future. What is possible? There’s no doubt “No Poverty” (SDG#1), “Zero Hunger” (SDG #2), and “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions” (SDG #16) are very ambitious. However, we must stand for what we believe is possible. These goals are meant to inspire people into action. “Less hunger” is simply not as strong a proposition as "ZERO hunger". This is what moves others to get behind a message or a calling.

- Iterate and focus on what is working. From 1972 to this day some pretty smart people have been working on trying to mitigate the harm that we do to people and the planet. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ve made some serious strides. The SDGs are a product of learning from mistakes and iterating on what works. Building on the halving of world hunger, we’ve moved to a more ambitious goal to eliminate hunger. We no longer focus just on maternal health, we now focus on Gender Equality (SDG #5) and Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG #3). It’s an ongoing journey.

- Create a narrative. The SDG’s tagline is “Leave no one behind”. The global goals are an agenda meant for everyone, and they have created a framework through which we can think of the world and advance a fairer vision of it. Leaving no one behind is fixing the mistakes of our past, charting a hopeful path, and centering the narrative around what this agenda stands for.

- Be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Based). The SDGs created clear metrics that countries can follow and relate to. They are relevant to every company and person on the planet. The language of the SDGs is that of international development and some businesses need to translate that into their KPIs, meaning, sometimes, you may need to modify the language of goals to be more applicable to your specific business. But the point is the same, the metrics leave little room for confusion.

- Graphics. If you saw the step up from the MDGs to the SDGs, you understand what I’m talking about. Jakob Trollback is the designer behind the SDGs. His design and the colorful, clear, iconographic language draws people in. When looking at the wheel (above), we understand the diversity and power of this visual language. Companies and countries proudly display the wheel on their reports and on their lapels. In DAOs, NFTs are a draw-in for many people, now, let’s enrich them with some more meaning.

One of the stronger criticisms of the SDGs is that they lack teeth. What happens if you don’t do them? Well…nothing. But that’s not the right question. What happens if we choose to do them? That is the point. They may be non-binding, but the source of their power is not fear of punishment, but recognition of being aligned with the needs of our future.

Practical examples, a look at SDG 15

SDG #15 speaks about “Life over Land” the goal states:

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

What is a DAO to do? Coordinate to protect land and instill value into it!

We’re seeing a major emergence of initiatives to conserve and protect land. I’ve been privileged to take part in a DAO called Ecorise aimed at this goal specifically. Ecorise is part of the Regenerative Finance space (ReFi), using the power of blockchain to regenerate the planet.

Ecorise is creating land-backed digital tokens that capture the value of an ecosystem. By creating a digital token that is pegged to the value of the land, there is a disincentive to harm the ecosystems that bring value to that asset. This asset can then be traded, shared, and used as a symbol of a conservation effort.

Tokens that are bought, and staked (meaning, taken out of circulation and put into a digital vault) are essentially protected. Once the token is out of circulation, the land is conserved, and the staking is rewarded with interest, thereby, creating an incentive to conserve the land – not only is the value stabilized, but it generates financial value, as the land has a chance to regenerate. The more tokens are bought, the more land is protected.

“Ecorise gives humans an opportunity to buy back our planet from governments, corporations and profit-based, resource extraction business through collective, shared stewardship of biodiverse ecosystems” – this statement is the sentiment behind SDG #15 and is an example of how a DAO can work to align with, and advance, the SDGs through a powerful narrative of decentralization.

It’s worth mentioning that because of the holistic nature of the SDGs, it’s not only SDG #15 that is being promoted but also Climate Action (#13). Representing value in nature on blockchain is a powerful tool to democratize access to this type of conservation work.

Ecorise is not the only initiative or DAO to be working on this kind of effort, and in the spirit of decentralization, the DAO is joining forces with other partners and collaborators such as Open Forest Protocol, This is My Earth, Eden DAO, Solid World, Return and others.

The possibilities are endless and I look forward to seeing where this DAO will go and what they will achieve. I also believe that we are only seeing the begging of the alignment between DAOs and SDGs. With so much alike, I think it is inevitable that the causes connect and continue to create impact on our planet.


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