Leveraging the Sustainable Development Goals as a boundary object in the City of Bristol

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Katharina BurgerUniversity of Bristol, UK

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Martin ParkerUniversity of Bristol, UK

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This study examines how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be leveraged to facilitate strategic change towards sustainability involving multiple stakeholders in a pluralistic city environment. By drawing on an exemplary case study of the localisation of the SDGs in Bristol, a medium-sized UK city, we show how the goals can operate as a boundary object. In particular, we identify a pattern in which the discursive localisation of the SDGs moved from problematisation and visioning through strategising and structuring towards embedding and performing. In addition, we elaborate on the three tensions that the SDGs help participants to understand and use productively, that is, across scale, time and different ways of valuing. Our study contributes to research on strategic change in pluralistic settings, such as cities, by offering a nuanced account of the discursive use of the SDGs by organisations involved in a city’s sustainable development. Furthermore, by proposing a framework based on the specific tensions that play an important role in the discursive localisation, our study advances research on the role of city strategising and practice more generally.

Abstract

This study examines how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be leveraged to facilitate strategic change towards sustainability involving multiple stakeholders in a pluralistic city environment. By drawing on an exemplary case study of the localisation of the SDGs in Bristol, a medium-sized UK city, we show how the goals can operate as a boundary object. In particular, we identify a pattern in which the discursive localisation of the SDGs moved from problematisation and visioning through strategising and structuring towards embedding and performing. In addition, we elaborate on the three tensions that the SDGs help participants to understand and use productively, that is, across scale, time and different ways of valuing. Our study contributes to research on strategic change in pluralistic settings, such as cities, by offering a nuanced account of the discursive use of the SDGs by organisations involved in a city’s sustainable development. Furthermore, by proposing a framework based on the specific tensions that play an important role in the discursive localisation, our study advances research on the role of city strategising and practice more generally.

Key messages

  • Partnerships for sustainable development in cities require working across boundaries.

  • As a boundary object, the SDGs may facilitate partnership working in pluralistic city contexts.

  • Localising the SDGs may be accomplished through phases of problematising and visioning, strategising and structuring, and embedding and performing.

  • In this process, the SDGs may help to productively leverage tensions related to scales, timeframes and ways of valuing.

Introduction

How can a ‘global’ goal be localised? Rapid urbanisation is driving the need for cities to address social, environmental and economic challenges impacting urban communities, such as socio-economic exclusion, transport accessibility and educational inequalities (compare Satterthwaite, 2014; Simon et al, 2015; and Fan et al, 2022). A dedicated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for cities (SDG11) highlights the importance of local actors ‘mak[ing] positive investments in the various components of urban sustainability transitions’ (Simon et al, 2015: 60). However, SDG11 is systemically connected with other SDGs, such as SDG9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) and SDG12 (responsible consumption and production). This points to the need for a better understanding of the dynamics of approaches that make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. While transformative city action is critical (Allen et al, 2018; Robin and Acuto, 2018; Leavesley et al, 2022), there are still many questions about ‘what it means, in practice, to link international policy with urban issues’ (Robin and Acuto, 2018: 76).

Some UN texts see localising the SDGs as a simple, one-way implementation strategy – as the ‘process of defining, implementing, and monitoring strategies at the local level for achieving global, national and subnational sustainable goals and targets’ (UNDP, 2014: 6). Yet city representatives usually foreground the need for local participation and their vision of our global future because ‘no global targets or goals can be reached without us’ (Cadman, 2014). Views from practice highlight that SDG localisation is often messy (Perry et al, 2021) and that while city stakeholders may agree on the importance of pursuing the SDGs, they have different understandings of urban processes (Barnett and Parnell, 2016). So, how can localisation of the SDGs be accomplished amid these ‘multiple, indistinct, incoherent or fragmented meanings, in which no single meaning is the ‘best’ or most coherent interpretation’ (Jarzabkowski et al, 2010: 220)?

In light of these complexities, insights from existing SDG localisation approaches (Allen et al, 2018) are needed to address the global challenge of the sustainable development of cities and communities (Fan et al, 2022; Leavesley et al, 2022). Recent studies have pointed to the importance of language and meaning in enabling coherence between the different views and interests involved in localising the SDGs in cities (Valencia et al, 2019; Biermann et al, 2022). Relatedly, much prior work in city strategising for sustainability points towards the need to span boundaries (Carlile, 2004) to form and maintain partnerships for change (Huxham and Vangen, 2000; Noble and Jones, 2006; Elmqvist et al, 2019). The challenge is thus creating a shared discursive space (Star, 2010) that allows actors to simultaneously hold on to what they value while engaging in change initiatives. It is the (co)construction of such a shared space that we wish to illuminate in this study. We focus on the following research questions:

  • How is the discursive localisation of the SDGs accomplished?

  • What are the key discursive dimensions of this process, and how do they interrelate?

  • How are particular narratives mobilised to localise SDGs?

We draw on a background of strategic change theory in pluralistic organisations (Sorsa and Vaara, 2020) but more particularly on work on boundary objects (Star and Griesemer, 1989; Carlile, 2004). This provides a theoretical perspective to study how the discursive localisation of the SDGs for sustainable development unfolds in practice. The analysis is based on the case of the localisation of the SDGs in the City of Bristol, UK, between 2015 and 2022. Bristol is a very diverse and divided city, with a great many green initiatives existing alongside enduring social division and poverty, and a history of fractious factionalism within the city council. We show how the SDGs shaped the capacity for partnership working by drawing on contemporaneous documents. This helps us identify how the discursive localisation of the SDGs moved from initial problematisation and visioning through strategising and structuring towards embedding and performing, building the city’s reputation as a frontrunner in SDG localisation. In addition, we identify and elaborate on some productive tensions that create a shared discursive space through the SDGs. Our analysis indicates that the capacity to localise the SDGs is constructed through cross-sectoral organisations working in partnership. The SDGs facilitate partnership working in that they offer an approach that crosses scales, timeframes and ways of valuing. The SDGs, rather than being the subject of a top-down process, can operate as boundary objects supporting existing local multifaceted partnership working that characterises phases of strategic change in pluralistic settings. Even if actors do not agree on what they mean in detail, they have a shared object to orient themselves towards.

The analysis in this paper contributes to research on strategic change in settings with diverse stakeholders (Denis et al, 2017) by helping to explain how actors contribute to different phases in a partnership setting. It reveals how a city’s administration and stakeholders have gradually adopted the SDGs by weaving them into the narratives about locally important action and establishing a progress measurement capability. Second, our analysis specifically addresses what is entailed within the claim that the SDGs work because they capture the imagination of a wide range of stakeholders. In this way, our study extends previous research on how the SDGs operate for sustainable cities (Zinkernagel et al, 2018) by unpacking how the SDGs can help produce a shared space from which provisional agreements on action might be built.

Boundary objects and wicked problems

Starting from the premise that global goals need to be adapted to specific local contexts and capacities (Patole, 2018; Croese and Duminy, 2022), cities are called upon to find locally real and relatable ways (compare Perry et al, 2021) of integrating the SDGs into their policies and practices. Yet no single organisation can address the sustainable development challenges facing cities (Bryson et al, 2006). Multisectoral partnerships for ‘an inclusive and participatory process of SDG localisation’ (Weymouth and Hartz-Karp, 2018: 7) are needed to ‘set the local SDG agenda, plan for SDG implementation, and then monitor SDG progress’ (Weymouth and Hartz-Karp, 2018: 16). However, many local governments appear to be ‘ill-prepared to keep up with the policy demands they are facing’ (Robin and Acuto, 2018: 77) and are grappling with the development of local capacity (Simon et al, 2015).

Multiparty, cross-sectoral partnerships have shown great potential for addressing complex sustainability challenges (Clarke and MacDonald, 2016) and SDG localisation efforts (Sanchez Rodriguez et al, 2018; Valencia et al, 2020; Perry et al, 2021). However, sustainable city development can easily mean many things to different constituencies, including anti-sprawl, smart growth (Barnett, 2007; Glaeser, 2012), green urbanism (Lehmann and Mainguy, 2010) or degrowth. Similarly, the SDGs encompass ambiguous meanings, an interpretive flexibility which is both useful and troubling at the same time (Bexell and Jönsson, 2021). So, how can the localisation of the SDGs be accomplished amid this ambiguity?

Conceptual ambiguity does not need to be negative when it comes to creating capacity for SDG localisation. The celebrated idea of ‘boundary objects’ (Star and Griesemer, 1989) explores how collaboration between people is possible even if they do not share the same ideas and interests, and the history of the concept is itself a demonstration of how useful a theoretical boundary object can be in being applied to multiple empirical settings. Boundary objects are defined as ‘flexible epistemic artefacts that inhabit several intersecting social worlds and satisfy the information requirements of each of them’ (Star and Griesemer, 1989: 393). They are ‘representations, abstractions or metaphors that have the power to ‘speak’ to different communities of practice’ (Star and Griesemer, 1989: 412) through visualisations, discourses, terms, concepts, processes or technologies (Star, 1999; 2010). For example, a library catalogue enables access by people from different communities for their individual needs while not assuming agreement on what users will search for.

Boundary objects ‘act as common information spaces that enable interaction and coordination’ (Bartel and Garud, 2003: 333) and may ‘capture the imagination’ of a wide range of stakeholders, as they support communication, coordination, and diversity of views in pluralistic settings (compare Gieryn, 1983) while allowing stakeholders to engage in shared strategy-making processes (compare Franco-Torres et al, 2020). Even if ‘weakly structured at the level of their common use, boundary objects become more structured in local uses where institutions and actors attach meanings to highly complicated phenomena’ (Star and Griesemer, 1989: 393), such as sustainability (Guston, 2001). Over time, a boundary object might become usefully incorporated into the practices of actors working in diverse fields, even to the extent that it could be described as ‘social infrastructure’ (Star and Griesemer, 1989; Star, 2010). Objects can become useful to various parties by offering concepts, resources, and tools (Guston, 2001), thus encouraging ‘pluralistic tolerance’ among diverse views (Stirling, 2011). Joint action thus becomes possible without a requirement for consensus (Huvila, 2011). For the SDGs, for example, one study found that ‘70% of CEOs see the SDGs as a powerful framing to accelerate sustainability-related efforts of their companies’ (Biermann et al, 2022). At the same time, city governments may see evidencing progress against the SDGs as an opportunity to strengthen their profile as international, modern and progressive, thereby increasing the city’s attractiveness (Mocca, 2017), while activists might see them as a tool to address specific issues, such as girls’ education or wetland conservation.

‘Strategic’ changes only happen when there is a fundamental change in how organisations identify themselves and alter the stories they produce in acceptable and credible ways (Barrett et al, 1995). One place such stories are produced is in city strategies and related documents that can be understood as discursive devices through which local governments enact aspired governance configurations (Brandtner et al, 2016). Strategy documents are seen as a tool for ‘highlighting management visions, operationalising and implementing them and making them measurable’ (Brandtner et al, 2016: 1079). In the context of city policies, successful strategic change also depends on constructing a public narrative. Most people do not build their opinion about institutions on direct personal experience but rely on various media (Eriksen, 2016). The public reception of strategy documents clearly has the potential to damage organisations by making activities visible (Suchman, 1995) which means that attention must be paid to the continuous (re)constitution of strategic narratives (Cooren, 2010) when considering the SDGs’ localisation and integration in strategy documents.

Our analysis is informed by the idea that the discursive construction of the localisation of the SDGs in Bristol is an approach to leveraging coordinated stakeholder action to tackle the localised expression of wicked challenges in cities. We focus on the idea that strategy-making for sustainable city development is a discursive process (Rogers, 2010) in which context-dependent interpretations and applications of concepts such as the SDGs are developed and used (Croese et al, 2020). It seems to us that strategic change in pluralistic settings appears, at times, to be aided by ambiguous ideas such as the SDGs and not precise strategies or targets and the idea of boundary objects is a way of understanding how discursive devices appeal to multiple audiences differently.

Methods

Case setting and context

Our analysis is based on the case of the City of Bristol, a mid-sized city in the UK that has acquired the reputation of being a frontrunner in SDG localisation (Fox and Macleod, 2019; 2021), as well as hosting many green institutions and initiatives. The case provides a revealing setting for our study because it highlights the role of the SDGs in partnership working. Over the past decade, Bristol has been developing a culture of multi-organisational collaboration for sustainability, and the current mayor’s ‘One City’ approach constitutes an explicit pursuit of a stakeholder engagement system for governance matters. Bristol also provides a suitable setting to study the discursive approaches to localisation because of its more frequent-than-usual publication cycles of the local strategy document, the ‘One City’ plan, which is refreshed annually. In this sense, Bristol is unusual, but it is also typical, with a city administration struggling with the challenges common to managing change in a pluralistic context, including enduring social division, budgetary constraints and aligning multiple imperatives with short delivery dates.

Our research project started with an interest in exploring how different stakeholders engaged in SDG localisation. We were fortunate that strategy and methodology documents, and multiple years of newsletters were fully publicly accessible. Moreover, we gained first-hand experience, having participated in the academic community workshop to develop the first ‘One City’ plan, a local event on SDG localisation organised by the Bristol SDG Alliance and the SDG roadshow, hosted by an active business partner. Our involvement was framed around the idea of a ‘civic’ university (Goddard et al, 2016; Parker, forthcoming) which led to engagements with various purpose-led businesses, city-based networks and discussions of city futures. These encouraged us to consider how different discursive approaches were used to advocate for the local resonance and relevance of the SDGs for sustainable city development.

Our observation period starts in 2015, a year before the current mayor was elected, at a time when the city was celebrating its European Green Capital year and the SDGs were being launched by the UN. The current mayor’s election for the Labour Party led to a greater focus on tackling persistent social inequalities in a very divided city. The change in administration was also accompanied by a shift towards opening up participation in strategic city planning to a wider audience through the ‘One City’ planning approach. The new administration aimed to leverage resources through a ‘One City’ plan developed through a participatory consultation process. This approach involved multiple organisational stakeholders and is supported by a dedicated city office and several multi-organisational boards to support achieving the goals agreed upon in the plan, which are mapped against the SDGs. We saw the plan’s first publication and the following two refreshed plans during our observation period.

Empirical material

The first author constructed an extensive database by collecting as wide a range of documents as possible in an iterative process. This process involved strategy documents, annual reports, newspaper articles, recorded presentations and discussions, academic viewpoints and working papers, meeting minutes, presentations and social media data. The data set spans several years, during which the first SDG Voluntary Local Review (VLR) was published, following the mapping of the SDGs against the local ‘One City’ plan. The data set includes publicly available strategy documents, reports, news media articles, social media posts, annual reports, blog posts, Twitter data (all tweets from the Bristol ‘One City’ office and the Bristol SDG Alliance), recordings of talks given by the mayor and the SDG Associate, meeting minutes and presentations from January 2016 to March 2022. The strategy and planning documents are all in the public domain, allowing the reproducibility of this research. In addition, being embedded locally and employed by one of the relevant organisations, we also had contacts with key people for feedback on the data. One of us also sits on the board of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership (BGCP), though for reasons of confidentiality, none of that data is included here. Figure 1 represents a moving picture of changes that have taken place in the local discursive strategy and policy space in Bristol.

Chronological overview of the discursive localisation of the SDGs
Figure 1:

Chronological overview

Citation: Global Social Challenges Journal 2022; 10.1332/BBZQ5931

Rationale for the selection of empirical material

After familiarising ourselves with the collected documents, we sought to identify those that could be considered necessary and jointly sufficient to provide insight into how the process of articulating Bristol as an exemplary case in SDG localisation was constructed. In methodological terms, we employed a purposive sampling approach, focusing on a core set of representative documents (Scott, 1990). We took great care to consider changes over time (3 × ‘One City’ plans 2019–21), changes in reporting (2 × ‘One City’ plan annual reports), and evolving narratives across topics related to the ‘One City’ plan (three years of newsletters). The selected documents constitute all the ‘One City’ plans that are refreshed annually, all available annual reports, and all newsletters from the ‘One City’ office to date. We also included the only VLR to date and the only mapping and methodology document, communication targeted at a local audience (Comms Pack), an international competition (European iCapital Awards presentation), and a more learning-oriented European Cities & Regions presentation. Further, we selected reports that specifically focused on the methodological aspects of the localisation of the SDGs (sources 10–13), with key organisations being the BGCP, the independent SDG Alliance, and the University of Bristol (UoB). Finally, we chose two documents directly relevant to the SDG Alliance and a business perspective (sources 14–15). These sources constitute a comprehensive purposive sample. See Table 1 for the list of sources.

Table 1:

Sources included in the study and coding frequency

Author Years Title Codes References Type
1 BCC/One City Office 2019–2022 Newsletter 61 193 Newsletters
2 2021 One City Plan 2021 31 59 Report
3 2020 One City Plan 2020 17 28 Report
4 2019 One City Plan 2019 8 9 Report
5 2020 One City Annual report 2020 16 22 Report
6 2019 One City Annual Report 2019 11 15 Report
7 2018 One City Plan Comms Pack 10 11 Presentation slides
8 2017 Bristol and the SDGs (European iCapital awards) 8 9 Presentation slides
9 2020 Governance and Collaboration: Bristol and the SDGs (Cities and Regions) 12 13 Presentation slides
10 UoB/BCC/Bristol One City/BGCP 2019 Aligning Bristol’s One City Plan with the SDGs 22 38 Report
11 LDA-SI; TReNDs/UoB 2019 One City Plan and the SDGs 1 1 Mapping document
12 BGCP 2018 The Bristol Method+ Driving the SDGs agenda at city level 30 65 Report
13 ESRC/UoB/BCC/SDG Alliance 2019 Voluntary Local Review-Bristol and the SDGs 16 26 Report
14 BSDC 2020 Better business-better world 12 49 Report
15 UKSSD & UN GCN 2020 Building a better future through the Covid-19 recovery programme 2 2 Letter to the PM

Notes: BCC: Bristol City Council; UoB: University of Bristol; BGCP: Bristol Green Capital Partnership; ESRC: Economic and Social Science Research Council; BSDC: Business and Sustainable Development Commission, LDA-SI: Local Data Solutions Initiative; TReNDS: Thematic Research Network on Data, and Statistics; UKSSD: UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development; UN GCN: UN Global Compacts Network

Empirical analysis

Our analysis was inductive and proceeded in multiple iterations. The first author undertook a round of coding of the documents, keeping an open mind about emerging patterns in the data. She coded the documents in NVivo, totalling 257 codes with 540 references (Table 1). Through a recursive process of sorting codes into candidate themes according to their commonality (Humphreys and Brown, 2008), this initial round helped us identify three phases (phases 1–3). We noticed different stages, with some overlap as activities taking place in one year may only be reported on in the next, suggesting that a gradual process of embedding the SDGs was taking place. Thus, we could produce a chronological outline of events while conceptualising the related activities in phases (Figure 1). Figure 1 shows how the localisation evolved through problematising and visioning, strategising and structuring, and embedding and performing.

The first author explored the data to identify how engagement with the SDGs was discursively justified, how, why and when the SDGs were mentioned, and how they became part of legitimate narratives for change within the city (Barrett et al, 1995). Our analysis focused on the claims made in the documents and whether they revealed specific perspectives on the SDGs. For example, we sought to identify specific ways the SDGs were used in association with other concepts and, therefore, how they were part of different ways of presenting their role in sustainable city development. In this process, we noticed that, within each of the temporal phases that we had identified, recurrent tensions appeared: scale (local or global), time (short- or long-term) and ways of valuing (narrative or metricised). This was the case across different sources and phases (see Table 2, Figure 2 and Table A1 in the Appendix). We provide detailed quotes in the Appendix of this paper to show how these tensions appear in the different phases and have also cross-referenced all quotes included in the findings section to the sources (Table 1).

Table 2:

Dimensions of practice with references (codes) in NVivo

Phase 1: Problematising and visioning Phase 2: Strategising and structuring Phase 3: Embedding and performing
Scale (local–global) 23(9) 20(8) 36(8)
Time (short-term–long-term) 13(6) 22(8) 24(7)
Valuing (narrative–metricised) 12(6) 26(7) 31(10)
Recurrent themes identified in the data
Figure 2:

Recurrent themes

Citation: Global Social Challenges Journal 2022; 10.1332/BBZQ5931

Figure 2 presents an overview of the tensions contained within the data. It shows the different tensions across the three phases, suggesting that they constitute a general pattern in the data (Table A1). Thus, we developed an understanding of how the tensions in different application areas were used in our case over time. We believe that this provides an empirically grounded representation of how the SDGs and local strategy work toward sustainable cities intertwine, which may also be found in other city settings.

Limitations

We acknowledge that there are methodological challenges pertaining to the study of documents and their embeddedness in the case setting. First, documents are always partial, and, particularly in the case of strategy documents, documents ‘do not simply reflect, but also construct social reality and versions of events’ (May, 1993: 163). Thus documents purposively advance particular accounts, marginalising other evidence and perspectives. While methodological realists might desire triangulation, calling for additional data to prove our findings, we sought to study how the discursive localisation was represented, not to capture the process conclusively. This discursive focus (Meyer et al, 2020) does not consider questions about non-discursive impacts, though there is literature that does have this aim, namely, to establish whether there is only a change in organisations’ stories to fit an SDG-aligned narrative or there are clear strategic changes too (Ansari et al, 2017; van den Broek, 2020).

Second, documents should be understood in the context within which they are produced and consumed (Dalglish et al, 2021), and (re)constructing a document’s significance from its literal meaning is an interpretive process in which background familiarity with context is indispensable (Scott, 1990). However, familiarity also means that one’s perspective is always prejudiced in some way. In our case, searching for patterns across multiple data sources helped, as did our participation in meetings, engagement in events and informal conversations with key stakeholders, to refine our understanding and reflect on our interpretation of the data. Also, by relying on publicly available material, we invite interested readers to do their analysis and develop their own insights to enter into a dialogue with us and complement our necessarily partial perspective.

There are many opportunities for further research that would complement our approach. For example, we did not seek to understand how exposure to the different documents over time may have shaped stakeholder behaviour. A longitudinal study with multiple data collection points, using interviews after each new iteration of the ‘One City’ plan, would probably have leveraged additional insight to ‘close the loop’ between documented narratives and stakeholder actions. Also, an approach to how key institutions employ social media could have significantly complemented the use of documentary sources. Nonetheless, we believe our analysis is of value, and the main mitigation is the transparency of the process and accessibility of the empirical material.

Findings

Our analysis reveals how the SDGs moved from being seen as a set of worthy but abstract goals constructed in response to global challenges towards being localised, meaningful objects through a three-phase process. We identify and elaborate on three discursive approaches in which the SDGs appeared to be used by different actors to address tensions between different scales, time horizons and ways of thinking about value. In what follows, we show how a network of Bristol institutions began to create the capability to co-produce and track progress against areas of strategic concern that addressed pressing issues, including (at the end of the period) the post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

First phase: problematisation and visioning

The first phase was characterised by the new administration’s challenge to consolidate prior strategic work that had taken place in Bristol, a city that had acquired a reputation for being a beacon for green developments. The new mayor articulated his aim to advance more socially inclusive development of the city as well as a need for buy-in from local stakeholders to deliver benefits for the city in light of limited council funds for public services. The city council did not have the leverage to produce a more inclusive economy on its own and so problematising the status quo and engaging in visioning appeared central in this phase.

Scale (local | global)

At the time of the election of the current mayor in 2016, Bristol’s performance as a sustainable city was perhaps best known for its partnership-based delivery of the European Green Capital year and its legacy organisation, the BGCP. The new mayor sought to establish long-standing socio-economic inequality in the city as a driver toward a more desirable status quo. In this context, ‘the vision of sustainable and inclusive prosperity that “leaves no-one behind” embedded in the SDGs resonates strongly with the city’s collective priorities and ambitions’ [13]. In line with this, the BGCP – which was partly funded by the city council – expanded its conceptualisation of sustainability. For a while, it hosted a city SDG Alliance, suggesting that: ‘Bristol Green Capital Partnership focuses on the environmental dimension of sustainability, but a sustainable city also needs social and economic sustainability. The Goals provide Bristol with a pathway to sustainable and fair prosperity’ [12]. In this way, the global SDGs appeared effective in problematising narrower framings of sustainability and encouraging a more proactive approach to considering social sustainability. This allowed for a resonance of the SDGs with the ‘One City’ plan: ‘The SDGs and the One City Plan both provide the kind of shared vision needed to forge strategic cross-sectoral partnerships to achieve a sustainable future’ [13].

Time (short-term | long-term)

Seeking to focus attention on long-standing social inequalities in the city, the mayor ‘set in motion plans to bring key city stakeholders together to tackle systemic city challenges through partnerships, with a particular emphasis on reducing notorious inequalities in the city. It was this focus on tackling inequality that inspired the Bristol One City Plan’ [13]. The council depended on voluntary action and partnership, having to ‘tackl[e] these challenges against the backdrop of a prolonged program of budget cuts imposed by central government’ [10]. Here, the deficit model advanced by the SDGs appeared to offer leverage to connect with other stakeholders. The SDGs assume an attempt to ‘narrow the gap’ towards achieving the goals which resonated with a problematic status quo in the city as well as a longer-term future-oriented activity programme. The SDG Alliance and BGCP appeared to take a longer-term view of being engaged in a which would outlast the current city administration: ‘We are excited to be a part of the next steps in this decade of delivery on the SDGs’ [2]. However, the BCGP, the SDG Alliance and the city council were not yet closely aligned on SDG activities.

Ways of valuing (narrative | metricised)

Next, the mayor began attempts to construct a sense of necessary participation among stakeholders. For example, early on, he emphasised interdependence between stakeholders in the city and appealed to the need for collaboration, for example, ‘it’s the potential in our collective power and the reality of our interdependence that is at the heart of [the idea of] the Bristol One City Plan’ [5]. This resonates with the interconnected nature of the 17 SDGs. ‘They address the interconnected global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice, and while we tackle these issues, they seek to make sure that no-one is left behind’ [13]. This complicates simpler attempts at metrics or quantification by one organisation by pointing to the interdependence of goals in other areas and appeared to offer a compelling narrative to kick off a programme of participatory strategising in the city.

Second phase: strategising and structuring

Seeking to establish an approach to city development based on a systemic conceptualisation of sustainability, the city administration began to undertake wide consultation and broad stakeholder engagement to identify shared local goals. The aim was to integrate existing strategies and build a shared long-term plan that would draw support from all those who participated in its development.

Scale (local | global)

The need to develop a local strategic document based on broad buy-in resonated closely, in the mayor’s view, with the role of the SDGs at a global level. Here, ‘the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are often referred to as the “closest thing the world has to a strategy for building a more environmentally sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous world”.’ At the same time, the local SDG Alliance was ‘advocating for the practical use of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across Bristol to promote economic, environmental, and social sustainability and ensure no-one and no-where is left behind’ [1]. With the consultation process for the ‘One City’ plan delivering six themes and dozens of local goals, now was the time to establish a link between the local and global by mapping the local goals against the SDGs. This was not described as a top-down process, but rather ‘these targets are being blended together with locally-developed priorities to form the One City Plan goals to result in “Bristol’s SDGs”’ [12]. Indeed, stakeholders believed that ‘The SDG localisation process requires a mix of grass-roots enthusiasm and political engagement. City leaders can be helped to understand that the SDGs do not replace current efforts or create lots of extra work. In fact, they can help to achieve their existing goals’ [12].

Time (short-term | long-term)

Short-term strategising is often a by-product of short-term election cycles. In the Bristol case, the new administration’s challenge was: ‘hundreds of unaligned city strategies – most of which end in five years or less’ [8]. At the same time, any long-term plan faced potential cancellation by a new administration, just as those of the previous administration had been by this one. Here, the SDGs appeared as an unusually durable approach.

Politically, the great opportunity of the SDGs is that they are comprehensive and non-contentious across most political parties. Parties might disagree on priorities or mechanisms, but the SDGs circumvent that by (a) foregrounding the connectivity of these disparate priorities and (b) being non-judgmental on mechanisms. Thus, in a politically contentious age, they have great power for building consensus. [12]

While the ‘One City’ plan and city office could still be very closely associated with the current administration, linking it to the SDGs seems to have given it a better chance of a longer life.

Ways of valuing (narrative | metricised)

As the ‘One City’ planning progressed, the thematic and narrative structure of the plan became evident. Building the ‘One City’ plan, ‘we considered what life in our city was made up of. There are an infinite number of parts, but we considered the six [themes] to make sense as overarching themes for Bristol’ [2]. The plan contains stories about what the future of life in Bristol will look like in 2050, and in this way, ‘encourages leaders from these areas to understand and consider the implications that their policies and decisions have on other themes and objectives for the city’ [2]. Stories are chosen because ‘by considering the interrelations and interactions within the plan in a holistic manner, decision-makers are better able to improve positive interactions and reduce the negative. This inherent interrelatedness of the plan lends itself to the application of the SDGs’ [2]. A different process was needed to translate the qualities of stories into measurable progress. Two academics from the university got involved (Fox and Macleod, 2019; 2021) and, through a process of engagement and methodological expertise, undertook ‘the harmonisation of the monitoring framework achieved by identifying indicators that were directly relevant to locally defined objectives as well as the SDGs’ [11]. This was coupled with the belief that ‘This will institutionalise SDG monitoring going forward as it will not require a separate or additional activity for the Council’ [11]. By accomplishing this soft quantification of performance against the goal-oriented narratives of the ‘One City’ plan through the metricised SDGs, one of the key challenges standing in the way of wider business engagement was targeted. This relates to sustainability reporting more generally: ‘when everyone uses different frameworks, there’s no way to benchmark performance against competitors, or use high performance scores to build trust among customers, staff, and the public […] And it is harder to make the quantitative case that investing in sustainability brings better returns’ [14]. Thus, it seems that the SDGs were leveraged for different audiences that can be appealed to by maintaining narrative richness while offering a performance measurement system with commensurable metrics.

Third phase: embedding and performing

In the third phase, the VLR of Bristol’s performance against the SDGs was well under way, and the first iteration of the ‘One City’ plan was published. We saw Bristol starting to develop a narrative as being a city that comes together to perform towards a more inclusive, sustainable and prosperous future and which has the capability to evidence progress, thereby rising in prominence among global cities.

Scale (local | global)

Demonstrating how local goals can be intertwined with the global SDGs, and evidencing progress in metricised form, helped the city establish itself among the vanguard of sustainable cities: ‘by publishing this Voluntary Local Review and reflecting on our progress, we are sending a strong message to the world that we are willing to take action to achieve a fair, healthy and sustainable city where nobody is left behind’ [1]. Bristol becomes ‘a part of that global conversation’ [13], and ‘the SDGs present an opportunity for Bristol, as an international city, to collaborate with other cities around the world’ [13]. The city becomes a ‘go-to’ place to learn from: ‘Bristol has supported other local governments globally, sharing the One City governance model and our approach to the SDGs at multiple UN discussions about subnational action on the Sustainable Development Goals’ [5].

Time (short-term | long-term)

Developing the capability for ongoing monitoring of performance against the SDGs is far from straightforward. In the short term, the team that developed the VLR recommended linking with existing indicators and systems already in use at the local authority to ‘avoid reinventing the wheel’ suggested that it may be sufficient to ‘monitor using existing indicators (at first at least)’ [12]. But having established monitoring against the SDGs in this way, ‘the next time your city or key institutions are going through strategic planning refreshes, seek to build the SDGs into those processes’ [12]. Stakeholders appeared to be weaving new goals and monitoring processes into the existing fabric of activities while counting on the short-term nature of many of these local strategies, and their need for a regular refresh appears as an opportunity for embedding them. Similarly, engaging in the national debate, the mayor and the then head of the BGCP co-signed a letter calling upon the UK government not to ‘reinvent frameworks or agreements, we can instead use the global goals as the basis for a socially just and green recovery in the UK and abroad’ [15]. In this way, the responsiveness of strategies to local needs and frequently shifting priorities are built into an enduring framework for global progress towards sustainability. In Bristol, ‘all One City Boards have been working on the plan’s refresh over the past months, and our wider One City partners network has also contributed and will help to deliver the goals and priorities it outlines for each thematic board’ [1], the SDG Alliance ‘meets every 6–8 weeks to share best practice and information about SDGs’ [9] and there were active discussions at the UoB about embedding the SDGs into reporting mechanisms. At the same time, ‘monthly drop-in sessions are held at the city council to engage citizens and stakeholders and discuss how the city can take action towards achieving the initiatives outlined in the plan’ [13], which is refreshed annually. In this way, local responsiveness is encouraged while maintaining alignment toward a shared set of wider goals.

Ways of valuing (narrative | metricised)

Bristol City Council now claims to be able to leverage expertise from a range of stakeholders, as well as deploying its capability to narrate and metricise towards sustainable city development. These capacities demonstrate a perceived interdependence through participation in the cross-sectoral boards that have been prolific at developing strategies. For example, the ‘One City’ economy board mixes storytelling and metricised indicators in its post–COVID-19 economic recovery strategy. The strategy ‘aims to build a sustainable, carbon neutral, and ecologically positive economy. It aims to build a fair, inclusive economy that supports growth in all our communities. […] It is measurable against the UN Sustainable Development Goals’, and ‘progress has been made implementing the actions from the Economic Recovery Strategy, with just over half of the 117 priorities already underway’ [1]. Much of this is attributed to the model of ‘One City’ partnership working now being in a phase where it starts to perform, according to a representative from the Chamber of Commerce:

The city is pulling together in a way that it has never done before. The One City approach is bringing together all sorts of organisations to take a lead in creating a stronger set of communities and economy. Whilst we are a city built on working in partnership this has enabled us to step up to another level. [1]

The opportunities for engaging business through the soft metrics approach seem to grow as stakeholders seek to leverage the capability to measure progress. For example, the SDG Alliance considers focusing even more on business engagement:

A model for this engagement would need to be developed. Suggestions have included a ‘Bristol SDG league table’ to rank stakeholders in the city, or a voluntary local compact where for example, stakeholders could commit to tackle each of the three dimensions of the SDGs, with recognition and awards for higher levels of commitment. [12]

This connects with the Bristol SDG report, which points to the possibility of creating an ‘economy of abundance’: ‘Currently, the private sector is where many of the innovations and potential funding opportunities to achieve the SDGs are happening. One recent estimate suggested meeting the Goals in just 4 out of 60 business sectors could open up global opportunities of up to US$12 trillion a year’ [14]. With these developments well underway, at the time of writing the ‘One City’ boards are beginning to open themselves for a membership refresh with applications open to all residents of Bristol, new boards are being created in response to pressing local challenges, for example, digital inclusion, and work continues on near real-time monitoring of progress via an open data dashboard for the SDGs.

Discussion

The purpose of this paper has been to understand how the discursive localisation of the SDGs is accomplished, what the key discursive approaches in this process are, how they interrelate, and how specific narratives are constructed to localise the SDGs.

Our findings make visible a processual account of localisation in Bristol. This suggests moving from initial problematisation and visioning, through strategising and structuring, to embedding and performing. This accords with prior work on localisation, including the need to organise a process of capacity building over time to adapt, implement and monitor the SDGs (Croese et al, 2020). Many cities appear to have in common this engagement in a process of making the SDGs locally real, relevant, relatable and relational (Perry et al, 2021), even though the paths they take to develop the capacity to participate in the VLR process may differ (Ciambra, 2021). In Bristol, we noted how a ‘pragmatic’ linking of SDGs to pre-existing metrics and goals was accomplished while anticipating a refresh of the local plan to embed the goals more meaningfully. In this way, our findings suggest that ‘localisation’ is far from a simple one-directional translation process and instead appears as a discursive approach to the construction of ‘both-and’ narratives where the SDGs are used to present stories that bridge different tensions to different audiences.

We suggest three key discursive tensions are leveraged in localising the SDGs: local and global scales; short and long-term horizons; and narrative and metricised ways of valuing. Figure 3 offers a graphical description of the tensions that were leveraged by mobilising the SDGs and seeks to visualise the discursive space that they appeared to open up in our data.

Conceptual model of the discursive space held open by the SDGs as a boundary object
Figure 3:

The discursive space held open by the SDGs as a boundary object

Citation: Global Social Challenges Journal 2022; 10.1332/BBZQ5931

Our analysis shows that the different stakeholders were able to articulate their participation in collective action towards the local goals in Bristol through the ‘One City’ plan by justifying it as a bridge across the tensions within the space opened up by the SDGs, as depicted in Figure 3. Indeed, it was difficult for any of the large institutions in the city not to participate in this process, such was its perceived legitimacy. In our case, the SDGs appear to have held open a discursive space in which a ‘both-and’ collaborative change narrative became possible, that is, not requiring trade-offs but maintaining aims that are often considered irreconcilable (Franco-Torres et al, 2020). For example, being able to tie the ‘One City’ plan to a global set of non-partisan goals appeals to the current administration in that it enhances the likelihood of a future administration continuing the plan. At the same time, it is appealing to a business audience which, even if not necessarily in support of the current mayor’s politics, may seek to pursue sustainable development for a more predictable future and sustained social licence to operate. A more enduring, non-partisan SDG framework with the possibility for evidencing metricised performance may also help communicate the businesses’ positive contribution to the local community to shareholders and consumers in believable ways. These concerns are shared by anchor institutions that have a long-term stake in the future of specific localities, such as universities, hospitals and community organisations.

In theoretical terms, these findings also demonstrate the usefulness of the SDGs as boundary objects, as the goals appear as a ‘“good enough” road map for all parties’ (Star and Griesemer, 1989: 410). Criticism of the ‘One City’ and SDG processes locally has focused on the lack of detail and on the vague and aspirational nature of many of the plans. Yet our analysis suggests that this is also their strength, that these objects can mean different things to different people, but at the same time, allow for coordinated action. This highlights the importance of the ambiguity of the SDGs. For example, the meanings of concepts such as ‘gender equality’ (SDG5) tend to be general, abstract and variable (Wibeck and Linnér, 2021). Similarly, in the thematic ‘One City’ plan, there is vagueness about what constitutes a fairer, healthier and more sustainable city. Such ambiguity allows for differing interpretations of the narrated city visions, which is important to accommodate multiple stakeholders (Jarzabkowski et al, 2010). And it is not only in the narratives about the city’s future that ambiguity is leveraged to sustain collaboration. Even when the harmonised measurement framework is developed for the VLR, we see efforts to tie the goals to pre-existing indicators and data that is already being collected, thereby connecting them to current local activity (Sillince et al, 2012). This accords with prior work, which points to the importance of transformations of ideas for strategic change, making them meaningful in the process of their adoption (Zilber, 2017). Our findings also suggest that the SDGs may assist co-orientation toward common concerns, which is a recognised enabler for strategic change and sustaining cross-sectoral partnership working (Horne et al, 2020).

Implications for other cities

The case of Bristol, and case studies in general, are not directly transferable across different urban contexts and cultures (Keiner and Kim, 2007) because local government capability is shaped by the historical, social and economic situation (Reddy, 2016), including different degrees of devolution and the interdependent responsibilities of local and regional authorities (Fox and Macleod, 2019). VLRs hence demonstrate the plurality of approaches resulting from different contexts. Initial comparative reviews of VLRs appear to show a diversity of approaches taken by different cities (Ciambra, 2021) rather than converging on a set of potentially transferable good practices. This is in spite of the fact that VLRs were proposed to facilitate the development of common and comparable measurement and monitoring capacity against the SDGs (Simon et al, 2015; Koch et al, 2019).

Drawing lessons from one case study for other cities can hence only really stay at the level of broad generalisation. We have shown that boundary objects are useful, but how they are used entirely depends on the local context. We think that theorising the SDGs as a boundary object is relevant beyond the single case that we studied (Gioia et al, 2012) for city organisations as they develop practices that seek to draw on diverse knowledge bases (Levina and Vaast, 2005). By leveraging the SDGs’ ambiguity to open a discursive space, cities may become more skilled in integrating the ideas and interests of multiple actors (Spee and Jarzabkowski, 2009). The vagueness of the SDGs would suggest that strategies that integrate them retain interpretative flexibility such that they enable the pursuit of change in pluralistic settings (Spee and Jarzabkowski, 2009). By facilitating the interaction of stakeholders with different perspectives, the SDGs may help actors leverage the ‘potential of more inclusive and non-traditional modes of urban knowledge and data production’ (Croese et al, 2021: 1).

Considering the SDGs as boundary objects may potentially also contribute to understanding how they are integral to the capability for strategic change in pluralistic settings, also because successful engagement can be seen as an ongoing social accomplishment, a ‘knowing process’ that involves ‘adapt[ing] to local contingencies and learn[ing] from various problem situations’ (Hsiao et al, 2012: 464). However, ambiguity as such does not guarantee efficacy because the uses of boundary objects can be multiple, including ‘instrumental use, conceptual use, tactical use, symbolic use and political use’ (Valencia et al, 2019: 17), and these can rarely be separated out in practice. Imagining the SDGs as boundary objects ‘walks a fine line between being instrumentalised (delusional), mesmerised by the promises of an inclusive agenda, or being an instrument for change (activist)’ (Kaethler et al, 2017: 184). Recognising the potential role of the SDGs as a boundary object also comes with the need to remain mindful of the risk of strategic instrumentalism, with organisations capable of sounding like they are oriented to a common object while they actually continue orienting their strategies towards self-interested goals. Accusations of ‘SDG washing’ are common precisely because of the vagueness of the goals, but it is also their ambiguity that allows them to be a resource for coalition-building.

Reflections

Our study focuses on ‘technical, managerial and measurable problems’, largely leaving out ‘issues of power and key political issues such as redistribution’ (Belda-Miquel et al, 2019: 387). Mobilising boundary objects can be a strategic approach by a powerful actor (Spee and Jarzabkowski, 2009). For instance, a government can launch a new tool or concept to start what they identify as ‘dialogue’ and ‘collaboration’ (Willems and Giezen, 2022), but that marginalises actors with less voice. It is thus a fair question, albeit one for future research, to what extent the SDGs perpetuate pre-existing webs of influence and whether greater explicit politicisation of the goals is desirable (Belda-Miquel et al, 2019). The SDG ‘gap’ describes a situation in which some countries, social classes, businesses and ethnic groups benefit from a particular system. The process we have described here could be seen to be an erasure of issues of politics, history and power.

It is clear that the SDGs cannot be achieved without the full integration of different levels of government in their implementation, monitoring and evaluation (Ciambra, 2021). Thus, some argue that the framing of localisation should not result in exclusive attention to diverse local contexts at the expense of appreciating the key role of nation states and that ‘high-level political commitment to the SDGs’ is required for progress (Allen et al, 2018: 1465). Indeed, it has been pointed out that they are still primarily a national agenda, leaving questions about the devolution of resources and city participation in international policy-making processes unanswered (Graute, 2016). What happens in Bristol is not only determined by actors in Bristol, so we need to engage with questions of power in sustainability transition beyond the city (Hodson et al, 2020).

Despite our study of localising the goals being longitudinal, our seven-year period is still relatively short in terms of observing the relationships between discursive and institutional changes. Bristol’s approach of weaving the SDGs into the local ‘One City’ Plan, and thereby anchoring the VLR process to a longer-term strategy-making process, appears important for sustained engagement (compare Narang Suri et al, 2021). Another VLR is due to be launched in late 2022. Going forward, it may be of interest to other city governments to observe how the tight coupling between the SDGs and the local plan evolves across future election cycles and whether it delivers the desired multistakeholder commitment to participation (compare Valencia et al, 2020). At the time of writing, Bristol will lose its mayoral system in 2024 and revert to the councillor and committee system that existed before 2012. What this means for the ‘One City’ Plan and the further embedding of the SDGs remains to be seen.

Conclusion

Orienting cities towards sustainability is necessarily a complex endeavour, a global social challenge that requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders. Our study has focused on how the discursive localisation of the SDGs helps achieve strategic change among stakeholders in one city in the UK. Our empirical analysis led us to develop a process model with three phases in which the SDGs appeared to play different roles. Specifically, we noted the importance of narrative ambiguity, allowing differing interpretations of future visions and the shared discursive space across scales, timeframes and forms of value. In this way, we contribute insight into how the SDGs offer opportunities for co-orientation toward common concerns (Silva, 2021).

Our findings have wider relevance for approaches to the co-production of urban knowledge for the localisation of the SDGs and the engagement of varied actors in this process (Croese et al, 2021). The findings from the Bristol case study may be relevant to other cities seeking to enable collaboration because of the SDGs’ potential to act as a boundary object for participatory engagement in pluralistic settings to effect change towards sustainability (Ferraro et al, 2015). Other terms might well have a similar function, such as the use of Doughnut Economics, Wellbeing Economy, Cities CAN B or the Economy for the Common Good. All have the potential to be boundary objects because of their productive ambiguity and broad scope. Bristol’s experience highlights the importance of organising contextually sensitive learning processes to localise the SDGs and shows that the SDGs as boundary objects are well-suited to support multistakeholder engagement by retaining interpretive flexibility, spanning a discursive space by virtue of their vagueness.

We hope that our study is of value to other cities seeking to understand how the SDGs may facilitate local coordination and how their narrative ambiguity may allow progress in spite of differing interpretations and future visions. The SDGs can operate as a boundary object across discursive tensions between the short term and long term, the local and global, and narrative and metricised ways of valuing. This is not the unidirectional implementation of the goals but rather a locally driven ambition to deliver partnership working for social, economic and environmental sustainability. It is their very vagueness that makes them useful in establishing networks that hold the potential to deliver ambitious goals. As Star observes, it is when a boundary object becomes embedded and assumed that we can then usefully refer to it as social infrastructure (Star 2010: 605). Using the SDGs to get to this position seems a productive strategy in order to support strategic change in pluralistic settings and ultimately towards locally innovative approaches to governing a transition towards fairer, healthier and more sustainable cities.

Note

1

Corresponding author.

Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge the guidance received from the three anonymous reviewers and the editors. The first author would also like to thank the convenors of the EGOS 2022 Sub-theme on Smart and Livable Cities: SDGs in Urban Governance and Organization, Karl-Heinz Pogner, Gianluca Miscione, Marie-Christine Therrien, as well as Katrin Merfeld, Helen Toxopeus and Dominika Wruk for their helpful suggestions and feedback.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Appendix

Table A1:

Examples of the coded text segments

Phase 1: Problematising and visioning Phase 2: Strategising and structuring Phase 3: Embedding and performing
Scale Local–Global
  • ‘The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a globally agreed agenda for sustainable and inclusive prosperity that can help to tackle some of Bristol’s challenges.’ [12]

  • ‘The vision of sustainable and inclusive prosperity that “leaves no-one behind” embedded in the SDGs resonates strongly with the city’s collective priorities and ambitions.’ [13]

  • ‘The SDGs and the One City Plan both provide the kind of shared vision needed to forge strategic cross-sectoral partnerships to achieve a sustainable future.’ [13]

  • ‘Bristol Green Capital Partnership focuses on the environmental dimension of sustainability, but a sustainable city also needs social and economic sustainability. The Goals provide Bristol with a pathway to sustainable and fair prosperity.’ [12]

  • ‘The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are often referred to as the “closest thing the world has to a strategy” for building a more environmentally sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous world.’ [1]

  • ‘Advocating for the practical use of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across Bristol to promote economic, environmental, and social sustainability and ensure no-one and no-where is left behind’ [2]

  • ‘The SDG localisation process requires a mix of grass-roots enthusiasm and political engagement. City leaders can be helped to understand that the SDGs do not replace current efforts or create lots of extra work. In fact, they can help to achieve their existing goals.’ [12]

  • ‘The One City Plan is mapped against the SDGs and contains actions and initiatives that will contribute towards the local and global delivery of these goals.’ [2]

  • ‘These targets are being blended together with locally-developed priorities to form the One City Plan goals to result in “Bristol’s SDGs”.’ [12]

  • ‘By publishing this Voluntary Local Review and reflecting on our progress, we are sending a strong message to the world that we are willing to take action to achieve a fair, healthy and sustainable city where nobody is left behind.’ [1]

  • ‘The power of the SDGs is that they work across all levels of government – local, national, and global, for all nations around the world and across sectors – private, academic, and voluntary.’ [13]

  • Our report makes Bristol a part of that global conversation and show how we can achieve these goals together’. [13]

  • ‘The SDGs present an opportunity for Bristol, as an international city, to collaborate with other cities around the world’. [13]

  • ‘The Goals also offer a common language for sharing learnings among global cities. We have drawn on their approaches in Bristol, and we’re keen to share our learnings with others in turn.’ [12]

  • Bristol has supported other local governments globally, sharing the One City governance model and our approach to the SDGs at multiple UN discussions about subnational action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).’ [5]

Time Short–Long
  • Solutions are urgently needed. We see the next 15 years as critical, with change starting now and accelerating over the period. Business as usual is not an option.’ [14]

  • ‘tackling these challenges against the backdrop of a prolonged program of budget cuts imposed by central government’ [10]

  • ‘In 2016 Mayor Marvin Rees set in motion plans to bring key city stakeholders together to tackle systemic city challenges through partnerships, with a particular emphasis on reducing notorious inequalities in the city. It was this focus on tackling inequality that inspired the Bristol One City Plan.’ [13]

  • ‘We are excited to be a part of the next steps in this decade of delivery on the SDGs’ [2]

  • ‘Politically, the great opportunity of the SDGs is that they are comprehensive and non-contentious across most political parties. Parties might disagree on priorities or mechanisms, but the SDGs circumvent that by (a) foregrounding the connectivity of these disparate priorities and (b) being non-judgmental on mechanisms. Thus, in a politically contentious age, they have great power for building consensus.’ [12]

  • ‘The One City Plan identifies three priority initiatives associated with each theme for every year from 2019–2050 (a total of 558 initiatives).’ [13]

  • ‘Hundreds of unaligned city strategies – most of which end in five years or less.’ [8]

  • ‘One City vision and plan; that sequences activity up until 2050.’ [8]

  • ‘Monitor using existing indicators (at first at least) Again, avoid reinventing the wheel. As much as possible, find ways of setting your city’s SDG targets and monitoring and assessing progress against them using existing indicators and systems. Then, the next time your city or key institutions are going through strategic planning refreshes, seek to build the SDGs into those processes.’ [12]

  • ‘we do not need to reinvent frameworks or agreements, we can instead use the global goals as the basis for a socially just and green recovery in the UK and abroad’. [15]

  • ‘The aim is to annually update the plan through iterative consultation to be responsive to shifting priorities, challenges, and political change.’ [11]

  • ‘All One City Boards have been working on the plan refresh over the past months, and our wider One City partners network has also contributed and will help to deliver the goals and priorities it outlines for each thematic board.’ [1]

  • The SDG Alliance ‘meets every 6–8 weeks to share best practice and information about SDGs, locally nationally and internationally’. [9]

  • Monthly drop-in sessions are held at the city council to engage citizens and stakeholders and discuss how the city can take action towards achieving the initiatives outlined in the plan’ [13]

Ways of valuing Narrative–Metricised Narrative:
  • ‘It’s the potential in our collective power and the reality of our interdependence that is at the heart of Bristol’s One City Plan.’ [5]

  • ‘It is the product of a city that has made a commitment to agree what we want Bristol to be in 2050. […] Bristol will never be all it can be unless we work together.’ [5]

  • ‘They address the interconnected global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice and while we tackle these issues they seek to make sure that “no-one is left behind”.’ [13]

  • Narrative:: We built the One City Plan […] ‘we considered what life in our city was made up of. There are an infinite number of component parts, but we considered the six [themes] to make sense as overarching themes for Bristol. […] encourages leaders from these areas to understand and consider the implications that their policies and decisions have on other themes and objectives for the city. By considering the interrelations and interactions within the plan in a holistic manner, decision-makers are better able improve positive interactions and reduce the negative. This inherent interrelatedness of the plan lends itself to the application of the SDGs.’ [2]

  • Metricised: ‘The lack of a standardised system for reporting on ESG performance is […] a headache for investors’ […] When everyone uses different frameworks, there’s no way to benchmark performance against competitors, or use high performance scores to build trust among customers, staff, and the public. And it is harder to make the quantitative case that investing in sustainability brings better returns.’ [14]

  • Strength of our approach was the harmonisation of the monitoring framework achieved by identifying indicators that were directly relevant to locally defined objectives as well as the SDGs. This will institutionalise SDG monitoring going forward as it will not require a separate or additional activity for the Council. Moreover, the process of harmonisation required extensive consultation, which increased awareness of the SDGs within the council.’ [11]

  • ‘To help demonstrate how the SDGs can relate to existing initiatives in Bristol, these 75 targets were “localised” to the city, with one example target for each of the 17 Goals presented to nearly 200 city stakeholders at the City Gathering on 8 June 2018.’ [12]

  • Mixed: One City Economy Board, Economic Recovery Strategy: ‘It aims to build a sustainable, carbon neutral and ecologically positive economy. It aims to build a fair, inclusive economy that supports growth in all our communities. It is closely aligned with the goals of our partners across the West of England, and it is measurable against the UN Sustainable Development Goals. […] Progress has been made implementing the actions from the Economic Recovery Strategy, with just over half of the 117 priorities already under way, evenly spread across the three themes: People and Labour Market, Business and Investment and Bristol Places. […] The city is pulling together in a way that it has never done before. The One City approach is bringing together all sorts of organisations to take a lead in creating a stronger set of communities and economy. Whilst we are a city built on working in partnership this has enabled us to step up to another level.’ (Bristol Chamber of Commerce & Initiative at Business West and one of the One City partners) [1]

  • Mixed: ‘The business case for sustainable development is strong already: it opens up new opportunities and big efficiency gains; it drives innovation; and it enhances reputations […] Business really needs the Global Goals: they offer a compelling growth strategy for individual businesses, for business generally and for the world economy […] We could be building an economy of abundance’. [14]

  • ‘Currently, the private sector is where many of the innovations and potential funding opportunities to achieve the SDGs are happening. One recent estimate suggested meeting the Goals in just 4 out of 60 business sectors could open up global opportunities of up to US$12 trillion a year.’ [14]

  • ‘A model for this engagement would need to be developed. Suggestions have included a ‘Bristol SDG league table’ to rank stakeholders in the city, or a voluntary local compact where for example stakeholders could commit to tackle each of the three dimensions of the SDGs, with recognition and awards for higher levels of commitment.’ [12]

* Numbers in brackets indicate the source (see Table 1)

Underlining was added during the data analysis process to highlight salient terms and concepts.

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