United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Stall, Frontier Materials Can Solve All

The United Nations Sustainable Developments Goals (UN SDGs) embody seventeen interconnected calls to action that tackle a host of social ills by 2030 by mobilizing financial, technological, and political tools that improve the capacity-building and resiliency of global communities. Unfortunately, the UN Secretary-General recently reported that critical progress made in the first four years of the program’s implementation has stalled due to ongoing worldwide health and economic crises, which has left many nations no longer on track to fulfill their sustainable development commitments. Specifically, global health systems have been devastated, growth in manufacturing remains gloomy, rapid urbanization has contributed to a widening imbalance of services, and climate change remains an omnipotent threat. Despite recent socio-economic stumbles caused by COVID-19, the SDGs remain the best blueprint for achieving universal peace and prosperity by 2030. Thankfully frontier materials can help expedite the progress made on several critical fronts, including SDG 3, 9, 11, and 13, representing the four focused ‘Missions’ at this year’s PUZZLE X event.

(Image 1: United Nations The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 2015)

What Are The SDGs & What Do They Mean to Me?

Each SDG was crafted with between eight and twelve specifically identified goals, thresholds, or indicators that could be measured to track global progress toward their targets. They were also intentionally broad enough to allow individual governments to translate those goals into legislation based on their national problems. The interconnected nature, monitorable goals, and broadness of the SDGs meant that progress made in one SDG typically would create positive outcomes for another.

SDG 3 seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages but can be complicated by geographic or political constraints, as observed in Yemen. SDG 9 calls for the construction of resilient infrastructure that promotes sustainable industrialization and fosters innovation but can be hampered by historical or climatic restraints, as is the case in Haiti. In that same vein, SDG 11 seeks to make cities safe, resilient, and sustainable, which can be difficult when many urban settlements are overpopulated and cannot provide basic amenities for every citizen, as seen in New Delhi. Furthermore, these problems become exacerbated due to climate change, which SDG 13 seeks to take action on though it is often hampered by political actors failing to grasp the interconnected consequences of the other SDGs.

(Image 2: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Progress Chart 2021. July 2021.)

Understanding the SDGs is critical to each of our own lives since, in the end, we all simply desire healthy lives in safe, resilient cities that aren’t constantly devastated by extreme weather events. Here, frontier materials prove helpful because they are novelly developed substances that improve the functionality of a given application in any industry. Thus, these materials could act as the socio-economic catalyst that assists in reversing pandemic-related slowdowns by enabling less developed countries to bypass many of the technological hurdles that advanced economies needed to surpass before achieving their developed status.

Frontier Materials Enter When SDGs Are in Peril

Frontier materials and technologies, such as graphene, MXenes, nanotech, or quantum, can help nations solve many of today’s pressing problems by accelerating the transitions to low-carbon economies and more sustainable societies. The rapid advancement of materials engineered with properties that yield significantly higher operational capability is timely, given how the impetus for national governments and the global community to achieve the outcomes outlined in the SDGs has become increasingly urgent.

Specifically for SDG 3, a medical device startup, Nephria Bio, has recently chosen MXene as the filtering material in its advanced wearable artificial kidney device, while INBRAIN Neuroelectronics has been using an AI-powered graphene-based brain interface to less invasively treat neurological diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson’s, and nanotechnology continues to push the healthcare frontier. Graphene has jumpstarted an SDG 9 construction revolution and is now employed to create more resilient infrastructural materials, such as rebar graphene, advanced sensors to track real-time urban dynamics, and energy storage devices, such as batteries or supercapacitors that help energy-deficient communities. These technologies have enabled urban development to create smarter, more sustainable cities that exemplify SDG 11, such as Saudi Arabia’s Neom, which seeks to be constructed almost exclusively with advanced materials, and China’s new ‘Sponge Cities,’ which are made with sophisticated tracking sensors and systems that regulate water/wastewater across the settlement to prevent catastrophic flooding, or in many overpopulated cities where 3D printing is solving global housing crises.

Lastly, these are all cross-cut by SDG 13’s call to mitigate the impacts caused by climate change, where frontier materials have proven remarkably adept. At the macro-scale, frontier materials have evolved the global energy system to become more climate-friendly through the emergence of renewable power sources or carbon capture technologies. These novel materials have also enabled scientists to detect local soil pollutants after equipping sensors to spinach roots at a more micro-scale. As the SDGs flounder, frontier materials can pick up the slack by improving multiple sectors simultaneously via their technological prowess.

Killing Two SDGs With One Materials Innovation

Recent reports called for the SDGs to be reevaluated due to the unwelcome news that the coronavirus pandemic placed many goals out of reach. Recalibrating national development strategies and global action goals will not be easy, but as the past two years have shown, countries possess the ability to adapt to their surroundings rapidly. Stakeholders that successfully harness and further invest in frontier materials can potentially transform their socio-economic or industrial sectors akin to the modern transformation enabled by silicon, thereby helping struggling countries bounce out of COVID-related doldrums and accomplish the goals outlined in the UN SDGs.

(Image 3: International Science Council Guide to SDG Interactions. 2019.)

References & Sources (Chronologically)

  1. United Nations. “The 17 Goals.” Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2015. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://sdgs.un.org/goals.

Appendix & Images (Chronologically)

  1. United Nations. “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 2016. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf.

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John Norris

Graduate student from NYU's Center for Global Affairs interested in the intersection between climate change and security, with an emphasis in disaster relief.