Sustainable Development Goals more urgent than ever in a post-COVID world

Prior to COVID-19, there were concerns about achieving the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, a worry that has been clearly exacerbated by the pandemic.

COVID continues to create challenges for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (hunger, decent work, inequalities). With the UN World Food Program predicting a quarter of a billion people could be plunged into acute hunger by December, it is more important than ever to dig in around the SDGs to help set the path for a stronger and better recovery.

A focus on the SDGs requires multi-sectoral partnerships, as no one sector, government, NFP or business, can do it alone due to the breadth and depth of the problems.  Businesses will play a key role within these multi-sectoral partnerships to provide a roadmap for a post-COVID world, due to their role in innovation, access to resources and as a source of employment.

Embracing the ‘never waste a crisis’ mantra the current calamity can be a catalyst for urgent SDG implementation.

Three key interrelated aspects require attention as the underlying driving forces for business to engage with the SDG agenda.

  1. Rethinking the role of business; the global pandemic has exposed the structural weaknesses of capitalism. The post-Covid world will require businesses to rethink their business model and offer sustainable solutions. Universities have a critically important role  role in shifting the business mindset towards sustainability.
  2. Technological readiness; the key technology trends accelerated during the COVID pandemic (online and distance learning, digital payments, remote working, tele-health, online entertainment, and resilient supply chain) relate to all the SDGs. In a post COVID world, businesses need to reimagine their approach to realise the unlimited potential of technology as an underlying force for all the SDGs.
  3. Social innovations: in a post-COVID resource constrained world, frugal innovations are critical not only for developing better and cheaper solutions at a rapid pace with limited resources, but also in keeping many businesses thriving.

Prior to COVID-19 there were concerns about achieving the SDGs by 2030. Their implementation is even more important in the world we are entering.

Just a few numbers are a window into a grim future: about USD$ 9 trillion of global GDP is likely to be lost in 2020 and 2021 (combined GDP of Germany and Japan). Global lock downs in many countries, amongst other challenges, has resulted in 1.57 billion students having disrupted education or no education and  about 1.6 billion people losing jobs globally. Furthermore, 250 million people globally are likely to be subject to hunger by December 2020.

The recent UN SDG Report 2020, highlights that achieving these goals has become even more ‘urgent and necessary’. However, post-COVID, a focus on the SDGs requires multi-sectoral partnerships, as no one sector (e.g., government, NFP or business) can do it alone due to the breadth and depth of the problems. Businesses will play a key role within these multi-sectoral partnerships to provide a roadmap for a Post-COVID world, with their role in innovation, access to resources and as a source of employment. In order to exploit the mantra of ‘never waste a crisis’, three key interrelated aspects require attention as the underlying driving forces for business to engage with the SDG agenda.

Rethinking the role of business

At the forefront of the COVID crisis has been the realisation of the structural weaknesses of capitalism, its flaws, and the increasing erosion of trust in businesses. COVID-19 has further highlighted the need for changing the business mindset towards sustainability and viewing the SDGs as a strategic opportunity for businesses to grow. The post COVID world will require businesses to rethink their business model with a humanistic vision and cater to the changing expectations, priorities and roles of stakeholders in order to recover better and stronger. Rather than creating problems, businesses need to be a source of good for the society, be a part of the solution and SDG agenda and engage in societal transformation through working collaboratively with governments, NGOs and civil society. 

Universities have a critically significant role in rethinking the role of businesses and shifting their mindset towards sustainability by developing students as responsible future business leaders and senior executives. Many universities have joined the UN Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) with a multifaceted, integrated and holistic approach to educate students about sustainability issues.

Deakin Business School (DBS), for example, has brought a cultural shift by embedding SDGs across its different course offerings to build students awareness about sustainability and more importantly enhance their skills and attributes to grow as responsible leaders and business executives. An example of how universities can work with businesses to contribute to SDGs is the guide prepared by DBS staff for businesses to hire refugees and asylum seekers, facilitating their integration in Australian workplaces (SDG 8; and SDG 10).

The University of Sydney Business School has mapped the SDGs across all of its research output for PhD and higher degrees and has, at last audit, included 12 of the SDGs into its undergraduate and post graduate course offerings. It also maps its students’ experiential learning activities against the SDGs.

Technological readiness

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of technology and its potential in keeping businesses functional and competitive during lockdown, and social distancing with restricted physical contact and movement. Technology has been used exponentially across various sectors, industries and businesses, facilitating the exchange of knowledge, information, products and services within and beyond national borders. Key technology trends that have been accelerated relating to the SDGs include: online and distance learning, digital trade, online shopping and robotics, digital payments, remote working, tele-health, online entertainment, artificial intelligence and resilient supply chain through the use of core technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.

For example, Landing AI, developed technology based on AI to continuously monitor the distance between employees at work. In a post-COVID world, businesses need to reimagine their approach to realise the potential of technology as an underlying force for all the SDGs. Businesses will need to be technologically ready and develop the required infrastructure to ensure inclusive digital access and reliable connectivity.

Social innovations(frugal innovations aka doing more with less)

Businesses will need to simultaneously engage with alleviating social issues (SDGs) and making profits. Continuous social innovations characterised by imagination and creativity will be necessary. In a resource constrained world, such frugal innovations are critical not only for developing better and cheaper solutions at a rapid pace, but also in keeping many businesses thriving. Initiatives such as digital cash transfers by BRAC and HappyTap, a portable handwashing solution by the TRANSFORM initiative in Bangladesh (Exago, 2020), and robots dispensing sanitiser and public health messages in Kerala, India are a great source of inspiration to build a more inclusive and sustainable world. These innovations also highlight the need to transfer learning for businesses in the developed context from the developing context.

“Businesses cannot succeed in societies that fail”

Paul Polman, former Unilever CEO and founder of Imagine

COVID-19 has all the hallmarks of an event that could drive societies to failure. Sustainable Development Goals currently provide the most accepted framework to address the challenges that COVID-19 presents. This is not the time for businesses (along with other stakeholders) to reduce their efforts on achieving the SDGs.


This is part of a series of insights related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on business.

Image: Isaiah Rustad

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