Moving the Needles

In nature, with its many inter-connected ecosystems, countless needles are in motion. Can the SDGs be re-energized by iterative learning and evolutionary selection?

November 29, 2023
Luca Bravo/Unsplash
Luca Bravo/Unsplash

In the northern hemisphere of the world, the leaves are changing colour, and crowds are flocking to gaze at the foliage.   

The phrase ‘moving the needle’ dates from the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where it was first used to measure the speed of a steam engine with a gauge on the train’s dashboard.  

In the 1980s, the expression caught on to describe corporate and economic progress, in the form of key performance indicators.  

GDP, a composite metric, has been used for decades to measure the performance of entire national economies.  

In nature, with its many constituent ecosystems, countless needles are in motion. While conifers keep most of their needles during winter, deciduous trees shed billions of replaceable miniature solar panels, waiting to reboot their operations in the spring. 

How can we learn from natural selection and evolutionary processes – which are constantly experimenting, iterating and evolving - across a myriad of needles arrayed through time and space?  

With growing interest in biomimetic design, Japanese engineers have increased the speed of bullet trains based on the shape of a kingfisher’s beak. The wings of the dragonfly offer promise to revolutionize aeronautics.    

As an aggregation of local-level actions and decisions, economies are in reality no different – striving to iterate improvements in efficiency, and refine principles of bio-circularity.  

The late Nobel Prize winner for Economics, Elinor Ostrom, argued that ‘singular panacea’ solutions seldom exist for natural resource management, arguing in favour of ‘polycentric’ governance principles.  

Where the yardstick of GDP once went unchallenged, international development is now shifting to a wider array of measurements. Where the Millennium Developments Goals cohered around a primary metric (halving world poverty), their successor the SDGs have 17 Goals and 247 indicators.  

To tackles these global challenges, Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests “thinking big for social enterprise can mean staying small”, citing the Global Vaccine Alliance - an international coalition of the willing – united by a common purpose to solve the health challenges of our era, one needle at a time. 

Lessons can be drawn for other SDGs, now in desperate need of rescue, to be realized through a combination of experimentation, multi-stakeholder coalitions, and local action networks.  

Studies reveal that less than 1% of global funding for climate change flows to local actors. The majority of funds remain focused on a small number of physical capital investments. As in nature itself, adaptation to climate change requires experimentation and locally-grounded solutions, sometimes inspired from elsewhere – adapt, migrate, or die.  

The time is ripe to move beyond narrow metrics on adaptive capacity in infrastructure, by increasing finance for nature-based solutions and human capabilities. In doing so, sustainable finance can mimic nature in the form of more durable metrics, incorporating double materiality principles. 

A multiplicity of small grants and blended investments focused on locally-led adaptation and conservation can be activated, like the plethora of solutions found in nature, coalescing as networks of species which form a ‘forest’, landscapes as learning platforms, an inter-dependent ecosystem.  

Increasing flows of finance, like energy in nature, to local-level experimental networks, offers promise that one day our economies will be restored to the tried-and-tested design principles of the natural world.