We are Embarking on an Adventure for Sustainability

July 26, 2022

In recent years, there have been substantial efforts all around the world to mainstream the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and make this set of universally agreed upon goals a reality by 2030. Despite significant setbacks, one of which is undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic, the SDGs framework is still the only tool that guides us through the thorny path of achieving meaningful progress on human development and environmental protection, among other things.

Although the SDG framework is quotidian in the development space, research suggests it is still foreign to a vast majority of the public[1]; even if the framework itself may be recognised, its building blocks, underlying assumptions or other important details are often not well-understood. Various organisations hold awareness events where development practitioners like me regularly give talks, but the level of knowledge transfer at these one-off events is limited, of course. There are many online resources as well, but they are not adequately utilised as most of them are unknown to the public. Against this backdrop, there is much work to do to increase SDG awareness and knowledge among communities. Needless to say, we need to employ different tools and methods to achieve this and here comes innovation.

A few weeks ago, we began talks with the Conservation and Development of City Values Association of Izmir, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), to gauge whether we could partner up on designing a unique event on the SDGs theme. In line with its mission, the said NGO organises a treasure hunt every year that brings hundreds of people together. The aim is to make participants navigate a series of locations most of which are unknown to them, and in the process, they learn about the cultural heritage sites in the city of Izmir. It is a highly popular event—check out the video below—and has already become a tradition. We have decided to adapt it in service of the SDGs. In our version, the aim will be to maximise the potential of learning through interaction between participants and the environment. The education literature asserts that knowledge-building processes are best supported when there are multiple ways of learning, especially learning by doing.[2]



We also brought in other parties including Izmir Metropolitan Municipality and Izmir Sustainable Urban Development Network to strengthen the consortium and turn the event into a multi-partner affair and an opportunity for wide-scale experimentation on the theme of the SDGs. In the last few weeks, we held several meetings during which we discussed how we could design the event in a such way that it can demonstrate at least some of these desirable features:

  • Inclusive;
  • Disabled-friendly;
  • Climate-friendly;
  • Collaborative rather than competitive;
  • Impactful; and
  • Experimental.

The above qualities are simultaneously in line with the SDGs and are challenging for the organisers. What makes them attractive also makes them arduous to implement because most events of this sort are not necessarily designed with inclusion, the environment, or impact in mind. In other words, we do not have an example from which we can learn. We will together work out how we can achieve it in less than 3 months with no precedent.

Certain aspects require careful consideration if we are to meet the expectations we have set. For instance, I am currently exploring what level of fun we need to incorporate to keep the interest high—this is a fundamental question and the answer will affect the entire setup of the event. Gamification is getting increasingly popular and the fun element is often deemed necessary to secure participation. However, to hold an event and not lose sight of the fact that sustainability is serious business, we need to determine how much fun is enough and how much is too much.

Similarly, we need to work out how we are going to move away from a competition logic and encourage collaboration among participants instead. In most treasure hunts, there is generally an expectation that there will be winners and losers. Winners usually beat others by being the fastest to solve all the puzzles, find places/objects before others, achieve the highest possible points or some combination of those. The biggest challenge ahead of us is to redesign the whole concept of the hunt so as not to promote rivalry. We need to find ways to reward people when they collaborate or at least cooperate on some level.

The same goes with ableism. To stick to our principles of inclusion and being disabled-friendly, we must try to make it possible for every person, irrespective of their physical abilities, to take part. Doing so would allow us to move away from creating a game that rewards those whose physical features (such as their running speed, stamina or strength) are the most important determinants of success. We are currently toying with the idea of making it mandatory to have at least one disabled or elderly member in each team who could perhaps participate remotely or in-person if we can create the right conditions. Can you imagine what it would mean to those who have traditionally been excluded from such events purely because the rules of the game are not designed to accommodate their physical disabilities?

Finally, the tricky subject of impact once again proves to be a challenge. What kind of an impact, or at least an outcome, can we expect from a one-off event that lasts for just a few hours? Even if we manage to create a positive effect, how will we measure it? Can we claim any effect that the event creates will be long-lived? These and many other questions need urgent answers before we move on to designing the event. Otherwise, there is a risk of creating an activity that was designed with no impact measurement in mind and that prioritises fun over positive social impact.

As we work through the challenges we face, we document all our assumptions, expectations and decisions we make along the way. At the end of the event, we hope to publish at least one knowledge product—most likely to be in the form of a guide—so that similar events with the same goals and/or sensitivities can be organised in different places relatively quickly and easily. I think the opportunity to scale is immense, and we ought to share our learnings to make it possible for others to replicate it.

If you are reading this and have any suggestions/comments on any of the above, feel free to contact me (Gokce Tuna, Head of Exploration at the Accelerator Lab) at gokce.tuna@undp.org and I will be in touch to discuss further.

[1] OECD’s research on this can be found here: https://www.oecd.org/development/pgd/International_Survey_Data_DevCom_June%202017.pdf

[2] Kolb, D.A., 2014. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. FT press.