Commentary by Kali Taylor, Project Officer, International Institute for Sustainable Development and Kyle Wiebe, Project Officer, IISD.

What does it take for a country to come together to achieve the SDGs? We know that ultimately the SDGs are the responsibility of national level governments, but their true transformative potential will only be realized if we are able to engage individuals and communities in their implementation.

We recently had the unique opportunity to step outside of our day jobs at the International Institute for Sustainable Development and think about how communities across Canada can effectively contribute to the SDGs at the Generation SDG Summit. The think-tank style conference, hosted by Waterloo Global Science Initiative, brought together 47 individuals from across the country, half of which were under age 30, to discuss community level implementation of the SDGs. Each of the individuals present came from a distinct context and held a different perspective about what sustainable development means for Canada.

Canada’s relative openness, dynamism and optimism are currently having a moment in the international spotlight amid a sea of growing uncertainty globally. However, at the same time, the group assembled at Generation SDG felt Canada must acknowledge the hard truth that it is not currently on a path towards sustainable development.

While the group felt a more focused approach at the federal level is sorely needed, successfully addressing systemic issues can only be achieved through a society-wide transformation designed and led by communities across Canada. There is a great deal of momentum building throughout Canadian society to take on the SDGs. This is a rare opportunity to take stock of which systemic barriers have inhibited progress in the past and to enact needed reforms, including current efforts towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Together, we took a step back from implementation to first identify a series of guiding frameworks – systems-based structures, processes or strategies – that can be put into place as we strategize in different contexts and make the SDGs more local. This approach involves difficult conversations, an open mind, and the belief that respect for both local and traditional knowledge is paramount in a land as diverse as Canada.

This vision of a community-led transformation is laid out in the Generation SDG Summit Communiqué, which highlights strategies for community ecosystem mapping, community planning, partnerships, innovation and accountability. This picture is complemented by a series of policy recommendations that emphasize the need for senior levels of government to create the right enabling environment for communities to lead on the SDGs through substantive engagement, partnership, and access to financing.

Highlights from each working group included:

  • Community ecosystem mapping – introduce meaningful intergenerational, intercultural, cross-sectoral, and interdisciplinary dialogue that prioritizes including groups that have not been engaged before in mapping processes.
  • Community planning – emphasize an iterative process for planning that enables holistic community wellbeing and the community’s agency to tailor plans to a local context or reject plans that do not align with their priorities.
  • Accountability – pursue policy coherence that ensures clarity of roles and responsibilities supported by radical transparency and supported by responsive funding and independent and critical local media.
  • Partnerships – develop partnerships that begin with deliberate trust building to heal, unify, catalyze, and transform to achieve the SDGs in Canada.
  • Innovation – adopt an asset-based approach to innovation that includes co-creation of design solutions and supported experimentation to integrate innovations across community systems.

Overall, Generation SDG left us feeling the immense scale of the challenge, but also enthusiastic and excited about the potential that exists in Canada to use the SDGs as a driver to generate creative solutions to some of our most entrenched challenges. Canada has a lot to offer the global community in achieving the SDGs if we first look internally and use them as a framework for bettering our country.

Thanks to Hayley Rutherford, Research & Programming Manager, Waterloo Global Science Initiative for her support in writing this piece.

This commentary was originally published on the SDG Knowledge Hub. For more news, commentary and upcoming events regarding the implementation of the 2030 Agenda around the world, please visit the SDG Knowledge Hub (

Photo by IISD | Stefan Jungcurt