The economic, social, and environmental challenges embedded throughout the world’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require many breakthroughs from business as usual. COVID-19 has only underscored the SDGs’ central message that the underlying problems are both interconnected and urgent, so new mindsets are required to generate faster progress on many fronts at once. Our recent report, 17 Rooms: A new approach to spurring action for the Sustainable Development Goals, describes an effort to innovate around the process of SDG problem-solving itself.

What is 17 Rooms?

17 Rooms aims to advance problem-solving within and across all the SDGs. As a partnership between Brookings and The Rockefeller Foundation, the first version of the undertaking was convened in September 2018, as a single meeting on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The initiative has since evolved into a two-pronged effort: an annual flagship process focused on global-scale policy issues and a community-level process in which local actors are taking 17 Rooms methods into their own hands.

In practical terms, 17 Rooms consists of participants from disparate specialist communities each meeting in their own “Rooms,” or working groups, one for each SDG. Each Room is tasked with a common assignment of identifying cooperative actions they can take over the subsequent 12-18 months. Emerging ideas are then shared across Rooms to spot opportunities for collaboration.

The initiative continues to evolve through ongoing experimentation, so methods are not overly fixed, but three design principles help define key elements of the 17 Rooms mindset:

  1. All SDGs get a seat at the table. Insights, participants, and priorities are valued equally across all the specialist communities focused on individual dimensions of the SDGs
  2. Take a next step, not the perfect step. The process encourages participants to identify—and collaborate on—actions that are “big enough to matter, but small enough to get done”
  3. Conversations, not presentations. Discussions are structured around collaboration and peer-learning, aiming to focus on what’s best for an issue, not any individual organization

These principles appear to contribute to three distinct forms of value: the advancement of action, the generation of insights, and a strengthened sense of community among participants.

The annual global flagship

The highly curated annual flagship forms the “tip of the arrow” in driving the evolution of 17 Rooms methodologies. The first session in September 2018 struck a chord of enthusiasm among participants due to the unencumbered and urgent hackathon-type spirit of action across all 17 working groups. In 2019, the second annual flagship gathering in New York included more deliberate Room-by-Room preparations and a semi-structured exchange of insights between Rooms, leading to a public report of recommended priorities for the following year.

Figure 1. 17 Rooms flagship process as of 2020

Figure 1. 17 Rooms flagship process as of 2020Source: Brookings Institution and Rockefeller Foundation

In 2020, the pandemic sent everything virtual—17 Zooms!—and Rooms were asked to identify specific priorities in light of COVID-19. Figure 1 shows the year’s five-step sequence across Rooms. At the end of the process, each Room published its own short document of insights and actionable ideas for the year ahead, and the secretariat published a synthesis report, Great Transitions: Doubling Down on the Sustainable Development Goals, inspired by the work of the Rooms. The latter report described four emergent trends—for justice, nature, technology, and the next generation—that arose from the flagship deliberations and require augmented effort for the SDGs to succeed.

17 Rooms-X and 17 Rooms-U

Throughout 2019 and 2020, localized actors saw opportunity in implementing their own community-level 17 Rooms processes. Several universities in Canada, Mexico, Spain, and the U.S. have notably been first-movers in deploying 17 Rooms methods to stimulate bottom-up awareness and cooperation across diverse constituencies. For purposes ranging from strategic planning to local stakeholder engagement, to cross-faculty coordination, 17 Rooms has offered a way to stimulate new forms of cooperation and alignment among broad ranges of community members. Conversations are also underway with potential partners interested in exploring what models for cities, organizations, and countries might look like.

To start consolidating methods and peer learning, Brookings and The Rockefeller Foundation launched a 17 Rooms-X “community of practice” on February 25. More than 90 people from three dozen organizations joined to start sharing insights on how 17 Rooms can help address local problems. Among other highlights, Ángel Cabrera talked about how 17 Rooms helped Georgia Tech’s faculty, students, and staff align around a newly developed strategic plan; Sarah Mendelson explained how 17 Rooms unearthed hidden SDG-relevant connections ahead of a pioneering “Voluntary University Review” at Carnegie Mellon University; Miguel Ruiz Cabañas spoke about 17 Rooms as a facilitator of cross-disciplinary collaboration and community stakeholder engagement at Tec de Monterrey; and Joseph Wong described how 17 Rooms helped catalyze a groundswell of interest in the SDGs toward practical deliverables at the University of Toronto.

Watch this space…

Over the coming year, the 17 Rooms initiative will pursue a new cycle of experimentation to keep updating methods, codifying insights, and nurturing the community of practice. A formal secretariat team has recently been established to support this effort from within the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings, working in close day-to-day collaboration with the innovation team at The Rockefeller Foundation and the rest of the 17 Rooms network. The 2021 annual global flagship—“version 4.0”—will continue as a virtual process until COVID-19 subsides, with heightened attention to the consequences of the pandemic and also the global policy calendar over the coming year. Offshoot efforts will also receive strengthened support to share learnings and insights across the community of practice, including the launch of a beta toolkit.

The 17 Rooms approach offers a new form of problem-solving in the broader landscape of efforts required to advance the SDGs. For communities of all types and at any stage in their SDG journey, we hope 17 Rooms can help drive action towards SDG outcomes at all scales. Any organization interested in conducting its own 17 Rooms-X experiment is welcome to write us via [email protected].