Why 17 is a beautiful number

No matter how far we travel, how much we learn, or how many amazing people we meet along the way, if we want to understand what’s going on in the world then it always pays to check in with home base. Especially with our moms.

This axiom hit me like a friendly slap across the face last month, on the day when the 193 United Nations member countries concluded their multi-year effort to establish a new set of “Sustainable Development Goals” to guide the world through to 2030. These goals are being adopted by presidents and prime ministers this weekend at a major U.N. summit. They are successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight objectives established back in 2000, anchored in a premise of cutting the many forms of extreme poverty by half by 2015.

The MDGs remain little known to the general public, but they became a North Star guiding international cooperation, prompting diverse actors around the world to row their boats in the same direction.  In early 2002, I became one of the first people deeply involved with those goals, part of a small U.N. group tasked with bringing them fully to life. In the intervening years, I have arguably spent as much time as anyone thinking and talking about how the world sets and pursues its shared targets.

A few years ago, when considering how to set a new generation’s goals, the U.N. initiated the most inclusive global agenda-setting conversation the world has ever seen. A vast range of constituencies were engaged, spanning parliamentary committees, businesses, civil society organizations, academics, practitioners, and millions of regular citizens online.

The deliberations raised an enormous number of topics, and found early consensus that the new goals needed to be anchored in the end of extreme poverty. But beyond that, it was a mammoth task to define the scope of an agenda suitable for 193 countries, each of which has unique economic, social, and environmental concerns. A big debate focused on how many goals there should even be.  Many prominent voices argued that anything beyond 10 or 12 goals would be politically impotent.

Fast-forward to a recent Sunday, August 2, and, after a grueling final stretch of negotiations, all U.N. member states agreed on a new set of goals—17 of them—anchored in a vision of promoting people, planet, and prosperity for 2030. The accord prompted mixed emotions for me and many of my colleagues around the world. On one hand, there was relief and excitement that the goal-setting process was at last complete. On the other hand, everyone knows the key challenge lies in implementation. The first step in that regard is to explain what has even been agreed upon. And how does one explain 17 goals?

Enter my mother. That same Sunday night I called her, a retiree in her seventies who still lives in my home town of Vancouver, Canada. She doesn’t fully understand what I do with my days, but is always very supportive. During our conversation I mentioned that it had been a big day, because all 193 countries had finally confirmed a new generation’s global goals, including the end of extreme poverty. She thought this all sounded terrific. 

There was only one big problem, I confessed.  “What’s that?” she wondered.  “These goals,” I mumbled, almost embarrassed to reveal a pivotal detail, “there are 17 of them.”

My mom’s response caught me off guard, to say the least: “Seventeen is a great number,” she enthused. In mild shock, I blurted, “You’re the first person to say that!” Then I asked, with likely the sardonic tone of an unpersuaded teenager, “Why is 17 a great number, mom?”

What she said next simply struck me to my core: “It sounds like they didn’t fake it. The world is complicated.” She later added, “If they had come back with some Letterman-style top 10 then I probably wouldn’t have believed them.”

The next week I had to give a short speech about the new goals at a World Economic Forum conference in Geneva.  I summarized the technical stuff: that the world is chalking up unprecedented gains on issues like extreme poverty and child survival. I argued that the gains are driving new challenges, like climate change, to expand even faster than the rate of progress. I showed a picture of 17 beautiful icons that have been created to illustrate the new goals, and quickly ad-libbed the story about my mom.

Over the next few days, a large number conference attendees came up to me conveying tremendous enthusiasm for the new goals, many of them commenting, “It’s like your mom said—the world is complicated.” I heard the remark enough times that I started sharing her vignette more deliberately in other speeches and conversations. Pretty much every time, it shifts the discussion into overdrive. It’s as if people feel energized by a simple statement that articulates the complexity they already feel.

The positive dynamic continued to the extent that earlier this month an eminent colleague sent me an e-mail saying, “I actually quoted your Mum when I was talking to the secretary-general today. 17—it’s a magic number.”

I now have a fresh take on the 17 goals. They are a reflection of a broader truth. Our collective aim should not be to rally around narrow simplicity, but instead to respect people’s intellects and their desire to overcome complexity through cooperation.

As a coda to the story, my mother has recently started to dabble in texting, so in late August I sent her a 2-line message while traveling abroad. It mentioned that I had run into a famous person at a function, and that he lit up when I described her pithy insight about the goals. Cementing her status in my personal pantheon of wisdom, she answered with six words: “Alas, I know fame is fleeting … xoxo.”