Time is running fast for the bold set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the world’s governments have agreed to achieve by 2030. Without more significant action soon, too many targets will fall short. That’s a big reason why a clock, and the dreaded words “Time’s up!”, are central features of the closing session of 17 Rooms, a meeting designed to focus attention on identifying practical steps to accelerate progress on each of the goals. What better way to concentrate minds than by fostering awareness of the few available moments closing in on zero?
One danger of a vision so bold as the SDGs is that the new world they envisage is so different from present reality that it can be hard for those trying to create it to know where to begin. When confronting so much embedded complexity, it can feel like trying to boil the ocean. 17 Rooms aims to help tackle that challenge by focusing on next steps—not the perfect step nor the complete set of steps that might define long-term strategy, but an ambitious set of next steps that could make a big difference through collective action. Then, because there are so many goals, it can be hard for any individual specialist working on a specific problem to see the big picture. So why not bring all the Room specialists together to share top priorities and learn from each other in rapid succession?
When the first experimental 17 Rooms was convened by The Brookings Institution and The Rockefeller Foundation in New York in September 2018, it seemed we were on to something: Bring together people who spend their working lives on aspects of one or another global goal, to have them identify the most impactful actions that could be taken in the next year or so. Six to eight people per room. No panels or presentations. Just informal conversations among peers.
In 2018, at the start of the always insanely busy week of the U.N. General Assembly, we found there was an appetite to get away from the usual speechifying and panel discussions, and instead hole up in small groups for some real in-depth practical conversations about what to do next. As well as coming up with some good ideas for action, participants even had fun, especially as they watched specialists in other groups try to sum up their own rich discussions in their two minutes before the clock said stop. Please do it again in 2019, the vast majority urged. So we did.
As we set out in this report, the 2019 edition of the 17 Rooms event was bigger and better than the first one a year earlier—not least because a lot more preparatory work was done ahead of the gathering itself on September 22nd. Roughly 10 people per Room, with a greater diversity of voices at the table, and more curated interactions between the Rooms. Each Room’s moderators also played a crucial role to identify key issues ripe for action and invite cross-sections of specialists who could naturally contribute to the discussion.
The 2019 edition’s closing plenary included keynote remarks from Rajiv Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation, and John R. Allen, President of The Brookings Institution. Both leaders underscored their strong personal and institutional commitments to the SDGs, alongside the need for broad-based societal leadership to follow through on the historic consensus that forged the goals in 2015. Noting that the 17 Rooms meeting was taking place on the heels of more than 4 million young people gathering around the world to call for greater action, Dr. Shah drew inspiration from their reminder that, “simply not having faith in our political leaders or political institutions to get the job done is not enough, and that we need to come together and be constructive in crafting solutions.” General Allen similarly stressed how the 17 Rooms approach “brings a sense of urgency, and importantly camaraderie, across all the specific issues of SDG implementation,” with all the participants being “shining examples of how principled and committed people can lead and make an impact.”
Among the roughly 170 people who participated—representing dozens of countries and several dozen organizations—there were agriculturalists and zoologists, economists and explorers, climate change negotiators and impact investors, charity workers, social entrepreneurs and management consultants, plus an entire room full of university presidents, focused on how their institutions can become the embodiment of the partnership approach at the heart of the SDG vision. This year, unlike in 2018, a number of public officials joined too—although generally only forming up to one-third of each Room—to foster connectivity with relevant levers of government.