Didac Ferrer

After several years working on sustainability, I developed a new skill, maybe it happened to you too… On any list of topics of a conference, a new call or a policy paper, I started READING BY THE END to rapidly find if there was anyting related to sustainable development. Yes, these kind of second order or typically called “transversal” issues that somebody remembers at the end just before closing the document, be it for political correctness or more genuine reasons, always tend to come at last. This applies also for gender or inclusion issues, for example…

This same phenomenon seams to have occurred again when formulating the 17 Sustainable Development Goals goals from UN. There, it was not possible to keep any sustianability topic at the end, just because it was impossible. All the goals had to do with these “soft” or second order problems, so, what came LAST IN THE LIST? A goal called “partnerships for the goals“. Reading a bit more, this has to do with what we would again call a “transversal” issue:

  •  “The SDGs can only be realized with a strong commitment to global partnership and cooperation”
  • “The world today is more interconnected than ever before. Improving access to technology and knowledge is an important way to share ideas and foster innovation.”

First, we can only expect global collaboration by considering also the local collaboration. Because it is a principle, it has a fractal nature, we need to consider it from the very basic level of the deep conversation between two individuals, to what happens in teams, organisations, institutions, regions or countries. Nothing can really happen at the global level without a shift at much smaller levels. And it is easier to start local.

Second, in my opinion, in some manner this list order reveals the same fundamental reasoning I mentioned earlier. With good intention, we first put the problems (poverty, water, education or climate…) and see collaboration and partnerships as a tool we can add-on to solve the problems. From a systems perspective, enhancing relations should be at the core. But we put it, again, at the end.

I do not pretend to criticise the effort of all who have worked on framing the SDGs, nor I have -if there is any- a clear solution to save the world. But what I see in general, is that in all organisations we tend to use only one toolbox for solving any type of problem: cutting it into pieces and then distribute responsibilities. We expect that by agreggating the efforts we’ll solve the problem. But this never happens, and the problems persist. Or become even worse.  When we talk about complex problems, the sum of the parts never gives the solution because the approach is inappropriated.

At our university (UPC-BarcelonaTech), we started a program on collaborative communities called Nexus24. Our purpose was to make collaboration (in form of “boss-less” teams) normal by 2024 at the university. A fundamental reason why we started this program was to train our organisation to work differently on these transversal issues that involved different units, departments or disciplines. We start to see results that we expect to share soon. Below, just an example: an evolution of the linkage of our personnel through collaborative projects. Large nodes are people who collaborate often.


After 4 years coordinating the Nexus24 program, I’m more and more convinced that the fundamental sustainability policy that any organisation needs is promoting a collaborative culture and set up a new operational system that makes it normal and easy to collaborate across the organisation. As an example, if it had to be in form of a list (possibly wrong), I would have put SDG on collaboration as n.1.  If anyone is interested to continue the conversation on that, please contact us at nexus.24@upc.edu.