By engaging their communities and tapping into collective intelligence, cities across the globe can set better priorities and facilitate sustainable development on a local scale. 

But what does sustainable development really entail? And how can local governments harness the power of their community to spark real, tangible change? If you’re curious, you’ve come to the right place.

What is sustainable development?

According to the United Nations, sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, sustainable development requires us to find a way to live our lives and make our economies prosper while conserving the planet and eradicating inequalities. 

To concretize and support this type of development, the UN formulated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These action-oriented initiatives reflect a global partnership between nations to end poverty, conserve our planet, promote gender equality, and empower communities everywhere. In the form of 17 core goals and 169 targets, the SDGs serve as a universal call to action.

Discover what they are in this video: 

How community engagement can help achieve sustainable development

While the SDGs are large-scale, overarching goals for countries to strive towards, real change starts on a local scale. By informing residents and directly involving them in any actions taken towards the SDGs, local governments not only have a much better chance of actually achieving progress, but they also ensure that the measures taken are adjusted to the local context and directly serve the community. After all, every community has its own unique needs. While communities in rural areas may be keen to take more meaningful steps to combat climate change or protect marine life, communities in metropolitan centers may be more concerned with reducing poverty, supporting economic development, or improving industry and infrastructure.

There are several strategies that local governments can consider to inform, involve, and empower local communities. From conducting a simple poll or in-depth survey on the main priorities to tackle, to allocating resources to the various Sustainable Development Goals, community engagement equips local governments with the insights required to guide inclusive and responsive decision-making. This boosts accountability, since communities can monitor efforts, measure results, and provide feedback. And, in turn, community engagement also strengthens trust between community members and their elected officials, and promotes buy-in for policy choices, increasing the likelihood of actual change occurring.

Cases: community engagement  working towards sustainable development

Adjusted education and early learning in Stirling, Scotland ?

The city of Stirling is currently facilitating a number of projects on its community engagement platform. One of those projects is a community consultation on increasing the number of spots in specialist secondary schools, which would allow them to support more children with Complex Additional Support Needs (ASN), including Autism Spectrum Disorder. The council let community members weigh in on the best possible approach through a survey and a series of public meetings. 

The council also asked the community for feedback on early learning and childcare. In Scotland, all 3 and 4 year olds (as well as eligible 2 year olds) are entitled to 1,140 hours of government-funded early learning, which boosts children’s early development and paves the way for educational opportunities later in life. Through a survey, Stirling asked parents how this financial support could best be tailored to real-life needs. With both of these initiatives, Stirling is taking action on SDG 4 (Quality Education).

Reproductive health workshops for women in Chile ?

INJUV, Chile’s National Youth Institute, used the CitizenLab platform to ask millennials about their ideas for the sustainable development of their local communities. One of the most popular ideas, which was adopted for implementation, was the organization of sexual and reproductive health workshops for young women. These training sessions aimed to teach them about self-care and self-esteem, and provide a safe space to discuss sexuality. These objectives are closely related to SDG 3 (Health and Well-being) and SDG 5 (Gender Identity).

Allocating budgets and setting priorities in Antony, France ?

The French city of Antony set up a €600,000 participatory budgeting project to involve residents directly in setting priorities for local sustainable development. Based on the full list of SDGs, the administration defined 20 local issues, including more green spaces, promoting sustainable mobility, and bolstering a circular economy. 

All residents above the age of 16 were able to share proposals and projects to reach one of the predefined goals. These proposals were discussed by a dedicated selection committee and put to a community vote. 20 winning projects were selected, including planting a microforest, setting up a collective garden and chicken coop, and creating an inventory of local biodiversity. These actions tie into SDG 13 (Climate Action), among others.

Read more about the impact community engagement has on communities