Our image last week of the Rubik’s cube fashioned by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) with the SDGs drew wide and cross generational acclaim, including from my seven-year-old neighbour Jeremiah and his centenarian great godmother, Dadiamma. It represented one of the ways the goals, like themselves, have been creatively adapted to the needs and imagination of those to whom they are most relevant. Just last month, the United Nations Bookshop launched a set of SDG masks, handy, practical, immediate, adjectives which may not have instinctively come to mind twenty years ago when a series of T-shirts were produced with the Millennium Development Goals spelled out in faint and furtive font on their back, prompting Secretary-General Kofi Annan to wryly comment that you would need to be a very slow jogger for anyone to be able to read them. 

A range of fun educational and play SDG products has been developed by the Nagaoka University of Technology (NUT) in Japan, fittingly the UNAI hub for the SDG relating to innovation; the games (as in the accompanying illustration) have been developed by its students and allow “companies, educators and citizens to learn about SDGs while having fun from children to adults.” And they have been placed in the public domain. 

The reference to “companies” is important; later this month NUT is holding an "Online Technical Collaboration Forum" which will include a seminar on the SDGs led by the farsighted  Professor Yamaguchi and the ever energetic and, yes, innovative UNAI focal point Mami Katsumi. The forum itself is a combination of "On-site Job fair" and an "On-site Academia-Industry Collaboration forum" and is geared towards companies, students, faculty, and staff members of University; around 580 companies have been registered and around 400 students will attend. Bringing companies as prospective employers together with students who, on graduation, could be possible employees has become an increasingly current practice, as has the search for inputs from the “market” sector in the design of courses for students whom it hopes to recruit; at the ASEF meeting two weeks ago, I met Dean Mislav Balkovic of Algebra University College in Zagreb who had served as a representative of Croatian employers in an Advisory Committee for Vocational Education and Training in the European Commission. But aligning this to an SDG framework, as NUT is doing, is novel, as are courses NUT conducts, combining career and community if you will, including an SDG Engineer Course (Joint Bachelor-Master programme), the GIGAKU Innovation programme (in its Department of Science and Technology) and the SDG Professional Course (a Master-Doctorate programme for working professionals). 

Considering that they are just five years old, the effortless manner in which the SDGs have integrated themselves into formal and informal academic discourse is particularly compelling, aided by imaginative avenues of exploration as those paved by NUT, and reflected in the ease with which we use the term (in this article, for instance, not even bothering to spell out the initials!) I sensed that enthusiasm when I joined a meeting with NUT last week and was captivated by the incision and inquiry brought to the SDGs by searing students Alejandro, Tahir, Guillermo, Mirazul, Arachchige, Frank, Yuuki,Fernanda, Aleksandra, Vuduc, Elisa, Thithao and the other members of Mami-san’s class. And then I came upon another instance last week when I joined a virtual event by the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, its Sustainability Fellowship Reception where five UTRGV Graduate students and “Sustainability Fellows” presented research projects addressing sustainability and community resilience “for Global, National and Regional impacts” in the context of the SDGs.

The fellowship was designed by the office of Dr. Parwinder Grewal, Executive Vice President for Research, Graduate Studies and New Program Development, who has himself pioneered a number of SDG relevant research and outreach centres at the university, including for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Advancement, for Vector Borne Diseases and for Urban Ecology, a HIGH Scholars programme that engages high school students in research with faculty, and the innovative Community-Engaged Scholarship and Learning (CESL) initiative to engage faculty and students with the community in co-developing solutions to local and global challenges. Marianella Franklin, the university’s intrepid Chief Sustainability Officer, who directly leads the Fellowship programme relates it to the university’s definition of “sustainability as a tool for success – it’s a formula that can be applied for community and global success. We hope you will use this tool on a personal and professional level to sustain quality of life.” 

And the Fellows certainly have. Fellow Raul Espinosa focused on SDGs 3 and 12 and the imperative of increase in medical research for non-communicable diseases; he is working on a biosensor capable of detecting suspicious levels of Creatinine in saliva, an indicator of chronic kidney disease, a test swifter, safer and more economical than the traditional based on blood sampling, factors important in a world where 90% of people afflicted are unaware they suffer from it. The number of children affected by this illness is on the rise and the obstacles they face to get treatment have only sharpened during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Another Fellow, Karla Salazar, focused her research on identifying methods to remove Perfluorinated compounds from water sources. Working with the university’s chemistry department, and Xiamen University, Malaysia, her work was premised on studying the precursor to those compounds, Fluorosulfonic acid, to suggest insights for potential water filtration mechanisms. Fellows Jacqueline Lopez and her collegemate Griselda geared their energies to the need for education systems to further equitable and quality primary and secondary education; they collaborated with La Frontera, a team of K-12 students, parents, and teachers from Weslaco school district transforming their local community through quality education and leadership development. 

For Fellow Armando Garces, a statistic shaped his focus, the United Nations prediction that by the year 2050 one in every six people will be over the age of 65, and the fact that after that age, the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease (AD) doubles every five years. According to the Alzheimer's Association, an estimated 50 million people of all ages are living with AD worldwide in 2019. Populations residing in developing countries exhibit more cases than those residing in the developed. Armando will investigate the function of two specific genes in the neurodegeneration pathway to allow for the identification of a potential target for early therapeutic intervention.  

Listening to the Fellows speak last week captured their passion bridging the personal and professional, in Marianella’s compelling phrase. And listening on Thursday to the UNAI SDG hubs, at our quarterly get together, captured that as well - how the professional pursuit of the SDGs has been for so many students and their teachers a personal quest. Meeting as we were on United Nations Human Rights Day, I could not but reflect on the reference in its universal declaration of humans being endowed with “reason and conscience”, the two attributes the SDGs bring so effectively together as they comprehend a set of human rights, some acknowledged, others implicit, still others elusive, all aspired. 

Two days before that , on Tuesday, my mind went back to forty years earlier when, on another grey December 8, I heard the news of John Lennon’s killing and, as millions around the world would have done, thought of and hummed his anthem to the future. The SDGs were thirty five years away, the United Nations of that time was as unlikely a forum as any for their definition, but the passion of the global community of scholarship, its readiness to adopt orphaned causes and its energy were as vibrant as that the SDGs have channelled today, an energy that “imagined all the people sharing all the world”, a refrain inherent in the young women and men it was my good fortune to hear at Nagaoka and Rio Grande Valley that “you may say I'm a dreamer/But I'm not the only one/I hope someday you'll join us/And the world will be as one.” 

As the United Nations were intended to be. And as the Sustainable Development Goals, and the human rights they affirm, are.

Ramu Damodaran
Chief, United Nations Academic Impact