Can the Inner Development Goals create a more sustainable world?

Feb 6, 2024 | News

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are urgently needed. But progress is slow. Were we lacking the inner capacity to make necessary changes? The team behind the Inner Development Goals believes that personal changes could be the missing piece of the puzzle for unlocking huge progress.

Six years is all we have. Six years is all we have. Only 72 months left to put the world right and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN. There’s a lot to do. Eliminate poverty, achieve gender equity, and tackle the climate crisis. Will we do it?

The United Nations puts on a brave front. Its official message is: “Now, it’s not the time to panic or lose hope.” Investing in “science” and “evidence-based solutions”, the global umbrella organization maintains, we can still bring about a fairer and safer world.

A group of academics, educators, and other experts respectfully disagree. They are not cynics or technophobes. They are all in favour of embracing smart innovations or groundbreaking policies. Advocates differ on where to focus our collective energy.

Our weekly newsletter will help you to improve your inbox. Positive News editors choose the top stories of the week to bring you the essential information about what is going right.

For decades, the best minds in the world have been looking externally to create a sustainable future for everyone – engineering, economics, and medicine are just a few examples. They have neglected or downplayed the importance of self-reflection. If we could only learn to be more aware of ourselves, our chances of success would increase exponentially.

Daniel Hires, a former social entrepreneur, is now the marketing spokesperson for the movement. It has 400 loosely-knit ‘hubs” of followers scattered around the globe. He says: “Such as recycling your trash or pushing forward with renewable energy, these are all great things. But it would be even more meaningful if we could transcend our current way of being and show more empathy.”

The idea of looking within ourselves for answers is an old one. The search for happiness and fulfilment lies within. This is a belief shared by yogis, philosophers, and spiritual gurus from all backgrounds. The Inner Development Goals differ in how they apply this thinking to the external world of human progress and, more specifically, to the SDGs.

Illustration: Elin Svensson for Positive News

What’s the logic behind it? Andrew Serazin of the Templeton World Charity Foundation in the US, a grant-maker who works on the ‘frontiers’ of human flourishing, says that part of it is due to the impasse our pursuit of “smart” solutions has led us to.

He says, “We’ve reached a point where we can no longer solve global problems with purely external technocratic solutions.” “We’ve reached a point where an inside perspective is needed to complement the outside perspective.”

A rebalancing of focus is also necessary to gain a better understanding of the reasons why global development is stalling. Why do 650 million people still live in abject misery? What prevents many more than twice that number from having access to food?

We need a cultural and spiritual transformation

Orthodox economists are likely to give a conventional answer. Low economic productivity, weak operating environment, state corruption and lack of capital investment are all factors that can be considered. Solve these problems, and universal prosperity will flourish.

They may agree but will add another factor: us. According to them, we (read: citizens from rich industrialised countries, for the majority) are also part of the problem. They say that we prefer to hoard rather than share our wealth. Our interests are also placed above (and, if need be, in lieu of) the interests of others.

Erik Fernholm is the founder of 29k – an app that promotes mental health and inner growth. He is clear on this point. He used to think that the main environmental challenges in the world were biodiversity loss, the collapse of ecosystems, and climate change. He now identifies three different challenges: selfishness, greed and apathy. “And to deal with them,” he continues, “we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.”

Inner Development Goals is geared towards that transformation. The movement is based on “. First, a new way of ‘being and thinking’. Then, new ways of relating,’ ‘collaborating,’ and ‘acting.’ Listening is the key. Hires says that we are used to “mostly listening and waiting to speak rather than really broadcasting what the other person has to say”.

Each dimension is accompanied by a subset containing skills and qualities. So, ‘collaborating,’ for example, encourages communication skills (starting from the “ability of really listening to others”) as well as cooperation, trust, and mobilisation skills.

Hires is keen to stress that the framework is not prescriptive but descriptive. The idea is to emphasize the need to pay more attention to our internal development, not to outline a step-by-step guide on how to achieve it.

He explains that it is more about looking at the things that are already happening and giving them a language. “We haven’t sat down in our garage and said, ‘You Know, We Have the Masterplan’.”

Is it a privileged hobby project or something truly useful?

In this sense, the word ‘goals” is a bit of a misnomer. Hires says that it is a good way to acknowledge the SDGs, but to attach measurable targets would be to misunderstand both the initiative’s substance and its intention.

Some companies are already using this approach, such as the Swedish retail giant Ikea. It is used to design and evaluate their leadership training program. Doesn’t the idea of inner reflection and the like seem to be a Western privilege in a world where so many people lack basic necessities?

Hires, a man who lives in Barcelona, claims German and American citizenship but was abandoned as a baby on the streets of Seoul, says that it is a fact. In terms of urgent priorities, nothing is more important than putting food on the table of a hungry child or a roof above the heads of homeless families. Education, peacebuilding, climate mitigation, and inner development are not among the top priorities.

Image: Scott Umstattd Image: Scott Umstattd

Hires says that comparing immediate humanitarian aid with a more long-term shift in the way we approach global development would be a false comparison. Adopting a greater focus on the inner self is not meant to replace current practices but rather to enhance them.

It is not true that the Inner Development Goals do not contain bias. When a Rwandan delegation was first shown the framework, it left them scratching their heads. They wanted to know, “Where is forgiveness mentioned?”

Hires and his team are currently conducting a global survey with a single question to revise the initiative. They are hoping to get up to 100,000 responses to the question: What are ten qualities, abilities, or skills that we need to create a sustainable future?

Hires admits that “a lot of these things” are not new to indigenous communities. “We are just trying to make these things more accessible and understandable to people in the industrialised world.”

Realizing the inner development goals: in practice

By Lucy Purdy

“We see the IDG Framework as almost a part of the engine under the hood,” says Selina Millstam, former global head of talent for Ericsson. The company, along with Google and Ikea, is one of around 100 organisations that have already begun working in some form with the goals.

Many, including Google, have begun small, incorporating just one or two goals in a single team or department. Others have tried a more comprehensive adoption, such as the Swedish conglomerate Stena or footwear brand Icebug.

The IDGs first white paper, published in September, captures some of the IDGs’ successes and challenges to date. It’s a refreshing read. Michiel Bakker is Google’s vice president of global workplace programs. He ponders how being “vulnerable”, with colleagues can change the dynamic in a room. “It creates a very powerful thing.”

Ikea and Google have embraced the Inner Development Goals. Image: Zheka Capusta

Bakker could probably do without any new tasks in his inbox, so why would Google – with revenue approaching $300bn (PS239bn) and 170,000 employees in over 55 countries – want in? In these times of change, he writes, “It is very, very obvious to me that what made us successful in the past will not make us successful moving forward.” “The world is evolving at a faster rate.”

Bakker’s department held a 3-day workshop which he described as a “very personal and emotional experience”. They decided to focus on the three or four “business critical” competencies.

Tina Molund, who is part of the top team from Ikea, which celebrated its 80th birthday last year, explains their motivation for taking part: “Time can strengthen, but it can breed complacency. The IDGs are a great way to challenge thinking.”

What has made us successful in the past will not make us successful in the future

The staff began by assessing their behaviours and actions in relation to five transformational skills. When discussions about the concept become too academic, Molund’s co-worker Jenny Hjalmar Akerblad suggests the Swedish septuagenarian as a solution: “Inner development is universal, but how can IDGs be relatable to my 76-year-old mother?”

Prioritising work when bottom-line results are most important is another challenge. Waddington Millstam, an Ericsson employee, admits that it is difficult for senior leaders to devote “significant time and energy” to questions such as cultural transformation and inner growth. She also mentions the corporate “dance”, which is to prove progress. “Yes, there are data, but this work requires a belief in the intrinsic value. Some leaders are more likely to believe in the intrinsic value of their work than others.

She also offers another sign that introspection has crept into the boardroom of the telecoms giant: “We’re the ones who allow our children to scroll through TikTok. Our connectivity decisions influence how terrorists communicate. It is, therefore, even more important to introduce the power of inner development to our 7,000 global leaders, even if the journey will take some time.


Share to:

Recommended Articles