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Operationalising research impact in South East Asia: An example using three SDGs

Designed by Freepik

Designed by Freepik

Operationalising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been a topic of scholarly debate as to what should be measured and how it should benefit its end users or stakeholders.

In the context of South East Asia, the SDGs remain a lofty aspiration, and targets appear to be met by larger organisations that are more financially endowed. However, such results are incongruous in a region of almost 700 million residents, with an estimated 7% of the total population estimated to be under the poverty line. This suggests that operationalising and meeting SDG targets and timelines need to be contextualised. The 17 SDGs are widely advertised and adopted across business and other societal ecosystems, though there remains very little consensus as to how research can benefit the wider South East Asian communities. Let's take a deep dive into three of these SDGs to examine how research can be applied to the SDGs so that it provides meaningful and easy-to-understand outcomes for diverse stakeholder groups.

In operationalising SDG13 Climate Action, organisations seek to limit their carbon footprint and reduce waste in their effort to mitigate and adapt towards climate change outcomes. These are targeted tactics to realise desired goals, but how should these be interpreted over time - is an agency that reduced more carbon this year more sustainable than it was five years ago? And how then shall we compare its outcomes against other competitors, or those in another sector, or perhaps of a smaller scale? Instead of adopting a competitive stance in analysing actual results, perhaps a more constructive approach would be to examine the long-term impacts of the organisation or a city based on future scenarios. A scenario is a possible future state that is derived from global megatrends and helps organisations or cities to determine how they should respond to this potential outcome. In the case of SDG13 for instance, free climate forecasting tools such as Climate Central are well suited to construct scenarios based on rising sea levels, increased earth temperatures, and how these place coastal and other low-lying destinations with elevated risks of flood. Correspondingly, the speed and agility of these destinations to rethink town planning and infrastructure design will set in motion research and forecasting tools to provide more meaningful outcomes for its stakeholders.

SDG3 Good Health and Wellbeing tend to be calculated in terms of instruments such as Numbeo's Quality of Life Index, which encompasses eight sub-indices, where an algorithm formulates an aggregate score and creates a global ranking of 87 nations. While this perhaps illustrates a cursory perspective of where each country is about another in terms of wellbeing, the surveys are mostly conducted with adults and not necessarily encapsulating the perceptions of young persons, whose wellbeing is arguably most at risk following the outbreak of COVID-19. Therefore, research impact that can compile young people's wellbeing in ways other than surveys would be needed. Existing studies call for a shift of wellbeing indices to be cognisant of expressive emotions enacted in social media, as well as other non-traditional forms e.g. videos, images, poetry, dance, and art, and how these manifest to more nuanced insights for digital health and wellbeing.

SDG8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) is growing in importance across an inter-generational workforce that is ageing over time, and thereby having a longer than usual employment timeframe. Yet, the notion of 'decent work' remains largely quantified in many countries based on archaic employment laws that are measured based on a certain level of income, or X number of hours worked per week. The future of work has been disrupted by a range of socio-technological advances, with terms such as the sharing economy, the gig economy, and digital nomads, among others, radically changing how we should perceive 'decent work'. Digital influencers, with their large social media following, have the power to impact and shift perceptions, and yet many countries place these individuals into a common basket termed self-employed. The rapid rise of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the work environment, remains largely under-researched as to its ramifications on the human workforce and their perceptions of 'decent work' opportunities. For this reason, research impact should further probe the lenses of computer-human interaction, and how humans perceive and feel about working with robots. More importantly, are we utilising robots for economic growth, or are we becoming prisoners in a technological labyrinth? Perhaps someone might also like to advance research into the role of technology for economic degrowth?

In conclusion, this submission aims to trigger conversations and debates towards the operationalisation of some of the SDGs in the context of South East Asia, and how different stakeholders can co-create nuanced indicators for mutual benefit. Only by generating meaningful indicators and measures can the region chart sustainable progress toward SDG targets in the future.

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