UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Trade-offs

11 February 2022


UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Trade-offs

Reported by Victor Lovic, CSaP Policy Intern

On 26 January 2022, Dr Isabel Jones, Research Fellow in Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling delivered the third edition of CSaP’s Future Leaders Fellows seminar series. Dr Jones’ research focuses on how we can achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) equitably, in scenarios where one SDG may be prioritised at the expense of another. She presented her work leading The Beacon Project, using hydropower dam development as a model system to understand challenging trade-offs between SDGs.

Sustainable development goals and the trade-offs between them

The Sustainable Development Goals are 17 interconnected goals, intended to be achieved by 2030. Since the goals are interconnected, pursuing one of them can be at the expense of another. According to Dr Jones, large hydropower projects help achieve goals related to renewable energy and infrastructure development but constructing dams across rivers impacts biodiversity and the ecosystems surrounding them. This can in turn impact the people who rely on these ecosystems for their livelihoods and food security. Dr Jones’ work focusses on how to evaluate and resolve these trade-offs.

"Often not everyone is included within the decision-making process, particularly people who face the greatest consequences."

Dr Jones points out that often, the people who will be most affected by the consequences of these decisions are not represented in the decision-making process, which has implications for justice and inclusion. She argues that to resolve trade-offs it is crucial to equitably integrate many diverse voices in the decision-making process. Her work attempts to find new ways to achieve this. She explained that her team have developed a mobile game, called ‘Power Up!’, which effectively puts players in the position of an SDG decision-maker. According to Dr Jones, each week some 2.7 billion people across the world spend over 3 billion hours playing video games. She therefore sees this as an untapped resource and opportunity for engaging people in the research and data collection process needed to tackle global challenges.

In ‘Power Up!’, players must decide where to build a dam and what size it should be. They can see the landscape changing in response to their actions and each player must decide where to invest resources: in biodiversity, communities, or back into energy generation. Dr Jones stresses that the game is very simple but represents a start towards finding out how decisions are made by a diverse range of people evaluating trade-offs between SDGs. The game also incorporates random events like droughts or fires which can impact biodiversity and communities, as well as receiving outside investment. These can give insight into how decisions change based on different circumstances. The game launched at the start of COP26 and according to Dr Jones, in that first month it was played by over 700 players, generating nearly 60,000 data points of player decisions, demonstrating the potential of games for large-scale data collection and public and policy engagement.

"With tradeoffs, the crucial thing is to equitably incorporate many diverse voices within that decision-making process."

The app is openly available on app stores as part of the first phase of the project. The second phase will involve “targeted play” in the context of workshops accompanied with interviews and questionnaires. Dr Jones hopes this second phase will complement the quantitative data obtained from the game with more contextual information obtained from people with lived experience of the questions being dealt with. She plans to engage people at multiple scales: local, national, and international decision-makers, and to understand how decision pathways differ between them.

Questions arose during the seminar about how useful the data generated from the game will be perceived by policy and decision-makers. One participant suggests the game represents a very artificial and constrained environment for decision-making, potentially limiting its relevance to real world policy making scenarios. Dr Jones however emphasises the importance of the second phase of the project, using workshops, interviews, and questionnaires to generate qualitative data to complement the quantitative data obtained from the game. She explains that by including more contextual data, obtained from a diverse range of stakeholders, this can give more relevance and help to interpret the quantitative game data.

Another participant argues that even though the interconnectedness of the SDGs can lead to trade-offs, they can also lead to synergies. For example, solving the “affordable and clean energy” SDG would have huge benefits on many other SDGs, such as for poverty and hunger. Therefore, even though a specific hydropower development can have negative effects on local biodiversity and people, it may also have positive effects on other SDGs. Dr Jones emphasises that it’s these important context-specific considerations that should be explicitly incorporated into the evaluations of costs and benefits of any development.


The UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship scheme supports talented people in universities, businesses, and other research and innovation environments. It also allows universities and businesses to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators or to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas. Learn more here.

Dr Isabel Jones

University of Stirling

Victor Lovic

Imperial College London