How important is leadership in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)? One might say it is the most important element.
Leaders provide direction, inspiration and the will to make things happen, especially when the going gets tough.
According to the UN, an additional 2.5 billion people will occupy cities around the world in the next 30 years, with a majority of this increase in Africa and Asia.
I am writing this from the capital city of Bangladesh, where the population is about 170 million. Cities, despite occupying just 3% of land area usage, are where over 80% of global economic growth is generated.
On the flip side, they are also where over 70% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions are produced. In other words, cities contribute to both the best of human and planetary advancements, and also our potential destruction.With this in mind, SDG 11 specifically focuses on sustainable cities and communities. The UN Environment Programme emphasises the importance of this goal when it states that “making cities more sustainable, safe, resilient and inclusive will help us achieve many of the SDGs”.
Recently, Sarawak Premier Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg delivered a keynote address at the Asean Education Cities Conference 2023, where he expressed belief that the state could play a key role in developing world-class, sustainable and inclusive education cities within it.Citing Sarawak’s rich history, dynamic economy and diverse cultural heritage as a foundation for learning and innovation, he shared the “Kuching Smart City Master Plan”, which focuses on developing smart city infrastructure while promoting low carbon mobility.
He was especially proud of Sarawak’s ability to generate hydrogen energy. In fact, hydrogen-powered buses are already in operation there; it is a green initiative which allows the state to drive its economy by providing much-needed transportation and mobility.
“The Sarawak government recognises the importance of environmental sustainability, both in our recovery efforts from the Covid-19 pandemic and in our long-term economic growth,” he said.
We also heard from Deputy Human Resources Minister Mustapha Mohd Yunus Sakmud, who spoke on the importance of nurturing talents for sustainable cities via investing in education and technical and vocational education and training (TVET).
While emphasising that the purpose of education is to nurture a love of learning while instilling the spirit and virtues of humanity, he highlighted that sustainability practices must be promoted at the workplace for our overall well-being, and lifelong learning initiatives need to take on a more cross-border and global significance.
I was so proud to hear such words being advocated by my former student from over 30 years ago, and was truly touched when he mentioned that I would always be “Ms Lee” to him.
Another speaker and also a former student of mine was Senator Jaziri Alkaf Abdillah Suffian. In the “Civic Research for Cities” roundtable discussion, he spoke on education being a key enabler in building sustainable cities.
Quality education, he believes, is a catalyst for change in various areas encompassing economic growth, social well-being and positive environmental impact, hence its vital role in sustainable development.
I cannot help but beam with pride to have two former students who now play such vital roles in nation-building, and steer our country towards a more sustainable future.
Another inspiring speaker was Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) chief executive officer Hazami Habib. In her keynote on “Fostering a Sustainable STI Ecosystem: Finding Solutions for Greater Good”, she shared how frameworks such as the 10-10 Malaysian Science, Technology, Innovation and Economy (MySTIE) Framework could potentially drive the country towards developing and exploring new ways of nurturing future generations of planetary health caretakers.
I’ve always admired Hazami, who has been such an inspirational driving force behind ASM’s efforts to promote research- and evidence-based policy guidance in the country.
Sustainability is the “in” thing now. Businesses across all industries are getting involved, and rightly so as we move forward into the future.
I foresee cities globally gearing towards greater sustainability in terms of urban planning, renewable energy and green building design; with businesses and communities working in tandem to reduce waste and increase energy efficiency.
So, what is evident is the relationship between leaders and sustainable development. To achieve the UN SDGs, leaders play a crucial role for there can be no social, economic or cultural development without leadership.
And with me being in the sector, I totally agree that education is crucial for progress, development, and eco-friendly communities.
Prof Datuk Dr Elizabeth Lee is the chief executive officer of Sunway Education Group. A veteran in the field of private higher education, Prof Lee is also an advocate for women in leadership. She has been recognised both locally and internationally for her contributions to the field of education. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.