A City Rising: How Phoenix Is Harnessing the Power of SDG 17

By MJ Altman on November 22, 2022

A view of Phoenix, Arizona, a city taking on the challenges of climate change, rapid population growth, and water scarcity. Photo: Andrew Zarivny/Shutterstock

Once dubbed “America’s least sustainable city” for its record-breaking temperatures and water scarcity, Phoenix is taking on the challenges of climate change, rapid population growth, and water scarcity. How? By rallying local officials and its most global management school around the Sustainable Development Goals to take action.

What happens when a politician and a professor join forces? Just ask Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Dr. Sanjeev Khagram, the Director General and Dean of Thunderbird School of Global Management (Thunderbird) at Arizona State University (ASU).

Both are well aware of the stereotypes about their city: that it’s a retirement community where few creatures thrive besides scorpions, rattlesnakes, and cacti. And both are excited to change your mind.

Indeed, Arizona’s capital is not without its challenges. It’s the hottest city in the United States, with average high temperatures soaring to nearly 90 degrees. At the same time, a 22-year drought has caused a historic drop in water levels for the Colorado River basin and Lake Mead, which millions of people across the Southwest — including residents of Phoenix — rely on for drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectricity. And when it comes to ozone pollution, Phoenix is ranked as one of the worst places in the country to live, according to the American Lung Association.

But in recent years, Phoenix has also become one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of electric vehicles and semiconductors. It also has launched the country’s first permanent and publicly funded Office of Response and Heat Mitigation. The city has already electrified its police department’s motorcycle fleet as well as ground equipment at its airport — the 11th busiest in the world last year — and will be replacing its aging buses with battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell versions, thanks to a grant from the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In building “the world’s most sustainable desert city,” both Gallego and Khagram have embraced a universal road map that has united countries and communities across the globe in protecting the planet and its people: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Together, last year they launched Phoenix Global Rising, an initiative to foster international trade and investment, promote the full inclusion of immigrants and refugees, create a smart community with sister cities worldwide, and, of course, to achieve the Global Goals.

Director General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram presenting in the Haas Digital Global Forum, the social and technological center of Thunderbird's Global Headquarters in downtown Phoenix. Over 20 million pixels of direct-view LED screens wrap around the forum's ring and northern wall, while a hands-free interactive screen on the adjacent wall allows visitors to control and interact with a digital globe, that spans nearly three meters in diameter. Photo: ASU

This partnership between Phoenix City Hall and Thunderbird School of Global Management — which sit just half a mile from each other in downtown Phoenix — has become a driving force behind a sustainability strategy that is reshaping civic action, corporate investment, and a local-to-global vision for the future.

“I am very lucky to have the Thunderbird School of Global Management and ASU in my backyard,” Gallego says. “Thunderbird is walking distance from Phoenix City Hall. They have been a key partner in so many areas. … They brought to the table members of the team that had been very involved with the Sustainable Development Goals and could help us make sure we were able to use them effectively.”

With what Khagram calls “arguably the largest collection of faculty, experts, academics, and scholars working on sustainability issues,” Thunderbird not only serves as a common ground for people from different sectors and areas of expertise to come together, it also serves as a test laboratory of sorts. “Potential innovations are tested on our campuses and then, if they work, they are scaled out to the community,” Khagram says. “So that’s a really powerful engine of transformation because it connects citizens and all of these various stakeholders to the unique capacities of the university in terms of convening, thought leadership, and research and development.”

One concrete example of this collaboration is the city’s Cool Pavement program, which involves coating streets with a lighter, reflective paint. This seemingly straightforward solution addresses what is known as the “urban heat island effect,” in which pavements and other impermeable surfaces absorb solar radiation and warm up their surroundings by re-emitting that radiation as heat. Researchers at ASU have found that this reflective paint can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 10 degrees, in addition to reducing the number of potholes. Gallego says she’s already fielded inquiries from mayors in South America and Europe who are interested in adopting this approach in their own cities.

Another example of the Gallego-Khagram collaboration brought female entrepreneurs with Mexican heritage, who often lack access to capital, markets, and support, to the local Mexican Consulate for technical training, consulting, and networking opportunities. Gallego says most of the women who participated were able to grow their businesses and feel more connected to the city of Phoenix and to other businesses in Mexico. Since then, the Mexican government has spread the program to consulate offices all over the world.

Both Gallego and Khagram point to the SDGs as a way to not only work together, but also with other governments, companies, and organizations worldwide that are grappling with many of the same challenges. Last year, Khagram helped release a first-of-its-kind publication, the Global SDG Accountability Report, to showcase how diverse stakeholders across the planet are tackling the 2030 Agenda at subnational, national, and international levels.

Thunderbird’s “sandbox classroom” features state-of-the-art technology in a highly collaborative environment used to explore new technology and teaching methods. This space is dedicated to exploring, learning and understanding the tools that will work for students and faculty, such as the six touch tables that allow learners to collaborate in an interactive setting. Photo: Inessa Binenbaum

During her most recent visit to Thunderbird, Gallego met with entrepreneurs from Israel who are using advanced analytics and artificial intelligence to better manage water resources, including creating state-of-the-art sensors for detecting leaks. It’s an approach that illustrates SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals).

“We want to learn as much as we can from the global conversation,” Gallego says. “By committing to be part of the process, it helped us be part of a larger collaboration.”

When cities across Europe experienced historic heat waves this summer, Gallego stepped up to offer technical support and advice. “We’ve learned lessons like how to support firefighters who are working in intense heat environments, and how to make sure we create cooling centers,” she says.

And this exchange of knowledge works both ways. Thanks in part to insights gleaned from city officials in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for example, Phoenix launched a tree planting program to expand tree cover in underserved parts of the city that both informs and includes neighborhood residents. Like Gallego, leaders in Freetown have turned to the SDGs as a blueprint for a better way to govern.

“Like most other cities, you tend to see more lush tree cover in wealthier areas,” Gallego says. “We learned from Freetown that having a local workforce from the communities in which we’re planting the trees helps get additional buy-in and broadens the stakeholders who benefit.”

As a result, Phoenix’s “Tree Equity Accelerator” involves training city residents in urban forestry to foster new jobs skills, entrepreneurship, and local ownership of the initiative.

Harnessing the SDGs to Drive Climate Action

Unlike many big-city mayors in America, Gallego didn’t practice law before running for political office; she studied environmental science and worked at one of Arizona’s largest utility companies. She credits this academic pedigree and work experience for giving her an uncommon yet increasingly important perspective as a politician, especially in a city that is already feeling the effects of extreme and unpredictable weather. During Gallego’s first year in office, in 2019, Phoenix experienced a widespread drought followed by catastrophic flooding, prompting a presidential disaster declaration.

“Climate change is not a hypothetical future problem for us,” she says. “It is the most pressing issue right now.”

"Climate change is not a hypothetical future problem for us. It is the most pressing issue right now."

Kate Gallego

Mayor of Phoenix

Gallego also attributes the public’s increasing awareness of climate change — and the resulting sense of urgency to take climate action — to a growing momentum in the U.S. and abroad for achieving the SDGs, particularly at a local level. “As municipal governments, we are close to the people. We can get things done and we have the motivation to do so,” she says. “Mayors see the impact of climate change on a daily basis. … We also see that our residents benefit in a very direct way from being part of global conversations and being connected to the resources that come with it.”

The Francis and Dionne Najafi 100 Million Learners Global Initiative has been made possible through a generous initial gift of $25 million from prominent Phoenix businessman and Thunderbird alumni F. Francis Najafi ’77 and his wife Dionne Najafi ’06. The Global Initiative is an ambitious project to engage 100 million of tomorrow's global learners on a pathway towards a higher education degree and building entrepreneurial skills at no cost to the learner. Photo: ASU

Like Gallego, Khagram brings exceptionally relevant work experience to his position as Director General and Dean of Thunderbird at ASU. In 2015, the same year that UN Member States unanimously ratified the Sustainable Development Goals, he helped to establish the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, which is now hosted at the UN Foundation, to mobilize dynamic data-driven decision-making in support of the Global Goals. He later helped the city of Los Angeles create its own sustainability road map as Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Senior Advisor on the SDGs, which included a project in which local college students mapped how LA’s plans, policies, and budgets aligned with the 2030 Agenda. When Khagram moved to Phoenix, he brought the lessons he learned from both roles with him — especially about the importance of SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals.

“What both experiences reinforced is that when we bring stakeholders together with incredible leadership and catalytic resources, the potential for impact is tremendous,” he says. “That’s really the secret sauce.”

At the heart of this collaboration are students who bring youthful energy, fresh perspectives, and a personal understanding of what’s at stake. “It’s really about their generation and their future,” Khagram says of today’s young people. “They’re bringing in lived experiences of the way the world is changing around them, and they want to shape the planet they want to live in.”

"When we bring stakeholders together with incredible leadership and catalytic resources, the potential for impact is tremendous."

Dr. Sanjeev Khagram

Director General and Dean of Thunderbird School of Global Management, ASU

Thunderbird is harnessing this potential by equipping students with resources that can turn their big ideas into actual outcomes. This means providing access to 3D printers, augmented, extended, and virtual reality (AR, XR, and VR) labs, and other cutting-edge technology, as well as “global challenge projects” that address real-life problems facing companies and local governments worldwide, not just Phoenix.

Thanks to its size and capacity, Thunderbird at ASU specifically, which today boasts 50,000 alumni in 140 countries and 20 regional Centers of Excellence across the globe, means Khagram can broaden this partnership beyond city limits. Take Thunderbird’s Young SDG Innovators program, a partnership with the UN Global Compact to foster social entrepreneurship in Brazil, China, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., by providing online and in-person workshops, case studies, company visits, and forum discussions for people under 35. Earlier this year, Thunderbird launched the 100 Million Learners Global Initiative, which aims to provide free, online education in 40 languages to 100 million students by 2030. The initiative is especially close to Khagram’s heart. As the son of refugees from Uganda, he grew up understanding more than most the importance of education and opportunity.

Another example is Thunderbird’s Global Carbon Removal Partnership, an ambitious effort to prevent the worst consequences of climate change by removing and sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This means bringing together a broad array of governments, corporations, organizations, and enterprises to create tangible — and timely — results. It’s a bold effort that could have massive implications across the Global Goals, and one that embodies the power of SDG 17.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (second from right) and partners plant trees as part of an effort to expand tree cover in underserved parts of the city. Photo: City of Phoenix

Global Climate Ambition Starts at Home

Last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow proved to be a turning point for local leaders like Gallego, as more than 1,000 global cities, including Phoenix, committed to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

“For mayors, COP 26 was a pivotal moment,” she says. “Many national governments are really struggling to meet their commitments. Meanwhile, there are cities that are delivering ahead of schedule in some cases. That’s a real point of pride for us.”

As a member of the C40 Cities, a global network of mayors dedicated to climate action, Gallego is joined by other impressive female leaders from Bogota, Montreal, Paris, and elsewhere. “The Mayor of Mexico City has won a Nobel for her work around climate change, so we were in good company. I can’t compete with that level of a prize,” she says with a laugh. “But as someone with an environmental degree by background, I do feel like I’m really able to use that in a way that makes life better for my residents and includes a healthier future for my city.”

At this year’s COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Khagram worked to further these commitments and cooperation by tapping Thunderbird’s deep connections to international institutions. This included co-hosting a roundtable with the Presidency of Kenya and Foreign Policy on global carbon removal. The inclusive discussion reflected the spirit of SDG 17 by highlighting a wide range of perspectives across sectors as well as geographies, including the United States, Colombia, Malaysia, and small island developing states.

For Khagram, the key to tackling major challenges — from climate change to systemic inequality — is collaboration, plain and simple: “Get people together, have a common set of values, commitments, and vision, put some resources behind it, get to work, solve problems, create opportunities and it’s amazing,” he says. “Don’t try to over-engineer it.”

Gallego agrees, particularly when it comes to Phoenix Global Rising and leveraging SDG 17 to unlock progress across the 2030 Agenda. “Moving towards big-picture goals is helpful for us to stay focused as we commit to being a more sustainable community,” she says. “This initiative has brought a lot of people together and generated a lot of enthusiasm.”

For a place that was dubbed “America’s least sustainable city” in a 2011 book, Phoenix and its leaders are working to change both the perception and the reality of life for local residents.

“Phoenix got its name because of the mythical bird that rose from the ashes,” Gallego said during an interview earlier this year. “It’s a story of creating beauty out of not a lot at the beginning. And we hope that’s the environment we have here in Phoenix — where we take what we have to work with and create something really impressive.”

This story is part of a larger project launched by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution to build and support American Leadership on the SDGs.