Sustainability Outlook Tool: Ten Steps Towards Integration Using the Systems Thinking Approach


System's Thinking 10-Steps

System Thinking is a way of approaching complex issues by acknowledging them as an interlinked network of subsystems and elements. Systems Thinking is applied through causal systems mapping of the system's dynamics, which is used to understand the connections between different elements and components of a system—be these environmental, social, economic, or policy-related—and understand the behaviour or interests these connections generate.

Taking a Systems Thinking approach in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development allows practitioners to visualize how improvement in one area of the system can either positively or adversely affect another area of the system, and how to turn trade-offs into opportunities for the benefit of the entire system while reducing the possibility of producing unintended responses and consequences. The systems framework allows policymakers and stakeholders to shift from a conventional, siloed and linear policy and decision-making approach towards integrated planning scenarios.


The main elements of the participatory Systems Thinking tool, presented interactively below to support country planning, can be summarized in the following workflow sequence: (a) creation of a system diagram; (b) identifying key casual feedback loops for each system diagram and the list of leverage points of multiple impacts; (c) defining the quantitative modelling based on real data, which takes into account causal effects; and (d) re-envisioning the systems model for each area specific to a particular time frame.

Policymakers and analysts may explore this Systems Thinking methodology in more detail through a series of ten participatory steps, tailored for the development of sustainability outlook reports (see below).

The methodology of the Ten Steps was developed formulated by the Environment and Development Division (EDD) of the United Nations Social and Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in close consultation with policymakers of Mongolia, engaging a wide range of stakeholders (Please refer to the list of workshops in 2017 in development of SOM). These steps could ultimately be regenerative and could be applied in cycles, starting a step, relevant to the particular national and local (for example, in cities) circumstances.

To better understand the foundations behind Systems Thinking Envisaging Policy Cycle for the integration of the SDGs into national planning is comprised of six steps please consult the Integrating the Three Dimensions of Sustainable Development publication of ESCAP, or take a look at UNESCAP’s Integration of the SDGs into National Planning E-Learning course.


Case Study: Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia (SOM)

Presentation Brief 


Contact Persons at UNESCAP:

SOM Methodology 

Aida Karazhanova (Ms.), Economic Affairs Officer, [email protected]
Christian Mortelliti (Mr.), Contractor, [email protected]

SDG Help Desk

Aneta Nikolova (Ms.), Environmental Affairs Officer, [email protected] 

Stakeholder Engagement 

Hitomi Rankine (Ms.), Environmental Affairs Officer, [email protected]

Acknowledgements: Environment and Development Division of UN ESCAP express gratitude and recognises inputs from the national experts, policymakers, peers, and the government of Mongolia, engaged in the development of the Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia. Special thanks to Mr Robert Steele and Prof. Darryl Low Choy for contributions in the development of the step-by-step methodology of development of sustainability outlook of Mongolia. 



Click on each step below to learn more about its process.

Introduction and Main Points

“As countries grapple with this complex and integrated development agenda, building a reliable evidence base to take stock of where we stand, to measure progress, to help identify priorities and to address the interlinkages and tradeoffs will be a vital element of success”
-Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia, 2018  

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, along with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), provide countries with an ambitious development agenda that leaves no one behind but requires considerable resources and efforts within a decade timeframe. There are many challenges and policy bottlenecks in achieving the SDGs. They include a lack of data for most SDG indicators, conflicting data sources, institutional ambitions driven by linear thinking, and misunderstandings among stakeholders of different backgrounds and competencies.

To address these challenges, a Sustainability Outlook report can be created. To guide and facilitate the creation of this report, UNESCAP has developed a Ten Step, rapid response framework for participatory strategic assessment and planning that will be elaborated on in this document.

Figure 1A Sustainability Outlook document is an integrated report that uses both qualitative and quantitative assessments of available statistical data for the analysis of sustainable development trends at a national or local level. This analysis is built on the outcomes of different performance reviews of national or local policies and programmes—highlighting the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of development—such as a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and a National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS). The analysis must assess horizontal (across sectors) and vertical (within sectors at the local and municipal, national, or regional levels) lines of policy integration, looking at sustainable development trends and the prospects of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (see the diagram). The report should also be built using the rapid assessment and planning tools, detailed in the Ten Steps, and by engaging multiple stakeholders through consultations and online surveys.

As such, a Sustainability Outlook provides the opportunity to develop comprehensive evidence of where a country or city stands on sustainable development and while it may illustrate encouraging signs of progress on many SDGs, it also highlights areas where more attention is needed. The outlook should then proceed to build a case for policy interventions that are most relevant for achieving policy priorities and maps out different stakeholders that should be involved in formulating them. Through its participatory development, a Sustainability Outlook should process the views of a few dozens to a few hundred participants, depending on a scale of the report, and can be reflected in peer-review processes, tailored to national and local needs.

The Ten Steps were followed in the development of the Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia (SOM). This document is the first Sustainability Outlook and was developed jointly by the Environment and Development Division of UNESCAP and the Government of Mongolia. SOM is innovative and illustrative, the document is integrating data from multiple sources in a coherent and consistent manner that supports an integrated analysis of sustainable development issues in Mongolia. SOM’s visualization tools, as described in the Ten Steps, can help identify and manage the champions and drivers of change that attract investments to these impactful “leverage points.” Policy advocacy through communication and social media, as a matter of strategy, would then help promote the outlook’s highlights and eliminate developmental and policy bottleneck challenges at the source. 

This brief provides an overview of the approaches used in the ten analytical steps of strategic participatory planning for the framing of a Sustainability Outlook Report. The methodology herein illustrates how to use the system thinking approach at the local and national levels and propose approaches that can be used in the development of policy coherence towards the integration of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In this brief, each of the 10 Steps will be elaborated on individually in a concise yet detailed manner. Further details can be gathered from the references.Figure 1

Source: A. Karazhanova (2017). Review of EPR and SOM [PowerPoint Slides] First National Consultation (NC) on Synthesis of Environmental Performance Review (EPR) and the Sustainability Outlook (SOM), 22-23 August, 2017.  Available at:

Thinking in Systems and Frameworks


System Thinking is a way of approaching complex issues by acknowledging them as a network of interlinked subsystems and elements. Systems Thinking is an analytical framework that engage the policymakers of different disciplines and backgrounds. It is applied through causal systems mapping of the systems dynamics, which is used to understand the connections between different elements and components of a system—be these environmental, social, economic, or policy-related—and understand the behaviour or interests these connections generate.

Taking a Systems Thinking approach in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development allows practitioners, analysts, and policy makers to visualize how improvement in one area of the system can either positively or adversely affect another area of the system, and how to leverage synergies for greater effect or mitigate trade-offs and turn them into opportunities for the benefit of the entire system while reducing the possibility of producing unintended responses and consequences. The systems framework allows policy makers and stakeholders to shift from a conventional, siloed and linear policy and decision-making approach towards integrated planning scenarios and pathways.

The main elements of the participatory Systems Thinking tool, presented in this policy brief is aimed to support the country and municipal planning, and can be summarized in the following workflow sequence:

(a) ) identifying key system elements;

(b) mapping out the creation of a system element linkages – i.e. creating a system diagram;

(c) defining the quantitative modelling schema based on real data, which takes into account causal effects; and

(d) re-envisioning the systems model for each area specific to a particular time frame.

Policymakers can explore Systems Thinking analytical framework through a series of ten participatory thinking and planning steps that can be summarized through rapid assessment tools in the form of a sustainability outlook report. These Steps are managed through regenerative processes to ensure that the entry and exit points and the data observed in time and processes are harmonized.

STEP 1: Start with the End in Mind – What is your Vision for a Sustainable Future?


The first step starts with definition a clear collective vision that the country- or city- want to achieve in a particular time frame.  The participatory planning step should consider the the-end point, which could be bonded with a time frame and resources (natural, human, financial) that would be needed in order to achieve the desired vision state in a workshop or consultation format.

Timeline Space for the Policy Entry Point, Bridging the Gap between the Current and Aspirational State

Figure 1

Source: A. Karazhanova (2017). Assessment of SDG readiness [PowerPoint Slides] First National Consultation (NC) on Synthesis of Environmental Performance Review (EPR) and the Sustainability Outlook (SOM), 22-23 August 2017. Available at:


The multi-stakeholder, cross-government and the cross-sectoral participatory process can enable the core team to policymakers and planners to formulate, own and further contribute in delivering of a common vision of progress, challenges, priorities and pathways forward. This joint visioning exercise can provide the basis for stronger and tangible cross-sectoral cooperation and collaboration in the simultaneous implementation of SDGs.

Ideally, a future vision should be defined as an integrated statement and grounded in the best available science as well as what is needed and desirable from the perspective of human aspiration and wellbeing. At the global level, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, have provided a common and ambitious starting Vision and a set of goals. The realistic visionary statement could be drawn through a comprehensive analysis of issues and availability and access to the resources in all sectors of the economy and social dynamics, starting at local level all the way to the national and transboundary level.

Examples can be further drawn from the long-term vision documents, such as Mongolia Sustainable Development Vision 2030  (SDV 2030) that identifies key sectors and time-framed objectives and milestones, or a more general multi-stakeholder aspirational document,  Green Development Action Plan of Mongolia (2014).

The Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia (SOM) is a comprehensive evidence base report of the country’s sustainable development. The report provides an overview of the green and sustainable development processes and is based on the analysis of the progress in the implementation of the SDGs. The diversity of the issues covered by the SOM report required the collaboration of a large community of experts and practitioners based both in Mongolia and in the broader Asia Pacific region and beyond. The contributions were made by more than 250 policymakers and practitioners towards the preparation of this Sustainability Outlook report, including through desk reviews and the national consultation processes. The findings and recommendations for integrated policies incorporated in the SOM result from methodology applying the systems-thinking approach to the assessment of Mongolia’s national context, objectives and progress towards SDGs.

Reference: SOM was initiated, developed and coordinated by the Government of Mongolia with guidance and the technical assistance provided by ESCAP and is building up on recommendations of the Environmental Performance Review, developed by international experts of ECE. SOM can be downloaded from:

STEP 2: Identify Thematic Priorities Aligned with SDGs 

Current active national laws, policies, plans and key important economic sectors, i.e. thematic priorities for investments, should be aligned with the aspirational state of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at goal and target levels through the participatory exercise of Step 2.  The analysis conducted in Step 2 is critical for formulating Integrated Policy Statements in Step 5 and to define the issues and the recommendations forward.  Through analytical tool on SDG Spot Analysis, the outcomes of discussions and analysis as a result of Step 2 would inform policymakers of the current state of affairs in all sectors.

An Insight statement should summarise the current situation and macro perspectives of implementation of the long-term vision and could be based on the national Environmental Performance Reviews and Outlooks and commitments to international Multilateral International Agreements, where relevant, in alignment with the goals and targets of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. Insights could be presented as a narrative state of the progress on the policy implementation status at a visionary level.

The SDG Spot Analysis is a methodological framework that allows for the rapid, onsite analysis of each of the 17 SDG’s profiles within a country’s own context by examining Hotspots, Bright Spots, and Emerging Issues.  The qualitative and quantitative overview of status and trends could be developed through a common space of a moderated workshop, which engages in the planning exercise all experts and stakeholders and provides a summary of common understanding.

A Bright Spot illustrates a positive trend towards sustainability over a specified time-frame: it provides a point of optimism, associated with obvious “drivers of positive change”, including resources and capital (human, financial, environmental and social) available locally, nationally and regionally.

A Hotspot highlights key issues, challenges and obstacles towards achieving the goals. Any issue or factor with data showing the trends in an opposite direction to sustainable development, especially for a long-term period and can be considered a ‘hotspot’. Hotspots are often cross-cutting to multiple SDGs and sectors, and thus are obstacles to achievement of other SDGs.

Emerging Issues are relatively recent issues that are more recently appearing on the radar of scientific, policy and/or the general public’s attention. They signify the novelty or intensification of certain issues, with fresh understanding of their causes or consequences and/or the development of new management options, or the identification of issues that may have gone previously unrecognized.

Reference:  The Government of Mongolia and ESCAP [2018], The Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia, page 27, available at:


STEP 3: Design the Systems Map

Once a future national or local vision is set, policymakers and experts can jointly identify the specific systems that are critical for achieving this vision, along with the system boundaries and purpose. They then can define the key system elements where interlinkages exist, and who holds the power, resources and innovations that work for (or against) change [1].

As an additional exercise, stakeholders can map the causal relationships and linkages among identified elements in the context of individual SDGs or system change goals.  Looking across the goals at possible synergies and trade-off would take us to the next level. Clearly the SDGs [2] do not work in isolation – for example, health (SDG 3) is impacted by food and nutrition, sanitation, education and increasingly climate change; the sustainability of cities (SDG 11) is an amalgamation of a number of the other goals such as food, energy, education, and infrastructure. 

Figure 1Systems mapping is a way to visualize the interlinkages between important elements or indicators surrounding a central goal or theme, collectively forming a system, as well as identifying the interplay of different feedbacks loops (i.e. sub-systems) between these elements or indicators. Through identifying and mapping all the interactions between the elements/indicators, the behavior of the entire system, and smaller sub-systems, can be discovered. Systems mapping is best carried out through a collaborative multistakeholder participatory approach, that seeks strong consensus on the situation view.


Once experts agree on thematic priorities and solicit stakeholder perspectives from different sectors, then, policymakers can jointly map out the systems of relationships between goals and targets. At least 4-5 different themes could be defined through the identified synergies with relevant SDGs, which could be grouped in at least 4 sets.  The SDG cluster map should then be able to inform and illustrate the main linkages between the SDG targets and indicators and reflect the views of experts and stakeholder perspectives from all sectors.

Visualisation tools:

Interactive sessions: cards, sticky notes, flipcharts pen and markers are useful during this step.  Through moderated discussions planners, stakeholders and experts can collaborate and jointly draw out the causal relationship between issues and effects, including agreeing on direction of the influence and creating a causal change story or narrative (Figure 3). Digitising tools: As a follow-up to the participatory mapping exercise, the resulting systems map should be digitized. It is recommended to use the on-line software Kumu.io1 for this process. Kumu will help you to visually illustrate and share your model with others is relatively easy. Kumu enables you to build interactive maps with narratives, links, video and other background for each element, connection, and loop in the map. For a quick introduction to the Kumu, watch the quick-start video here.

Nature Based Industry Systems Map (to attain SDG 9, 12, 13, 15, 17 -is an initial base) 

Figure 2

Source: The Government of Mongolia and ESCAP (2018). The Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia, page 77. Available at:

Ulaanbaatar: Systems Diagram, Feedback Loops

Figure 3

Source: Chart was digitized by Steven Arquitt of the Millenium Institute based on the outcomes of the "Training on Systems Dynamics, SDG Modelling in the fusion with Water Accounting and the launch of the Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia (SOM)" Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 3-7 September, 2018.  

Naming feedback loops: In the Ulaanbaatar systems diagram above, a reinforcing “Copy-cat migration” loop was identified wherein high rates of migration to UB stimulates peer migration and results in a self-perpetuating cycle, feeding the expansion of the Ger areas—UB’s unsustainable urban slums. This counteracts the achievement of the leverage point SDG 11 and the system can thus collapse.  Meanwhile, a balancing loop entitled “Latent health impacts on migration” was also identified. Deemed latent because they would only become significant after an indeterminate number of years, this loop would resist population growth in UB.  The idea behind this loop is that the increase in population results in the growing degradation of UB’s living environment through waste generation, air pollution, and groundwater depletion, resulting in an inevitable halt or decline in population growth.


[1] Stephanie Draper. Forum for the Future, available at:

[2] Example of SDG interactions (2016):


[1] Kumu is a free and powerful data visualization platform that helps people organize complex information into interactive and aesthetically beautiful relationship maps. To register your account, follow this link at and at  and watch the video and click on the step-by-step links that describe how to build your first system map.


STEP 4: Identify the Policy Leverage Points of Multiple Impacts

Find the most important places for intervention to change the long-term behaviour of a system is imperative. Within a complex system these places are referred to as "leverage points". They are places where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in the overall system (i.e. everything). For organizations rising to the challenge, this means operating on three levels – joining up with others’ efforts to achieve individual goals; looking at the inter-relationships between all the goals; and finally delivering the goals in a way that models the characteristics we need for a sustainable society.

A Leverage Point is a place in a system’s structure where a solution element or intervention can be best applied to achieve desired long-term results that are sustainable. Systemic Leverage provides a structure, language and process for understanding and implementing leverage, which decision-makers need to develop more effective solutions to the dynamically complex problems. Utilizing the insights from the visualization systems mapping results (Step 3), the identification of system Leverage Points for policy intervention is done through a combination of intuition, based on experience and previous policy formulation, and leverage point impact scoring.

Leverage Point impact scoring incorporates Donella Meadows’ 12 level framework along with three other criteria (lever, loop, and trend). The scoring technique is helping to define the most sustainable scenarios for future planning. According to each specific interaction, goals’ achievement can be self-nurturing (+ 3), congruous (+ 2), enabling (+1) or have no impacts on each other (0). They could also be constraining (-1), counteracting (-1) or cancelling (-2) i.e. the increase of air passengers can cancel the impact of carbon reduction policies.  To read more about the scoring technique, follow the link here.

For each of the Leverage Points, a simple impact analysis should answer questions and give a score related to its Level, Lever, Loop, and Trend. Once this analysis is run for all potential Leverage Point elements, total score counts for each could be depicted, and see which Leverage Points elements’ scored highest. These results must be compared with team’s intuitions on highest potential impact for leveraging sustainable change.

The policy recommendations of the identified Leverage Points consider multiple cross-dimensional impacts and are drawn from the analysis of SDG clusters and scenario planning process where relevant. This is a first attempt to summarise the baseline policy status for Mongolia towards attainment of goals and target objectives of the SDV 2030, the NGDP, and the 2030 Agenda, aligned with key MEAs.

Understand the relationships…

Causal Systems Mapping for visualizing SDG system relationship dynamics:

Causal system mapping is a way to visualize relationships of important variables in a system where a change in one variable causes either a decrease or increase in another. By looking at the all the interactions of the variables, the behavior of the entire system is discovered.  These maps consist of arrows connecting elements (i.e. variables that change over time) in a way that shows how one variable affects another. The arrows show the direction of causality. A systems map can show the relationships among one or more feedback loops relevant to a story being analyzed. The influence of the feedback will always create either a reinforcing or balancing dynamic in the system. A plus symbol (+) means that a change in one variable has an effect in the same direction on the other. A minus symbol (-) means that a change in one causes a change in the opposite direction in the other. [1] [2]


Interactions between the Goals 

Figure 1

Source: International Council for Science (ICS, May, 2017) 

According to each specific interaction, goals’ achievement can be self-nurturing (+ 3), congruous (+ 2), enabling (+1) or have no impacts on each other (0). They could also be constraining (-1), counteracting (-1) or cancelling (-2) i.e. the increase of air passengers can cancel  the impact of carbon reduction policies

Key terms 

 Loop: A closed set of cause and effect relationships

 Feedback: the process in which changing one quantity changes a second quantity, and in turn changes the first

 Reinforcing Feedback loop: Reinforcing feedback drives a system increasingly faster in the direction it is already going   whether away from its goal or towards it

Identifying policy levers of multiple impacts...

Identifying high impact leverage entry points to successfully address SDGs:

Index: from 1 to 12 for levels of impact.
Method of evaluation: Method by deduction

Causal system mapping methodology (3) allows figuring out how particular SDG is causally connected to others goals and targets. Building on these interactions, the next step is to identify possible Leverage Points (intervention points) you can think of for your respective SDG system. They can be entry points for policy intervention to transform the system towards a sustainable state. Then, for each of the LP chosen it is necessary to rank LP in the system called Meadow’s 12 level leverage point framework. Next, it is required to answer the remaining questions related to Loop, Level (terms explained below) and Trend. Once you’ve run this analysis for all your potential leverage point elements, total the score counts for each (from 1 to 6), and see which ‘leverage points elements’ scored highest. These results must be compared with team’s intuitions on highest potential impact for leveraging sustainable change. [3] [4]

Leverage Point Scoring 

Figure 2

Source: ESCAP (2017)


[1]  ESCAP (2017). Integrated approaches for Sustainable Development Goals planning: The Case of Goal 6 on Water and Sanitation,

[2] ESCAP (2017). E-learning course on “Shifting Towards Water-Resilient Infrastructure and Sustainable Cities," available on the Asia-Pacific Knowledge Platform for Sustainable Development at: 

[3]  "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System." Donella Meadows, (1997), 

[4] International Council for Science (ICS, May, 2017)

[5] ESCAP (2017)

STEP 5:  Integrated Statements


Based upon thematic priorities identified from the visioning documents (e.g. SDV 2030 of Mongolia) and the system map, particularly key feedback loops and identified leverage points, policymakers and system groups should formulate Integrated Policy Statements.

These statements —one for each key sub-system- should be ideally picked up/defined in a participatory process from the visual that has an identified feedback loop.   The main objective of the statement is to define the mid-term policy direction, which can define a set of linear/circular/comprehensive projects that could be conducive to impactful investments.  These statements would need to unite a cluster of SDGs and open space for attracting investments for long-term cash flow.

As suggested in Step 3, naming the feedback loops based on the causal character of the elements and interactions can help to think about the types of policy that is needed.

Example of an integrated policy statement for the Sustainable Water Management priority area in SOM, Page 66: “Provide the population with safe and affordable drinking water and maintain sustainable water use across all sectors by enforcing integrated water management with the focus on water conservation through establishment of economic values and adequate pricing, application of water reuse and treatment technology, and promotion of accountability and monitoring.”

STEP 6: Revisit Systems Maps in Alignment with SDG Targets, Indicators and Collect the Available Statistical Data


After the formulation of Integrated Policy Statements for the various systems/sub-systems (loops), it is recommended for groups to revisit their system maps and even consult other stakeholders to review their conceptual system map to see how to improve it.

Next, match the system elements with as many of the 17 SDG targets as possible, and identify country indicators that are supported with data.  This can be done by referring to the completed quantitative Environmental Performance Review, Rapid Strategic Policy Impact Assessment A and other datasets.

In summary, this step 6 is very analytical at the desk review will polish and improve the digital outlook of your maps through online visualization tools and could be maintained at the technical level by specialists, having the basic IT and statistical analysis skills.

In addition, the policymakers may want to undertake the perception-based survey using rapid impact assessment (RSIA) tools, using the common scale, and further compare the public perceptions around achievements of SDGs that could be undertaken in Step 2 with the aggregated and scored data of Step 7.  

An RSIA in Mongolia was organized as a rapid perception-based survey comprised of 30 questions on policy impacts for the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development. Each question is designed to assess the rate of the three-dimensional impact of the respective current national policies and the scale of its integration in relation to the national policy with the 17 SDGs. The time horizon of the policy impact is set from the year 2000 to present and from present to 2030. 

The survey results scoring Perception can be undertaken also during Step 2, and then, compared against a data-driven SDG Normalized Score on a spider chart. These two graphs illustrate the space between curves, or gaps, that mark area where perceptions diverge from data and can benefit from strategic intervention.

Example of the survey results of both Steps 2 and 7, scoring the answers to thirty questions designed to assess the rate of impacts of related national policy to all three dimensions of sustainable development are illustrated through examples of the two curves on Figure 3.  The time horizon of the impact could be decided from the past to the present and up to 2030. You can also find the survey questions used in Mongolia separately here.

Radar Graph with Two Curves

This radar is Illustrating Availability of the Data and Evidence Validating Perceptions of Stakeholder on Policy Impacts on a Scale (-2) to (+2). Combination of Step 2 and Step 7 of SO TEN  

Figure 1

Source: The Government of Mongolia and ESCAP (2018), The Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia, page 91.  Available at:

STEP 7: Modelling System Relationships


This Step 7 is instrumental in applying data to quantitatively model the system’s dynamics and for analysis of causal relationships and high-impact leverage points to determine effective interventions and modulate the course of movement of the system model. Quantitative Systems modelling can establish a baseline reading of how the system reacts currently. The iSDG modelling tools of the Millennium Institute simulate the integration of the policies with SDGs.

One of the tools that can be applied for quantitative modelling is the UNESCAP’s regional SDG Progress Report methodology, used in SOM, includes two primary approaches: the SDG Baseline and SDG Dashboard—collectively known as the SDG status index and dashboard. Both are driven by data and use statistical models. The results of the SDG Baseline can also be utilized against those of a perception-based survey during a Rapid Strategic Impact Assessment (RSIA).

SDG Baseline [1]

An SDG Baseline assesses the baseline status of SDG implementation in a certain year and represents its current level of progress. It is set on a time horizon from between 2000 and the 2030 target. Meanwhile, if the reporting year is ahead of the progress made on the scale, the space between the progress and the reporting year is said to be “unfinished work” and represents a gap that needs to be filled in order to be on track to meet the 2030 target.  For examples of an SDG baseline from SOM, consult Chapter II, “Baseline Status of SDGs in Mongolia,” page 22.

SDG Baseline Status: Where did Mongolia stand in 2017?

Figure 1

Source: The Government of Mongolia and ESCAP (2018), The Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia. Chapter 2. Available at:

SDG Dashboard

The SDG Dashboard, on the other hand, extrapolates on the expected status of the SDGs by 2030 based on a given year. If there is a gap between the prediction and the target, it is called the “progress gap” and is the percentage of progress required to meet the goal given current trends. For examples of an SDG Dashboard from SOM, consult Chapter II, “Baseline Status of SDGs in Mongolia,” page 23.

SDG Dashboard: Goals 1-5 

SDG Dashboard

Source: ESCAP (2019), "SDG Progress Assessment," Asia-Pacific SDG Gateway. Available at: 



[1] For more technical information on the quantitative statistical modelling employed for the SDG Baseline and Dashboard, please consult the following references:

ESCAP (2017). Arman Bidarbakht Nia on "Tracking progress towards the SDGs: measuring the otherwise ambiguous progress," The Working Paper Series of ESCAP Statistics Division (May 2017). Available at: 

ESCAP (2017). Arman Bidarbakht Nia on "A weighted extrapolation method for measuring the SDGs progress," The Working Paper Series of ESCAP Statistics Division ( March 2017). Available at: 

ESCAP (2018), Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2017. Available at:

STEP 8: Scenario Planning 

Figure 1Scenario planning is a way of formulating strategies in the “planning stage” to ensure that polices are likely to work in different future scenarios that are, realistically, expected to arise [1]. It involves the systematic exploration and description of the range of ways in which uncertainties can play out and their impact on the focal questions. Each scenario involves the consideration of likely trends, uncertainties, and possible shocks and surprises (welcome and unwelcome).

However, it should be considered an “evolving” and “continuous” process that is focused on preparing for the future, not predicting the future. All that can be predicted is that change will take place. Scenarios do not predict the future; they help to illuminate the “drivers” of change. For examples of drivers of change for scenario construction, follow the link here. Understanding these drivers can help to formulate more effective strategies for achieving goals and targets in the future. Also, scenario planning “simplifies the avalanche of data into a limited number of possible states.” [1]

Developing a set of narratives for the scenarios can also help clarify them and to identify possible pathways towards a vision of the future.

As such, scenario planning can be used to assess policy options under plausible future scenarios. It provides a systematic approach for developing and testing plans and policies under uncertain conditions, especially in circumstances where there is a high degree of uncertainty and low controllability.

Scenario planning pathways should also include proposals for resource allocations, in terms of sector-specific policy areas, to ensure policy coherence processes, installation of relevant and efficient institutional frameworks, and accountability towards SDG-readiness at the national level. Identifying areas of cooperation with the international community and ensuring access to inter-ministerial/inter-governmental processes of national/regional platforms is also important.

The scenario planning method thus enables non-specialists to influence and interact with technical discussions and for specialists from different disciplines to understand each other. It is also applicable to various scales of policy intervention.

The complete scenario planning pathway can be seen in Figure 1. It begins with identifying the focal question for each goal or target. Once the focal question has been identified, a strategy can be formed based on identified key drivers and likely scenarios. Policies are then tested against these scenarios and then improved based upon these assessments. 

In scenario planning, existing simulation tools can be utilized to develop future scenarios. For example, the online ESCAP Resource Efficiency Simulation Tool enables you to simulate potential gains of enhancing material, energy and water efficiency in selected Asia-Pacific countries (Click here).

Figure 2 Scenario Planning

Figure 2

Source: Henrichs et al. (2010). From ESCAP’s “Country Sustainability Outlook and
Implementation Pathways to Maximize Impact Investment in Achieving 17 SDGs” [PowerPoint Slides]. 2017.

Example: the ESCAP Resource Efficiency Simulation Tool's application for Scenario Planning 

As per the latest data available, Mongolia uses 0.082 m3 of water to realize 1 US dollar of economic output, making Mongolia more water efficient than the Asia-Pacific region on average. However, this number is almost twice higher than the average Water Intensity of East and North-East Asia (0.044 m3 per 1 US dollar) but ten times less than the average Water Intensity rate of the whole region (0.118 m3 per 1 US dollar).   The ESCAP Resource Efficiency Simulation Tool can then assess the potential gains of enhanced water efficiency for Mongolia, simulating a scenario of 1 percent efficiency improvement scenario with options to run a 2 and 5 percent efficiency improvement scenario as well as a custom one.  For example, a 5 percent improvement in water efficiency could result in 48.06 million m3 of water saved in Mongolia, which equals 0.0214 times the annual water demand of Tokyo, or 0.00727 times the water required to produce electricity demand in Tokyo. This water saving is enough to produce 0.0192 million tonnes of rice, which is sufficient to meet the annual food needs of 131,674 people. Such information can prove useful in scenario building as well as influence proposals for resource allocation and the development of narratives.

Reference: ESCAP (2018). Resource Efficiency Simulation Tool. Available at:


Advantages of Scenario Building:

  • Raises awareness of possible future situations and helps people prepare for these situations
  • Helps conceptualize a number of possible alternative developments and mitigation strategies
  • Improves strategy development by making stakeholders more aware of risks and constraints

Challenges of Scenario Building:

  • The focus should lie on probability rather than on desirability
  • Separating internal from external factors is not easy. A facilitator can help classify these factors
  • Can become quite elaborate – restricting the planning to around five scenarios should keep the process well-arranged
  • Difficult to find objective ways which combine all different factors


Building up on the experience of first 7 steps followed by the Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia (SOM), the new report could be developed, presenting a plausible description of what might happen on the road to achieving Mongolia’s Sustainable Development Vision (SDV) and beyond.  Such a description needs an extended analysis of current and historical trends in order to develop a realistic prediction. Building on their prediction, Mongolian officials has already created a foundation for strategic pathways to support their decision-making processes. The pathways focus on the main issues covered by the SDV. SOM had also created a good basis for the development of Mongolia’s 2019 Voluntary National Review (VNR) process on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  The thematic areas of intervention identified to cover the causes of air pollution and its consequences. SOM is capturing the first seven steps of this methodology and Mongolia still needs to invest time and attract funding to develop steps 8-10 consistently.


[1] Prof. Darryl Loy Choy report for ESCAP (2017).  Scenario Planning: An Introduction [PowerPoint Slides for the development of the Sustainability Outlook of Mongolia in August 2017}. Available at:

STEP 9: Adaptation Pathways


Adaptation pathways, or plans, involve a repetitive planning process that recognizes if there is more than one way to reach the desired future. Like scenario planning, adaptation plans are developed in a context of uncertainty and change. Ideally, they should be informed by a “backcasting” exercise in which one moves progressively back to the present from the desired future, step (milestone) by step, each time asking the question: “what do we need to do to successfully achieve that milestone?” As a combined effort between various institutions, adaptive planning is a joint “walk through” tool.

The combined scenario planning and adaptation pathways planning process involves stepping through a number of discrete steps dominated by a series of task-oriented stakeholder workshops with support provided by a facilitation team. This is a highly participatory process and it should involve key decision‐makers, policymakers, and people who advise and contribute to policy – i.e. the “owners” of the problem. This sequence of steps is illustrated in the Figure below.

Scenario Planning & Adaptation Pathway Steps 

FIgure 1
 Author: Prof. Darryl Low Choy (August 2017) for ESCAP and the Government of Mongolia. 

Example of Application of Step 9:

In Mongolia, to compliment scenario planning and to provide a more definitive idea of the different pathway options that might be available from the present to the 2030 SDV Vision and beyond, a backcasting exercise was proposed by ESCAP (2017). This step 9 should be commenced at a normative scenario whereby the SDV was considered to have been achieved. Consideration should be then given to the necessary policies and actions that would have had to be in place before the 2030 Vision milestone for that vision to have been achieved, in this case, 2026 was the first step backwards. This procedure should be repeated with further steps back to the present. In this case, the second step back from the SDV 2030 milestone is coinciding with the milestone of the Medium-Term Development Plan of 2022. Thus, the additional benefit of this proposed backcasting exercise is that it had the potential to provide insight into the appropriateness of the Medium-Term Development Plan’s policies in terms of assisting the achieve of the SDV 2030.

The backcasting exercise should highlight policy options that may need adjustment, revisions and review if they are to assist in the long-term achievement of the desired future. Embedded into these latter steps is the identification and development of the monitoring, evaluation, reporting, improvement and learning (MERIL) arrangements which are essential in the implementation of the final agreed policies. The MERIL arrangement provides the means to stay focused on the policies as the future (and possible scenarios) unfold and manage to change the circumstance as they arise.

The outcomes of a backcasting exercise can facilitate the review of various pathway options from the present leading to the achievement of a desired future. The analytical framework of SOM is an illustration of the outcomes of the first seven steps and, theoretically, Mongolia still needs to invest time and attract funding to develop/follow-through the steps 8-10 of this methodology, consistently.

 Backcasting from SDV 2030 through the Medium-Term Development Plan 2022 to the Present (example)


Author: Prof. Darryl Low Choy ( December 2017) for ESCAP and the Government of Mongolia. 

STEP 10: Attract Sustainable Financing


Applying the systems thinking approach results in the realization that implementing integrative policy requires committed collaboration among different agencies under various government ministries at the national, provincial and local levels among other stakeholders. As such, sustainable financing must be reflective of this.

Sustainable financing can be sourced from state budget, grants, loans, credits and private financing, and investment. In every case the state regulations would define the financing schemes and strategies for development, that engage a wide number of the users and operators. A wide range of concepts, such as impact investments and enabling policies for financing SDGs can be chosen, tailored to local circumstances and operationalised, through the leverage points of multiple impacts (see Step 4). These leverage points should be wisely selected and cover a cluster of SDGs.  The integrated statements of Step 5 can then be chosen to respond to the needs of the programme or project, specify its objectives and the financing schemes with respective milestones.

SOM follow-up on Step 10:

The analytical framework of SOM is an illustration of the outcomes of the first seven steps only. Mongolia still needs consistently to invest time and funding to develop/follow-through the steps 8-10 of this methodology.

After the launch of SOM (September 2018), the Government of Mongolia defined their needs to its Voluntary National Review (VNR), led by the National Development Agency, and mobilised funds to ensure monitoring and implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs.  In this regard, building up on analysis of SOM, the government attracted targeted proposals, funded by the Asian Development Bank (USD 300K) and the Seoul Initiative Network on Green Growth (USD 100K).  The Ministry of Environment and Tourism of Mongolia (MET) has also succeeded in mobilising the Global Environment Facility (GEF) commitments on SOM follow-up.

At the national level, the government is working on a better access to financing for the long-term. For example, the government is exploring the new mechanisms and sources of funding, which ire SDG-based budgeting and inter-ministerial working groups [1]

[1]  Youtube, ESCAP interview with H.E. Bulgantuya Khurelbaatar, Vice Minister of Finance of Mongolia (available at: , and the  statement of Mongolia at the 6th APFSD 2019


However, in order to be effective, attracting sustainable financing requires the identification off all relevant stakeholders and analytical frameworks. For more information on how to practice institutional and stakeholder mapping and engagement consult the ESCAP and International Association for Public Participation publication Effective Stakeholder Engagement for the 2030 Agenda - Training Reference Material.

Importantly, stakeholder mapping exercises should be a context and goal-based exercise. Take Water Accounting for example, which is part of the United Nation’s System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA). SEEA is, in general, a framework that integrates economic and environmental data to provide a more comprehensive and multipurpose view of the interrelationships between the economy and the environment and the stocks and changes of environmental assets, as they bring benefits to humanity. The water accounting framework for stakeholders thus needs to distinguish the data set for users and the data set for producers. To ensure effective engagement of data users and producers, the group work on stakeholder mapping for Water Accounting can follow the following steps:


  1. Identify the DATA USERS & DATA PRODUCERS:  participants should choose a card that designates, based on colour, either a data user or producer & write down the name of one relevant institution or stakeholder group per card
  2. Place the data users and producers on a respective space in a two dimensional graph that answers two questions:  (i)  How interested in water accounts is the stakeholder? (ii) How much influence do they currently have on water accounts?
    2D Graph
  3. Define some engagement approaches to increase the demand for data and the contributions of data producers – (a) shift high-influence/low-interest stakeholders to high-influence, high-interest stakeholders (b) to enable low influence/high-interest stakeholders, to become more influential. 

Here is a list of engagement approaches: awareness raising, training, dialogue, negotiation, lobbying, regulation, incentives, motivation, inspiration, development of state programmes, partnership offers, state budget allocations, media and outreach, research and analysis, investment programmes, identifying mutual benefits

In summary, the application of stakeholder mapping approach and engagement include the creation of ownership among participants and inclusive planning that justify political traction towards financial commitments and attract impactful investments.  This, in turn, would close the gaps, and ensure an integrated implementation and embedding of subsidiarity-based governance and institutional structure, with defined mandates and commitments.