Working together towards the Sustainable Development Goals

How Witteveen+Bos has embedded the SDGs in its business operations

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The United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intended to make the world a better place for everyone. By 2030, there must be no more extreme poverty, inequality or injustice, and climate change should be in check. The challenges are great. Private sector companies can make the difference by identifying the opportunities for improvement within their entire chain. The engineering consultancy Witteveen+Bos considers it essential that its projects help to enhance the human environment. It has embedded the SDGs firmly within its business operations.

Broader view

Witteveen+Bos undertakes projects in four key disciplines: water, infrastructure, environment and construction. Diederik Bel, head of the Built Environment sector, spoke to 'Designing a small hydro-electric power station for Sierra Leone is a marvellous project in itself, because it is all about providing sustainable energy. However, we like to take a much broader view, considering all the effects and consequences. Who will benefit in the longer term? Will it be only the wealthier people in the cities, or will the project boost the local economy as well? We often go beyond our original remit, thinking about ways in which to arrive at an even better solution. As an environmental specialist, I have always devoted close attention to nature and sustainability. My mission now is to ensure that the entire organisation does likewise.'

In practice

In 2016, Witteveen+Bos launched a ‘materiality analysis’ to identify the areas in which its work will have the greatest impact. Both staff and clients were consulted. The analysis was linked to the SDGs which the company’s work and expertise can influence, such as clean drinking water and sanitation, sustainable energy, infrastructure, sustainable cities, conserving life below water, conserving life on land, and the responsible use of materials and resources. The company is particularly interested in identifying opportunities for collaboration: partnerships that will help to attain the sustainability objectives. The next step was to integrate those objectives into its own business processes.

'Every large project now begins and ends with a sustainability assessment', Bel explains. 'We have formulated seven sustainable design principles that form the basis of all projects, and we evaluate project plans against a large number of criteria, all of which are derived from the Sustainable Development Goals. Other firms tend to focus on the positive impact of their work, ignoring or glossing over any potential negative impact. We examine both the positive and the negative aspects, and we believe in providing full transparency about both. We find that this approach produces extremely valuable insights.'

'We take a broader view: who will benefit in the longer term? Will it be only the wealthier people in the cities, or will the local economy also benefit?'

Project in Java

'A recent project in Indonesia is an excellent example of a sustainable solution in keeping with the SDGs', Bel continues. 'We were commissioned to restore a stretch of the Java coastline. Over the course of many years, the mangrove forests which provided natural protection against erosion had disappeared. As a result, the sea was stripping away ever greater volumes of soil. There was a serious threat to the local people. We enlisted their help in constructing a series of small dams, all built using locally-sourced, natural materials. Mangroves were then planted behind these dams and will eventually grow to form a new, more permanent barrier. We used nature to help us, rather than trying to fight nature.'

The ‘Building with Nature’ approach has been embraced as a very promising and sustainable design principle in hydrology and coastal management. It involves making use of natural ecosystems, which inevitably results in more sustainable solutions. 'If there is a sufficient depth of soil, the mangroves will re-establish themselves and there will be a natural seawall to protect the coastline in future. The approach also helps to raise awareness among the local people, who learn how to build, inspect and maintain the dams themselves. The project has therefore created an additional source of income for the local community.'


'Assessing projects against the SDG criteria results in important insights', states Bel. 'It often allows us to decide whether a project is something we want to be involved in at all. There can sometimes be a conflict between commercial interests and those of social responsibility, which raises awkward questions and leads to difficult discussions. In many cases, however, the assessment allows us to identify ways in which a potential negative impact can be avoided and some positive impact created in its place. Rather than sinking additional coal mines in a nature area, for example, we might show the client that it is possible to achieve the same output from renewable energy projects and with a similar investment. We are also learning a lot about the methodology itself, and are continuing to refine the assessment criteria so that the results are more quantitative in nature. We currently rate each aspect on a scale from minus five to plus five. That is quite abstract. Eventually, we want to be able to do so in terms of the investment amount: absolute figures. Given our expertise in cost-returns analyses, this is surely possible.'


The private sector can play a huge part in helping to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. It is of course satisfying to make some positive impact on the world. But it can also be crucial to do so if, for example, your production process relies on the availability of certain resources. Diederik Bel has some useful advice for organisations wishing to implement the SDGs within their business processes. 'First, gain a thorough understanding of the SDGs and the appropriate assessment criteria. I still see far too many companies who go about things in a superficial manner. It’s not just a question of talking about sustainability: you have to realise what it will involve in practice. Ensure that all stakeholders are ‘on board’. Your staff should all be as keen about sustainability as you are. At Witteveen+Bos, we organise regular workshops to remind people of our sustainable design principles and why we apply them. We have a team of ‘ambassadors’ who enthuse colleagues, provide information and answer any questions. We report our sustainability initiatives in various communications, including the client newsletter and the staff magazine. This has a flywheel effect: the more you talk about sustainability, the more people want to get involved.'

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