The SDSN began in 2012 soon after the Rio+20 Summit with ten thematic working groups on a range of environmental, social, and economic topics, which helped contribute to the adoption of the SDGs, particularly the inclusion of SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities). During this time, its Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) also helped to inform national climate policies and demonstrated in the lead-up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) that a global commitment to deep decarbonization by mid-century was both possible and necessary.

In 2014, the SDSN expanded its mission with the establishment of the SDG Academy to create and curate free Open Educational Resources (OERs) and guidance from the world’s leading experts on sustainable development.

Over the past decade, the SDSN has grown substantially, with several new thematic networks and initiatives, as well as the establishment of its global networks program, a membership-based alliance of top-tier knowledge-generating institutions focused on sustainable development, organized at the national and regional levels.

Core thematic networks and initiatives established over the last several years include Science Panels dedicated to the three major forest basins in the Amazon, Congo Basin, and Borneo-Mekong South-East Asia regions; the first-of-its-kind knowledge hub for SDG data, pathways, policies, and financing: the SDG Transformation Center; the FABLE Consortium and FELD Action Tracker which work to catalyze system-level transformations of food and land use systems; the Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition, an independent advisory council to the UN Secretary-General to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050; SDGs Today and SDSN TReNDS to advance the production and use of new data and technologies for the SDGs; the ASEAN Green Future Project to promote decarbonization efforts in the ASEAN, among others.

The SDSN has also produced several critical research products and instruments, including the Sustainable Development Report, which includes the SDG Index and Dashboards, and the World Happiness Report, the landmark annual survey and analysis of the state of global happiness.

Since its founding, the SDSN has hosted the International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD) to provide a forum for thousands of members of academia, government, civil society, UN agencies, and the private sector to come together to share practical solutions to achieve the SDGs.

As of 2024, the SDSN has over 1,900 members in 55 networks across more than 145 countries, as well as global offices in New York, USA, Paris, France, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.