This paper addresses the important question of how research can support the implementation of the United Nations 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) set out in the 2030 agenda. Much attention on this topic has so far coalesced around understanding and measuring possible synergies and trade-offs that emerge in the SDGs. We contribute to this discussion by arguing that it is necessary to move towards a focus on how SDGs are enabling transformative change. A conceptual approach is presented based on the notion that research should build bridges across three types of SDGs: ones that reflect socio-technical system change, directionality, and framework conditions. This proposition is explored empirically through a case study of Mexican scientific knowledge production using methods from bibliometric and social network analysis. Our results can help to provide a diagnostic of how knowledge production is contributing to the SDGs and can be used in science, technology and innovation policy, in particular transformative innovation policy.