CSEI designs solutions for the first mile

Why CSEI plays the role of an accessible technical partner

Humanity is facing a crisis. We need science-based solutions.

Humanity is at a crossroads. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global warming of 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century, with potentially disastrous impacts on humankind (Read CSEI’s response to the IPCC report). At the same time, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has documented the fact that 1 million species of plants and animals are now threatened with extinction. These grave threats to the planet are challenging enough. But especially so when humanity itself is polarised, struggling to find common ground in the context of growing inequality in wealth and the top 1% own half the world’s total household wealth.

The challenge, therefore, is to protect our environmental systems while reducing poverty, inequity and social injustice, and improving the quality of life for all. This requires both investigating the underlying causes of environmental degradation and inequality, and finding workable solutions. There are opportunities for innovative solutions to our nature and climate challenges.

But although the problems of climate change, biodiversity and poverty are global, they manifest locally through diverse socio-environmental systems. Ultimately, what is needed is a balance between highly customised local solutions (which tend to remain pilots that cannot be sustained or replicated) and one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t fit in specific contexts. Over the last two years, we have realised that the trick is to be able to scale diverse, local bottom-up solutions within similar contexts.

As Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation (CSEI) turns two, we have finetuned our mission statement: to solve problems for “first-mile” change agents — citizens, consumers and producers to build a sustainable, socially just planet.

We have identified three key components that we hope will help us meet our impact goals.

1. Our goals: To define success clearly by setting ambitious impact targets for both human well-being and ecological/resource sustainability.

CSEI currently works across three landscapes: cities, farms and forests. To achieve our mission statement our first task was to set goals around which we could base our strategy and activities.

To ensure that we don’t create pilots that cannot be replicated or would collapse once the project funding runs out, we set ambitious impact targets, charted pathways to achieve them and identified clear exit strategies for ourselves. These specific numeric impact targets force us to think about socio-environmental problems in structural terms, rather than fixing one problem at one location at one point in time with a hyper-local solution.

In defining the targets, we had to acknowledge there can be a tension between enhancing human wellbeing and achieving sustainability. But in fact it’s a false dichotomy, because human wellbeing and in fact our whole economic system, depends on the planet’s resources and ecosystem services. Humankind cannot sustain in the long run without securing these. Thus we need solutions that both enhance human well-being as well as sustain natural resources, in each landscape. Our goals in each landscape, therefore reflect both human and environmental concerns.

2. Our role: To be an accessible technical partner, mediating between institutions of influence and first-mile changemakers to scale research-backed solutions.

It is clear that we cannot possibly act alone in achieving these ambitious impact targets. We have to act as part of a larger “impact ecosystem” building on our unique strengths and capabilities. So CSEI made a key strategic decision early on, that we would not implement solutions ourselves but rather work with changemakers on the ground.

While most think tanks aim at influencing policy, which is very important because no lasting change can occur without government involvement, there is often a tendency to think of the people as the “last mile”, i.e., passive beneficiaries or respondents to government policies. But frequently behaviour changes anticipated by policy shifts do not happen. Top-down policies, however well-intentioned, stumble when it comes to implementation because they do not consider the pain-points of actors, who must change their behaviour for the intended outcomes to emerge. Thus CSEI’s focus on human-centred solutions starts at the other end of the spectrum, by mapping the transitions actors must make and recognising what needs to change for those transitions to occur.

The challenge, however, with starting with so-called “first-mile” actors, is that often when actors act in their own self-interest, it does not guarantee either sustainability or equity. And sustainability and equity are independent goals — achieving one does not guarantee the other. We hope to use existing research to innovate solutions that are both “system savvy” and “human-centred”; solutions that are informed by a deep understanding of biophysical and socio-economic linkages, yet responsive to the aspirations, beliefs, and motivations of human actors.

The specific role CSEI hopes to play is to be an accessible technical partner, that can bridge the gap between institutions of influence and first-mile change makers, to enable a gradual shift towards more sustainable, equitable outcomes.

3. Our Approach: Application of design thinking via our “innovation funnel” approach.

In order to design scalable, research-backed solutions against which impact could be tracked, we needed tools and capabilities that go beyond research.

Solutioning is different from research. Research typically involves investigating events that are occurring or have occurred to gain a deeper understanding of the problem. But understanding problems better does not automatically result in being able to fix them. Indeed, this notion that solution design is a separate capability has only gained prominence in recent years with the rise of design thinking. At its core, design thinking is simply a formal way to listen deeply to stakeholders, create spaces for inclusive and creative brainstorming to explore the widest range of possible solutions, and iteratively prototype, test and refine solutions.

Traditionally, solution design was left to experts, who relied on qualitative research methods like surveys or interviews combined with their own knowledge. But expert-led solutioning came with blind spots and comfort zones — mindsets constrained by years of working in the sector. It’s often difficult for people, who are embedded in a sector to recognise and fix problems. And while people can articulate what their problem is, they may not necessarily know how to solve it. So, expert-led solutions can be dogmatic, fixating on pet solutions, without questioning whether solutions actually work and if they don’t, why they fail.

Obviously, the notion that non-experts are going to solve complex problems, prima facie, seems equally ludicrous. Solutioning in socio-environmental contexts requires sensitivity to different local, social and biophysical contexts. How would new entrants into a sector understand the biophysical context, then “see” and “hear” what diverse stakeholders in diverse contexts want and need, then push themselves past their own biases and disciplinary training to arrive at creative solutions?

Clearly, what is needed is diverse teams comprising of deep experts and fresh eyes. Here the toolkits offered by “design thinking” — ethnographic research, brainstorming within diverse teams, an emphasis on reframing problems, iterative, rapid prototyping via experimentation and feedback are extremely useful.

At CSEI, we have adapted these tools. Our process includes Problem Definition, Ideation, Co-creation and Scaling.

Although the Innovation Funnel process appears to be a simple, linear process, this is merely for communication. The reality is obviously messy and the innovation funnel is a spiral, continuously evolving process of iterative “learning and doing”.

The next post in this series describes how we have operationalised the Innovation Funnel in each of CSEI’s initiatives.

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