CSEI turns two!

With eyes set on the future, we look back at how far we have come

ATREE launched the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation (CSEI) in September 2019, recognising the need to translate research into impact. CSEI would design solutions for “first mile” agents — citizens, consumers and businesses.

As CSEI turns two, it’s an opportunity to look back and reflect on how far we have come. We built an amazing and cohesive team while working from home. Covid-19 hit our team and families hard but we managed to stay on track. Today, we have a team of 20+ people, organised around three initiatives: Green Cities, Invasive Species and Food Futures.

Over the last two years, we have learned some valuable lessons on articulating the role CSEI would play in achieving ATREE’s vision of a more sustainable, socially just planet.

First, we would help promote “research-backed” solutions that are cognisant of linkages in the wider system, yet human-centred, rooted in a deep understanding of human behaviour.

Second, we made an early decision to not be an actor, implementing solutions ourselves. Instead, we decided that CSEI’s role would be to enable and empower other “first-mile” changemakers: citizens, consumers and producers.

Third, our approach would be impact oriented and focused on scale. Bottom-up engagement that most NGOs engage in, is deeply rooted in community, but often results in customised pilots that don’t scale even within similar landscapes and contexts.

More importantly, most pilot projects collapse once external funding ceases. So we set ambitious impact targets for ourselves, forcing us to think of problems structurally and at scale, and not just creating pilots.

Once we articulated our own role as helping build innovation impact ecosystems, we needed to figure out how we would go about it. Working with partners, we arrived at a four-step “innovation funnel” process of ideation, co-creation and scaling. The goal is to surface problems, ideate solutions, co-create and prototype those solutions, and finally implement at scale. We identified the “mindsets, skillsets and toolsets” we would need to translate our plans into reality. We partnered with organisations to help us build capabilities in these areas in-house.

The story of the last two years would be incomplete without talking about Covid-19. As impact ecosystem builders, our work cannot exist in isolation. For a few months during the second wave, many in our team began to work to support frontline public health organisations to help mitigate the impacts of Covid.

But the second wave of Covid-19 also ravaged the communities we work with. Our engagement with pandemic relief work renewed the need for providing sustainable livelihoods at scale. The recent IPCC report highlighted the dangers climate change already poses to humanity, making the need to “build back better” even more urgent.

At two, CSEI is poised to make this happen. In our work across cities, farms and forests, we are building on ATREE’s intellectual expertise, while creating a boundary organisation that is “external facing” and impact oriented.

We are always looking for collaborators to work with. If you are interested in social innovation, reach out to us at csei.comms@atree.org. If you would like to know more about our initiatives, join our mailing list!

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