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Sustainable Oceans Lab: a global platform for saving the oceans

Reos Partners
November, 2019

Discover how the Sustainable Oceans Lab, a multi-stakeholder platform for learning and innovation, enhances the sustainable management of marine ecosystems globally.


How can we work together to enhance the sustainable management of our marine ecosystems globally? This is the question that guides the Sustainable Oceans Lab (SOL). This ambitious social lab is expected to evolve into an ongoing platform for learning and innovation, as did our last global initiative, the now decade-old Sustainable Food Lab.

Launched in 2015, SOL is Reos Partners’ first multi-stakeholder initiative of multi-stakeholder initiatives. People engaged in the problem of ocean sustainability have launched any number of multi-stakeholder efforts across the globe, but most of them have limited experience with working in this way. So the lab serves as a space for them to not only prototype projects directly aimed at meeting sustainability targets, but also share ideas and learning on the challenges of cross-sectoral collaboration on such a large scale.

The lab, whose diverse members include African biologists, European oil industry executives, Mexican fishermen, and traditional leaders from small island states, has launched with a series of three workshops. In March 2015, the team met on the Baltic Sea island of Vilm, Germany. In August 2015, they met near Cancun, Mexico, taking a learning journey to the fishing cooperative of Punta Allen. In February 2016, they will meet in South Africa.

“The SOL has given me a deeper insight into the enormity of my work,” says lab member Halima Bawa, an environmental scientist and assistant director at Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment. “It has prodded me towards a national and regional vision on coastal and marine management. And it has further brought to the fore the need for intersectoral participation.”


The SOL is convened by the Global Leadership Academy (commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the Blue Solutions Initiative (commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety). Blue Solutions promotes knowledge exchange in the oceans space, and they had noted the emergence of a number of regional multi-stakeholder initiatives that needed to learn more about multi-stakeholder action. The Reos Partners role is process design and facilitation, coaching of prototyping teams, and strategy work.

The Challenges

One difficulty of working on ocean sustainability is sheer scale: in reality there is one ocean, without boundaries; global thinking and collaboration are critical. Yet while many ocean-focused initiatives exist, too often they are fragmented. Also, there’s a deep divide between conservationists and private sector interests, including fishing, mining, and oil interests.

  • How are we to address a challenge as vast as this one?
  • How can divergent interests be brought into a meaningful dialogue resulting in action that ensures the long-term sustainability of the oceans?
  • How can we reconcile divergent economic, ecological, and social interests to prevent a race to the bottom?
  • How can we forge an economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially responsible vision for the use of marine natural resources?
  • How can we raise the awareness and commitment of policy makers?
  • How can we engage the private sector in sustainable oceans management?
  • How can we bring more innovation into the field of marine management?

The ultimate aim is to produce a portfolio of projects across multiple institutions and geographies that have a direct impact on the oceans, as measured by the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.


New Relationships

In the early stages of the project, lab members are building new relationships, building a shared understanding of the interlinked challenges facing the oceans, learning how to work across sectors, and finding new ways to innovate.

As one lab member said, “I feel inspired and stretched and less lonely—part of a committed network that is pioneering new approaches in ocean leadership.”

A New Approach to Prototyping

In the past, we’ve designed our labs as one long “U” process, with prototyping occurring in the last of a series of workshops. Here, we’re taking a less linear, more iterative approach in which each workshop is a small U that starts with learning activities and moves into designing. So in the second workshop, the lab team reinvented the prototypes from the first. In the third, they’ll do it again, consolidating the initiatives.

In this way, the prototypes develop and change over the course of the lab, and the participants work together not only creatively, but also critically, questioning their own ideas and reinventing them.

Setting Up for Long-Term Collaboration

In surveys following the second workshop, all lab members wanted to continue participating. This bodes well for the goal of establishing a full-fledged platform for long-term innovation and collaboration.

Cross-Cultural Exchange

The lab has enabled a respectful and enlightening encounter between western scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge, with its spiritual connection to the sea and its inhabitants.


“The methods used for assisting us in framing the challenges really caused reflection and helped us to get a better handle on what the challenges really are.”

Lab member

“The SOL has had a profound effect on me regarding the biological, ecological, natural and social issues that exist around the coasts and oceans of the world. It has helped me realize and discover that coastal and ocean communities around the world have many characteristics in common. People who live, work, and play on or near the ocean have a common attachment and passion for the ocean, and this has been evident in our SOL work. While we have participants from different countries and cultures, with different interests in the oceans, we all seem to speak the same language. But our experiences are at a vast range of spatial and temporal scales. Therein lies some of our challenge.”

Billy D. Causey, PhD, regional director (Southeast Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean), NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

“The impact of the SOL for me is in the deeper connections and insights from the diverse group of passionate people involved and the in-depth dialogue on global ocean issues. I experienced a shift in perception and I sensed other ways of doing things. I feel inspired and stretched and less lonely—part of a committed network that is pioneering new approaches in ocean leadership. This is only the beginning!”

Kerry Sink, marine biologist, South African National Biodiversity Institute

“The SOL has given me a deeper insight into the enormity of my work. It has prodded me towards a national and regional vision on coastal and marine environment management. It has further brought to the fore the need for inter-sectoral participation, most especially community-level participation. The experience, learning, and contacts have been invaluable.”

Halima Bawa, environmental scientist and assistant director at Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment

“For me the SOL has so far validated what I feel we know intuitively, but lose as we mature professionally: that we should not and cannot overplan everything. By being open to the situation and people, and reflecting carefully, we should be able to come to a solution, and work to improve this at every step. It’s partly in conventional wisdom—learning by doing, trial and error, ‘feeling our way forward’—but of course codifying and refining it through practiced approaches. The challenge is to embed it in planning processes. More practically, the SOL has strengthened my trust in working hard on a vision for a process/project, over the detail, and the importance of holding fast to that vision when negotiations get underway, so that we don’t lose ourselves in the weeds, and continually ask WHY we are doing this. The means should suit the end.”

Lab member David Obura, CORDIO (Coastal Oceans Research and Development—Indian Ocean) East Africa

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