We speak of “oceans,” yet in reality there is just one ocean, without boundaries. So ocean sustainability demands global thinking and collaboration. This is the focus of the Sustainable Oceans Lab, an ambitious new social lab facilitated by Reos Partners that is midway through its first set of workshops.
The global lab is our first multi-stakeholder initiative of multi-stakeholder initiatives. As such, it represents a maturing of our work and of the field itself: the multi-stakeholder approach was once uncommon, but today it is becoming a new standard.
The exceedingly diverse lab brings together African biologists, European oil industry executives, Mexican fishermen, and traditional leaders from small island states, to name a few. Their enthusiasm suggests that when the inaugural workshops come to a close in February 2016, the Sustainable Oceans Lab (SOL) will evolve into an ongoing platform, as did our last global initiative, the now decade-old Sustainable Food Lab.
“I experienced a shift in perception, and I sensed other ways of doing things,” says lab member Kerry Sink, a marine biologist with the South African National Biodiversity Institute. “I feel inspired and stretched and less lonely—part of a committed network that is pioneering new approaches to ocean leadership.”
Learning How to Do Multi-stakeholder Work
Increasingly, people engaged with complex systemic problems are realizing that to make progress, they must get out of their silos and work in an integrated way. Scientists, businesses, environmental activists, and policy makers concerned with ocean sustainability are certainly among them. They have launched any number of multi-stakeholder initiatives across the globe. However, most of them have limited experience with such efforts and are working in a very challenging context.
They will get the experience they need through SOL, which 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).
“In the marine environment, the multitude of stakeholders is arguably an even greater problem than in the terrestrial environment,” says Christian Neumann of Blue Solutions, “because by nature and by law, it is more open and more fluid. That’s why multi-stakeholder initiatives are so important. At the same time, these things make that work even more challenging.”
The lab participants, then, have come to the SOL in part to identify common challenges related to collaboration, and to learn from each other, Reos Partners, and the convening organizations. Yet dedicated teaching on models for multi-stakeholder work is purposefully not a part of the process, says Neumann. The approach is to learn by doing: the lab itself is an immersive multi-stakeholder environment, and sharing and learning occurs as participants work together to prototype new projects.
A Second-Generation Lab Process
Reos Partners is also learning by doing in this lab. In the past, we’ve designed our labs as one long “U” process, with prototyping occurring in the last of a series of workshops. For the SOL, we’re taking a less linear, more iterative approach.
“Each workshop is a small ‘U’ that starts with activities oriented to learning and moves into designing innovations,” says facilitator Mille Bojer, a director at Reos Partners. “In the second workshop, we reinvented the prototypes from the first. In the third, we’ll do that again, but it will be more about consolidating the initiatives.”
In this way, the prototypes have more time to 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.
“From the first to the second workshop, the prototypes became more process-oriented,” says Bojer. “Generally, technical solutions already exist. The problem is implementing them. There are many barriers around buy-in, collaboration, and so on. The lab team is realizing they can go deeper and get answers to these more emergent, more social challenges.”
Staying Focused on Concrete Long-term Results
The immediate results of the first two workshops are as we had hoped: lab members are building new relationships, building a shared understanding of the interlinked challenges facing the oceans, learning how to work across sectors, finding new ways to innovate, and laying the foundation for an ongoing platform.
“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.”
Some of the participating multi-stakeholder initiatives span large geographies and rarely meet physically, says Neumann. “Just as a meeting venue, the SOL is really useful. For others, particularly from a more political background, it’s a chance to meet in a less formal space, which allows for a different kind of conversation.”
These constitute important progress, but the SOL is striving to root itself in concrete results. In the short term, the lab team expects to get as far as project planning, and perhaps a piece of legislation. In the long term, its goal is healthier oceans as measured by the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Within the lab, there was some resistance to using those long-term goals as a measure of success, because they depend on so many actions and factors beyond the lab’s reach, Bojer notes. But we don’t want participants to focus only on what they learned at the lab or success at the level of their programme.
“We have a theory of change that says our multi-stakeholder process, and the relationships, learning, and projects that result, will lead to improvement in the oceans,” says Bojer. “We may never be able to measure whether the SOL made a difference on the Aichi targets, but to have those targets in the room is important, because the ultimate intention is not a process intention. The targets create a sense of purpose and ambition for the group, and a sense of challenge.”
Some lab participants do see this as a practical matter. “The lab has strengthened the importance of holding fast to a vision so that we don’t lose ourselves in the weeds, and continually ask why we are doing this,” says David Obura of CORDIO (Coastal Oceans Research and Development—Indian Ocean).
An Act of Faith Pays Off
The lab also managed to not lose itself in its own diversity. “It’s an act of faith that it’s useful to bring together such a diverse group,” says Bojer. “In the beginning, I think it was hard for the lab team to see what they were actually going to do together. But as they get to know each other, connect with their creativity through the process, and become more open to exploring, it’s becoming more clear to everyone.”
“What might a Dutch oil industry professional be able to do with a lobster fisherman from Mexico?” Bojer says. “If you ask that question genuinely and openly, you actually come up with answers, and that’s quite amazing to see.”