From Climate Action Confusion to Collaboration: Towards Common Agenda Setting

All over the world, organizations are gearing up to address the causes and effects of climate change. However, none of them can do this on their own, joining forces is of the essence.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was a major milestone in accelerating this process of global collaboration:

The Paris Agreement builds upon the Convention and for the first time brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so. As such, it charts a new course in the global climate effort.

Although the intentions in Paris were good, as we all know there is still monumental confusion and dithering everywhere about what exactly needs to be done, in what way, when, and by whom. Part of this has to do with climate change being such a wicked problem: not only the problems and possible solutions are fuzzy and open-ended, but also which stakeholders should be involved. On the one hand, a plethora of inspiring, concrete initiatives is emerging worldwide that help inspire thinking and acting. On the other hand, as the challenges are so immense and urgent, they cannot be solved by such scattered initiatives in isolation. We need scalable, evolving collaborations, focusing on systems and policy change and committed to by a myriad of societal stakeholders. Only then can the massive transformation of the global political and economic order take place that is required to reach measurable collective impact in time.

The 2018 Dutch Klimaatstroom Zuid Climate Summit

Early 2018, in the southern Netherlands, several organizations, including the Province of North Brabant, the Brabantse Delta regional water authority, provincial future studies institute BrabantKennis and the municipality of Breda  were thinking along these lines. They decided that to effectively address their share of the Paris Agreement goals, a movement of organizations in the three southern Dutch provinces of Zeeland, Noord-Brabant en Limburg should be started: Klimaatstroom Zuid (Climate Flow South).

From their manifest:

Collaborating with Concrete Goals in Mind

Every participant has its own responsibility, while at the same time we need to work collectively. We can succeed by collaborating with concrete goals in mind. The will is there. What matters is that solutions are realized across the boundaries of individual organizations and sectors.

To kick-off this “climate movement of inititatives”, a climate summit was organized in the former Breda domed prison  in June 2018. A fitting location for policy and decision makers plotting their way to escape from the global governance system that keeps us all trapped in climate inaction…

As the manifest states:

The manifest is not a goal in itself. It is part of a movement towards more attention for the climate in the Southern Netherlands. Furthermore, there is a connection with the national climate ambitions. To translate those ambitions into a concrete action perspective, we organize a climate summit of and for the Southern Netherlands on June 4, 2018. We bring together existing initiatives to accelerate and bundle them, and also to connect them to the proces of the National Climate Agreement. We determine how we will realize the further ambitions and specifythe desired transition paths for the various sectors. In this way, we will arrive at concrete implementation plans with measurable results.

Interest to participate in this hands-on summit was beyond expectation. Representatives of over 80 governmental agencies, 100 non-governmental organizations, and 130 companies participated in the conference, not only symbolically, but also concretely in so-called working “arenas”. These had the explicit goal of arriving – during the day – at draft agreements for specific combinations of themes and domains/sectors, as starting points for future collaborations. Following the classification of the National Climate Agreement negotations, the themes included Energy, Climate Adaptation, and Circular Economy , whereas the sectors concerned Electricity, Built Environment, Industry, Agriculture & Rural Areas, and Mobility & Logistics.

Discovering  Collaborative Common Ground in Budding Climate Coalitions

All over the world, even when the intentions and enthusiasm are heartfelt, fragmentation of efforts and bureaucratic inertia remain major problems. These institutional hurdles stand in the way of transforming the nascent climate change coalitions of the willing into effective and scalable collaborative networks with collective impact. The stakeholders involved are already engaged in numerous initiatives, each with their own goals, interests, governance procedures and collaborative culture. There is no overarching hierarchy that can command & control everybody into the same direction, nor would that ever be even possible and desired: the complexity and scale of the climate adaptation and mitigation challenges ahead and the many divergent, often contradictory organizational interests involved preclude that.

Of course, top down (inter)governmental frameworks and directives remain crucial, to legitimize and enforce the boundaries of the collaboration between societal stakeholders. However, within those political boundaries, we need a different paradigm to provide the necessary alignment and coordination. Instead of centralized, forced integration of climate change initiatives, we should work on smart scaling through common agenda setting: identifying conceptual and actionable common ground between existing initiatives, weaving ever more meaningful connections between them, and identifying collaboration gaps that can be filled by new initiatives. A light and agile form of alignment of initiatives, if you will, partially integrating them only where useful and feasible.

community network development cycle

With this philosophy in mind, we decided to use the CommunitySensor methodology for participatory community network mapping in combination with the Kumu online network visualization tool to symbolically map the collaborative connections between the initiatives represented at the summit. Previous experiences, like the participatory mapping of social innovation connections between major European cities and collaborative connections between participants in a global agricultural conference, had demonstrated the usefulness of such an approach.  By showing that there are already many, often hidden, collaborative links between initiatives – the “connection force” – and subsequently actively making sense of them, the potential for achieving collective impact turns out to be much larger than one would think at first sight. By developing a visual knowledge base representing that connection force, stakeholders should, first, become aware of that hidden collaborative potential.  Second, such a systematic knowledge-driven approach could help more easily identify issues, priorities and next actions to address the WHAT? SO WHAT? NOW WHAT? questions in growing these extremely complex collaborations.

Visualizing the climate initiative connections

So how did we make visible the connections between the climate initiatives submitted during the conference?

Preparation

Prior to the summit, in consultation with the summit organizers, we defined the following common element types, drawing from both concepts key to the National Climate Agreement negotiations then taking place, as well as the focus of the conference working arenas:

  • Themes
    • Energy, Climate Adaptation, and Circular Economy
  • Sectors
    • Electricity, Built Environment, Industry, Agriculture & Rural Areas, and Mobility & Logistics
  • Projects/Initiatives
  • Organisations
  • Locations

Of course, these are just rough simplifications of a messy working reality, but they were deemed sufficient to sketch some of the initial contours of potential common collaborative ground in a very complex field.

Different possible connection types between these elements were also defined, for example, a project/initiative having a location, or contributing to a particular theme or sector.

We then configured a visual knowledge base using the Kumu visualization tool. This configuration included defining an initial set of perspectives on the collaboration ecosystem, to help focusing on potentially relevant subsets of connections. Examples of such perspectives included which stakeholders are already involved in what projects and initiatives, what projects and initiatives contribute to which themes, and what projects and initiatives are worked on by what sectors?

Climate Summit Day

On the summit day itself, we set up a “mapping station” on the periphery of the main stage. Interested members of the audience who wanted to register their project or initiative could fill out a simple survey  – in either paper or electronic form – and submit it to the mapping team. We processed the forms on the fly, adding the data to the growing Kumu knowledge base.

Key to the CommunitySensor methodology is that the mapping is not  about the maps as deliverables on their own, but about the process of participation of the community of stakeholders, from defining the mapping language, collecting the data, to making sense of the evolving maps and using them in their collaboration processes.

Excerpt of the bird’s eye view on the collaboration ecosystem of the 2018 climate summit participants

Despite the mapping event literally only being a side show, and the data collected forming only a very random sample, at the end of the conference, we had already put 47 projects / initiatives, 144 organisations, 37 locations, and 428 collaborative connections between them on the map. You can get a sense of what those connections were through the following example perspectives on the emerging collaboration ecosystem:

There are also more specialized and actionable perspectives, such as the collaboration contexts for the various arenas. An example is the arena where decision makers are collaborating on the theme Energy and the domain/sector Built Environment.

Although such general perspectives are good starting points for common sensemaking, there are many other ways to use the knowledge base in generating useful agenda setting perspectives. For example, this customized perspective shows the projects/initiatives around and between the four largest cities in the province of Noord-Brabant. This could be used by, say, municipal and provincial decision makers,  for discussions on which existing or new (inter)city initiatives to develop to jointly  get more meaningful and scaled up climate action going.

The climate projects/initiatives that the cities of Breda, Tilburg, Eindhoven, and Den Bosch have in common

Still, such maps are meaningless without together making sense of them: what parts are relevant for understanding one’s own position in the ecosystem, identifying new partners, opportunities for linking up existing initiatives or starting new ones, and so on? One way we promoted such small scale sensemaking, for example, was to take interested participants on a private tour of the map at the mapping station. People were very interested in discovering the to them often unknown connections around themes, sectors, or locations their collaboration had in common with other endeavors.

Source: Klimaatstroom Zuid

We also engaged in more scaled up, collective sensemaking. Several times throughout the summit day, I was invited to the main stage to be briefly interviewed by the conference chair in my role as map maker, to present interesting perspectives on the map-in-progress. This, in fact, was the main outcome of the day: giving the audience a glimpse of how much (potential) common collaborative ground there already was between all their projects and initiatives, and how important it was to actively reflect upon them. Showing the connection force implicitly present between – on the surface – often fragmented efforts conveyed a powerful message that reaching collective impact is not just about starting more initiatives, but also about more systematically aligning and connecting those efforts.

After the summit

After the summit, its initial results were made available on the Klimaatstroom Zuid website . The photo gallery  gives a palpable sense of the level of participation and enthusiasm throughout the day. The map of collaborative links between existing initiatives was also included as a symbolic representation of the connection force between existing initiatives  on that day. It gives a good sense of the potential power that is there to reach impact together faster if only we could get our act TOGETHER.

The Climate Summit kicked off an ongoing process of ever closer climate action collaboration between a multitude of stakeholders at and between the provincial, regional, and municipal levels. Of course, it is not easy to keep the energy and focus generated during such an inspiring launch event. Setting common working agendas together requires very hard and ongoing work, for which a visual knowledge base-driven approach could provide important support. The Klimaatstroom Zuid coalition is still taking shape in a complex field of initiatives and interests, but bit by bit momentum is building.

Towards common agendas with impact: participatory mapping to help break the “collaboration paralysis”

Participatory mapping of the collaboration ecosystems that are to make impactful climate action happen should be a crucial input to make sense of actual and potential collaborations. Of course, it is not a panacea. People often say that “the maps are so complex”. True, but only such a tiny snapshot of initiatives at one event of thousands all over the world already shows such a complex (yet still highly simplified) web of collaborative relations. How then are decision makers to grow impactful alliances at regional, national, and international levels without a more systematic approach to common agenda setting?

As we continue to experiment with making such actionable maps, the perspectives through which to look at them, and the settings in which we make sense of them (e.g. workshops, meetings, brainstorming sessions, project planning), we are developing increasingly useful ways to inform common agenda setting and collaborative alliance building processes.

We are still only scratching the surface of what exactly are climate change collaboration ecosystems, what are useful visualizations of these networks, and how to use these effectively in common agenda setting efforts.  Not only in high profile climate summits but also in the more mundane, but possibly even more important day to day policy making efforts.

I hope to have made clear in this post that we MUST address this collaborative complexity head on, if we are to jointly, timely and more effectively build the collaborative infrastructures the world so desperately needs to address the massive climate change challenges ahead. There is no more precious time to lose by remaining stuck in avoidable collaborative ignorance.

 

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