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Valuing Ocean Experiments…Part II: the collaborator’s perspective

This blog post is the second of a two-part series about the Marine CoLABoration – see the first part here.

Restructuring a system doesn’t mean shoving people or things around, bulldozing, rebuilding, hiring and firing – that’s not what changes system behavior. Almost always, the most effective restructuring means putting information into a place where it doesn’t now reach, or changing goals, rewards, incentives and disincentives, so that the same people, in the same positions, make decisions in a different way… – Donnella Meadows, Change is not Doom

In many ways, what Louisa and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) have done is to understand that as a group of Marine NGOs (loosely termed), we are a system. We can be seen as a collection of individuals and organisations with a common motivation – to secure a better future for the Ocean. Sure we all have different ways of going about this, from campaigning and influencing communications, through the use of economics, to understanding how better science and stakeholder engagement can enable better decisions at local, national and supra-national levels. But together, we are a system, or perhaps more relevantly, we are an ecosystem. We have a loose common purpose, we relate to each other and our actions have consequences for each other, yet until now, we have barely been aware of each other and certainly did not collaborate and coordinate our activities. Not in any meaningful sense. Now this is changing.

About three years ago, Forum for the Future helped Gulbenkian develop its environmental investment strategy by mapping NGO, academic and other activities attempting to positive create change in the marine environment. We applied the “multi-level perspective” to gain an understanding of the system (of change) in operation. Our observation was that whilst there was superb, high-quality work happening across the community, there was a lack of information flow and connectivity around the community itself. Effort was taking place in silos. And of course it was! We are not randomly assigned to organisations. Far from it. We choose to work in a particular organisation because as colleagues we share a strongly held view of how change happens and advocate loudly that this is what the world needs – now! Our theories of change have been crafted and honed through millions of hours of strategy meetings (literally), explicitly to differentiate our organisations in this ecosystem of change-makers and define clear blue water between us – especially in the eyes of funders.

Building upon this analysis and in a rather smart move, Gulbenkian has chosen to invest in the change community itself, rather than a suite of projects (at this point). In doing so, Louisa has asked a lot of us – individually and by inference, of our organisations.

The challenge was originally defined as: increasing the capacity of the environmental sector to communicate the role of the ocean in human wellbeing, culture and prosperity, through collaboration with others. After more than a year of working intensively together, we have made significant strides towards how we are approaching this challenge by taking a “values-based approach”, and more on that below, but it is my view (and my co-coLABorators will not flinch in letting me know if they do not share this view), that we have come to understand that to create deeper, longer-lasting, transformational change, what is really required is an ego-free approach to collaboration.

Being aware that our own theories of change will produce change, but realising that this will be limited is a vital and humbling step for each of us. We are limited by our resources, reach and influence – and most importantly, we are limited by the confines of our own theories of change. It took a while for the pennies to drop, but when it did, the sound of copper hitting concrete was deafening. By working together and respecting that the ecosystem will be more healthy and resilient where there is diversity and a flow of nutritious information and sharing of experience, our organisations may individually be more impactful. We are starting to appreciate, however, that if we go further and consciously develop and evolve our strategies through the intentional interaction with each other, we may create more impact together by deliberately setting out to create systemic change.

It was not the accidental slip of Louisa’s pen that resulted in the loss of an “L” and syllable emphasis in “CoLABoration”. Rather it is a device to reflect what we are up to – a social experiment in how to drive deep collaboration and experimentation amongst the NGO community. And this brings me to our group (the CoLAB) hypothesis. We are experimenting around the idea that by developing a shared appreciation of the value of the ocean, in all its forms, we – the CoLAB partners and then possibly all those involved in decision-making relating to marine systems – will deliver better outcomes for people and the Planet.

The CoLAB is very deliberately and consciously taking an experimental approach to exploring the potential of a “Values Based Approach”. Bear with me; it has taken the CoLAB a while to get to grips with what we mean by this and we are grateful to Sue Ranger of the Marine Conservation Society for this latest articulation:

The marine environment has value. Some of that is realised in the traded economy through the sale of goods and services, but much of the value that people attach to the ocean and many of the benefits we derive from it have no monetary basis. Our connection to, and dependence on, the ocean extends well beyond what can be bought or sold.

(And here another note on the art of collaboration: the CoLAB partners approach questions of “values” in very different ways, in part depending on how we have been trained by our organisations to see the world. What unites us as individuals, however, is a deep appreciation of the intrinsic value of the ocean. It has immeasurable value because it is an ocean. In some measure, appreciating this has given us the foundations from which to build trust and our collaboration.)

Our understanding of how people value and benefit from the environment and which of our own values define that relationship, is growing. As the CoLAB, we are learning about the many emerging models and approaches which try to make sense of value and values (and we have been inspired by Common Cause and the Frameworks Institute, for example). By taking a “Values Based Approach” we are attempting to learn from all of these and develop our experience and understanding of how what we are learning can be best applied to increase our impact and bring about the change we want to see.

We recognise that ocean governance is dominated by economic maximisation of resources. The Values Based Approach therefore places particular emphasis on triggering and working with intrinsic values and making non-monetary value explicit. Through a process of rapid experimentation and iteration (basically “learning by doing”), we aim to add to the evidence base and develop understanding of what happens when we root the work we do in an understanding of value.

As Louisa mentions, we are currently running a suite of experiments which include radically reframing and bringing to the fore the connections that exist between Londoners and the ocean through reducing and ultimately eliminating the use of single use plastic water bottles (#OneLess). We are also developing “Agents of Change”, an initiative which seeks to shift attitudes to marine conservation (especially but not exclusively marine protected areas), building on the work of CoLAB members in coastal communities around the UK. The experiments are designed to be impactful in their own right, but also dial-up the use of “intrinsic values-based” messaging as a means of tapping in to psychology to create deeper, more longer lasting change in the way we appreciate the ocean and make decisions around its future.

We are all learning through engagement in this experiment. Perhaps the most important thing that Louisa has achieved with this experiment so far is the creation of a space where the traditional roles and dynamics of NGOs and funders have been broken down. If we are going to tackle urgent issues like marine plastic litter and climate change with the speed and efficacy they demand, we have to find new ways of working that allow individuals and organisations to be the best they can by operating in an ecosystem that enables their efforts through support and collaboration. In a sense, we are modelling the change we need to see in the wider world where we will need governments, industry and society at large to think differently about the roles they play and how we will all need to work with others to achieve transformational goals. Gulbenkian itself has taken a brave step to work so collaboratively with the NGOs. As NGOs, we are hugely grateful to Louisa and Andrew for the environment of openness and transparency they have created in the Marine CoLABoration and the shift they have made in the usual dynamic of grantor and grantee.

We are on a fascinating journey that often feels uncertain and vague; however, by making learning the central organising principle of our collaboration, we are starting to negotiate our way through some pretty complex issues about how the “ecosystem of change” can create more impact in the face of complex sustainability challenges. We are looking forward to sharing more of these lessons with those not thus far involved in the CoLAB.

Giles Bristow is Director of Programmes at Forum for the Future.

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