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Valuing Ocean Experiments…Part I: the funder’s perspective

By Louisa Hooper, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 6th September 2016


The most important thing we need to do now is to help humanity to change the way it thinks. This requires us to work at a level of world views, purpose, values, behaviours and relationships. – Jen Morgan, Thinking Systemically (EFN Blog, 3 December 2015)

Recently at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, we’ve been trying to ‘think systemically’ about the ocean and its value in our lives. Research suggests that underlying the challenges we face (climate change, pollution, over-fishing, etc) is the need to ‘make the issues human’: communicate more effectively why a healthy ocean matters to us all, and build capacity and collaboration in this area.

In Portugal, the Gulbenkian Oceans Initiative (GOI) has been exploring the economic value of natural marine assets, like Portugal’s iconic sardine fishery and its giant surfing waves, in ways which should influence decision-makers. It’s also been working with the business sector to increase awareness of ‘blue natural capital’, and with the under-resourced NGO sector to build strategy and collaboration.

In the UK we’ve also been working intensively with a group of NGOs to explore the value of the ocean more broadly, testing the idea that new collaborations and communication approaches which reveal the breadth of things people really care about and make these count in decision making will have better outcomes for people and the ocean.

Last year we established the Marine CoLABoration, a group of nine UK-based NGOs, each bringing different approaches, areas of expertise and geographical focus to marine conservation. We are funding the CoLAB to meet, initially over a two-year period, to explore new ideas and areas of convergence in a series of facilitated workshops using experimental ‘laboratory’ techniques.

Why have we taken this approach? We know that knowledge is often silo-ed. We know from EFN research that environmental NGOs want to collaborate and innovate more, but the time and resources to do so are very stretched. We believe that trusts and foundations have the freedom to take some risks and a longer-term view. We know we must be strategic and outcomes focused, but increasingly we recognise the need to foster programmes that are adaptive and flexible and responsive to change. And we’ve been keen to put into practice what we’ve learned about supporting networks and innovation and where we are best placed to act, as well as from pioneers like Jen Morgan and the Finance Innovation Lab, tackling systemic issues aiming at transformational change.

The CoLAB creates a collaborative arena to think differently, experiment with new ways of approaching problems, take action, learn and share. Its vision is to catalyse new and more effective solutions, working with the values that connect people and the ocean, and its first full-scale experiment (jointly funded by Gulbenkian and the Oak Foundation) was launched in April. #OneLess is an ambitious cross-sectoral initiative to reduce single use plastic water bottles in London – along the way promoting London’s role as a global ‘coastal city’ closely connected to the sea.

It’s still early days in terms of outcomes for the LAB, but 18 months on – and many post-it notes later – it has become a closely connected group with a clearly articulated mission and a developing pipeline of experiments using a ‘values-based’ approach. These are rooted in the conviction that uncovering and reflecting the multiple values we hold for the ocean will lead to better and faster ocean conservation.

There have been challenges along the way. The facilitation process has been designed to push at boundaries – not always comfortable. The potential of the CoLAB lies in the diversity of its members, but this has made consensus on a shared focus less easy at times. The idea of experiments, of trying things out, of rapid proto-typing and cycles of iteration, central to the ‘lab’ philosophy, has taken a while to embed. The group comprises senior staff from the organisations involved so finding time to meet, let alone collaborate on new work, remains problematic. And time exerts other subtle pressures. The issues facing the ocean are urgent as CoLAB members are keenly aware and being natural deliverers, much as they value space for reflection and learning, in practice their eagerness to get on and do stuff is palpable.

For Gulbenkian it has also raised questions around pace and process and progress. What’s reasonable for the trustees to expect and when? How do we protect the space for experimentation and unexpected outcomes whilst ensuring our support is purposeful and strategic? How do we support collaboration not only within the group, but across their organisations and beyond? How do we take a ‘values based’ approach in measuring this work, recognising the breadth of outcomes that would reflect success?

It’s work in progress, and we don’t have pat answers, but we are encouraged by the energy, ideas, ambition and commitment in the group. And with recent events in the UK, the need to develop systemic approaches which are responsive to changing circumstances and build on shared values seems ever clearer….

Louisa Hooper is Environment Programme Manager at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch)

Now read about the Marine CoLABoration from the perspective of a participant, Forum for the Future’s Giles Bristow.

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