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Our Insights 1 Feb 2016

6 Principles to Catalyze a New Generation of Collaboration for Sustainability

By Chris Guenther

With the arrival of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COP21 agreement (or ‘Paris Agreement’) on climate change at the end of 2015, there has been a rush of new and renewed calls for cross-sector collaboration to implement them.

The last of the 17 SDGs – “Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development” – underscores this and lays out a broad collaborative agenda in the realms of finance, technology, capacity building, trade and systemic factors. And it’s working. At COP21 and again at the World Economic Forum in Davos, new and ambitious collaborations were announced left and right. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, The New Deal on Energy for AfricaThe Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development and Champions 12.3 are just a few of the high-profile initiatives launched recently.

Of course, this represents just the latest chapter in many years of increasing interest and activity (and also some hype) concerning such collaboration. At conferences, in articles and books, on social media and elsewhere, we remind each other repeatedly of the need for more and better collaboration, especially among business, government and civil society, to drive progress on sustainability, and we tout the variety of initiatives that our organizations have joined or helped create. At SustainAbility, we’ve long been advocates for this kind of enhanced engagement between and among companies and society, and we’ve been proud to play supporting roles in efforts ranging from Nestlé’s Creating Shared Value convenings to the recently launched Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

But as collaboration has come more into vogue, and as it promises to be even more central in 2016 and beyond, we’ve pondered whether and how it can be effectively scaled – both for individual organizations, which must decide how to prioritize and allocate limited capacity to an ever-growing array of initiatives, and for sustainable development as a whole, which requires a degree of collective effort that is unprecedented. Can we marshal enough of the right kinds of collaboration, with the right resources and participants, applied to the right system levers, to really tip the balance? Can we cope with the growing complexity of the sustainability agenda, and in turn, of the many individual collaborative initiatives designed to tackle it? Can meaningful collaboration really be scaled up so quickly?

With these questions in mind, and with the support of sponsors Cisco and Syngenta, SustainAbility undertook a research effort to better understand how collaboration is evolving, and how it must evolve in the future, to more effectively support and accelerate the transition to a sustainable economy. The result is our latest report, Orchestrating Change, which explores expert perspectives and the growing universe of multi-stakeholder initiatives, and highlights the need for more concerted effort to ensure that collaboration delivers all that we hope and believe it can.

Taking account of key challenges and opportunities, the report concludes by articulating six principles that we hope will catalyze and guide the evolution of a new generation of collaboration for sustainable development:

  1. Aligned – As we seek to collaborate on a growing range of issues, and to address their many interconnections and dependencies, we must find the balance between developing big, centralized networks and initiatives versus a plethora of smaller, more focused ones that tackle different pieces of a larger challenge. Both approaches are crucial, but collaboration loves specificity, so we expect the latter type will be greater in number, and often in speed and effectiveness. However, as these smaller, narrower initiatives proliferate, they must connect the specific to the systemic by truly understanding their context, avoiding duplication, and aligning with global priorities and meta-collaborations such as the circular economy movement, the SDGs, etc.
  2. Diverse – While there is a perpetual drive to make collaboration more effective, we must avoid taking too narrow a view of what models work best, where or how specific collaborations should focus, or who should initiate and lead them. Rather, there is benefit in increasing diversity—e.g., narrow and broad initiatives, shallow and deep styles of engagement, stable platforms and disruptors, distinct efforts led by business, government and others. For organizations managing a large number of collaborations, and/or those focused on one big priority issue, we recommend a strategic portfolio approach, combining a range of styles and focus areas for collaboration in order to expand learning and reach, and effectively manage risk.
  3. Fluid – As the number of distinct collaborations grows, and as many evolve into permanent organizations, there is increasing risk of saturation and, eventually, stagnation. To combat this, we must cultivate greater fluidity, encouraging both large and small initiatives to more rapidly form and to adapt and re-adapt to the changing rhythms of their purpose and participants. And, when necessary, they must swiftly dissolve and re-direct their accumulated energy elsewhere. For many collaborators, this will entail even greater investment – to enable collaboration that is more engaged, dynamic and experimental – but also potentially greater return.
  4. Networked – To support greater alignment, diversity and fluidity, create more joined-up thinking and speed the process of building effective new initiatives, collaborations must be increasingly networked. This means fostering transparency and building productive linkages and shared infrastructure among disparate efforts. We see a particularly vital role for trade associations, networks and other meta-collaborations, which provide shared platforms on which to more quickly build and link together various initiatives.
  5. Transformative – To scale overall impact without encouraging unrestrained growth in the number or complexity of initiatives, we should prioritize those focused on the most far-reaching, transformative interventions – e.g,. establishing and enforcing a global price on carbon, empowering vulnerable populations, redesigning business and broader economic models – which will in turn lead to other widespread changes. These efforts require long-term vision and substantial political will, as well as unique leadership, but are worthwhile because they represent the best that we hope (and need) for collaboration to deliver.
  6. Temporary – For organizations committed to sustainable development, collaboration is becoming business as usual. However, no individual or organization can collaborate infinitely. Furthermore, if we become too focused on collaboration itself as the answer to our toughest challenges – i.e., treating it as an end rather than a means – then we risk merely creating ‘patches’, rather than long-term changes, to our underlying economic and political order. Instead, we should ensure that collaboration is deployed with the goal of permanently embedding sustainability into our global operating system, allowing us to rely on the power and self-determination of markets, instead of ongoing collaboration, to truly drive impact at scale.

The application of these principles will expand and accelerate the positive impact of collaboration, and we look forward to working with our clients and partners to support this. To read more about the principles, including supporting insights and specific strategies and activities for applying them, download the full report here. Finally, we invite you to get in touch to share your feedback or to explore these ideas further with us.

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