In this article, I argue that the time is right to innovate as if the world is at stake. We are at the point where we know where we want to go, whether it’s building a green economy, creating a massive number of jobs, or decreasing global carbon emissions. Now we need to move beyond bringing groups together to discuss vision, or the potential of collaboration and begin implementing action, one step at a time. Where we lack the know-how to get to where we want to go, we need to experiment and create prototypes until we reach our desired outcomes. The process of technological innovation is well developed and globalised, from space travel to mobile phones. Now the time is ripe to prototype social, environmental, and economic solutions to put sustainable development into practice and aspire to make holistic actions where change is most critically needed.
Why Involve Groups from Different Sectors?
The idea to address our toughest social and environmental problems with diverse groups is based on the following premise: teams comprised of people from different sectors, primarily business, civil society and NGOs, and government, can have an impact on social issues at the systems level. To successfully tackle the root causes of challenging issues, an approach must address said problems at multiple entry points. When people from individual sectors work in isolation or only with like-minded groups, we end up merely addressing the symptoms, leaving the larger trends and deeper systemic issues unabated. A multi-stakeholder approach offers the opportunity to tackle issues socially, and contribute to social change by bringing together key societal actors.
Arguably, the only real change that sectors working in isolation can achieve occurs when governments enact new legislation; however, when legislation does not take into account the interests of stakeholders, it is often the source of social unrest or conflict with other groups in society. When governments completely ignore stakeholders, they can loose broad based support and even legitimacy. We’ve recently seen many examples of this dynamic, such as the protests in Tahrir Square that sparked the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
While business, civil society, and governments have different mandates and priorities, a multi-stakeholder approach enables these groups to work together while continuing their respective priorities of growth, advocacy and campaigning, and effective public and foreign policy. It also provides a common platform that enables business to engage with the triple bottom line, NGOs to influence business via partnerships, and governments to work in tandem with other sectors as they legislate. In this way, all of the sectors can be part of instigating holistic solutions fit for a contemporary, and increasingly globalised, world.
The term “multi-stakeholder” refers to mixed groups composed of anyone who has a “stake”, or interest, in a particular societal issue, be it youth unemployment, climate change, or global poverty. Where you draw the boundary about who should or shouldn’t be included on decision-making on a specific issue is tricky, and there are many problems of excluding certain stakeholders, as I’ll come to later on. It’s also difficult to draw a boundary around a social issue. When we look at child malnutrition, we are equally looking at maternal health, gender relations, culture, poverty, class, education and so on. The term, multi-stakeholder, is increasingly relevant in our modern world with its many growing social and environmental challenges. At the same time, there is a proliferation of actors who might qualify as having an interest or role in addressing these issues, which can be both local and global in scope.
A multi-stakeholder approach supports increased participation and inclusivity, but does not aim to be representative. Multi-stakeholder is often coupled with the word “partnership.” Multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) are relevant here; however, this article focuses less on forming partnerships than on taking action with multi-stakeholder groups.
Multi-stakeholder groups and partnerships are a new way of dealing with difficult societal issues. Some international organizations, such as the UN, commonly use a multi-stakeholder approach, and within certain UN bodies, including UNDP, Unicef, and the WHO, it is increasingly becoming mainstream. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan commented that:
“The UN once dealt only with governments. By now we know that peace and prosperity cannot be achieved without partnerships involving governments, international organizations, the business community and civil society.”
The UN recognizes the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach to achieve its global goals and has made a lot of progress therein. However, these methods are still quite new, and as such, practitioners are still learning lessons and exploring best practices.
Addressing Complex Issues—Together
Take the issue of sustainable food systems. People increasingly agree that our food systems are not sustainable and that the growing demand for all types of food negatively affects environmental resources and has varied social consequences. The negative impact of logging, subsistence farming, cattle ranching, damming, and road building on the world’s tropical rainforests is a much-cited example and we recently learn that the impact of deforestation on climate change is much worse than was previously thought. This complex social and environmental challenge requires a multi-stakeholder group specific to each of the causes of destruction in each locality. For instance, in the case of cattle rearing, a multi-stakeholder approach would require the engagement of farmers, rainforest and sustainable consumption NGOs, local and national governments, ranchers organisations, meat retailers, meat consumers and many others.
The production, distribution, sale, and consumption of food involves many different actors across the world. Creating change within the food system requires all the key players at the table, ready to implement innovation across value chains in food systems, from “farm to fork”.
Undeterred by systemic complexity, the Sustainable Food Lab is one of the most successful examples of a multi-stakeholder team addressing a highly complex issue that is both local and global in scope. The Lab’s mission is “to accelerate the shift toward sustainable food from niche to mainstream”. When Hal Hamilton and Adam Kahane first convened the first meeting of the Food Lab in 2004, they invited many different stakeholders to participate: large food companies (SYSCO, Starbucks), large NGOs (Oxfam, Rainforest Alliance), government ministries,sustainability groups, and farmers and farmers’ organizations. They actively encouraged stakeholders across value chains to join the effort.
Today, many of the initiatives first conceived in the Sustainable Food Lab still exist, and some have grown and extended to other areas of sustainability. Interestingly, a lot of the multi-stakeholder partnerships are also still active, even where old initiatives have ended and new ones have been created. Some large food companies joined the Lab with no knowledge of how to produce and sell sustainable food. They collaborated with others to share perspectives and opportunities for sustainable practice. Now sustainability has become part of their broader business strategies, and many, including Unilever and PepsiCo, have organisation-wide sustainability efforts. Unilever has committed to sourcing 100% sustainable and halving the environmental footprint of its products by 2020.
When large multi-national corporations such as these start mainstreaming sustainability into their organisational strategies, the impact on that organisation huge. In addition, the market itself shifts in a more sustainable direction. A classic example is how the Body Shop’s practice of certifying products as “not tested on animals” spread across the manufacture of most cosmetic products.
Multi-stakeholder groups acting together
Examples of multi-stakeholder collaboration in the Food Lab include projects that link large food companies to small producers and NGOs, with the goal of certifying and then selling more socially and environmentally sustainable produce. For instance, Asda, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and the Rainforest Alliance have formed a new collaboration to ensure that small growers of cut flowers have access to markets and that the production of those flowers doesn’t damage the environment.
At its best, a multi-stakeholder partnership achieves the triple bottom line of profit, people, and planet.
 The company gains public approval by sourcing a sustainable product; the NGO successfully influences the company to source sustainably; and small farmers from the southern hemisphere have new market access. Likewise, consumers can feel comfortable about what they are buying and their contributions to positive social and environmental impact.
Despite the success stories and impact that the Food Lab and other multi-stakeholder initiatives have produced, this approach is not currently in the mainstream. In general, government ministries, corporations, and NGOs find it quickest and easiest to work with others only when they hold a shared sense of the problem or solution at the outset—something more likely when they partner with groups from their own sector.
The downside of a homogenous stakeholder approach is that relevant players, resources, ideas, and perspectives can be left out of policy and strategy, causing us to fall into business as usual. This is a problem because local and global issues aren’t going away, and in many cases, social and environmental issues are getting worse. A sobering reminder of a global complex social issue is the issues of health, water, sanitation and education (and many others) of the 827.6 million people living in slums, according to the UN report
 that number is increasing by roughly 6 million people year.
Inviting stakeholders into key issues
I recently had the opportunity to research advocacy and campaigns strategies and tactics among the leaders of the global campaigning world, many of whom are acting on behalf of the world’s “bottom billion” inhabitants.
 In several interviews, NGO leaders reiterated the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach when addressing tough issues such as poverty and gender inequality. An executive director of an NGO told me about the challenge of large-scale land acquisition in India. She said that, historically, due to the Land Acquisition Act (instigated by the British government), the Indian government had authorized land purchases without consulting the small landholders, farmers, or indigenous people who live off the land. Like in other parts of the world, this policy created landless people who could no longer sustain themselves.
This year, following decades of protests and civil society campaigns, the Indian government put through a reform bill to help ensure that farmers and landholders receive adequate compensation for their land. In many cases, planners are consulting with and compensating people who live on land that may be needed for industrial projects (dams and so on). These individuals have thus become stakeholders, whereas previously they were omitted from the picture. While the problem has not been solved entirely, and industrial players fear that land prices may rise too much to make their ventures profitable, the Indian government has gone to great efforts to make economic growth more inclusive and to consult with and include multiple stakeholders.
Such examples demonstrate both the need and the benefit of moving from a process that involves one or two stakeholders or sectors, for instance government and industry, to a more inclusive one that in this case includes civil society NGOs, indigenous people, and forest dwellers, whose livelihoods depend on the land. They also show the real challenges in taking action that works for multiple actors in a given system and that balances economic development and respect for people, livelihoods, and the land.
As you can imagine, inviting an indigenous forest dweller and a government official to meet has its challenges. Members of different stakeholder groups do not necessarily share common ground and vary widely in terms of culture, power, priorities, and realm of influence. For these reasons, diverse groups of stakeholders need to go through a process to establish shared interests and work toward mutually beneficial solutions. They require a road map to get to the root causes of issues and then move toward action that can be implemented in the field.
The Change Lab: A Road Map for Action
Over the past 15 years, we have been designing and implementing multi-stakeholder change processes for the purpose of creating action on tough societal issues. The approach we use is called the Change Lab, because as in a laboratory setting, experimentation, innovation, and disciplined learning are actively encouraged. All members of the Lab share an interest in change on the specific issue and are willing to collectively explore the nature of this change through the Lab process. In this way, a Change Lab involves a strong element of social learning.
A Lab usually aims to address one complex social issue, such as child malnutrition or sustainable finance, by applying many tools, methods, and technologies
. To illustrate, here are two examples of multi-stakeholder Labs I have work with and facilitated this year. The first Change Lab tackled the issue of improving mental health services in the UK; the second Lab addressed the issue of climate-compatible development, defined later on.
Example 1: A Multi-Stakeholder Approach to Mental Health Services
Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to design, facilitate and build capacity for the South West Yorkshire Change Lab in England, in partnership with the Centre for Health and Innovation Management and convened by the South West Yorkshire NHS Foundation Trust. The participants were a mix of health professionals, including doctors, psychiatrists, district nurses, district managers, and caregivers, as well as service users, a British term for people who access services to manage some type of mental health issue or who have been through the mental health services system. All these stakeholders were invited to go through a U-process together, with the aim of creating a new ecology of services run by the Foundation Trust.
The involvement of service users in the Lab from the outset was a new and bold approach. A strong divide has long existed between service users and mental health practitioners, and between patients and doctors. In this Change Lab, however, everyone went through the knowledge sharing and learning journeys together. We heard that, at times, service users felt hopeless regarding the services they were receiving. When professionals made decisions about their treatment without consulting them, they felt disempowered. They wanted greater involvement in decision-making and for health professionals to explain complex terminology to them in terms they could understand. In their treatment for mental health issues, which included depression and bipolar disorder, they wanted a relationship based on respect.
In some cases, service users had preferred to set up their own self-help groups with others living with mental health issues, finding this approach more helpful in dealing with challenging personal issues than dealing with medical professionals. They said that, in the hospital, they felt disempowered, but in their own groups, they felt a sense of empowerment and improved self-esteem.
All of the healthcare professionals in the Lab were excellent listeners; it was a big part of their expertise. However, new to them was the practice of suspending judgment
 and trying to see from the service users’ point of view without applying their sophisticated professional lenses. This task was difficult, as it meant that these providers needed to mentally suspend years of practice and training on how they perceived their patients, usually the first step in the diagnosis and treatment process.
The ideas of suspending judgment or suspending the assumption that one can see the world “as it really is” come from the Pyrrhonian school of Greek philosophy and later the phenomenologists such as Husserl. They are also found in Eastern meditation and are similar to what we know in the West as “mindfulness meditation.” Neuroscientist Francisco Varela and his colleagues stress three phases in becoming aware: suspending, redirecting, and accepting.
The value of these practices in a Lab is that, through them, diverse stakeholders that are sometimes in conflict can see from each other’s perspective and create new relationships. These practices open up space for creativity and reframing the issue as well as build trust and mutual respect. They can also create the opportunity for people to discover shared goals and priorities. Once relationships have been formed, the next, crucial phase is to harness new and shared understanding so that the group can implement novel ideas together.
The issues involved in designing new services were complex. Nevertheless, the multi-stakeholder group developed a common awareness of some of the fundamental problems with the way mental health services were delivered and evaluated in their geographical area. They began to see a path to fixing some of those problems and the potential for a new ecology of services that incorporated service users’ needs in both design and evaluation.
Models of New Ideas. After a phase of shared understanding and increasing commitment to the issues, the group entered the action phase of the Lab. We led the team through a prototyping process using bricolage. In this process, teams of people build physical models of an idea. Building a physical model enables everyone to see the components of the shared concept and work it up together. In this Lab, the models included all the elements needed to offer a new service. The teams created these initial models incorporating the perspective of the service user. The groups then converted their physical models into written proposals and met again after the conclusion of the Lab. Currently, the teams are about to prototype their different initiatives in a particular ward or subservice, where they can iterate their models, taking into account feedback from service users and the healthcare professionals involved in delivery.
A common misunderstanding of prototyping in a Change Lab is that the first physical model of an idea or project will be the finished product. However, a prototype is a straw man or a mock-up that comes in-between the idea and the pilot. It is designed to be road tested and redesigned to incorporate user feedback, just like a product or new pharmaceutical drug would undergo rigorous testing before going to market. People have asked me if I prototype in my everyday life, and I do. If I have a challenge or question, where possible, I will try things out before settling on a decision or course of action.
Example 2. A Multi-Stakeholder Approach to Climate Change and Development
The second example is the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) Action Lab held at Oxford University, England, earlier this year. I had the opportunity to be part of the facilitation team for this Lab, working with our colleagues at Future Considerations, LEAD, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. This five-day Lab was sponsored by the Department for International Development (DFID). The Lab brought together 150 participants including city councilors, CEOs, researchers, Oxford postgraduate students, consultants, and thought leaders coming from charities, NGOs, think tanks, universities, and governments from around the world. All participants were chosen for their leadership and pioneering work in the fields of development and climate change.
The Lab aimed to support innovation and research in the area of climate-compatible development. According to Simon Maxwell and Tom Mitchell from CDKN, climate-compatible development is “development that minimises the harm caused by climate impacts, while maximising the many human development opportunities presented by a low emissions, more resilient, future”. In other words, climate-compatible development supports economic growth and prosperity while reducing carbon emissions and negative social and environmental impacts. This is not so far away from the triple bottom line or the idea of sustainable development as three interlocking spheres: economic, social, and environmental.
The Lab resulted in about 20 new initiatives created by multi-stakeholder teams of between four and 20 individuals. Like the Lab described above, this one walked through the U-Process, with a period of information sharing, reflection, and then action—the latter through forming teams and co-creating initiatives. The initiatives ranged from a Twitter-like social network for knowledge sharing about climate change policy and science, to a plan to provide rural farmers in the global South with technology to convert farming waste into biochar, a process that locks carbon dioxide in the soil and increases crop productivity.
What was really exciting about this and other Labs that Reos has designed is that CDKN put in place an innovation fund, so once multi-stakeholder groups formed and wrote up their prototypes, the initiatives could win funding to assist with implementation. The innovation fund granted significant funding to seven of the projects. These projects were prototyped after the Lab‘s conclusion, some in collaboration with organizations based in different locales. You can learn more about these initiatives on the CDKN website: http://cdkn.org/
Conditions for Moving to Action
Sometimes multi-stakeholder groups come together with the need and intention of acting collaboratively on difficult social issues, but no action happens, and the team finds it difficult to get past the complexity of the issue. A colleague mentioned that leaders and decision-makers gather to discuss gun crime in the UK’s inner cities but never take action.
So what is required to make progress and for ideas to take flight? Taking these two recent examples of innovation in mental health and climate change as well as our experience with other Change Labs and multi-stakeholder processes to date, here are some of the conditions needed to move to action with multi-stakeholder groups:
1. A Laboratory or Studio for Social Change. A successful initiative requires space removed from traditional institutional constraints in which it’s possible to experiment and play with new ideas and work across sectors/institutional boundaries. Both scientific and artistic approaches to innovation are supported and fresh thinking is welcomed.
2. A Shared Sense of the Problem. People from diverse perspectives and positions must build a shared sense of the key elements of the problem while retaining the value of different points of view. This can be obtained through information sharing, but also by connecting to people who experience the problem first hand and engaging with research.
3. A New Type of Leadership. A group comprised of people who are willing to lead or are already leaders in their respective fields is helpful, as are people who demonstrate new types of leadership in the sense of supporting and facilitating collaboration; orchestrating rather than directing.
4. Freedom of Association. It is useful to have a mechanism for individuals to cluster around ideas or themes that they have interest in, and opportunities for subgroups to self-organize and work autonomously. Sometimes conveners will want group people according to expertise in advance, but it can promote more flow and contentment if people are left to work on what speaks to them.
5. Innovation as if the World Mattered. The process benefits when participants share a sense of need and of the real importance and potential contribution of the work, either by experiencing the problem in the field or by hearing from those who have been affected by it as well as reflection on their own role in the issue.
6. A Clear and Coherent Organizational Context. The group’s sponsors, conveners, facilitators, or a combination of all three can support the effort by providing advice to the teams and clear messaging as to how the multi-stakeholder action fits with their own strategies and organizational objectives.
7. “Don’t Plan, Prototype”. Instead of rolling out a finished plan, experiment. Test new ideas with users, incorporate the feedback, and improve the model.
8. Catering to All Tastes. Specific stakeholders, sectors, and organizations have preferences for doing business in certain ways, and so processes need to accommodate different tastes and aim not to alienate any one group.
9. Another World Is Possible. The Change Lab seeks to increase people’s capacity to believe in unorthodox ideas, follow their impulses, think that innovative approaches are possible, imagine without constraint, and then test ideas so innovations are grounded in reality.
10. Financing to Give Initiatives Legs. Sponsors enable large projects to be implemented by providing funding or the opportunity to win funding.
My intention in writing this article was to sketch a picture of the potential of a multi-stakeholder approach in tackling tough social and environmental problems. I’ve given two recent real-life examples of multi-stakeholder teams that are now in the implementation phase. I’ve outlined what happens in Change Labs and how unlikely allies can reach action together.
Based on these two Labs, I have proposed 10 conditions needed to help support or facilitate action among multi-stakeholder groups. For complex issues, these conditions are important for enabling individuals from different backgrounds to learn from each other; pioneer, lead, and collaborate on ideas for which they have passion; and perhaps most important, implement these innovative ideas in the field.
On a personal note, what I find exciting about this specific moment in time is that we have an approach to the many problems worldwide, from state stabilization in Yemen to aboriginal health in Canada to job creation in the UK and US, that urgently require multi-stakeholder collaboration and action. The time is ripe to start prototyping new solutions with multi-stakeholder groups. To do so, we need to initiate the process of systemic change, not only on paper or in boardrooms, but out in the real world, step by step, through learning with people on the ground, and trying out bold, innovative ideas.
 The U-Process, developed collaboratively by Claus Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Adam Kahane, and others, is one of the social technologies we often apply in the Change Lab (formore details about the U-Process, see Zaid Hassan’s article “Connecting to Source
” or Otto Scharmer’s book Theory U
 See On
becoming aware: a pragmatics of experiencing By Natalie Depraz, Francisco J. Varela, Pierre Vermersch