Centuries of exploiting the planet and its people have left us with the climate crisis, while digital technologies – for better or worse – represent the most potent catalyst humanity has ever seen.
The European Union has correctly identified two overarching policy challenges for the 21st century: climate and digital. But for Europe to take a leading role in tackling global problems, there’s one more challenge: effective collaboration – with everyone.
Problems like the climate crisis, discrimination and inequality are intertwined. We cannot solve problems with the same logic and perspective that caused them. Research has found that in businesses, for instance, diverse teams not only make more money, they also reduce emissions faster by helping avoid costly blind spots and uncovering new innovative strategies that homogenous teams are unable to come up with.
We must invite new, unheard and marginalised voices to the table – and give them real decision-making power – with an approach to collaboration that is transdisciplinary, intersectional and democratic.
Over the past decade of working in and around sustainability, I have become convinced that this lack of collaboration is among the most significant bottlenecks in addressing the climate crisis.
To connect the most pressing problems with the right solutions and funding mechanisms is not easy. It requires not only listening to innovators from all disciplines, but also giving a voice and opportunities to a diverse set of people – not just in terms of gender, but also ethnicity, class and disability. And to do so at all levels of decision-making.
This task is complex, and it is necessary. I risk stating the obvious, but I will do it nonetheless: white men in grey suits are not well placed to identify the most pressing problems humanity faces (and neither are white women) because they simply don’t experience the effects in the same way. Yet, they are the ones disproportionately responsible for taking most decisions at most levels.
Knowledge sourced from diverse communities is already influencing innovation across sectors, whether we realise it or not. For example, indigenous communities have been practising organic or regenerative farming for millennia. And today our society is beginning to take notice of regenerative farming as a lucrative investment opportunity.
Involving marginalised and frontline communities systematically at all decision-making tables could be a game-changer for Europe as an innovation hub. It can teach us about responding to people’s needs through the efficient use of scarce resources. Often it is not expensive one-off projects that will move the needle and have significant impact at scale, but low-tech solutions that are simple, accessible and affordable.
The climate crisis is a problem for all humans; it makes sense to draw on all of humanity’s insights to tackle it.
Similarly, when we have some of the answers, we need to make sure they can be adapted to and applied everywhere. By co-creating and drawing on simple, existing solutions, we avoid two traps. Firstly, the risk that we attempt to reinvent the wheel. Second, that we create solutions that cannot be realistically applied everywhere they are needed.
It’s about doing what you can, with the tools you have, in the place you are. Ultimately, none of us is able to do more than that.