Collaboration and collective impact - for just and sustainable climate action

Collaboration for systems change can greatly help to align diverse stakeholders to achieve a collective impact and share outcomes while dealing with climate change.
Collective action to tackle climate change (Image Source: Usha Dewani)
Collective action to tackle climate change (Image Source: Usha Dewani)

The climate crisis is everyone's crisis and solutions are multidimensional.  Different players need to embrace the inter-connected, dynamic, and emergent nature of our systems.

While collaboration is a common strategy in solving social problems, collaborating for systems change and collective impact, wherein diverse stakeholders are aligned around shared outcomes, is a less familiar model.

Jeff Edmondson, founder of StriveTogether, lists these distinctions:

  • Programs vs. outcomes: Rather than organising around programs or initiatives, collective impact organizes stakeholders around shared outcomes that can be reported regularly.
  • Prove vs. improve: Collaborators often use data to prove things; collective impact is focused on using data to make improvements in real time.
  • Do more vs. work better: Collaborators may be asked to take on additional tasks; collective impact involves using data to help improve the current work, leveraging existing assets and building a culture of continual progress.
  • Importing ideas vs. engaging community: Collaborators often introduce ideas from other communities; collective impact involves identifying and advocating for what works in the community/field. Successful collective impact efforts engage community expertise and learn from it.

In collective action, different actors bring different strengths to the table. Collaborating with actors that have distinctive capacities can help to build a winning coalition of complementary strengths.

Healthcare Without Harm

An example of this in practice is Healthcare Without Harm. The dichotomy in the world of healthcare is that while it saves lives through cure and care, many of the existing industry practices create environmental hazards. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), founded in 1996, is a global organisation working to reduce the environmental footprint of the healthcare system. In the process it aims to build a more sustainable and equitable economy, and leverage health advocates for environmental health and justice.

HCWH’s journey did not start with climate at the core; initially their work focused on chemicals specifically, mercury, a global pollutant and neurotoxin, and around raising awareness about medical waste incinerators, which release dioxin (a carcinogen) into the air. The interconnected impact of chemicals, climate, food systems, buildings, and health were yet to be clearly seen and understood.

HCWH worked with stakeholders across health and environment, encouraging them to ‘clean up their own house.’ As their work expanded, going from one hospital system in the United States to building a coalition of more than 500 provider organizations all over the world in 10 years, HCWH realized the need to shift the conversation around healthcare and environmental health to creating a broader network of institutions working collectively to address issues around climate, health and justice.

"Right from the beginning, we aimed to build a movement inside of healthcare. We wanted to build a network because what makes social change happen is networks… We wanted healthcare organisations, architects, engineers, food service people, finance people, sustainability people, and communities to be our advocates around the world." says Gary Cohen from (HCWH)

Today, HCWH’s work focuses on three big themes that healthcare systems could act on:

    1. Design healthcare systems to be resilient in the face of extreme weather events: Influence healthcare providers to use renewable energy sources that can support communities during tragedies
    2. Transform healthcare’s footprint: Annual emissions of the healthcare industry was over 500 coal-fired power plants, found an HCWH supported study. Change means reducing attachment to fossil fuels and toxic chemicals
    3. Influence medical professionals to act as messengers and advocates: HCWH’s work in this area helps build a trusted constituency advocating for transition to renewable energy, green chemistry and a sustainable agricultural economy

In India, the HCWH network works with three key partners:
    1. Public Health Foundation of India and Center for Chronic Disease Control, to help them align  policies to integrate a climate resilient framework of healthcare.
    2. Lung Care Foundation, doctors become advocates on air pollution and climate change concerns and disseminate climate action solutions which protect patients and their health, as well as influence policy at the sub-national and national levels.
    3. Healthy Energy Initiative India, drives demand for integration of health in policy and environmental justice.

For such continued collective action and impact, there is a need for individuals and organisations to play ambassadorial roles and connect a particular constituency with broader networks.

Design Principle: How-tos

    • Define a shared vision to solve a complex problem.
    • Build and nurture trust-based relationships.
    • Open-source and share practical solutions.
    • Leverage or collaborate across networks.
    • Use data to build a common narrative that different stakeholders can relate to.
    • Enable cross-sectoral partnerships.
    • Track and communicate progress and lessons by working toward the same goal and measuring the same things.

Maria Clara Pinheiro is the Director, Ashoka, South Asia. Maya Chadrasekaran is the Co Founder and Managing Director of Green Artha, a climate venture fund and innovation firm. Vidushi Kamani is the Head of the Ecosystems Programme at Green Artha.

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