Insights from IISD staff

Over the course of a year, IISD staff members engage in complex research and, collectively, interact with hundreds of stakeholders around the world. We continue to learn and grow as individuals and as an organization. In this feature, several members of the IISD team reflect on learning and on recent experiences and encounters.

Peter Hardi, Senior Fellow:

"As part of our Local Agenda 21 capacity building project, three IISD staff members and two other individuals led training sessions in three Romanian cities. It was one of the most satisfying experiences of the past year. It was a pleasure to see the interest and enthusiasm of the trainees. We were received warmly and it was so good to realize that so many people are interested in sustainable development and in Local Agenda 21 issues. And it was satisfying to learn that we could contribute to building partnerships among the Romanians as well as between them and the Canadian team."

László Pintér, Director, Measurement and Indicators:

"It is always satisfying to see a challenging project draw to a successful conclusion. In May 2002, the United Nations Environment Programme released its new Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report, the third in an increasingly well-known and respected series. Although IISD has been involved mostly in GEO's global and behind-the-scenes aspects, we were ideally positioned to bring global messages to our local audiences through a launch we organized in Winnipeg. It was good to see a high turnout that included students and a provincial minister. There is much more to learn about ways of connecting global issues to local audiences, but through GEO, and in a small way through this event, we made a difference."

Jason Switzer, Project Manager:

"Who cares about securing wildlife sanctuaries or ensuring clean air for future generations, when wars are being fought and innocent lives are lost? In Belgrade, a young bear conservationist from Greece described to me how, during the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999, he was invited by authorities at the Belgrade Zoo to rescue their bear cubs. Driving several hundred kilometres through war-scarred countryside, through roadblocks and checkpoints, he succeeded in bringing several cubs back to Greece. Environment can bring people together in ways we have not imagined. And therein lies a slender branch of hope for a more peaceful future."

Marlene Roy, Information Resources Coordinator:

"Innovation and continuous learning caught my attention this year. While policy-making and inter-governmental negotiations often move ahead at a snail's pace, sustainable development research can advance by leaps and bounds. The challenge for an organization the size of IISD is to keep very busy research staff ahead of the pack. With this in mind, I developed two modules for our Intranet: aptly named the 'Innovatory' and the 'Complexatory.' Each became a virtual space for our collective knowledge on innovation and on complex adaptive management. Brainstorming 'brown bag' lunches were held at which staff further developed their knowledge and we purchased materials and developed bibliographies and other information tools for these e-laboratories. The World Summit on Sustainable Development also provoked discussion and idea generation, as we worked with sustainable development 'movers and shakers' looking for ways to invigorate the Rio process. We also handled many inquiries from a new crop of people wanting to know about the basics of sustainable development, with my colleague Stacy Matwick and I feeling that we were going 'back to the future.'"

Andrew Baldwin, ENB Writer/Editor:

"I'd have to say the single most significant thing I've learned since joining the IISD team three years ago is how important the Earth Negotiations Bulletin has been for the practice of global environmental governance. Not only do ENB summaries provide a useful tool for environmental negotiators, they also serve to connect policy-makers from around the world by furnishing them with objective, up-to-date play-by-play as the events of a negotiation unfold. This is crucially important for those unable to attend specific negotiation sessions. But perhaps more profoundly, I've learned that the importance of ENB extends well beyond the policy domain. In my own work as a graduate student, I am forever encountering academic texts that reference the ENB as a definitive primary resource!"

Dennis Cunningham, Project Manager:

"Climate change is an issue of such enormous complexity and scale that it is quite easy to become overwhelmed by the volume of information generated on the subject. I believe that the most successful projects have had strong networks supporting them. This applies internationally and locally. Case in point, IISD and the other members of the Climate Change Knowledge Network (CCKN) are actively engaged in addressing the inequities inherent in climate change: developed countries create the majority of emissions—developing countries will bear the brunt of the predicted impacts; developed countries dominate international negotiations—developing countries struggle to participate effectively in the negotiations. I firmly believe CCKN projects contribute greatly to bridging these gaps and to bringing us closer to a more equitable climate change regime. CCKN members have collaborated on several projects that may not have occurred—or have had much impact—without collaboration. The importance of encouraging climate change research organizations from developing, transitional and developed countries to work together cannot be overstated."

Bill Glanville, Vice-President, Chief Operating Officer, and Darren Swanson, Research Associate:

"In recent months, the two of us have had the distinct pleasure of considering how an organization learns and assessing why institutional learning is so important to IISD. In the process, we have learned that achieving our mission depends on continually improving two key aspects of institutional performance.

First, because our agenda is one of change, IISD's role is essentially to manage change in terms of how we work and how other organizations approach sustainable development. Second, in order to stay on the leading edge of innovation for sustainable development, we must continually assess the effectiveness of our work and identify the lessons we've learned, which can be integrated into future work.

As the two of us examine how we can best capture and share the lessons, it has become increasingly apparent that the critical element is the actual implementation of change. This requires an emphasis on effective communication and engagement with those people we're trying to influence. Through the work of a Board Long Range Planning Task Force and institute staff, we are currently examining how we can increase the impact and effectiveness of our work by articulating specific strategies to identify and interact with our most important target audiences. Also, our internal proposal development and review processes include consideration of how to ensure that the dissemination strategy is designed to include the means by which progress on a piece of work and the results of that work are shared with stakeholders and target audiences. Finally, more effort will need to be spent on evaluating the outputs of projects and their effectiveness in creating the changes that are originally planned. The second point leads to an ongoing examination of how to create an organizational culture of learning and the structures to encourage that learning. IISD encourages staff to work across different institutional strategic objectives, contributing their skills to projects in different areas. This has been successful to varying degrees, depending on the nature of the work and the flexibility of the staff involved. Considerable effort has been expended this year to create new tools for individual and organizational learning, and to identify the linkages among projects and goals of different research programs. To serve our offices and associates around the world, we've expanded our Intranet service to include online project management training modules and access to project support files and other tools. We have also recently developed an Intranet organizational learning framework called the Innovatory—a visualization of IISD's project development cycle to help us foster innovation and to identify lessons learned at all stages of project development, from incubating ideas to project learning and adaptation. In the coming year, regular lessons-learned briefings are being planned for major projects nearing completion to record key lessons in our institutional memory. We look forward to exciting results."

Jared Huber, IISD Intern:

"As an IISD intern placed at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, my initial interests were to gain skills that I would later be able to use in an advertising career. However, when you work day after day with brilliant people who genuinely want to make a difference that isn't attached to western-style consumption, your view is bound to change. At least mine did. Working in communications, I would find it hard to be less than general about SD. From a communications standpoint, I've gained a greater understanding of the need to set the public agenda in Northern countries. Londoners seem to have a fairly developed social conscience as has been demonstrated during the recent crisis of war. A major key is therefore making development issues accessible through mainstream media. In fact, I find it questionable whether some of the energy put into new research shouldn't be redirected towards effectively communicating existing research, thereby gaining broader support and knowledge for SD initiatives. I still believe in the power of effective advertising, but far more in the sense that it will be a necessary tool to create real change in development."

Tony Hodge, IISD Associate:

"This past year has served to strongly reinforce a commitment to always maintaining a double perspective, one dealing with the substance of what we do and the other dealing with the process of how we act. In terms of substance, I have seen a focus on the practical, nose-in-the-mud activity of mining reveal great insight into how the lofty concept of sustainability can be unbundled in a concrete way. There are several keys to this unbundling. First, the central sustainability issue of 'resource management' is not at all whether the resource itself is renewable or non-renewable. Rather, the central sustainability issue of all human activities (focused or not on the management of resources) is whether or not the human activity in question results in a positive contribution to both human well-being and ecosystem integrity over the long term. This is the ultimate test of sustainability. Both are required. This two-dimensional design criterion provides a clean perspective. In order to achieve these results, relationships between interests, the economics of project and community, the institutions and mechanisms of governance must all be healthy. Furthermore, there must be in place a way to ensure continuous learning and a capacity to adapt to changing conditions. In years to come, this perspective will come to be seen as nothing more than common sense and it is that ingredient that is both demanded and offered by the nose-in-the-mud mining industry.

From a process perspective, I have learned much in this past year. But dominant is that I have seen the power of a small team working together effectively. Here, there are two key ingredients. First is to have a common purpose that is understood, not only because of intellectual prescription but also because of a common spirit that is more intuitive than anything else. Once such a spirit is in place, huge efficiencies are possible. Second, is to build a team based on respect for the creative gift that each has to offer. Each of us has to play a part in bringing that out in colleagues. No matter where in the organizational hierarchy one might sit, each of us carries this multi-directional management responsibility and its effective discharge makes an enormous difference."

Terri Willard, Project Manager:

"Most of the time, I find people talking about youth leadership as something that's nice and cute. But, it's not. It's urgent. As E.O. Wilson notes in The Future of Life, 'The people of the developing countries are already far younger than those in the industrial countries and destined to become more so. The streets of Lagos, Manaus, Karachi, and other cities in the developing world are a sea of children… In at least 68 of the countries, more than 40 per cent of the population is under 15 years of age.' If we are all going to make it through the next 50–100 years, it will be because young people reclaim their ability to act and to lead. We simply cannot afford a global culture of bored youth with extended adolescences. Young people around the world will be increasingly called upon to play important roles in providing education and health care as well restoring the environment. I've learned that youth leadership is not a matter of building capacity for tomorrow, but a matter of survival for us all today."

Tom Rotherham, IISD Associate:

"IISD's role includes finding ways for different groups to work together, be it the World Trade Organization and NGOs, countries from the North and South, or even different ministries within the same government. Without trust, nothing can happen. Something that I have learned this past year is the importance of investing in relationships—with people and with organizations. Through my work on the role of standards in sustainable development, IISD is bringing together two groups with almost no shared history: NGOs and national standards bodies. Our experience shows that there are areas where cooperation can be mutually beneficial. But without trust, nothing can happen. There are no shortcuts to building up trust. It takes time, and sometimes it takes sacrifices. But after working cooperatively with the standards community for over four years—making an effort to find common ground rather than focusing on the obvious differences—IISD is now able to act as an honest broker between these two communities. Understanding someone is not enough. They have to know that you understand them and see how your appreciation for their concerns is shaping your opinions. Only then can trust and cooperation develop."

Sustaining Excellence: The 2002-2003 Annual Report of the International Institute for Sustainable Development is also available as PDF files in English and French.