Eco-solutions: How to build a case for their scaling up?

Friday, June 5, 2020

5 June 2020 is World Environment Day. This year, special focus is given on nature conservation with the theme ‘It’s time for nature’. By deliberately using ecosystem’s services and processes, we can address many of our existing problems, such as climate change and disaster risk. There is a growing pantheon of terminology for these ‘nature-based actions’ that for ease of understanding we are grouping as eco-solutions. In this blog, we outline a new approach to critically analyze eco-solutions, or any other ingenious solution for that matter, with a view to increasing their uptake and understand what need to change to take them to scale.

In the first and second installments of this blog series, we discussed the benefits we get from eco-solutions to address different societal challenges. We saw that the financial costs and benefits alone are inadequate to understand the effectiveness of these ingenious solutions. We also need to understand their social and environmental costs and benefits before they can deliver community resilience at greater scales.

Need for an alternative analytical approach

Over the past 55 years, Practical Action has shown that any technological innovation or ingenious solution, like an eco-solution, needs to have a catalytic effect to cause bigger changes in our systems. We indeed need to promote an eco-solution to solve immediate problems, aggravated by climate change, of a small vulnerable community. But we also need to create the opportunity so that its ingenious potential is delivered at scale. Therefore, any eco-solution needs to be evaluated so that it can be understood multidimensionally — cutting across social, economic and environmental dimensions.

Scaling up an innovation needs funding, policy support, and interest from other organizations working in the same space. Currently we use a number of ways — case studies, blogs, reports, and media — to capture lessons from piloting our ingenious solutions. But, in absence of a thorough critical analysis, our cases often fall short to convince government agencies, donors, community organizations, and NGO partners to adopt and transform the system taking them to universal scales.

We therefore need an alternative approach to better understand the systemic changes necessary to deliver sustainable impact at scale. To do so we need a holistic means of assessing our ingenious solutions, that doesn’t depend upon economist to evaluate the financial criteria, sociologist to evaluate the social benefits, nor a team of ecologist to assess the environmental costs and benefits.  Is it possible to empower communities, who relate to and understand their local context a framework that would help them to do this, for themselves? A methodology that not only aims at understanding the solution, but also better understand the context from the community’s perspective.

Outlining a comprehensive analytical framework

To address this need, we are developing a comprehensive approach to capturing the achievements and failures of our ingenious ideas. This new approach focusses on preparing a ‘business case’ by documenting its costs, benefits, and opportunities in social, economic, and environmental dimensions, and what we know about these under historic, current, and future applications. The accompanying flow-chart summarizes the five stages of the proposed critical analysis having a total of 10 steps. There are also three moments, where critical decisions should be made before going to the subsequent steps.

Once we select an eco-solution for analysis [Stage 1: Step 1], it is important that a quick review of available information is done [Stage 1: Step 2]. Such rapid assessment gives us a justification to proceed and analyse this solution in detail.

We then need to put the eco-solution in the climate change context [Stage 2: Steps 3 & 4] — what problems or issues this ingenious solution is supposed to address. To understand the ground reality, a thorough analysis needs to be done on the direct and indirect impacts of climate change in the location in question, from the social, economic, and environmental perspectives. Besides, the direct costs, benefits and opportunities we need to consider these from the climate change perspective as well.

Once we understand the context of the problem, it’s time to analyze the eco-solution itself. First, we need to analyze the direct and indirect costs and benefits of the eco-solution [Stage 3: Step 5]. We also need to detail out the opportunities the solution creates and/or denies. All these analyses need to be done, once again, keeping in mind three dimensions — social, economic, and environmental.

Second, we need to analyze how enabling the system is in which the eco-solution is being implemented [Stage 3: Step 6]. We not only need to look into the technical sustainability of the solution, but also the financial, implementation, policy and legal needs; its scaling up potentials; diversity, interest, and the power of stakeholders involved; and pertinent funding and policy opportunities.

It is quite possible that not all information needed for the last two steps are readily available [Stage 3: Step 7]. So, after collecting necessary additional data and information, we may need to go back to the cost-benefit and enabling environment analyses [Stage 3: Steps 5 & 6] and revise them based upon what we have learned.

Following this detailed analysis of the eco-solution, we now need to identify and prioritise the most convincing arguments that could support this ingenious solution as opposed to other options available, often non-natural or grey, solutions [Stage 3: Step 8]. Such arguments are essentially the ‘selling points’ of the said eco-solution to the stakeholders for scaling up.

But, before we finalize the ‘business case’ and take it to the stakeholders, it is critical to validate our assessment with the communities who have been implementing this eco-solution and benefit from it [Stage 4: Step 9]. By using suitable participatory tools, we aim to get their feedback on the analyses done so far and refine the ‘business case’, particularly its selling points and the evidences for these.

Finally, we need to develop an action plan for scaling up to mainstream the eco-solution in question. We need to put together all the evidence and selling points and format the business case targeting specific audiences [Stage 5: Step 10], recognizing that the same argument is unlikely to succeed with different audiences.

This ‘Business Case Framework’ has recently been tested with three different eco-solutions — community-based mangrove conservation on the west coast of Sri Lanka by SLYCAN Trust, river-bank stabilization to protect from flash flood in the south of Nepal by RECOFTC, and piloting of bio-dyke for flood control in southern Nepal by Practical Action. Through thorough analyses, all cases capture strengths as well as challenges in implementing and scaling up these eco-solutions. The evidence gathered helps to articulate strong selling points for each ingenious eco-solution.

The RECOFTC’s case study shows how the live “bamboo wall’ generated multiple benefits to the environment as well as to the flood-vulnerable society. The case study by SLYCAN Trust shows why communities, policy-makers, donors, and investors should recognize mangrove protection as a good investment. Practical Action’s case study, on the other hand, highlights the replication potential of bio-dykes as they survived multiple floods, while providing social, economic and environmental benefits.

Although described for eco-solutions, the proposed ‘Business Case Framework’ is expected to be useful for analyzing any ingenious solutions aimed at build community resilience against climate change and disaster risks.

With increasing emphasis on nature-based approaches in climate discourse, it is important that we assess the effectiveness of the proposed solutions from multiple dimensions. We welcome all to join and test Practical Action’s ‘business case framework’. Please don’t hesitate to contact us for further information.

This is the third in a series of blogs that was launched on 22 May 2020: International Day of Biological Diversity. You can read the first entry here and the second here.

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