Only a few hundred think tanks existed at the time of the first UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. They were largely limited to North America and Western Europe and tended to emphasize national security, economics or both.

Fifty years later, there are several thousand think tanks all over the world, covering a wide variety of issues. Many now consider environment and development challenges much more prominently within their missions and mandates and were undoubtedly inspired by the messages that emerged from the 1972 Stockholm Conference.

As we mark the anniversary of the first time that the world came together to discuss the human environment in Stockholm, we reflect here on the complex interfaces between environment and development and between science and policy. We look within and across our own institute as well as to other think tanks operating in this space, and consider the deep societal transformations needed for climate resilience and sustainable development.

Two-part mission, now one?

Like many think tanks, SEI aims for its research to be policy relevant and impactful, while promoting rigorous independence among its researchers. That independence has arguably helped to strengthen research dimensions around democracy and human rights, in addition to sustainability.

During the past decade or so, SEI has been consistently ranked among the top environmental think tanks in the world by the University of Pennsylvania Think Tanks and Civil Society Program. Despite its environmental reputation, SEI has always viewed environment and development issues as inextricably linked, in line with the views in the 1987 Brundtland report on environment and development and as inspired by the 1972 Stockholm Conference from which SEI takes its name.

SEIs integrated approach implicitly recognizes the relationship between inequality and environmental degradation, which is reflected in research topics that have been in focus at SEI since its founding, such as energy access, sustainable use of land and biomass, and the agency of poor households in developing countries.

More generally, SEI has always had a strong focus on the Global South, through its structures and research programmes, and especially through the three regional centres established during the past two decades in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Despite this emphasis, SEI’s development-oriented research on fundamental issues such as poverty alleviation and climate vulnerability has received somewhat less attention than the environmental side of the research programmes.

Looking inward

Last year, a small cross-centre team of SEI researchers conducted a series of analyses and interviews to reflect on the development side of SEI’s mission, with exercises aimed to characterize it from both an internal and an external perspective. Not only did they look at the work and capacity of the institute, but also examined how SEI was viewed externally and how it differed from other think tanks working in a similar space.

From an internal perspective, a few characteristics were notable. First, SEI research staff are highly interdisciplinary, whereas many development-oriented think tanks tend to have a greater share of staff with backgrounds in economics or finance. The interdisciplinary orientation and greater geographical diversity of SEI staff in recent years has contributed to the increasingly cross-cutting approaches taken in SEI work programmes and a greater emphasis on the Global South.

Second, the record of SEI projects and publications increasingly emphasizes development-oriented topics such as adaptation and agriculture. These issues have been receiving more attention in countries of the Global North as well as the Global South, which is consistent with the notion that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are universally applicable.

Third, the team mapped SEI projects according to environment/development dimensions and science/policy dimensions (Figure 1) at the SEI centres in the Global South. Although the result was helpful for analysing project portfolios, staff showed a reluctance to separate environment and development dimensions, in terms of the overall approaches taken. This result seemed to be attributable to the highly interdisciplinary orientation of both staff and the SEI project portfolios.

Graphic of SEI work on Environment-Development axes

Figure 1. Mapping of environment, development, science, and policy dimensions. Note that the axes point inwards, consistent with SEI aims to bridge science and policy in the field of environment and development. Graphic: SEI.

The team then made comparisons with other think tanks and explored external perceptions through comparative data analysis, social media scans and interviews. These exercises showed greater recognition of SEI’s environmental policy work compared to development-oriented work. A social media scan showed the predominance of climate change among SEI topics and followers, whereas development-oriented institutes emphasized human rights and international development.

Think tanks, advocacy and shaping policy

When the SEI team analysed the development dimensions of work done at think tanks more generally, including SEI, they found four main research approaches or emphases: development cooperation, development metrics, field studies and action-oriented research.

Quadrants of environment-development

Figure 2. A depiction of development work with respect to scale/focus and motivations. Graphic: Matthew Osborne / SEI.

Below is a brief description of the four quadrants:

  • Development cooperation research considers the efficacy and/or effectiveness of development cooperation programmes, policies or projects.
  • Development metrics includes analysing relationships among key indicators and measures across different levels, time frames and socio-economic groups.
  • Development studies includes on-the-ground research gathering quantitative and qualitative information that cannot be obtained from published information or data sets.
  • Action-oriented research is less objective than the other categories and is more embedded in a community or a body of knowledge and may sometimes be seen as a form of advocacy.

Action-oriented research can blur the line between research and advocacy. Certain think tanks avoid it because of a concern it would compromise neutrality on policy issues, but some embrace it. While SEI tends to avoid advocacy, some of the institute’s work could certainly be labelled as action-oriented, usually when equity and diversity issues are involved.

Unlike many development-oriented think tanks, SEI tends not to focus on evaluating specific development cooperation policies. However, SEI recently created a team that will focus more on Development and Aid Policy. Furthermore, SEI Africa, Asia and Latin America engage in development cooperation policies within the broader context of sustainable development at local, national and regional levels.

Looking forward

A fundamental question faces SEI and many think tanks: how do we now move forward with a paradigm that captures the inherent complexity and multi-dimensionality of environment and development issues?

At the time of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the field of ecological economics was only just emerging. Inspired by these new challenges to traditional economic thinking, environment and development practitioners in the 1980s and 1990s adopted the notion of sustainable development with its social, environmental and economic pillars. Concepts of social-ecological resilience were later thought to be more holistic and appealing.

Recognition has also been increasing as to the importance of behaviour and choice in understanding the agency of all actors in development processes. Meanwhile, on the ecological side, there has been a resurgence of interest in the transformational value of a circular bioeconomy, elements of which had been championed even before the Stockholm Conference. SEI has aimed to incorporate these cross-cutting approaches into its research programmes.

Finally, the recognition that researchers must work more closely with a wider range of actors to effectively co-produce research results has led to the prominence of transdisciplinary approaches to complexity, action-oriented methods such as citizen science, and other efforts to promote transformational sustainability science. It is here that SEI hopes to work with a wider range of partners in the coming years, in looking for transformational rather than incremental solutions for environment and development challenges.

Deep societal transformation may have been the original goal of many at the first Stockholm meeting 50 years ago. Policymakers and researchers have worked since then to link physical and human systems accordingly – moving beyond the simpler human environment view to see fundamental environmental challenges as also being development challenges and vice versa.

We have not yet managed to translate this integrated and holistic view of societal transformation into tangible actions at the scale and scope at which they are needed. Stockholm+50 is an opportunity to remind ourselves where it all started and to reflect on the scientific guidance needed in the coming decades, while also recalling that broader view that was launched 50 years ago: Only One Earth , interconnected.