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Pathways to impact

SEI’s impact is sometimes direct and clear – such as when a study reveals game-changing findings, or when researchers build a model or tool that a government uses to make policy. At other times our impact is long-term, time lagged and diffuse. Our work can be among many influences that result in an impact, which can make influence difficult to measure. Improvements in governance, changed norms and behaviour, and technological innovation are all built on the numerous and sustained efforts of many actors.

SEI’s theory of change focuses on outcomes. We plan, implement, and follow-up on three types of outcome: changing agendas, enhancing capacities and improving decisions. We also work with a clear and traceable pathway to impact that elaborates the type and significance of SEI’s contribution.

We design our projects and initiatives through the lens of this overall theory to articulate an intended pathway and outcome, including how planned activities and outputs build up toward an outcome. This allows us to more easily monitor progress, report results, and learn from our activities.

3.1 Outcomes

SEI works to reduce climate risk, promote sustainable resource use and resilient ecosystems, and improve health and well-being through three main types of outcome:

Changing agendas: where SEI’s work results in changes in formal and informal policy agendas and international agreements or treaties, and increases awareness and influences attitudes, perceptions and norms at different levels.

Enhancing capacities: where SEI’s work results in strengthened organizational capacity (e.g. to carry out planning and analysis), empowered stakeholders, new networks and coalitions, strengthened institutions, as well as improved, more holistic and inclusive decision-making or planning processes for different actors at different levels.

Improving decisions: where SEI’s work supports or changes decisions, decision-making processes, practices, strategies and planning among actors in public policy, finance, business, and resource management.

Our work leads to changes in action and practice – outcomes – that drive progress in development, for example in government spending (e.g. to support rural renewable electrification, or to support charging stations for electric vehicles); in household or individual behaviour and choice (e.g. consumption, travel behaviour, lifestyle choices); in organizational practices and routines (e.g. procurement or purchasing, investments, finance allocation); building of new firms, products or production chains (e.g. the start of a new company, a pilot plant, a clean technology; or on-the-ground implementation of a policy or development plan (e.g. dissemination and use of new cookstove technologies, or the application of climate-resilient planning).

Our theory of change sets out a clear and traceable pathway to impact.
Our enablers lead to outputs and outcomes, which lead to impacts; all of which is underpinned by our people and culture. Enablers: qualified, engaged colleagues; lasting partnerships; effective communications; resilient, diverse finances; innovative spaces; monitoring and learning; and quality assurance systems. Outputs: networks; tools and platforms, scientific production; co-production processes; policy and practitioners engagement; training and education; communication products. Outcomes: changing agendas; improving decisions; enhancing capacities. Impacts: reduced climate risk; sustainable resource use and resilient ecosystems; improved health and well-being.
Our theory of change sets out a clear and traceable pathway to impact.
Our enablers lead to outputs and outcomes, which lead to impacts; all of which is underpinned by our people and culture. Enablers: qualified, engaged colleagues; lasting partnerships; effective communications; resilient, diverse finances; innovative spaces; monitoring and learning; and quality assurance systems. Outputs: networks; tools and platforms, scientific production; co-production processes; policy and practitioners engagement; training and education; communication products. Outcomes: changing agendas; improving decisions; enhancing capacities. Impacts: reduced climate risk; sustainable resource use and resilient ecosystems; improved health and well-being.

3.2 Research and engagement

SEI’s research and engagement supply and apply contextualized, useable knowledge to – and with – a wide range of partners (see list below).

Investigation, interpretation and deepening our understanding of complex problems is at the core of our approach. Our projects typically produce integrated knowledge that is decision-oriented and tailored to the context and needs of users.

The knowledge we generate is typically anchored in scientific research within many different disciplines and might involve a specific output (such as a publication, a finding, a recommendation) to be taken forward in a decision-making context. We often build engagement into research, through methods such as citizen science or participatory scenario development, co-production processes and workshops and dialogues of different types, as well as through tools and platforms that users can work with independently. We see engagement with policy and practice as an activity in its own right. To empower stakeholders, we often engage in or build networks and carry out training.

Uptake of knowledge requires different formats depending on context and audience – for example scientific and other publications, digital channels and platforms, and workshops and meetings of different types. We complement our tools and research outputs with narratives and visualizations, which make results come alive and enable interactive testing, and scientific synthesis, to help stakeholders navigate complex issues and get an overview of available knowledge at critical decision points.

There are many pathways to achieving outcomes, and many partners that enact them. We engage with a broad range of partners who are important change agents for sustainable development and expect to broaden it further. While public policy at international and national levels is key, businesses, including financial services, are also increasingly preparing for and investing in sustainable solutions, technologies and business models.

Our partners span all levels of governance, from global level decision-making to national, subnational and household levels. They include:

  • international institutions and convention bodies
  • public policymakers, analysts and civil servants
  • experts and researchers in think tanks and academia
  • business leaders and strategists
  • local and regional planners
  • community organizations and other civil society organizations, and
  • households.

3.3 Strategic focus in 2020–24

SEI tools

SEI develops tools to support partners, decision-makers, practitioners and other stakeholders to better understand issues and make more informed decisions. These tools comprise various desktop or web-based data systems that create, integrate, and disseminate knowledge across a range of sustainable development topics. We see such tools as indispensable for empowering people to make their own decisions.

That’s why users are at the centre of our approach to tools: we strive to understand their needs and design and tailor the tools to meet them, as well as provide training to ensure users can confidently and effectively use them. Our tools portfolio enables users to perform their own analyses, answer policy questions, advocate for equitable treatment, and more. We combine tool delivery with training, workshops, and other capacity building activities, which provide opportunities for knowledge exchange, discussion and learning among stakeholders.

SEI tools present information that would otherwise be unseen, simulate scenarios, and help build stronger networks within and between groups of actors. They can also provide common ground for actors to reach an understanding around an issue and work together. Our tools fall into five different categories, each serving decision-makers and practitioners at different levels of governance and practice. These categories are:

  • decision support tools
  • modelling and simulation tools
  • heuristic and interactive tools
  • stakeholder-driven process and guidance tools, and
  • collaborative data platforms.

Ensuring our tools are widely accessible is also central to our approach: they can often be used with little or no direct engagement with the Institute. This is a key reason for their far-reaching impact.

During the strategy period, an important focus will be to bring complementary tools together to provide holistic solutions for users, and to scale and tailor others to bring them to new audiences. Drawing on new advances in data science, we will also invest in and develop new tools to address sustainable development challenges and decision problems at different scales.

To further develop our tools, we will:

  • Improve knowledge management and build competence by developing tool descriptions and training materials.
  • Leverage adequate funding throughout the tool development life cycle (design, prototyping, deployment, maintenance, support and retirement) including through licensing solutions.
  • Make our tools open access and free-of-charge for users in developing countries.
  • Assure quality through peer review and software quality management.
  • Enhance follow up and monitoring on tool usage, user experience and impact.
  • Improve design and usability.
  • Further invest in capacity-building for tool users (e.g. workshops and training).
Photo: Ruben Earth / Getty Images.

SEI Initiatives, 2020–24

SEI Initiatives are programmatic hubs of scientific research, policy engagement and capacity development that mobilize researchers and expertise from across the Institute. They do not represent the full repertoire of SEI work, but issues where we think we can make unique integrative contributions.

With the initiatives, we strive for innovative and high-quality science that effectively and practically supports changes in agendas, capacities and decisions for sustainable development that are of universal relevance, from low- to high-income countries. They build on legacy strengths of the institute. The following initiataives will be up and running in 2020.

Gender Equality, Social Equity and Poverty

Gender, poverty and various forms of inequality – in assets, voice, access and knowledge – are both drivers of and outcomes of environmental change, and as such are central to SEI’s work. We will embed these issues in our research, policy engagement and portfolio of tools. Through new research, we will examine the conditions of disadvantaged groups at the nexus of gender inequality, poverty and environmental problems, and identify their cross-scale drivers.

Bioeconomy Pathways

As the world moves from a fossil-fuel based economy to a bioeconomy, there is a need for new knowledge on how to govern this transition. This initiative carries out assessments, case studies and science-based policy dialogues in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America to advance emerging bioeconomy strategies. It helps to develop value-added products, processes, and value chains based on bioresources that will contribute to reducing fossil fuel dependence and poverty, as well as support rural development.

Water Beyond Boundaries

The current water management paradigm is falling short in efforts to ensure enough water for people, cities, agriculture and ecosystems. This initiative aims to reorient the water agenda and introduce three new pillars – on water teleconnections, on ecosystem functions, and on stakeholder participation – to expand and develop current approaches to water management so that it is more comprehensive efficient and equitable. The new approach will be developed and tested in in, for example, California, Colombia and the Mekong Basin.

City Health and Well-being

Rapid urbanization presents growing challenges to creating healthy, liveable, sustainable, and equitable cities. This initiative investigates how rapidly growing cities are affecting the well-being of residents, and how this interacts with the overall health of city systems. It works in partnership with stakeholders in two case study cities – Udon Thani in Thailand and Nakuru in Kenya – using experiences and methods from long-standing work in Europe. We co-create new knowledge through participatory mapping and surveys with local citizens and decision-makers – knowledge that will underpin informed choices for improving the urban environment and which can also be applied in other rapidly changing cities around the world. Insights from work will be scaled up to national and international levels.

Integrated Climate and Development Planning

While it is broadly understood that the intertwined objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) require integrated planning responses, countries are struggling to make these a reality. This Initiative enables integrated national planning for SDGs and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), particularly in low and middle-income countries. It aims to increase the ambition and viability of national climate and development plans by conducting research, extending SEI’s planning tools and models, and enhancing capacity in partner countries.

Tackling Carbon Lock-in

Due to political and institutional barriers, the fossil-fuel economy is still expanding, and global carbon emissions are still increasing, despite international political agreements and efforts towards emissions reductions. This initiative seeks to uncover and address the interwoven barriers that uphold the fossil fuel-based economy, and how they persist and how they can be unlocked. Through research, policy engagement and communications, we will identify agendas and policy opportunities to break carbon lock-in, in order to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels in jurisdictions around the world and at the international level of governance.

Gridless Solutions

Small-scale, decentralized and modular technologies can play a key role for providing basic services such as energy, sanitation and fresh water, especially when access to physical infrastructure is constrained. But deployment of these “gridless” technologies is currently limited by, for example, a lack of regulations and standards, access to financing, and workable business models. This initiative will examine dimensions such as market set-ups, costs and benefits, and life cycle sustainability for deployment of gridless technologies to accelerate progress towards climate and Sustainable Development Goals.

Mapping SEI Initiatives onto our impact areas

Table 1 illustrates how the new SEI initiatives will contribute to different topics under our overarching impact areas. It also illustrates our aim to mainstream gender, social equality and poverty perspectives across all our work.

Our initiatives (listed above) and impact areas (described in part 2 of the strategy) map together.

Global policy engagement

SEI engages with policy and practice at all levels. Over the strategy period we will also ramp up support and engagement at the global level, being closer to and proactive in different governance processes and providing science-based knowledge support. In particular, we will focus on the following agendas:

2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals

The timeframe of this strategy is aligned with the zenith of the 2030 Agenda, and SEI will prioritize engagement that leads to progress on the SDGs and contribute to their follow up with the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). We will build on our partnerships and known strengths and niches, such as SDG synergies and policy coherence.

Global climate governance

SEI will continue long-standing engagements in key international forums such as the UNFCCC, Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), and advance the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework, including by informing long-term climate strategies, nationally determined contributions, adaptation planning, and contributing to global assessments such as the IPCC.

Financing for sustainable development

SEI will engage with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on development finance, assessing progress and supporting the scaling up and speeding up of sustainable finance practices. We will support international financial actors such as the Green Climate Fund (GCF) in monitoring and evaluating projects and programmes and refining policies and institutional architecture.

Biodiversity and ecosystems agenda

SEI will engage with the post-2020 framework of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). We will work with partner organizations and participate in science-policy processes, including assessments carried out by IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and IPCC, to help strengthen the evidence base, including on impacts on biodiversity from unsustainable production and consumption.

Ocean agenda

SEI will initiate a more concerted contribution to building up international ocean governance – a so far relatively neglected area in science and policy. We will contribute to the UN’s Our Ocean conferences and the Ocean Pathway initiative, with knowledge support in areas such as source-to-sea pollution (in particular from nutrients, plastics and chemicals), the “blue” economy and associated financing strategies, and disaster risk reduction.

Making an impact at all levels

In addition to these global engagements, SEI will continue to work at all levels of governance. For example, at the local level with community governance and city administrations such as the City of Nairobi (Kenya), Umeå Municipality (Sweden) and Chindwin River Basin Organization (Myanmar).

At the national level, we will continue our long-standing support for and engagement with, for example, ministries, departments and agencies for the environment, energy, water resources, and planning and investment.

At the regional level, we will deepen our engagement with regional political and economic cooperation bodies such as the European Union and its institutions, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, the East African Commission, and the Nordic Council. At the regional level we will continue to work with regional UN bodies such as UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.