Scientists and policymakers agree that what humankind does – or does not do – over the coming five to ten years will define the conditions for sustainable development for decades to come. The world needs bold political decisions, as well as changes in business practices, resource management and consumer behaviour. None of these will come easy, and they face huge barriers – institutional, social, cultural, economic – as well as a lack of robust, relevant and applicable knowledge. We have prepared this strategy for 2020–24 to make us ready and able to make a marked contribution in the years ahead to the changes needed in how human society governs and interacts with the environment.

Photo: DoctorEgg / Getty Images.

The first part of the strategy is about who we are and what we stand for, and how we interpret the changing world around us. SEI operates in a fast-changing context, facing massive ongoing shifts in national and international politics, social norms and technologies. Many of these shifts have in recent years made it more difficult to carry out our mission. The rise of nationalism and populism is becoming a barrier to multilateral cooperation. Public distrust in science is on full display around the world. We need to respond and adapt to this new reality. At the same time, we must declare our origins and our identity and values. These include a deep commitment to human rights, to our partnerships, to research excellence, and to independence and integrity in our work.

The second part is about what it is that we are aspiring to change. Drawing on key policy declarations and our own assessment of challenges, we have chosen to target three major areas: reduced climate risk, sustainable resource use and resilient ecosystems, and improved health and well-being. Within each area, the strategy describes specific changes that we will pursue. Some of our efforts build on spheres of work where SEI has a strong legacy and already made a lasting difference, but where challenges remain; others present new opportunities and challenges.

The third part is about how we make change happen. Delivering results requires a clear understanding of what different pathways to impact SEI can effectively pursue. We are now working with an updated theory of change at the organizational level. It describes how we address the lack of access to useable, actionable and relevant knowledge for sustainable development; that is, with excellent research that engages with the right questions and the right partnerships. The knowledge is co-created, and applied and taken up through tools, workshops, scientific publications, training, and networking efforts, and communicated in relevant and innovative formats. This generates outcomes by changing agendas, enhancing capacities, and improving decision-making in different spheres of governance. This way of working is not new for SEI. What is new in this strategy is its articulation as a theory of change, and its use as a framework for our planning, operations, results and follow-up.

The fourth and final part describes the operations behind our delivery – including our people and culture, our organization, and some key processes and policies that guide us. Our operational style puts a premium on effectiveness, trust, accountability, and innovation and learning. We also set ourselves a high bar in terms of ethical practice, codes of conduct and environmental impact, and we are increasing our ambitions for knowledge management, applying a new generation of systems as well as paving the way for open and productive interactions among SEI’s people and beyond.

The strategy does not fundamentally change SEI – we remain committed to the notion that enhanced capacities and research-based knowledge remain necessary ingredients for change in relevant institutions and processes. This strategy builds on the 30 years of experience gained since SEI’s inception in 1989, and will keep us focused by setting priorities and providing a framework for planning and assessing progress. Through it, SEI will become more effective in supporting change and setting the right conditions for global sustainability, in the 2020s and beyond.

Måns Nilsson