Our origins and who we are today

As part of the strategy process, we have revisited and clarified our mandate, principles and core values. These guide us as we set out to deliver real impact in a changing world over the coming years.

Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) was founded in 1989 and is named after the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 (see box below). We look to this declaration as the origin of our mandate, and we fulfil that mandate through research and engagement.

SEI is a research institute that covers a wide range of knowledge-related activities. Our researchers carry out scientific studies and assessments, produce transdisciplinary knowledge, develop software tools, build networks, engage with policy and decision making, conduct training, and much more.

SEI’s mission, which has been in place since the late 1990s, is more relevant than ever and we remain committed to our role as a bridging organization.1

SEI focuses on environmental dimensions of human development and well-being and, as set out in our Statutes, aims to contribute to better living conditions around the world, including for poor and vulnerable groups, through better “policies, technologies and related management techniques and strategies for an environmentally sustainable development of society”.

SEI sees that poverty and environment are interconnected and need to be addressed together. People in poverty are usually the most vulnerable to the effects of land-use change, environmental pollution and climate change. And in some contexts, poverty contributes to environmental degradation, because where people lack knowledge, resources and basic services they can over-exploit the local environment on which they depend.

All SEI’s work recognizes the connection between development and the environment, and our mandate and focus remain on the environmental dimensions of sustainable development. We are investing to ensure that gender equality, social equity and poverty are integrated across our research and engagement.

Photo: Matthew Osborne / SEI, Flickr.

SEI’s knowledge is based on science. We produce scientific publications, including peer reviewed articles in high-impact scientific and practice-oriented journals. Our credibility and trustworthiness as an independent partner are central to our identity, and we invest in long-term partnerships with selected universities.

We collect data through original applied research, conduct synthesis and assessment, and analyse evidence to solve problems and address policy agendas, without pre-set positions. The issues we address tend to be complex, with difficult trade-offs that need systematic and balanced consideration. In doing so we take a systems perspective – we focus on the whole picture and combine complementary skill sets from different disciplines.

SEI has a trust-based organizational culture, and our people breathe life into and carry out our mission. We put high levels of confidence in our colleagues around the world, which enables SEI researchers to innovate, take initiative, and engage with key arenas of decision making.

SEI is innovative and adaptive in order to respond to new challenges. We cross-fertilize research areas and competences to develop new tools and approaches. Creative and networked researchers develop our research agenda, and we set up structures (“innovative spaces”), to enable and incentivize innovation and connect them to our project delivery model.

SEI is responsive. Knowledge on its own is rarely enough to induce change; solutions need to be grounded in and responsive to context. Our Headquarters and centres (see Section 1.2). enable us to engage in regional, national and local policy processes where there is potential for change, and to connect these to global policy agendas (see Section 3.3). Nearly all our projects either work with decision makers in a very involved way or supply them with targeted and relevant knowledge derived from projects. We seek to take advantage of windows of opportunity and ensure that insights can be applied in practice by decision makers, whether in regional assemblies, government offices, or rural households and communities.

SEI is solution-oriented and designs its projects to take advantage of opportunities to address and mitigate challenges and empower the right actors. We recognize that visions of “global transformations” must be broken down into meaningful and actionable parts, focusing on concrete levers for change in the here and now, and at the appropriate levels of decision making.

Engaged science, applied knowledge, empowered people
Engaged science leads to applied knowledge; applied knowledge leads to empowered people; empowered people leads to engaged science.

SEI projects are carried out in partnership with other organizations. Through our centres spread across five continents (see Section 1.2) we build long-term relationships with policymakers and other stakeholders and establish global knowledge networks. We provide knowledge that helps connect the dots between actors in different spheres who do not normally interact. We develop knowledge networks and partners’ capacity to respond to challenges, reducing their vulnerability and assisting them with context-specific knowledge that meets their needs. Our focus is on building trust, empowerment, and working with partners to co-create knowledge – an approach that is more likely to result in ownership of results and sustained action.

We work with a range of partner groups, described below.

Institutional funders, project funders, and clients

Our funders highlight new agendas and policy issues, provide financial support, and allow us to road-test ideas and get feedback. We partner with them by identifying knowledge frontiers, providing scientific approaches to their problems, and delivering outputs and results that are accessible and actionable. Often, we have a close and ongoing dialogue with these partners, but we also operate at arm’s length, such as when we seek competitive research grants to develop scientific groundwork for engagement with policy and practice.

Institutes, think tanks, and academia

We partner with other knowledge-providers for multiple reasons: to access expertise, to ensure our research is firmly grounded by consulting with local and regional research partners, and to create alliances for achieving greater impact on policy and practice. Long-term university partners include the University of los Andes, Chulalongkorn University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the University of Nairobi, Stockholm University, Tufts University and the University of York. SEI contributes to several communities of practice, including the scientific community, through conferences, publications and peer review; communities of science-policy interaction, through participating in assessments; and the think tank community, through actionable policy ideas and advice.

Beneficiaries in public policy, business, planning, civil society, and communities

We partner with decision makers, officers and analysts that are the intended users of and audiences for our work. Increasingly, these actors are not just target audiences at the end of a research activity or stakeholders that we consult, but are instead engaged right from the outset, often as project partners (see Section 3 on our theory of change). They partner with us to access new knowledge and solutions supported by research evidence, and to apply our tools and disseminate our knowledge.

1.1 The world around us

In 2015, when SEI’s previous strategy was put in motion, sustainable development was at the centre of the international policy agenda and significant achievements were made in establishing the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, and the Sendai Framework.

In the years since, progress on sustainable development has arguably become more difficult at the international level. National self-interest has become a blatant driver in international negotiations. Authoritarian regimes and populism are gaining ground in both lower and higher-income countries. Distrust in science has become a major issue, and the negative trend is being amplified by populist world leaders. These trends are putting the international collaborative system at risk and triggering a new landscape of risk and risk amplifiers. Our multilateral systems are having difficulty adapting to this new world order, which includes rapid shifts in power relations between the large countries. Emerging economies such as China and India continue to grow in importance in geopolitical and environmental terms, and in terms of technology leadership. The European Union aspires to a leadership role but struggles to reach unanimous support for this internally.

Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions have kept rising. The IPCC’s report Global Warming of 1.5°C highlighted the likelihood of global warming reaching 1.5°C – and the irreversible impacts that could occur with it. It also emphasized how much more significant the impacts would be if warming reaches 2°C.

We are already experiencing a warming world, and it is clear we need to prepare for even more serious impacts. And other environmental challenges have also become more severe, such as the pollution of the ocean and deforestation, and a range of problems connected with rapid urbanization. These developments shape this strategy and its areas of impact.

Growing momentum

At the same time, there is a growing momentum for urgent climate action, not least in parts of the private sector and civil society. There are clear signs of a generational norm shift through social mobilization and youth engagement. There is also increasing buy-in for the 2030 Agenda, solutions to environmental problems are appearing across all sectors, an energy transition is underway, and, in many places, there is progress on reducing poverty.

SEI will continue to play an active role in defining – and defending – the norms, rules and institutions that underpin global sustainable development, and with the universal values that they are built upon – of human rights, non-discrimination, justice, freedom of expression and equality, and recognition of inherent human dignity. These institutions were established not only for sustainable development but also to safeguard against the kind of military, political or economic powerplays that the past few years have witnessed. And we will continue to provide knowledge to support these institutions as they evolve and adopt new agendas. Meanwhile, a deeper engagement with partners on security issues is key to addressing how sustainable development affects – and is affected by – the new geopolitics.

Photo: Ariel Skelley / Getty Images.

Quality, integrity and independence

The provision of unbiased evidence and analysis to policymakers and other key target groups is more important than ever and underscores the need for SEI to safeguard and uphold its quality, integrity and independence. It requires openness to tackle growing mistrust in science. We will continue to explore ways to make our research even more accessible, relevant and easy to use for our audiences and partners. Beyond that, we will review how we can build on open science concepts to further enhance our participatory and co-creative approaches and models for engagement, and support efforts in lower income countries to develop research capacity.

Knowledge revolution

In parallel, there is an ongoing revolution in the globalization of knowledge. New advances in communications technology mean we can now reach audiences rapidly and with precision, but these advances are also shaping politics, political discourse and decision making. Data science and technologies are also pushing the fast-moving scientific frontier for harnessing online data for research purposes. This creates new risks and opportunities for sustainable development but may also widen the gap in the pace of development between those at the forefront of digital technology and those that lack such capacity. In response, it’s vital that we continue to build expertise in data science and data-driven methods and explore collaboration with holders of big data, and invest further in digital, interactive communications. Through, for example, our platform and work on systematic reviews, we have begun to unlock the potential of data science for sustainability.

These and other megatrends will shape the conditions for action and decision-making for sustainable development. With innovation, responsiveness and dynamic colleagues, SEI can be confident of adapting to a changing world.

1.2 Our centres

SEI's distributed structure captures much of what makes SEI effective and is a founding element of our delivery model and identity.

1989: SEI Headquaters (Stockholm, Sweden), SEI York (York, UK), SEI US (California, Massachusetts and Washington State, USA). 1992: SEI Tallinn (Tallinn, Estonia). 2002: SEI Oxford (Oxford, UK). 2004: SEI Asia (Bangkok, Thailand). 2008: SEI Africa (Nairobi, Kenya). 2018: SEI Latin America (Bogotá, Colombia).

Our centres ground us in local realities, ensure that we are responding to the right agendas, and create opportunities for partnerships and long-term engagement. We aim to add value to regional research, policy and practice, including by connecting to the worldwide research community and conducting comparative research between regions. We recruit staff with deep expertise in the regions where our centres are based and contribute actively to local and regional capacity development.

The centres are located on five continents, in Latin America, East Africa, North America (US), Western and Central-Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. This unique centre structure also enables North-South, South-South and South-North learning. Crucially, the work of the centres builds on and connects to SEI’s expertise globally.

Through the centres we add value to regional policy and practice, for example by connecting it to global processes and conducting comparative research between regions. SEI centres have agreements with universities in host countries and cities (see Section 1). These partnerships provide access to a wider global knowledge community, which we draw on to cover the breadth of our agenda.

SEI’s research agendas in different regions start from our overarching impact areas described in Section 2 of this strategy, but activities are also tailored to specific regional sustainability challenges. These are articulated in the centres’ strategic plans and annual work plans.

While our centres act as regional anchors, SEI is active across all the main continents of the world. Where we work is determined by the challenges faced, the partnerships that are viable, the demand for our work, and what added value SEI can bring.