Systems change and innovation? Insights from Melanie Ryan

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16 January 2024

Melanie Ryan, CEO of Unearthodox, leads our global team in tackling conservation challenges through innovative and collaborative approaches rooted in her background in systems thinking and collaborative design. Formerly Director at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, she championed collaborations with entities like the UN and WWF, emphasising inclusivity and systemic change in conservation. In this insight piece on Unearthodox’s recently launched report on scaling innovation, she invites readers to reflect on these findings, urging us to dive further into the concept of 'scaling deep' – exploring the roots of conservation challenges. Stressing the possibilities of innovation for systems change, Melanie emphasises the need to go deeper, wider and bolder in our efforts.

Those in the not-for-profit sector, including environmental and conservation-related fields, are not immune to the complexities and challenges of our ever-evolving world. Increasingly we have all been grappling with a question that has lingered at the edges of our collective consciousness: How can we bring about deep, long-term sustainable and just change for nature and people everywhere?

Our newest publication, “Scaling conservation innovation: the role of incubators and accelerators” by Cristina Chaminade, is not just a report; it's a humble inquiry and invitation to explore the wider ecosystem of similar or like-minded organisations working to address these questions. If we are able to let go of our egos and learn from each other, we can find resonance with many others in the conservation community and beyond about why we do what we do and the gaps and opportunities we aim to fill in the sector. We also have the responsibility to continually try to do better. 

The challenge of scaling impact

The report delves into the theme of scaling innovation, a challenge presented to us by various stakeholders over the years. In fact, on several occasions, it has been suggested to me that innovation cannot bring about deep systems change.  This is usually accompanied by what is, in my opinion, a very narrow view of innovation. Through this exploration, we also look at how the lenses of systems change, scaling and innovation can be brought together to rethink how we co-create and build innovation-enabling organisations and ecosystems of organisations.

Within our own organisation, we are asking how we, with the privilege of over a decade of experience (first at the Luc Hoffmann Institute and now as Unearthodox), can magnify our impact. For us, scaling innovation goes beyond the conventional idea of replication. It's about nuanced approaches – scaling deep, scaling out and scaling up.

Our purpose at Unearthodox is to ensure that innovation is positioned towards long-term, systemic change. What does this mean? It requires unlocking, rethinking and changing our habits and structures related to values, culture, norms, power and relationships and finding alternative ways to live our lives on this beautiful planet. We are committed to finding ways for more people to be connected globally to  shape, design and then re-localise changes in societies in as many places as possible. We can’t do this alone; no one can. We believe that without this collective action, we risk engaging in fragmented efforts across the globe. While we may not have all the perfect answers, we remain focused on our niche, continually exploring how to contribute to scaling deep for long-term systems change and the catalytic role that innovation can play in this.

Scaling deep: a call for transformative change

The concept of scaling deep holds particular significance in the conservation sector. It calls for a deep understanding, taking another look at root problems and challenging the status quo. It also means that we, as part of the world, must also challenge our own mindsets (and ‘heart-sets’) and contributions. There is no ‘system’ out there. No, it is in here, within us all. We are part of it. The urgent need to depart from conventional foundations is paramount, and at Unearthodox, we are actively engaging in conversations about how to drive this deep, systemic change within the conservation space. We can’t shy away from the work required to address worldwide conversations around justice, nature, de-colonisation, gender dynamics, global flows of power and finance and our own history, positions and work to be done. These things are crucial in unlocking new spaces of thought, problem framings, innovation pipelines and alternatives for each of our communities and relationships. 

At Unearthodox, we perceive our role to be a catalyst for this change, working to challenge the status quo and fostering mindset and heart-set shifts. This is not only intellectual work – it is the work of being a whole human. We believe in asking different questions that go beyond sustaining innovations and that urge us to fundamentally rethink our lifestyles, consumption patterns and societal norms. Our focus is on catalysing and supporting ideas that lead to transformative change, encouraging diverse perspectives from innovators worldwide and acknowledging that there is no single answer. Nature does not look the same from place to place, and people are not identical from place to place – so why should new choices and innovations try to be?

This report emphasises the significance of scaling at both project and system levels, something that Unearthodox recognises, too, using an approach that involves co-creation and collaboration at different levels, among different people. Achieving system-level change is a collaborative effort requiring a mindset shift from competition to cohesion, much like the unity found in natural ecosystems. We aim to join forces with organisations working towards scaling deep and systems transformation, contributing to a mosaic of collaborative efforts that tell a compelling story of change.

Addressing the challenge of measuring impact in complex systems

Acknowledging the challenge of measuring impact in a complex and interconnected world, the report urges a move beyond traditional metrics to embrace a more profound understanding of intangible shifts in culture, values and connectivity.

Recognising the inherent strength of complexity in nature and society, at Unearthodox we are exploring innovative indicators for systems change. Our aim is to contribute to outcomes while understanding the interconnectedness of various organisations and their roles in the broader ecosystem. We see this as an opportunity to innovate in impact measurement, aligning with the evolving nature of our work.

Addressing the challenge of navigating ambiguity: innovating at the front end of the innovation value chain

This report also highlights the existing ambiguity between incubators and accelerators within the conservation sector. At Unearthodox, we have positioned ourselves at the front end of the innovation value chain. Our focus is on responding to system needs, relooking at problems, and making space to explore new futures and ideas that might be turned into stepping stones to take us to these new possible futures. We understand the need for organisations to evolve beyond traditional models, embracing a systems change approach. The ambiguity found in this report could be seen to signal a shift towards building more interconnected, systems-focused organisations. An experiment in what it means to put systems change first, rather than traditional models of innovation organisations. This is a space where Unearthodox is actively innovating.

Adapting strategies for a regenerative future

As we absorb the findings of the report, we are keenly aware of the need to adapt our approaches and continually improve. We acknowledge the need to transcend competition and territoriality, viewing ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem of organisations. Our role is to strategically design activities along the innovation value chain, focusing on going deeper, wider and bolder in our efforts. The emphasis is on fostering strategic partnerships that allow for cohesive and collaborative solutions, and recognising the need for humility and ego-free collaborations.

Adapting our approaches based on the findings of the report is an ongoing process for Unearthodox. We’re in an incredible time, when many others, including from the funding and investment communities, recognise that the old answers aren’t working. We need new questions and versions of how we structure our efforts, organisations and networks. Our next flagship portfolio, centred around the theme of ‘regenerative futures’, is in the early stages of co-creation. We are committed to building safe spaces in which to reimagine problems, to ideate and to incubate, aiming to connect innovators globally and catalyse their journeys from dreams to reality.

Collaboration over competition: shaping conservation's narrative

Central to Unearthodox’s ethos is the recognition that collaboration trumps competition. Unearthodox envisions itself as a catalyst for transformative change, working collaboratively to shape the future so we can collectively reimagine and live our lives as nature and with each other. We are part of a larger movement, and our role is to foster cohesion, not competition, within the sector.

Our team grapples with discomfort – a recognition that transformative change requires stepping into uncharted territories. This discomfort is not a sign of doubt but rather an acknowledgement of how complex the challenges we face really are. We embrace this discomfort and uncertainty as integral to our journey.

I invite each one of you to read and reflect on this report, not as a proclamation of our achievements but as a call to action for us all. Let's collectively navigate this path of innovation, collaboration and transformative change. It's a journey that requires our shared commitment, and I am confident that together, we can shape a more just, thriving and regenerative world.

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