Mainstreaming Biodiversity through Design
The United Nations COP13 Biodiversity Conference concluded last week on December 17, 2016 in Cancun, Mexico. For 10 days official delegates as well as several other biodiversity experts and practitioners gathered to share ideas and discuss the international Convention text that would pave the way for Mainstreaming Biodiversity. DE was in attendance and the key questions coming out of the conference are: Was it a success? What, in practice, does Mainstreaming Biodiversity mean?
This COP Biodiversity conference can be considered a success for a few reasons but most importantly because it reinforced the idea of ‘mainstreaming’ biodiversity and ecosystems in very practical ways. Mainstreaming in this context means bringing biodiversity issues into decision making in policy and planning in different industrial sectors. The focal sectors were fisheries, tourism, agriculture, and forestry. The success here is that agriculture, forestry, and fisheries are resource sectors that in some cases have operated in direct opposition to the mandate of the Convention on Biological Diversity. By promoting the idea of mainstreaming real progress can be made in sustainable natural resource use. Specific attention was also focused on key thematic areas such as urban planning, rights of IPLCs (Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities), and Forest Landscape Restoration.
Indigenous peoples were strongly present at COP13 and one message came through loud and clear at the Múuch’Tambal parallel conference: they need to be heard and respected in development decisions. The COP decision regarding mainstreaming biodiversity (UNEP/CBD/COP/13/13/L.31) reinforced the need for TK (Traditional Knowledge) to be integrated into decisions and customary sustainable use and diverse IPLC approaches to be employed to maintain genetic diversity, reduce habitat and biodiversity loss, and to promote an equitable and participatory approach to the management and restoration of critical ecosystems. It is reassuring to see formal recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the decision but what was even more moving was to see the strong presence and commitment to self-determination and sustainability of the indigenous groups that attended the Múuch’Tambal. It was inspiring.
Urban Planning and Biodiversity and Forest Landscape Restoration were focused on in parallel events featuring expert presentations and discussions. ICLEI was one of the main participants in the “5th Global Summit of Cities and Subnational Governments” at which city municipal officials, policy makers, researchers, businesses, and civil society representatives presented and discussed various initiatives that related to biodiversity conservation and awareness in the urban context. Sean Southey of the IUCN/Media Impact Group delivered an emotive and inspirational presentation of the #NatureForAll program which is a global movement that is working in urban settings to inspire a love for nature in youth. The FLR (Forest Landscape Restoration) agenda was featured at the Rio Conventions Pavilion. A panel chaired by Peter Besseau of the Canadian Forest Service and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration outlined how FLR activities can contribute to biodiversity conservation and sustainable use goals and that ecosystem and landscape based analytical approaches will be imperative for establishing evidence-based policy along these lines.
The aforementioned examples and desired goals call for new development trajectories and this will require design thinking in many different areas. Ms. Teresa Solis Trejo, the Undersecretary for Tourism Planning and Policy of SECTUR (Mexican Secretariat of Tourism) explained how her agency is fostering this approach in how they are re-thinking planning and development for the tourism sector in Mexico going forward. This requires infrastructure decisions, economic planning instruments, new technologies, and public awareness campaigns. The DE team lives and breathes design thinking. It is central to our existence and part of our mission “to solve problems using design and environmental science”. It was re-assuring and inspiring to see this message coming through at COP13. For all extents and purposes the conference was a success, but there were some areas for improvement.
The main problem that I observed was the fact that there was great enthusiasm for biodiversity and mainstreaming amongst conference participants but the event was essentially invisible to the outside world. The communications team of the UN CBD Secretariat had a great handle on press conferences and did a great job with social media but still, why did the global media not light up for biodiversity? I gave a workshop on communications and design for mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystems in Mexico City on November 15, 2016 and I think some key points we discussed may help us with this problem.
Here are the core insights that came out of the workshop, and how they may apply to COP13 in Cancun, Mexico:
- Production Value
Principle: We need high quality communication outputs to engage audiences. Better quality production, better reception and respect for the message
Application at COP13: This was not a problem at COP13. The quality of the visual materials produced was very high. The social media engagement was of high quality as well.
- Cultural Context
Principle: Adapt messaging to the local context. Understand the norms and unique qualities of where you are deploying communications or gathering content.
Application at COP13: This was well handled. The language and customs of Mexico were embodied in much of the communications and events. One really had a feeling that they were in a special place during the conference. Additionally, Mexican projects and initiatives such as BIOFIN (Financial valuation of biodiversity project) were highlighted.
- Engaging Experience, Then the Message
Principle: Give the audience an experience – something they remember, often interactive, and then deliver the message through the experience.
Application at COP13: On site at the conference this was well managed. The sessions were good and there were many side events, cocktails, contact groups, and activities that were highly interactive. The problem was reaching the general public with the message of the event. There did not seem to be much in the way of outreach to the masses with any form of interactivity which could get the word out, aside from social media (which as mentioned, was well-handled)
- Bring Story / Narrative to the Message
Principle: People remember stories. Myths, oral history, and various forms of traditional knowledge transfer happen through the telling of stories. In order to make ideas and messages ‘stick’ we often need to use some form of narrative which evokes an emotive response.
Application at COP13: This could have been improved upon. The main message of the conference was ‘Mainstreaming Biodiversity’ but I don’t think this was well understood to people who were not involved with this line of work. Friends and colleagues in other lines of work would be slightly mystified as to what exactly that meant when I mentioned it to them. What could have been useful is some sort of running story or narrative that embodied this message and that could be communicated to the masses.
- Make it Interactive
Principle: Memorable experiences and messages involve interactivity.
Application at COP13: For on-site activities this was well done. Plenty of events and activities helped to engage people. This same interactivity needs to be brought to the masses. Perhaps through distributed events in other locations that run in parallel. Maybe social media could support distributed events.
- Make it Cool
Principle: Things need to be cool to get traction and get attention. In many cases we are trying to reach youth with these messages. We therefore have to compete with various other media that are likely more engaging than your average biodiversity content.
Application at COP13: There was some interesting footage being shown on large screens and the quality of graphic design was good, but there was nothing that really jumped out as being ‘cool’. Perhaps getting some local progressive Mexican bands involved, or having a film festival run in parallel, would bring more interest to the conference and give it broader attraction.
- Use Fame’s Appeal and Reach
Principle: Try and use the reach and impact that respectable celebrities have in order to capture the attention of a broader audience.
Application at COP13: This technique was not utilized as much as it could have been. I was not aware of any celebrities that were attending or even aligned with the event. Edward Norton, a good friend of the Convention for Biological Diversity was even silent on Twitter about the event. There could have been much more alignment and outreach done here. This would have most definitely increased the reach of the event and the core message.
The team at the UN CBD, namely David Ainsworth (Overall Communications Lead) and Julian Bellemore (Social Media Specialist), did a fantastic job. The above are some observations that could be drawn on for the next CBD Host country as much of these issues would ideally be addressed by them.
As we are ending another year and preparing for Christmas and ‘resetting’ for 2017, perhaps there are lessons learned here for sustainability. The UN COP13 Biodiversity conference focused on the need to bring conservation and sustainable use to ‘mainstream’ processes. This will ultimately require a lot of change in various sectors. In order to achieve this we will need to use ‘Design Thinking’. Additionally, we need to bring this message to mainstream audiences and in order to do so, we need to follow some communications principles that have proven to work in other circumstances.
In 2017 we certainly have our work cut out for us. There will be change; there will be new projects, new relationships, and new surprises to deal with. Being creative, agile, responsive and open to change will be essential. Hard work will also be key.
In the meantime, however, it is time to relax and enjoy the holiday season with friends and family. On behalf of the DE team I would like to wish you a happy holiday and prosperity and success in 2017. We look forward to hearing from you in the New Year and let’s all work together to mainstream biodiversity and ecosystems in order to make the world a more sustainable and healthier place.
Call to close the meeting and give respect to Mother Nature at the Múuch’Tambal parallel session at UN COP13 Biodiversity Conference.
 IISD Reporting Services, 2016. Earth Negotiations Bulletin. Summary of the UN Biodiversity Conference: 2–17 December, 2016. Vol. 9 No. 678.