Guest blog: Learning to be a bridge: A ‘clinic’ for climate knowledge brokers

SEI 2016 blog CKB workshop

The author, standing, left, at a workshop with stakeholders. SEI photo.

As the field of climate services evolves, it is ever-more important to identify best practices and learn from one another. That’s why the Climate Knowledge Brokers Group is so valuable.

Written by Sukaina Bharwani

We tend to tell people the ideas we know, how it is we know it, with the scientific rigour that will prove that we are right. … But the truth is that most decisions that matter get made on a different basis. They get made on the basis of, “Do I like you? Am I comfortable with you? Do I trust you?” And those grounding principles have to be more important than the technical information we provide.

Hunter Lovins, author and president of Natural Capitalism Solutions, speaking at the CKB Workshop 2016

We call it climate knowledge brokering. The term is relatively new, but the work itself has been taking shape for as long as people have been grappling with climate change.

Climate knowledge brokers help people to understand climate science and find and apply what is most relevant to them, complementing it with their own knowledge. We may act as a filter, curator or translator; often we serve as a bridge between scientists, policy-makers and stakeholders.

Through weADAPT.org, a collaborative platform run by SEI Oxford, my colleagues and I have brought together adaptation researchers and practitioners from around the world to share knowledge and experiences. Through SEI’s new Climate Services Initiative, we are working to identify the most effective practices and develop a framework for participatory climate services.

We know a great deal about what works and doesn’t work, but we have much more to learn. That is why it was so valuable to get together with policy advisors, researchers and practitioners at the 6th Climate Knowledge Brokers Group (CKB) annual workshop, hosted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Denver, CO, on 20–22 September.

SEI 2016 blog CKB workshop 2

Hunter Lovins speaks at the CKB Workshop. Photo by James Smith.

We heard from Hunter Lovins, an author and sustainability champion who emphasized the impact that knowledge brokers can make by pulling together “the best knowledge that is out there” and packaging it so, when the time is right, people who need information can quickly access it.

Lovins noted that the 200 policy and programme recommendations proposed to the Obama Administration by the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) – 200 scientists, activists, business leaders and politicians brought together by her organization, Natural Capitalism Solutions – were ignored during the first seven years of his presidency. Then suddenly, at the beginning of 2016, the recommendations started to be implemented. The time was right, and Obama had all the information he needed handily packaged in the book written by Bill Becker and the PCAP.

A key insight from that work, Lovins said, is that knowledge brokers need to “speak the language of the person you want to influence”. That means learning how people phrase things, the kinds of words they use, how they present themselves, even the look and feel of their website. Bill Becker, who leads PCAP, added that it also means that climate action has to be framed in line with the values and priorities of the target audience.

As part of the workshop, we had “knowledge sharing clinics”, in which people share challenges they are facing in their work, and others try to diagnose the problem and offer solutions. The issues range from how to set up an effective online platform and to how to identify user needs and communicate them effectively to researchers, to how to sustain and grow a community of practice over time.

I have been a “patient” in these clinics before, but I often learn just as much by playing the role of “doctor” and hearing others’ “diagnoses” and advice. For instance, with weADAPT, we often worry about how to keep users engaged and contributing year after year. In that context, it was reassuring to be reminded by other “doctors” that on average, only 1% of any large user base, including Wikipedia, actually end up being regular contributors. In that sense weADAPT is doing pretty well.

We also worked through a detailed hypothetical case of a U.S. national park in which forest fires occur naturally and are in fact important for the ecosystem. Now, due to climate change and fires that are hotter than before, native species are not growing back, and invasive species are setting in.

We asked ourselves, what would the Park Service – the user – need from climate knowledge brokers, and how should we build our own capacities to meet those needs?

The Park Service would need to be able to predict the frequency and intensity of forest fires and the spread of the invasive species based on future climate scenarios, and learn about ways to mitigate both. This would require downscaled climate data to predict fire risk, for instance, and a good understanding of the spatial dynamics in the forest, perhaps using GIS.

Knowledge brokers would need to not only tailor or package this information, but also connect the Park Service with the right types of experts. We would also help the two sides work together, helping the scientists understand the Park Service’s challenges and helping policy-makers and practitioners interpret the scenarios and models provided by the scientists.

From a capacity-building perspective, it is clear that we need to learn to be effective “translators”. We may also need stronger technical skills, so we can better understand and work with scientific data, including GIS analyses, climate and social-economic scenarios and technical models.

Insights from exercises like this will inform the development of a new CKB Capacity Building programme. As part of this programme, we are helping to buildtraining modules on different topics, all demand-led. Proposed topics so far include the pitfalls of information portals and how to avoid them; how to build better partnerships and networks; power and ethics in knowledge brokering; and guidelines for creating communities of practice.

The CKB network has also been discussing the creation of a “Climate Knowledge Grid” which would, through both digital and face-to-face methods, strengthen connections between knowledge brokers. This would enable us to work collaboratively to develop tools and methods to address the challenge of providing reliable, good-quality information on climate change.

The CKB 2016 workshop participants, photographed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, US. Photo by Stephanie Bechler.

This workshop was made possible by support from of REEEP and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN). Videos of an interview with Hunter Lovins and Bill Beckerand several sessions are available on YouTube. A workshop report will be posted shortly on the CKB website.

Learn more about the SEI Climate Services Initiative »

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