08 – The Sustainable Development Principle

The IDEMS Principle
The IDEMS Principle
08 – The Sustainable Development Principle


David and Lily discuss the principle Sustainable Development: “This principle touches on the desire for longevity. It forces the company to think beyond any given intervention and to always plan for continued development post-intervention.”

They emphasise the importance of creating long-lasting solutions beyond initial interventions and highlight how IDEMS’ focus on sustainable development involves supporting local partners to ensure that interventions are enduring and adaptable, contributing to ongoing developmental success beyond its direct involvement.

[00:00:00] Lily: Hi and welcome to the IDEMS Principle. I’m Lily Clements, an Impact Activation Fellow and I’m here today with David Stern, one of the founding directors of IDEMS International. Hi David.

[00:00:18] David: Hi Lily, really nice to talk to you today. Really, which principle are we going to discuss?

[00:00:23] Lily: I thought we’d start with today, Sustainable Development.

[00:00:27] David: Sounds great, I love that. That’s a really important principle. It’s obviously, we’re not the only people interested in this and it’s a really important one.

[00:00:37] Lily: Okay, so let’s start by, can you just give a brief summary on what is Sustainable Development and what do we mean by this principle?

[00:00:46] David: One of the things which is important with this principle is we’ve got our wording, but our wording is not the only wording related to sustainable development. So I’m going to read out our wording but I also would like to sort of reinforce the fact that this is actually a very common approach which a lot of people are thinking about and trying to work towards.

So, Sustainable Development. “This principle touches on the desire for longevity. It forces the company to think beyond any given intervention and to always plan for the continued development post intervention.” You’ll notice that this is actually a very focused view of sustainable development.

Interventions are not necessarily what I would see as being central to sustainable development in other contexts. But for us as an international organization, really our ability to sort of act on development is through interventions. And so really this perspective of sustainable development is very much presented from our perspective of where we are and what we can contribute.

[00:02:01] Lily: Okay, and so you’re saying about interventions what, can you give an example of what you mean by interventions?

[00:02:07] David: Absolutely. I mean, most of our work relates to interventions in some way, in some aspect, with partners. So we have interventions in education where we work with partners at African universities and we help them to use digital assessment tools to give better feedback to their students and have a better assessment process. That’s one example of an intervention.

[00:02:35] Lily: Okay, and so for that, what would be an unsustainable approach at that, and what would be a sustainable approach, I suppose, is my question.

[00:02:44] David: I mean, one of the standard ways of working on these sorts of interventions with partners is to come in and to actually understand the problem and try and solve the immediate problem.

And that’s really not the approach we’ve taken here. We’ve really followed the lead of our local partners. And this is one of our efforts to be more sustainable. We’ve supported local partners to take the initiative. And so that’s part of our desire to sort of make sure our interventions have been thought through and done, in this case, in a sustainable way.

But I think one of the things which is really important is that, you know, we often don’t have as much leeway on that. So in another case where we are having interventions with Oxford University on parenting, there, the intervention itself is related to research and a randomised control trial. They’re building the evidence base.

And that’s another part of being sustainable. Actually thinking about how you actually get evidence of impact is an important component of then getting adoption by governments and policy makers. So they’ve got a different route to being sustainable. And one of the things which I think is really important is, in all of our principles, we really try to sort of emphasise that there’s a difference between, if you want, what we’re doing and other sensible things.

However, as you put it, unsustainable development isn’t something that I would encourage. So that’s not really an option we would consider. So that’s not the opposite in this context. We’re not interested in unsustainable development. But we are interested, and it could be that we’re looking at sustainability, not so much from a development perspective.

There are arguments where you should be looking at sort of sustainable businesses or sustainability in terms of not necessarily social development, and that comes and that follows from economic development. So, I think, for me, the element of sustainable development, the choice that we’re making there, yes, of course, we are a business and we believe in sustainable businesses, and sustainable business as a, as a whole.

But we’re not looking, let’s say, at sustainable products. We’re not looking at sustainable services. We’re looking at sustainable development, and I think that to me is one of the key elements here, which I think is central, that we are looking for this element of development post our intervention. So we could have, for example, an intervention which comes in where the service we’re offering, and I would argue that this could be considered the case in something like our well, I suppose one example of this for me would be some of our climate work, where we have interventions where we’re sort of bringing in a tool, R-INSTAT, which is open source and which we’re developing, where we’re looking for the development of those abilities, the partners that we’re building up to be sustainable.

But we already have in mind a pathway, which will lead to a total redevelopment of the tool itself. So that product we don’t see necessarily as being sustainable in its current form. But the training of people in that tool to be able to analyse their data better, we see as being sustainable because the tool that we envisage will replace it in the future, it will mean that they have a smooth pathway.

So I think we are looking very much at sustainable development rather than, let’s say, sustainable products or services. On the services very quickly, a lot of our capacity building is about building up the skills of partners so that they could out compete us for some of these services.

We are offering these services now because local partners don’t have the expertise, but in the future we would love it and would be delighted if some of our local partners were able to offer some of the services we currently offer themselves, and we then would have to reinvent ourselves and evolve into something else.

But the services that we’re offering, our partners who need those services are still able to access them, but maybe more cost effectively, or more effectively, because there might be better local knowledge. So, we’re looking at sustainability in terms of the development, international development, but not only that, social development processes, much more than we’re looking at, let’s say, sustainable products or sustainable services.

[00:07:35] Lily: To me it’s, it’s difficult to kind of pry this principle apart from the kind of open source principle. ’cause to me I hear, and it may be because I’m a developer or a coder in statistics, but I hear sustainable and I think immediately of sustainable products.

I think, okay, how do we make things sustainable? We make them open source. But that’s a principle in of its own right, which is discussed elsewhere. And so I think at the heart of this one, if I’m hearing correctly, it’s about that development.

[00:08:06] David: Exactly, it’s about the social impact, it’s about social development here, and one of the things I love about the Sustainable Development Goals, you’ll notice the word sustainable in that you know, the Sustainable Development Goals, they require everyone to change.

And so we’re thinking about sustainable development in the terms of the sustainable development goals, for example. And we’re really looking at helping people to achieve what is recognised as sustainable development, even if for us as a company, our ability to do this and to offer services and products related to that is not sustainable. And that’s a really, it’s a challenging principle for us in that sense.

[00:08:52] Lily: Okay, so what sort of… would you kind of turn down work or a kind of challenge if you felt that it wasn’t sustainable?

[00:09:03] David: I would first of all try to see how to make it sustainable. And quite often we do have individual pieces of work which on their own are not sustainable. However, we approach them with a sustainability mindset.

And that often means that we co invest in things to try and make them sustainable. But yes, I think there are cases where we would turn down work if we do not believe that this is actually related to the sustainable future or sustainable development as we see it. I don’t think there’s many cases that would really correspond to that.

I think that, by and large, most well intentioned initiatives can, even if they’re not, the funding isn’t associated to something which is sustainable, they can be put into a sustainable format where you can build them into something sustainable. And so, by and large, we would be first looking to sort of add sustainability components, possibly through our own investments.

But we would turn down work if we felt that actually the investment it would require from us is too great, we couldn’t afford to do it, to actually turn a project into something which is sustainable. And so yes, we would potentially turn down work.

[00:10:26] Lily: Interesting. And you said earlier, you said before about how to help things be sustainable, we kind of follow the partners, and we follow people that we’re working with. What if they were kind of taking it in a route that you felt wasn’t sustainable? How would you manage that?

[00:10:43] David: That’s a really interesting question. And it’s one where I’m very conscious that many partners that we work with aren’t thinking necessarily of the long term sustainability of what they’re doing. They’re thinking about current funding streams, they’re thinking about current needs, current situations. And so, very often, if local partners are not thinking about long term sustainability, that doesn’t matter to us. That’s not necessarily their role. If they have to worry about immediate needs and immediate priorities, that’s not something which I would critique in them.

We would add components to make it, in our view, sustainable and without conditions. So for example, to go back to the initial example of the support we offer to the African universities integrating this electronic assessment systems, they didn’t come to us looking for support on something sustainable.

They came to us because they had classes of 500 to 1,000 students, and they had one lecturer having to mark all of them, and they weren’t able to give a good education. So, we were helping them to solve that immediate problem. But the way we approached it was again referring to the Open by Default, the other principle you mentioned earlier.

We said we will help you and support you if you allow the resources that are created to support you to be open so that other people could use them in the future.

[00:12:21] Lily: And so don’t you then ever run the risk of trying to be sustainable could lead people away from what their goal is?

[00:12:28] David: Well, in this particular case, if they had a personal goal, which was, well, actually my efforts that I want to put into this might help me write a book, or do something which I could then sell, yes, it would, and then we wouldn’t have been as aligned, and we wouldn’t have been able to offer them the support that we offered.

As it happened, they were very happy with this idea, and in fact, they’ve used it really powerfully, because it’s not really us who have taken it to other institutions, it’s them. And they found a lot of success in doing so, building a whole community around them. And so it’s all come back very positively to them.

Now, they would not necessarily have made that decision without us pushing to make it open, without us making that as a condition. But once we made that as a condition, which is what we needed to do to make our intervention on this sustainable, they then ran with it. And so this is where good collaboration happens.

We’re not working across purposes. We’re just providing a framework which we believe is going to help in the long run beyond them as an individual. And so the fact that they then took that on and actually turned it into something which worked for them as an individual, kudos to them. Good credit.

This is, this is exactly what we want. This is our Collaborative by Nature principle. We want to enable others as much or more so than we’re looking to enable ourselves.

[00:13:57] Lily: Interesting. And, and yeah, okay, that makes, that does make a lot of sense. And I suppose then another question that comes into mind related to this, and it might be a difficult one or it might be an easy one, I’m not sure, but where did this principle come from?

[00:14:15] David: As I said, there are the Sustainable Development Goals. This is an old, old sort of phrase. This is not a phrase which comes from us in any shape or form. But it is an approach that we believe in. And so I would argue that for me, I associate, sustainable development, first and foremost with the Sustainable Development Goals.

And one of the reasons I love that association is that the Sustainable Development Goals are for everyone. Every society on the planet has work to do to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. I must admit, I believe we’re failing. You know, every society in the world is failing to meet them by 2030, as I understand the indicators at the moment.

But what is so fantastic is this applies equally well in the UK as it does in Niger or Kenya. The Sustainable Development Goals are really, really powerful because they are a tool which enables societies all over the world to look at and measure where they are and try to, from there, think about what a better future could be, what a sustainable future could be.

And it’s those development pathways which is so important. So for me, it’s really come from the Sustainable Development Goals.

[00:15:40] Lily: Okay, but, but, so these Sustainable Development Goals, there’s, there’s a, a list of them, is my understanding.

[00:15:47] David: Absolutely, long list, 17.

[00:15:49] Lily: Yeah, well, exactly, exactly, a long list of them, and so, does it ever, kind of, I guess, become more of a box ticking exercise, just to make sure you fit those criterias, rather than actually thinking about how to be sustainable?

[00:16:08] David: Well, so the Sustainable Development Goals are sufficiently challenging as a box ticking exercise that actually any society is struggling to tick those boxes. So as box ticking exercises go, it’s a very interesting box ticking exercise. However, you’re right. We don’t approach it at all as a box ticking exercise for Sustainable Development Goals.

In fact, to be honest, we very rarely use the indicators from Sustainable Development Goals at all. Mainly because our priority is really grassroots support. We do work at policy level and the national level in certain cases. But we really prefer to work with communities lower down. And for them, the Sustainable Development Goals, their reality on the ground is much less about box ticking and it is about helping them to grow, to develop in ways that they are looking to do so.

So it really is very supportive of local communities as a set of principles if you take it in that way. So we are less interested in the Sustainable Development Goals indicators, and more in the actual essence of what the Sustainable Development Goals are trying to achieve.

Zero hunger, zero poverty, you know. Those are the two first ones, which are of course very important, and they are clearly relevant in a world where actually poverty is increasing in the UK. You know, and you have food banks in the UK coming up because there’s hunger in the UK. This is a problem globally now. This is becoming a problem in what are wealthy societies, where in the past we had maybe got closer to eliminating hunger and poverty, but it’s coming back and it’s coming back for reasons which are possibly out of people’s control, like COVID, but I think there are other things which are within people’s control, and that’s where the Sustainable Development Goals set governments, you know, targets to be able to sort of work towards what any community locally, looking at itself, would be wanting to achieve.

You know, can you support people in your community so that you don’t have hunger, so that you don’t have poverty, so that you have a quality education, so that you have good jobs? These are obvious, desirable outcomes we should be looking for in our societies.

[00:18:39] Lily: Okay. And I guess I just have one more question then, just linking into that, where you said that you know, that IDEMS work is involved in communities. However, isn’t there then that you could run the risk of not being sustainable, because if you’re working within a small group, or within one, kind of, one area which is, has their unique situation. Maybe that’s the key, is that you’re going to say that it’s not unique. But if you’re working within one section, where you have this one community, where you have this situation, would you then run the risk of not being sustainable?

[00:19:21] David: Well, I mean, this is exactly a really great question, and it relates to some of our other principles. I mean, we have a wonderful principle on Local Innovation, which really relates to this. And one of the elements there which is so important is that we do believe in supporting people locally to find local solutions, but we are IDEMS international. We believe in scale, Scalable Impact. And really that idea, these ideas are tied together with this other principle, Options by Context.

What we’re looking to enable is we are looking to enable local communities at different scales, to find and develop and innovate and create and evolve into a sustainable community at their level using tools which are global and which support that. This is, if you want, the essence of our approach. We do work globally.

This is at the heart of who we are as an organisation. We’re a global organisation, but we’re a global organisation which supports people to work locally. It is our role to support others. We often are the support player. We’re not the, we’re not the star. We’re the, we’re the support, you know. We’re, in, in sports terms, you’d have your top scorer and then you’d have your person with the assists. We give the assists. We’d rarely score a goal.

This is our nature, to be there, to be supporting others. And that comes back again to the collaborative. We work collaboratively to enable that. And so we do work globally. That’s the heart of our working practices. But we work globally to support people to work locally.

And those are our collaborators. And those are the people who we, who we value and who we serve.

[00:21:19] Lily: Excellent. Well, I think that that’s a great note to end it on. Would you have anything else that you wanted to add?

[00:21:25] David: No, this has been a nice discussion. So thank you for for bringing this discussion to life and for helping us to sort of explain what we mean by sustainable development. As I say, it’s such a globally used term, which so many people have engaged in with so many different ways.

And we have our own specific way that this applies to us.

[00:21:46] Lily: Absolutely. Well, thank you very much, David. It’s been a pleasure as always.

[00:21:50] David: Thank you.