Earth Week Guest Post: Nature Provides Lessons on How to Collaborate for a Sustainable Future

Apr 21, 2016 2:55 PM ET

The effects of human-caused climate change are both predictable and unknown, but we do know that healthy ecosystems are more resilient to these effects. As individuals, we have an ethical responsibility to incrementally shift our behaviors to support ecosystem health; however, no one person can do this alone. In fact, we have to re-imagine and manage partnerships between institutions to support a shift towards a sustainable future.

When you look at a particular flower, you can only observe it for that particular moment in time, but you can never see the entirety of the plant during its whole lifecycle. The only time you can see the whole plant is in the imagination. Under proper conditions, a seed will sprout, flower, go to seed and spread. Partnerships between educational institutions and industry are similar.

Lesson 1: Initiate

Like a sprouting seed, partnerships are the most fragile in the beginning. Set the stage for  partners to work together before the first collaborative meeting. Set a tone to focus on continuous engagement using a learning process for co-creating a mutually beneficial vision. No one is an expert; we are all ingredients that need to come together for the blossoming and reproduction of the plant. Each of us has a unique individual contribution to make and participation is flexible based on the needs and skills of the individuals.

Lesson 2: Engage.

Everything is interconnected. Make particular connections visible through the co-creation of a shared vision statement during the initial collaborative planning meeting. Clarify and define a purpose for coming together that supports the interests of everyone. With that vision in mind, use backwards and forwards mapping to plan when each part of the process will occur and what resources each person has to facilitate the implementation of each part of the process. This is a living document and will adapt during implementation. Establish regular check-in dates that work for everyone’s busy schedules.

Lesson 3: Innovate.

Throughout the growth process, a plant provides observable feedback about what it needs. Regularly check in with participants during the implementation of the plan. Focus attention on interpreting the observable data to assess the effectiveness of the strategic plan and adjust it accordingly.

Lesson 4: Celebrate.

Spread the thought seeds of the learned sustainability messages to the larger community, recognize the benefits of partnering, and make the effects of the process visible. This ensures a bonding of the relationship and creates favorable conditions for continuous engagement over a long period of time.

When we look to nature for advice on managing these mutually beneficial partnerships, we can see that nothing occurs in isolation, but only as part of a cyclical interconnected web.


Jennifer Dowd, Ed.S., manages K-12 Education Programs for National Wildlife Federation