By Tamara Puhovski, July 2019
In May 2019. United Kingdom was the first country in the world to declare climate emergency and prioritise, in legislation, in Prime Minister speeches and most importantly in action – the war against climate change and single-use plastic. Plastic production is almost entirely (90%) dependent on fossil fuels, in Europe it uses 4 to 6% of all the oil and gas used.
Meanwhile, although sharing the same challenges Croatia lags behind in serious action, relies on isolated groups of activists and ideas on how to change our very plastic reality and how to do it quickly. Too often they find themselves without any support and with serious issues with funds, human resource capacity, and the skills needed to generate either.
Coming up with an idea is much easier then implementing them on the ground
Thus Terra Hub organised a two-day ideation sprint called the Adriatic Plastic Challenge where teams and individuals came with their ideas, were mentored and taught design thinking and business plan creation. The best were selected for a financial reward. We knew that it did a lot to raise awareness and that there are great ideas floating around as well as the fact that organising such quick programs tells us nothing about the testing, sustainability or team resilience behind those ideas. But we wanted to find out what is out there, and we did. We knew that most ideas presented at such challenges do not survive the first three months of implementation and that without further support the impact could be very little. The daily reality of implementing an idea is often much harder than coming up with a good idea and a plan. Knowing that, we looked for additional help in providing longer-term support to the best teams/ideas and testing how best we can support people turning ideas into realities.
The two twists
In February 2019. the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Croatia joined forces with Terra Hub to experiment with a tailor-made support for the best innovation and implementation of ideas in Croatia tackling the issue of plastic pollution. The UK Embassy provided funds and support while Terra Hub provided the expertise, support, mentoring and reach. We knew what we wanted – three months support with two specific twists:
- Providing mentoring but also skills vouchers; and
- Focus on social impact by streamlining the ideas into existing systems rather than investing in building a new company for every single idea.
Why skills vouchers?
Simple, one can’t learn in a couple of months what other is studying and practicing several years. Rather than pushing team members to be all and everything – managers, webmasters, sales and marketing experts, investing a lot to make little progress, we tested providing them with vouchers for the skills. The teams chose very diverse skills subcontracting from video-making about an island in the Adriatic that is going plastic free, to makerspace NGO for prototyping solutions for a mechanism that opens the door of a compost toilet, after you feed it a plastic bottle.
Streamlining, exploring, adopting – there is no one-size-fits-all
Secondly, we knew we wanted to leave the start-up goal behind and focus on social impact by streamlining the ideas into existing systems (if such existed) rather than investing in building a new company for every single idea. At the same time exploring all possibilities, from streamlining into existing systems, to non for profit to social enterprise or startup.
A series of online and offline meetings with the teams were held, each resulting in finishing the curriculum for each team. In the months that followed the mentors worked with their teams on developing the idea, product, service or action. Due to the experimental nature of the program we decided to provide mentoring and skills vouchers not equally by the team but comparatively by their accomplishments and the volume of activities and time they put into it which proved very useful as we were facing the challenge of some of the teams leaving Croatia or simply falling apart.
Motivating and frustrating at the same time
The results have been at the same time motivating, to the extent that although the financial support has ended two months ago, we are all still working with some of the teams, as well as frustrating as it is common when small groups of individuals tackle a big issues/systems. We have made significant strides with our teams. We will have an experimental little Adriatic island reaching the first step of its plan to become sustainable this summer – Zlarin without single-use plastic. We will have a fully functioning beautifully designed compost toilet with finished product design and mechanism for payment in plastic bottles and other waste. We do have a new plan of testing microfilters and the level of micro-plastic pollution on Zlarin post-tourist season. We have beautiful drawings for a picture book or an exhibition about the sea and the havocs of pollution. We have decided to make Zlarin the centre, a living laboratory of all the implementation as different solutions feed into each other and provide synergies. What we want is to further experiment with place-based system innovation and we secured funds from the EIT Climate-KIC to do it, on Zlarin and on the island on Cres.
What have we learnt so far?
Not only did the teams profit from the support program, but we have too as an organisation. From this experience we learn how we can be helpful and provide support to changemakers and activists in the field of sustainability:
- Screening teams and providing continuous support over a longer period of time is the only way to predict who we should invest in. Sprints and boot camps are just for discussing ideas and building on them.
- We should collect and use specific data on tourism and tourist behavior rather than only statistics. We need data on green tourist demand and preferences in order to advocate in the local community where tourism makes a significant portion of income.
- Prototyping is very expensive and takes a lot of time, it is a full-time job. Most teams that are launching a product are in over their heads.
- Public campaigns, connecting partners and research is crucial and something we can do really well. We function well acting like a platform that connects, adds value and facilitates change.
In the end, we are thankful to the British Embassy in Zagreb as well as all the teams for investing in a less plastic and more sustainable future and we are looking forward to new challenges and new ideas on how to make that happen. We already have new supporters and new partners on board!