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Looking Back on the Green COVID Recovery: The Just Transition to a Regenerative Circular Economy

The Circular Economy Lab asked students at Oxford University to imagine what the future might look like if we embraced a green, equitable recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s an insight into the world they envisioned.

It’s amazing to think how much has changed. When the pandemic arrived, inequality in its many forms was laid bare. When people’s wellbeing became the subject of global headlines for a whole year, we started to observe and reflect more widely on where beings were not well within our systems. When it became crystal clear we all breathe the same air, we looked at how we could make that air cleaner and safer for everyone.

In 2020, people rallied together to simultaneously address the crises of climate change, inequality and racial injustice. The wave began with the intersection of COVID-19 with the Black Lives Matter movement, which sparked a social and ecological transformation. So, what’s happened since then?

We examined how we related to one another, and a movement of solidarity and community was forged in the crucible of these crises. We are no longer socially distant from one another; in fact, we are closer than ever. We’ve slowed down; taking more time to value things we used to take for granted, like quality time with our friends and family. We became dependable and dependent, supporting our neighbours and community. But beyond that, shorter working hours have freed us up to volunteer in our community and with Mutual Aid groups, like my shifts at the community centre. We also have more time to capture our feelings and create art, and poetry and music.

This emphasis on ‘moving slower’ goes beyond how we interrelate, as people physically walk more, encouraged by our shift to centring pedestrians and cyclists in our cities. High-speed zero-carbon trains and hydrogen buses make our cities and rural spaces accessible to everyone, at prices we can all afford. Differently abled people move with greater ease, because systems are designed with everyone in mind.

Equity is a key feature not only of transport but of all public services, and of society in general. All people are paid a fair, living wage and the wealthy finally agreed to pay their fair share in taxes back to society. Inequality levels have fallen exponentially. This means people have more disposable income: however, with closer community bonds, there is less of a focus on consumption, and the sharing economy has grown in leaps and bounds. Which reminds me, I need to drop by my community tool-sharing co-op this afternoon: I need to borrow a hammer! It used to be the library but we’ve since expanded to hold all kinds of ways to learn, and the tools we need.

This spirit of sharing, support and equity has made their way into our schools and universities too. Education has changed the way we view the world. My class today started like it always does: with a group check-in, where we explain how we are feeling and hold space to be vulnerable with one another. This is especially important after recognizing that loneliness can affect people of all ages, and creating authentic community is important. In all classrooms, we take time to identify dominant knowledge systems and their implications, immerse ourselves in different worldviews and explore different ways of learning. Today, in my economics course teaching circularity, we looked back on the days of the take-make-dispose model, and discussed the importance of finding value in ‘waste’. I can’t believe the things people used to throw away!

This shift in how and what we learn encouraged a shift in the opportunities we seek out after education. My friends and I are looking for jobs that will sustain us financially but also provide fulfilment and joy. This trend has grown in strength, as has our respect and value for the jobs that kept our society up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic. These vital parts of the economy are no longer under-funded and under-staffed. The Green COVID Recovery created loads of new jobs and opportunities to re-train, like my brother – who has become a recycling officer, and my mum – who used to work for the oil and gas industry, and now works in green energy. Unions banded together and asked for training to support a just transition, and the government invested in our futures by making sure that a green transition did not leave anyone behind. These fit into a circular, sustainable economy, which means the jobs are sustainable too – a huge relief for my mum after the big move away from fossil fuels.

Among those professions that experienced immense difficulty and gained newfound appreciation during the pandemic, were farmers. This stimulated a change in how we relate to what we eat, as governments realised the precarity of our food systems. Inequality and environmental issues related to food became a key agenda item and we have made progress. These vegetables in my lunch were grown in my garden: I learned how to care for and create a system where something could thrive. Local food systems are embedded in a global network that is mutually beneficial and no longer exploitative: people, society, soils and biodiversity are all valued and sustained through a less wasteful, more regenerative food system.

It’s amazing to think how much has changed and is still changing. Not all changes have been positive: we continue to face the climate crisis, and new challenges have arisen. However, the world we live in now did not come to be by chance . We chose to be daring enough to imagine an alternative future and to grasp the opportunity when it presented itself, at a time when reverting back to ‘normality’ was an easy option, but an unacceptable one. We leaned into the discomfort and the beauty of change, standing in solidarity with one another as we forged a new world together.

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Finding calm amidst chaos

Rangan Srikhanta is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and MBA. In this blog, Rangan reflects on completing his final term at Oxford Saïd during the pandemic.

My last post was an opportunity for me to reflect on what brought me to Oxford and the transformative experience it was having in the space of just one term. This post has taken much longer to marinate than usual, but COVID-19 has provided many an opportunity to stop and reflect.

The Oxford Bubble

As the pandemic infiltrated our Oxford bubble, it become a transformative experience in understanding the human condition. From being dismayed at the frays in our social fabric perfectly encapsulated with panic buying of everyday items, to being inspired by thousands of frontline workers who have put their lives at risk when the long-term effects of exposure to the pandemic are still unknown. The Oxford bubble became a sanctuary for reflection, away from the many distractions that make us yearn for the next thing, without appreciating what we have now.

On a personal level, it was overwhelming to see the town clear out in a matter of weeks, many blossoming friendships that thrived on in-person chance meetings would be tested by a shift across multiple time zones, an artefact of participating in one of the most diverse MBA programmes in the world. Experiencing a deserted Oxford seemed somewhat post-apocalyptic and surreal, when considering that the city had unlikely been this quiet in a very long time.

Spring provided a welcome respite from months of cold, and bike rides an opportunity to take in the fresh air and find calm amidst chaos.

Crises as a Catalyst for Innovation

“The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.”

Benjamin E Mays

The pandemic has exposed our misplaced priorities and helped amplify society’s inequalities to breaking point. I see many similarities between the bushfires that often ravage Australia and the pandemic. The most prophetic is that tragedy always precedes re-birth and re-growth – that they are two sides of the same coin.

Whilst early indications suggest society has become more unjust and more unequal through the pandemic, another perspective is that the pandemic has brought to a head deep structural issues that need revisiting.

I am not sure if the worst is yet to come, but I am certain that these trying times are providing society the space to have those uncomfortable confrontations to build back better.

Author: Rangan Srikhanta, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA.

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Trinity term at Oxford during the pandemic

Tsechu Dolma is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. In this blog, Tsechu reflects on completing her final term at Oxford Saïd during the pandemic.

I feel like I have stepped into a new life twice in my life — the first when my family left Nepal amidst the civil war and sought political asylum in the US, and second my Oxford experience.

Sixteen years ago, my family landed in JFK airport New York to seek political asylum in the United States. All of our worldly possessions fit in the cabin luggage. I missed my home and friends dearly, but I was relieved to leave behind the civil war raging in Nepal. Ten and unable to speak English, I could not understand what the Border Control Officer was asking me. Nonetheless, I was excited about the promise and possibilities of starting a new life in the USA.

A year ago, I packed up a suitcase to move from the US to Oxford. I wasn’t fleeing a civil war this time; I was escaping a political climate riddled with poor leadership and backward policies. I felt the same wave of emotions; homesick, excited, and hopeful. Within the first 24 hours, I started feeling at home in the UK – baking, sharing and laughing with my fellow Skoll scholars.

2019-20 Skoll Scholars

It had been almost six years since I was last in a classroom. Once classes started, I felt pretty tech-illiterate. I had spent the previous decade as a development practitioner, deep in the trenches fighting food insecurity, socio-economic disparities, and accessibility in South Asia. I had fallen behind on the rapid technology innovation coming out of universities and Big Tech.

I had heard and read a lot about the AI revolution, and I wanted to understand how it could impact my community in terms of both positive and negative aspects. I would have a significant learning curve, but equally, I knew that I could leverage the vast networks of expertise at Oxford. Every student group and department from Oxford Foundry to Women in Business were buzzing about startups, technology, and social impact.

Similar to when I first learned English after moving to the US, I learned tech-speak at Oxford. I learned to code and manage technology business. In particular, I reached out to researchers at the Autonomous Intelligent Machines and Systems (AIMS) program, under the engineering department and served as a research assistant. I worked hard quickly to grasp the nuances of AI and its applications to society, in addition to my MBA coursework. I have had the opportunity to work on several projects that address the intersections of AI, equity, and inclusion for all.

In March 2020, switching to a virtual work environment was a struggle for me when it seemed like the community I had worked so hard to build since September 2019 was disintegrating by COVID-19, and I left the UK in a panic. After months now, my community has sprung back stronger than ever before. I feel bittersweet ending my scholarship year at Oxford amid this global tragedy, leaving this nurturing home at Saïd to enter a world in turmoil. Nevertheless, these are precisely the challenges the Skoll Centre and the MBA has well-prepared me to tackle. I will be fighting alongside my peers for a more racially equitable, inclusive, and sustainable future for all.

Author: Tsechu Dolma, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA.

How to start a movement

Aditya Chopra is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA candidate and participant on our co-curricular programme, Impact Lab. He reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in Michaelmas term, movement building.

Its June 30, 2018. The temperature is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degree Celsius) but 40,000+ people have gathered in Washington D.C. to protest against the U.S. government’s new immigration policies. In fact, on that very day, millions of people from all walks of life and across age groups are participating in similar rallies across 750 locations in the country –  from New York and Boston to Antler, a town of 27 people in North Dakota. They are all marching forward with the same message – Families Belong Together!

The issue of separation of families is pertinent and emotive, but do you think the issue itself is enough to bring millions of people to the streets? Is it enough for them to have a common vision? Is it enough for them to believe that their emotions can create a movement?

How exactly was this movement created? Then again, how exactly is any movement created? There is indeed a method to this madness and it was discussed in detail in the interactive Movement Building Impact Lab Masterclass. Impact Lab is a curated social-impact-focused program by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Here’s a snapshot of my takeaways from the masterclass.

What are movements for?

Movements are designed to achieve meaningful policy, social, cultural or environmental change for a social issue.

What are the types of movements?

Flowchart showing a journey of a bottom-up movement leader. 'belong to change' moving to a path of least resistance 'support change'. Moving to 'believe in change'  to 'others believe like me'. Reinforcing the belief to lead change to end with  'organise to spread belief'.
Typical journey of a bottom-up movement leader

Movements can be built in 3 ways – top down (using marketing campaigns), bottom up (by organizing people at the grassroots) or from within (by converting leaders within institutions). At the heart of these movements, what binds people is a common important issue which sparks a cord with their rationality and emotions.

How do you design a movement?

box containing how movement is designed. 1. voice, 2. pathway, 3. campaigns, 4. infrastructure

There are four components to focus on while designing a movement:

  1. Voice: Voice is the tone and style of communication, including creatives, which reflects the movement fully w.r.t vision, action, people and places.
  2. Pathway: Pathway is an individual’s journey within the movement – from initial interaction in the campaign to deeper engagement going forward.
  3. Campaigns: Campaigns offer opportunities to bring new members to the movement and to build loyalty within those already involved.
  4. Infrastructure: Infrastructure consists of roles and responsibilities, digital and organizing resources, and support for individual and self-organizing engagement.
Pathway showing 10 steps. 1. lead generation campaign, 2. Truth website, 3. three-part email welcome series, 4. pathway enters activism pathway, 5. milestones, 6.wants to be an investigator, 7. info transferred to CAYE team, 8.representative, 9.becomes an investigator and 10. advocacy team
An example of Pathway – Source: Impact Lab

After figuring out the above, it’s important to have a strategy to bring all elements together, including timing of launch of the movement, key milestones to achieve along the way and super supporters who can help scale the movement.

My reflections

The masterclass was helpful in providing a structure and methodology to movement building which was made real with case studies of real movements including Families Belong Together and the Sunrise movement which demanded a Green New Deal in the U.S.

During the session, all Impact Lab members spent most of their time in small groups discussing the case studies, ideating on designing a new movement, putting together key steps to follow and discussing the challenges which can come about, including their solutions.

As I reflect on the session, I am reminded of Gandhi, who said –

You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”

Systems Change requires new ways of thinking and doing

Carlos Blanco is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA student and participant on our co-curricular programme, Impact Lab. He reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in Michaelmas term, an ever growing and popular discussion by social entrepreneurs, systems change.

An organisation in Pakistan that enables smallholder rural, off-grid farming communities to meet their farming and household needs using livestock as currency. A network of entrepreneurs built up in the favelas of Brazil. An NGO skirting anti-abortion laws by providing access to safe procedures in international waters. A private company building a new business model that monetises fuel efficiency while introducing more sustainable fuel sources. What do all these examples have in common? According to Dr Paulo Savaget and Professor Steve Evans they represent different ways to achieve Systems Change.

A solar powered water system in Pakistan
A solar powered water system in Pakistan

Systems change is hot stuff right now. Across organisations trying to create sustainable impact the new holy grail is to affect large-scale systemic change. But what is a systemic problem? What is Systems Change? And how do we affect Systems Change? On Tuesday 12 November Paulo and Steve provided a masterclass on Systems Change through the Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship that touched on each of these questions.

There are many ways to conceptualise systems change

Paulo started by highlighting the characteristics of systemic problems. They can’t be solved by a single organisation, have no single solution, are bound within a system that is greater than the sum of its parts, are poorly specified, are self-reinforced and are interconnected.

Paulo then outlined early insights from the Skoll Centre’s System Change Observatory that identified seven ways Systems Change is conceptualised:

  1. Disrupting the status quo
  2. Influencing chains of cause-and-effect
  3. Empowering agents
  4. Coordinating agents better
  5. Scaling change in numbers or scope
  6. Scaling institutional or cultural change
  7. Scaling an organizational model

There are three pathways to action

According to Paulo and Steve there are three pathways to affect systems change.

Intervening in the configuration and features of a system

Paulo highlighted from his research (Sustainability Hacking: conceptual development and empirical exploration) on sustainability hacking to bring this pathway to life.

A sustainability hack is an unconventional solution that deviates from embedded institutions, i.e. the rules of the game, to address a systemic problem. Sustainability hacks work around the ‘rules of the game’ to accomplish ‘good-enough’ results promptly. Paulo went on to present the five ways sustainability hacks intervene in the configuration and features of a system: emulating value flows; repairing missed value; exploiting a loophole; mirroring feedback loops; reformulating the logic.

Getting the best out of interdependencies

Steve outlined that this pathway requires systems thinkers to first search for connections within a system, particularly those connections that are not obvious or seem illogical. If you can’t find those connections, you then need to expand the boundaries of the system and make the problem bigger to find the variables in the system people ignore.

Looking beyond the organisational-level

The final pathway involves understanding the four failed value exchanges among multiple stakeholders (e.g. investors, employees, suppliers, customers, the environment or society) across a business network:

  • Value missed – I give but don’t get a return
  • Value destroyed – I give but you don’t want
  • Value surplus – I have too much
  • Value absence – you want but I don’t give.

Steve argued that when organisations map each of the four failed value exchanges across their broad set of stakeholders they uncover new value opportunities that redefine the system in which they operate.

Systems thinkers and leaders need to reframe systemic problems and recognise their limits

Steve challenged the room to change how each one of us thinks about systemic problems. Instead of setting targets and objectives, he challenged us to influence the systems around us by reframing systemic problems with ambitious visions for the future. Paulo then reminded us that systems thinkers need to recognise their limits and understand that in complexity, we can’t find a solution, only ‘manage messes’. Most importantly, systems thinkers and leaders need to be humble and recognise the extent of their ignorance to affect Systems Change.

Author bio: Carlos Blanco is an Oxford MBA 2019-20 student. For the past five years he has worked with the not-for-profit, government and private sector in Australia to drive systems change. He is increasingly interested in building broad coalitions of government, not-for-profit and private sector organisations to address humanities most pressing systemic problems.

If you can’t measure it, does it even exist?

Khanya Okumu is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA candidate and participant on our co-curricular Impact Lab programme. She reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in the autumn term, an ever growing and popular discussion  by social entrepreneurs, impact measurement.

For quite a while now, in the world of ‘impact’, there have been many opinions on whether impact can be measured. Even more contentious views exist on how it should be measured and if there is scope for these measurement metrics to be standardized. To address this specific topic, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship hosted a masterclass on the ‘Theory of Change and Impact Accountability’ as part of its Impact Lab Masterclass speaker series.

In a room of 100 people, less than a quarter were confident to admit they know everything there is to know about impact measurement and have the requisite skills to implement impact measurement well. This created fertile soil for speakers Nick Andreou and Francesco Valente (MBA 2018-19 candidates) to plant some ideas on how impact measurement works and how it should be applied to different initiatives.

The ‘why’ for impact measurement is relatively clear, imagine being a business owner or manager who did not monitor income, expenses, employee productivity or customer satisfaction, you would have no idea whether the business should continue or if you should just close shop. In the same way then it makes sense for social impact projects, programmes and investments to monitor and measure whether they are adding value in the way intended.

It’s the ‘how’ for impact measurement where things start to get blurry, and this is where a theory of change becomes important.

The logical steps in a theory of change start off with a needs assessment which identifies specific inputs or activities. These activities when done well lead to a specific set of outputs and outcomes. The result, therefore, should be impact.

I resonated with the initial definition provided by Nick and Francesco on what impact measurement is, as I am an accountant by trade, they defined it as ‘data collection and analysis – the accounting of the impact world’.

In order to do any kind of impact measurement well, the metrics need to be focussed on programme design, delivery and effectiveness. The three approaches covered in the masterclass are outlined in the figure below:

Figure table:

Impact (heading)
born ~50 years, example of bespoke study, focus on internal & external, is both quantitative and qualitative, has a low or different comparability, low to high rigour and very precise measurement.

Accounting (heading)
born ~20 years, example of GRI, ISO 26000,IRIS+ and more examples, focus on internal/external, is quantitative, has a high comparability, medium rigour and medium precise measurement.

Finance (heading)
born <5 years, example of Impact Money Multiple, focus on external, is quantitative, has a high comparability, low rigour and least precise measurement.

What is clear is that because of the varying outcomes to be measured different measurement tools such as reports, proxies and triangulation can be used. The challenges in adding rigour to the tools are the increase in costs and additional time required. Many ‘impact-first’ programmes tend to rely on external funding, funding which is intended to implement not necessarily for monitoring and evaluation. This is an opportunity for a work-around in the way funding is currently allocated by funds, donors and project sponsors.

By the end of the session, one thing was clear to me: there is a better understanding overall of impact measurement within the impact sector. Furthermore, our impatience with how metrics and measures could be standardised will draw us closer to a world where the metrics and measures are used in a way that adds value to all stakeholders.

The session noted above was part of a curated series of masterclasses for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship’s Impact Lab 2019-20 cohort. This session was run by Nick Andreou and Francesco Valente and co-created by MBA students Marvin Tarawally and Aupah Makoond.