Innovation drives regeneration

Funding innovative environment solutions

When language changes, it’s a fair bet that there is something more profound going on. Across the environment movement, the words that used to describe the problems – and particularly the pathway to possible solutions – have shifted and taken on some of the vernacular of the business sector. Here comes ‘innovation’, ‘entrepreneur’, ‘investment’, ‘start-up’ and ‘capital’.

Dermot O’Gorman, WWF Australia CEO. Image: Laurent Desarnaud

“I think we have seen for the past decade or more, a blurring of the lines between profit and not-for-profit,’’ WWF Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman says. “And that’s not a bad thing. We’re seeing commercial players deliver more purpose-type impacts in their business and we’ve seen NFPs now move more to commercial-type operations, which is more that social ventures profit with purpose.’’

WWF is demonstrating that trend with a range of innovations that underline how the thinking behind the language has changed. But let’s consider some of the context behind that shift.

“There are trillions of dollars now lining up to be invested in sustainable development and this past six to nine months, has just gone mad,’’ Dermot says. “This is not a problem of lack of capital: this is a problem that we have not got the type of projects that match that capital…so it’s the mechanism to marry that capital to great ideas and projects. That’s what’s missing.’’

Thinking is one thing, circumstance another. Just months after the horrendous summer of bushfires, WWF is preparing to launch its Regenerate Australia innovation challenge. It combines community engagement, philanthropy, impact investment, collaboration and storytelling to help identify a way forward. “We have to come up with a way to regenerate Australia back in a way that future proofs us and makes us more resilient to the world we’re going in to,’’ Dermot explains.

During the past few months, WWF spoke to a range of people from bushfire-affected communities. Those conversations were supplemented by discussions with entrepreneurs and impact investors. The first public expression of those conversations will be a short, reflective film entitled 2030. The date is important – it underlines the urgency of the challenge, only heightened by the summer’s devastation.

But what has also come through from the community discussion is a strong desire from those communities to become more empowered and to find their strength in renewal and rebuilding.

The other part of the approach is to identify and build solutions, through WWF’s innovation partnership vehicle, Impactio, a social venture that works with impact investors. Impactio represents a new way to explore opportunities and solutions. It has access to 120 subject matter experts around the world and works as a global project curation and funding platform that can bring together social entrepreneurs, experts and financiers to develop viable new projects that meet the UN’s sustainable development goals. It has already curated and put forward 39 projects for funding since it was launched in September 2019. Impactio has also run three challenges or calls for start-ups, including a future cities theme and the Sustainability Advantage in partnership with the NSW Government.

“That is a way for us to think about how we bring entrepreneurs, experts in environment, experts in financing, experts in social ventures, to then come up with best projects that can be matched up with capital,’’ Dermot says.

The first part of the Regenerate Australia innovation challenge will be rolled out later this year and will administer a $1 million fund to identify and support innovative solutions for species and climate adaptation and restoration. The second challenge scheduled for next March will leverage $2 million from the WWF’s bushfire funds to enable a potentially much larger fund of about $20 million to bring some of the transformative solutions to life, in co-operation with frontline communities.

Central to the challenge itself is an understanding that the concept of regenerating Australia is one that applies to the environment as well as society. Engaging local communities has helped refine what “regeneration’’ looks like.

“We know there is a problem and we want people to work with us to solve those problems – it’s not for us to come in and say: ‘Here’s the solution that I want to give you’,’’ Dermot says. The community input is one thing but the second element – introducing the entrepreneurial and impact investing focus – adds another dimension to the regeneration solution.

“The other thing is bringing together entrepreneurs, impact investors and other people who are passionate about communities and landscapes and regenerating Australia with those solutions and being able to come up with bankable solutions that can deliver impact but are commercially sustainable in the long term and are not totally dependent on philanthropy,’’ Dermot says. “I think that blending of philanthropy and impact investing is a very exciting place to be…’’

Behind all of this is a powerful faith in innovation to make a difference. Dermot recalls how five years ago the WWF looked at the global megatrends and investigated how the organisation could harness them to deliver sustainable development goals. Technology was one element, but there was something else going on that Dermot and his team identified.

“[It] was really the way the organisations in the NfP and private sector were using innovation as a way of being able to adapt, to be more agile to that changing trends,’’ Dermot says

“So, we set off on an innovation journey about five years ago, which has been very rewarding but quite challenging in trying to change the way we go about our business.’’

The WWF put in place some ‘guardrails’ to help provide some support and guidance to its efforts, but what emerged was thinking not dissimilar to what happens with new businesses, especially around issues of scale.

“We said that most of the big problems we were trying to solve by thinking about scale from the very beginning like entrepreneurs do with start-ups,’’ he says.

“We wanted to try to solve problems that were scalable globally, not just problems, for example, in northern NSW.’’

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