Lessons learnt

The lessons learnt presented here are commonalities that have been found running through the GAIA project and its four cities’ teams. They are condensed out of interviews, observation and participation at workshops and have been iterated by all project teams. The lessons primarily concern the multi-stakeholder processes and the facilitation of those.

1. Create a (1) sense of ownership

Creating a sense of ownership is central in a multi-stakeholder process. This does not refer to a hierarchical meaning but that stakeholders and actors are engaged and have a capacity and will to implement. A sense of ownership is important for action to take place. And the ownership grows out of creating the project from the reality of people’s needs and interest, or at an organisational level, from their targets and mission. Creating ownership is about meeting people where they are at, and from that creating the project, thereby it is owned by the organisations and individuals that take part. Ownership is important both at the organisational and the individual level.

One example is how one city started their core group by contracting consultants. The consultants conditions where that their involvement required payment for each activity or meeting. After some time and reflection the city restructured the core group by engaging stakeholders whose goals where aligned with GAIA and who where already doing activities along those lines. This change of the core group enabled more joint work and activities to take place. It enabled a pooling of resources.

2. Balance between 2 poles

It is not either or but to find the balance along those lines. Depending on scale and context the balance might vary.

The process – result refers to the balance within the project at large between tangible measurable results and the process of getting there. As we talk about multi-stakeholder processes for learning, the process in itself is a large portion of the project and therefore a part of the result. On the other hand – to feel that the process is worthwhile participants need to feel that things move forward. This balance is also about how open-ended the process is expected to be, are the expected results already clear from the start or will the results develop along the way.

In the GAIA project, the participants experienced a tension between the open-ended and exploratory characteristics of the process on the one hand, and the need for structured planning and clear objectives expected from for example local authorities and EU on the other. The GAIA method is based partly on experiential learning theory where reflection and planning is followed by experimental action on the ground. This provides possibilities to combine an organic development of the process with linear planning towards well-defined objectives related to the actions. Also, at the end of the GAIA project several cities stated that the action component of the method helped the teams to see the long-term direction of their work more clearly.

The innovate – institutionalise refers to the balance in the project at large between doing new things and to bring things done into the structures of the organisations or other platforms or arenas in the community. Projects on sustainability often hit boundaries of structural realities. But lessons learnt within a project scope can be used to instigate structural changes.

The balance between intuition and structure refers to the facilitator’s role. A learning process with stakeholders need to be based on a structure that is planned beforehand, yet it still should have room for adaption, as things might unfold in a way that requires change, and allowance to trust intuition to build on what occurs. The facilitator have to do more than just rigidly follow procedures and methods (structure), she or he has to practice reflectively, reading between the lines (intuition), finding ways to adapt to meet the demands, challenges or opportunities arising within a process. That means to carefully prepare and plan the work, which later enables improvisation and adjustment to new circumstances.

The balance between develop projects and work within existing project/structures refers to that a stakeholder process like this has a lot of possibilities to build on existing projects but also that there is room for bringing on new ideas. Neither is good or bad – it is about finding a balance that fits the context (see nb 4).

In GAIA several city teams worked with what came to be coined “Gaiafication”. As the city teams consisted of people from different organisations and networks there was an instant contact to projects and events that where already on going or planned. Through the inquiries cities found that building on and contributing to those projects was a possible way to fulfil the goals of GAIA. However, at times it can be important, or desired, to make an imprint, to be able to say – “This is a GAIA activity.”

3. Zooming in and zooming out – acknowledge scales

A recurrent challenge in sustainability work is the difficulties to link activities on the scale of the individual with changes on higher scales of a system. Therefore, efforts to bridge between scales are crucial. For meeting this challenge we used the metaphor of zooming in and zooming out in GAIA. When zooming in we focused on concrete work on the ground and when zooming out we sought to understand the linkages between the concrete work and possibilities and limitations for systemic changes at higher scales.

One city representative reflects on the scales like this:

“It is not only helpful thinking of scales but I think there is a need to a certain degree to shield the local actors / local groups from higher scales. Help local actors / local groups to get the broader picture in which their actions fit. But beware that the actions they plan are concrete enough and are focussed enough.

A few sayings / truisms:
‘Learn to walk before you can run’

‘To get at your destination you have to take one step at the time.’ And from time to time someone has to look at the course.”

4. Four cities – four different contexts

The context is always crucial to understand and adapt to. Following are some aspects to build an understanding around in each specific context:

  • Institutions: What are the rules? What is the culture? What resources are available? Rules relate to both formal regulations as well as informal practices among organisations and individuals involved.
  • Problem: What is the problem? Is there a shared understanding? Is it complex? Is it prioritized, and by whom?
  • Actors or stakeholders: What is their history of collaboration? What relations do they have; how does the power dynamics/structures look like? What knowledge do they have? What resources and decision-making capacity?

The conditions for a multi-stakeholder collaboration are created through the interaction between these three levels: institutions, the problem and its stakeholders. The interaction is dynamic, meaning it changes over time. Depending on the context, certain preconditions will facilitate collaboration while others complicate it. Understanding this interaction is essential in a multi-stakeholder participatory project. For example, it may be appropriate to seek to create a common understanding of the problem. It is important that the conditions are analysed together with the stakeholder group.

In GAIA different contexts was reflected in how the cities’ core groups worked. For example, stakeholders’ previous experience of working in open-ended, iterative processes was reflected in the collaboration.

5. Diversity

A project that is multi-stakeholder and participatory will need to both foster and manage diversity of various kinds:

  • Diversity in methods: nudge, think, create exhibitions, network and a lots of others
  • Diversity in stakeholders: the need and challenge to enable and gather broad participation despite unequal opportunities.

The importance of diversity correlates with context. As there are many differing contexts, we need a diversity of methods. And with a diversity of stakeholders we want to interact in a diversity of ways as groups and we different individuals can be reached in a diversity of ways.

Finding key people and partnerships is crucial. It is not always obvious who the key people are. Related to this is that it is very important to look at marginalised groups and demographics and find the groups to include, to find a relevant starting point for the community.

One key lesson here is to be brave, to talk about things from new angels. To dare to act out of the box, to act out of the ordinary.

One example is how a project in a challenged neighbourhood reached kids with music. A community centre has a studio which creates a meeting place, that lays the base for a deeper collaboration leading to discussions about recycling, leading to a feeling of ownership and responsibility for their environment. The back-lanes in the area that used to be trash-dumps transformed into a place to hang-out, play, ride bikes and meet.

6. Iteration

Collaborative processes and learning for behavioural change will include iteration. There is not a fixed goal as the contexts are evolving; stakeholders change and lessons are learnt. Iteration also symbolizes the learning that occurs from failure. A failure is also a result that allows learning that can influence next step, next iteration.

In the GAIA project a lot of trial and error has occurred. The project has involved a “reflective practice” that has grown into the organisations. The iteration is needed and also occurs on several scales as discussed under nb 3.

GAIA is dealing with complex issues on sustainability and change. Working with small steps in an iterative process allows for trial and error. To build in iterations is to build in learning into the process. There is no pre-determined end but through dialogue between stakeholders knowledge is gained and built up.

Σ – Boundaries for reporting

Σ the sigma-sign is a symbol of sum and represents therefore lesson nb 7 .

As a EU-project there are certain requirements for reporting results. This is important to enable evaluation which in turn can contribute to learning at the EU-level. To report thouroghly helps answering questions about: What are feasible actions? Have the money been well spent? What can be improved?

However there are some challenges around ‘system boundaries’ when it comes to this kind of project. A project should report about its activities and results, but in a collaborative multistakeholder process it is not always clear or obvious. The challenges have two dimensions:

  • Time scale – A successful learning project will not have its main results manifested within the 3 year project period.
  • System boundary: what can and should be attributed to this project? If the “multi“part (of multi-stakeholder) has been successful it is not easy to define what is belonging to this project or other projects. A protectionistic approach is not compatible with deep collaboration and trying to thruthfully describe who’s project is who’s will not be appropriate. In order to capture certain outcomes of organic projects, such as unexpected “side effects” and qualitative outcomes that are difficult to measure, it is important to acknowledge personal stories.

A spirit of collaboration, generosity and joint trust is the foundation for this kind of work.

One important distinction that is clarifying in this context is one between hard and soft system as exemplified in the table below. The GAIA project is focussing on a soft system perspective while the format for reporting to the European Commission is based on a hard system perspective.

From: Winter, M. and P. Checkland. 2003. Soft Systems: A Fresh Perspective for Project Management. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Civil Engineering. Vol 156, Issue 4, Pp. 187-192


A diversity of ideas at an activity planning workshop in Malmö, 2013.


Building teams and creating a sense of joint ownership takes time, time to listen to each others perspectives with openness and curiosity.

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