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Insights / Article

30 May 2024 / 6 min read

A birthday retrospective: reflecting on the last three years at the Sustainability Accelerator

This month marks the third birthday of the Sustainability Accelerator. Alongside stocking up on the ballons and birthday cake, we’re marking this milestone with a series of articles reflecting on where we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going next. By ‘thinking aloud’ in this way, we hope to enrich the thinking of both our readers and of our own team, while also sketching out opportunities for future conversation and collaboration.

The Sustainability Accelerator team in 2024 celebrates their third birthday!

In this first article, we start by thinking about the mission of the accelerator – and how we approach it within Chatham House, at this particular moment in history.

Founded over a century ago as a vehicle for peace negotiations, Chatham House works ‘to foster mutual understanding of and between nations‘, notably through the creation of safe and trusted spaces to explore and resolve complex issues.1 The Sustainability Accelerator’s contribution to this mission is to offer a perspective on how broader geopolitics interact with the climate crisis and energy transition. Such insights have only become more important in the three years since our creation – as the increasingly severe impacts of climate change have been accompanied by widespread backsliding on progress, against the backdrop of a fractious and contested global order. There might be green shoots, but there are a lot of brick walls, too.

How do we respond? Part of the answer is in the name – we're an accelerator, here to help find ways to speed up the inception and implementation of policy to address the climate crisis. But this isn’t just about speed, it’s also about ambition – helping to incubate and amplify solutions that meet the scale of the challenges we face.

As innovators based in an institute with over one hundred years of convening experience, we know that relationships of respect and a rigorous diversity of thought are vital to achieving this. Such diversity is exemplified by our annual Unconference, where over a hundred policymakers and philosophers, researchers and artists come together to explore and expand the scope of our collective response to the climate crisis.2 The UnConference models democratizes the act of setting the agenda, tapping into the collective conscience of the attendees by asking them what needs to be discussed and allowing them to hold those conversations. In 2023, topics ranged from the benefits of neurodiversity in the climate transition to the role of government as a systemic investor.

The Sustainability Accelerator's Unconference in 2023 begins.

At the Unconference, participants lead on the agenda setting. In discussion circles participants explored everything from challenging the growth mindset to humanity and artificial intelligence.

It is also visible in our recent work on the Bioeconomy. Integrating with Chatham House’s broader research into land use 3, the Bioeconomy project is actively building bridges between sectors and disciplines, developing the conceptual models and relationships crucial to unlock rapid evolution and growth in this vital area. 4

Convening at the boundaries of different communities is not always easy – the dangers of miscommunication or confusion are always present. But while this might generate challenging moments, this experience has also underlined for us how vital it is for the transition to both honour and extend the kinds of multi-perspective dialogue for which Chatham House is globally recognised.

And this, in 2024, is where we find ourselves. Almost halfway through the decisive decade for climate action and nature protection and restoration. Operating along the fault lines of policy, innovation and climate action, and confident that it is in the spaces between such worlds that the most powerful answers will be found. As writer and activist adrienne maree brown says, ‘what you pay attention to grows’ – and so we keep our feet on the ground, while looking ahead to the contours of a world that is just, sustainable and secure, and seeking out the pathways that can lead us closer to it. 5