Building Permanent Resilience: An Interview with Dr. Youssef Nassef

August 17, 2020

Dr. Youssef Nassef, the Director of the Adaptation Programme at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, recently launched the Resilience Frontiers Initiative (RFI)to achieve permanent resilience beyond 2030. Harnessing the power of paradigm-shifting frontier technologies and emerging social trends, this Initiative identifies eight transformative pathways that will steer the world towards this future. These trajectories focus on reconceptualizing humanity’s relationship with nature, cultivating a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship, ensuring that frontier technologies contribute to the well being of humanity, feeding the world’s fast-growing population with regenerative food systems and equitably managing the natural resources that sustain communities’lives and livelihoods. Dr. Nassef spoke to us about what inspired him to establish the Initiative, its priorities and the challenges it now faces during the coronavirus pandemic.

( Youssef Nassef, Director – Adaptation Programme, UNFCCC )

 Q: What is the Resilience Frontiers Initiative?

Y.N: It is a foresight-driven initiative that brings together thought leaders from diverse backgrounds – artificial intelligence specialists, futurists, representatives from indigenous communities, climate scientists and sustainable development practitioners, for example – to envision permanent resilience beyond 2030 and forever thereafter.Using foresight methodologies, these experts not only visualize what this new future will look like, but they also prioritize the actions that we must take to build it.

Q:What motivated you to create this?

Y.N: The science is a clear motivator. Recent findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, for example, highlight the need for unprecedented transformations to avoid the worst ecological impacts and for the sefar-reaching transitions to happen quickly. The window of opportunity that we have to sustain human well-being and prosperity on this planet is closing rapidly.

At the same time, we are witnessing a technological paradigm shift. Over the next decade, advances in artificial intelligence, internet speed, block chain,autonomous technologies, drone technologies, satellite technologies and biotechnology will shake up global systems, dramatically changing everything from how we grow our food and build our neighborhoods to how we manage transboundary challenges and value natural capital. These innovations – both individually and collectively – will likely trigger transformative changes similar to what we have seen before with both the information technology and the industrial revolutions. The RFI focuses on leveraging these emerging innovations to achieve permanent resilience, rather than lock in unsustainable growth.

Although many of us recognize the need for transformative change, we also suffer from deep-seated cognitive biases that prevent us from acting at the right moment,which is now! Many of these biases also pervade our current decision-making processes, which are not optimized to respond rapidly to these acute warnings.Retooling global cooperation, alongside incentivizing collective action, is at the core of the Initiative’s work.

Q: How is the RFI different from other platforms?

Y.N: Many initiatives are dedicated to building resilience and sparking transformative change. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)is, for example, one of the most significant global efforts – at least within the United Nations system. But I believe that several factors set the RFI apart,and one is its time frame. Our starting point is 2030, at which point we assume that the SDGs have been achieved and that the technological paradigm shift is well underway, and we are focused on achieving permanent resilience beyond 2030– basically forever.

Another key difference is our foresight methodology. Instead of focusing on how we will solve today’s problems with today’s technologies, we anticipate the new realities that will accompany the technological paradigm shift over the next few years. We envision the future opportunities and challenges that these innovations will bring, with an understanding that they may render some of our current problems or systems irrelevant. In short, we think of the destination,and this future scenario that we aim for is one in which all human beings add more to Earth’s natural support system than they take away from it. This is a very simple way of putting it, but once you realize its implications, you start thinking very differently about many things, from our daily activities to over-population to how we measure well-being.

The RFI’s focus on holism is also distinct. The Initiative does not deal with issues in isolation, but rather, as part of a larger, interconnected picture. This requires transcending one’s thinking beyond current boundaries to see individual environmental hazards as symptoms of an underlying common ailment that must be cured – and for it to be cured irreversibly if humanity is to attain equitable,sustainable prosperity. We cannot, therefore, declare success after mitigating one environmental risk if the larger crisis remains unaddressed.

And finally, the RFI is devoid of any political agendas or other factors that might skew or limit our imaginations or capacity for blue-skies thinking – a departure from many other forums and platforms that are out there at the moment.

( RFI Inception Workshop in Songdo, 2019 )

Q: Who is involved in the RFI? And how does one get involved in this?

Y.N: The RFI capitalizes on thought diversity, and we have succeeded in bringing out the collective intelligence and imagination of all participants. We currently work with men and women hailing from a wide range of backgrounds, age groups and geographic regions. For anyone who wants to get involved, all that is needed is a willingness to envision a better world and the capacity to think about sustainability in a multi disciplinary way. Reach out to the RFI to learn more!

Q: Did you face any challenges or barriers in making RFI possible?

Y.N: The RFI, like many initiatives,has experienced new challenges during the COVID-19 lockdown, which have curtailed our ability to connect in person. For example, we cannot exchange ideas around the same table, engage in mental exercises to stimulate our imaginations or participate in futuristic activities together. But by connecting virtually, we have also been able to reach a much wider range of participant sat short notice.

Limited capacity and resource availability to continue offering training sessions on foresight methodologies to new participants represent additional obstacles that the RFI faces. In April 2019, over a hundred thought leaders came together in Songdo, South Korea to identify the eight transformative pathways needed to reach a resilient future, using tools like UNESCO’s Futures Literacy Lab framework and Futur/io’s moonshot approach. But as more people get involved in the RFI, it can be difficult to ensure that all newcomers acquire the same foresight skills and practices. We, however, will continue to share this knowledge virtually.

Then there are methodological challenges that we must fine tune. When we seek to catalyze fundamental shifts, for instance, we want to ensure that these transformations are not easily undone. But how do we measure this irreversibility? This is something that we are currently trying to address.

Q: What are the next steps? What do you have coming up over the months as part of the RFI?

Y.N: Now that we have identified the eight transformative pathways, we are moving on to the road mapping phase. This multi step,iterative process for each pathway involves: storyline validation, horizon scanning, compiling a broad list of actions (e.g. policy, financial and institutional reforms) and applying multi criteria analysis to identify upstream actions that will generate the greatest impact in creating a permanent transformation towards a resilient world. I call these actions “blue swan events”.

These road-mapping activities will occur during three online conferences. The RFI held its first in late July, focusing on the first two transformative pathways, and the next two events in September will deal with the remaining six.

With the current restrictions on meetings, all of this will happen virtually. But this new format will also allow many participants to engage, including people for whom it would be difficult to participate in a physical setting. We look forward to the active engagement of experts, who have expressed their interest in joining this process, and to identifying those key actions needed to ensure permanent resilience.


Related Articles

Thematic Areas

No items found.


About the Author

SLYCAN Trust is a non-profit think tank. It has been a registered legal entity in the form of a trust since 2016, and a guarantee limited company since 2019. The entities focus on the thematic areas of climate change, adaptation and resilience, sustainable development, environmental conservation and restoration, social justice, and animal welfare. SLYCAN Trust’s activities include legal and policy research, education and awareness creation, capacity building and training, and implementation of ground level action. SLYCAN Trust aims to facilitate and contribute to multi-stakeholder driven, inclusive and participatory actions for a sustainable and resilient future for all.