The importance of global partnerships – and how to build them

From identifying need to aligning behind a vision, Forum for the Future’s CEO Sally Uren explores eight steps to building effective partnerships.

Given the urgency of the social and environmental challenges we face, there has never been a greater need to build system-changing collaborations. From identifying need to aligning behind a vision, Forum for the Future’s CEO Sally Uren explores eight steps to building effective partnerships. 

The unprecedented rise in climate activism being seen across the world reflects a population waking up to the threat of global warming – and is giving our political and business leaders nowhere to hide.

From the Swedish teenager who has incited more than a million children to stage school strikes to the socio-political movement using non-violent measures to bring cities around the globe to a standstill, citizens are making it clear they are no longer prepared to sit back and watch climate change – and the general mismanagement of our planet – continue. Even the BBC, long criticised for its unbalanced approach to climate reporting, has waded in with its recent unflinching documentary.

But while there may be near-universal agreement that we need to act urgently and decisively across a raft of environmental and interconnected social issues, what does action look like?

In it together

The systems that we currently rely on to support our way of life – such as food and energy – are broken. Rewiring those systems and tackling challenges such as climate change will need wholesale systems renewal.

But if there is one thing to be said about changing systems, it is that no single business, government or individual – even the remarkable Greta Thunberg – can do it alone. Partnerships, by which I mean collaborations between national governments, the international community, civil society, the private sector and others, are essential. By coming together, organisations can combine their insights, resources, creativity and collective leverage to create significant change.

Hard but not impossible

SDG17 responds directly to this need for a collective approach by seeking to strengthen global partnerships in order to support and achieve the ambitious targets of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustaibable Development Agenda[DG1]  – but progress has been slow.

Building these types of partnerships is easier said than done. At Forum for the Future, we have convened and delivered more than 40 pre-competitive multi-stakeholder collaborations over the last few years, and speaking from personal experience I know how tough it can be. But what I also know is that the challenges are not unsurmountable, and the potential rewards are great.

The Forum for the Future-led Sustainable Shipping Initiative, for example, which was tasked with creating a sustainable and successful shipping industry by 2040 – and which now operates as an independent non-profit – is making huge progress with the support of many of the industry’s biggest names. There is also the Cotton 2040 initiative, which through innovative tools such as the CottonUP online guide is providing practical methods and advice to drive sustainable cotton into the mainstream.

Another example is the global Protein Challenge coalition, which has brought together businesses, NGOs, civil society, government organisations and others across the food system to transform the way we produce and consume protein. In order to scale sustainable animal feed we have collaboratively developed decision-making frameworks for the food industry, which are now being piloted by key retailers on pork and salmon supply chains.                  

Through our work we have both designed and delivered our own collaborative initiatives, and acted as an expert advisor to others, giving us rich insights into the ingredients for successful collaborations, as well as a detailed understanding of how to deliver real outcomes that contribute directly to shifting systems onto more sustainable paths.

How to build a successful partnership

There are of course many types of partnerships, from problem-solving coalitions that set out to tackle a particular challenge together, to market-shaping collaborations, which bring together multiple stakeholders to address barriers within the system or to develop opportunities for bringing new products and services to market. The overall process in building them, however, usually follows a similar pattern, which we have condensed into eight steps:

  1. Confirm the need: identify a burning issue that you and others have the need and incentive to change
  2. Convene partners: Build a consortium of anchor partners who are committed to working together on a shared goal and have the influence to create change
  3. Scope and diagnose: understand the context you’re operating in, the opportunities and challenges – and diagnose the system together to build a shared picture of what’s happening and the nature of the challenges you face
  4. Explore emerging futures: bring people together to think into the future, create scenarios or explore future trends shaping the system or sector
  5. Align around a vision: build a shared set of principles that embodies the change you want to create
  6. Create strategies: brainstorm potential solutions, thinking widely at first then prioritising strategies for maximum impact
  7. Take collective action: develop parallel workstreams of action towards the shared vision
  8. Maintain momentum: keep learning from setbacks and coming together with the wider group to share lessons, encouragement and insights

You can find out more about these eight steps in our Collaboration Guidebook, which we originally created for the British Retail Consortium.

A helping hand

When it comes to addressing challenges such as poverty, water scarcity and climate change, the only option is to do so systemically. By this I mean addressing the root causes, shifting mindsets and beliefs, and designing for catalytic change that creates wider ripples through the broader system. And the only way to do all of that is through collaboration.

But building lasting partnerships can be a slow, complex and unfamiliar process. To take an idea and turn it into an actual project needs passion, commitment and some investment.

At Forum, we have a 22-year track record of solving complex sustainability challenges on a global scale and know what it takes to build successful partnerships. As a convener and catalyst, using diagnostic tools that allow the identification of specific areas for action within a given challenge, we identify and assemble stakeholders from across the value chain and develop areas where they can collaborate to transform not only their own operations, but entire systems.

Dr Sally Uren is Chief Executive of leading international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future. To find out more about our approach and how we can help you, visit

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