IEPC Project with SUNY and the UN

Sustainable Development Diplomacy
Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR)
27-08-2016

The new class of Sustainable Development Diplomacy (SDD) students was formed in the first 1,5 months of the 2015 academic year. In the second period, starting in October, these students already came together to work for over eight weeks on the International Environmental Policy Consultancy (IEPC) course. This course was meant for us to get familiar with project work and the consultancy trade. We were assigned to do a horizon scan on a topic with the nexus of Ocean’s, Biodiversity, Nutrition and Livelihoods (OBNL) for the United Nations (UN) policy analysis branch. There were twelve of us from all different kinds of masters – International Development, Environmental Science, Climate Studies, International Land and Water Management and Forest and Nature Conservation – and backgrounds. Doing a project for eight weeks with twelve people is already quite the task, but there was a special twist to this one.
All the way across the Atlantic Ocean, there were six other students from the State University of New York (SUNY) with whom we were to work together on this project. Another catch was that they already had started working on this project in the weeks before us and therefore already had a head start. However, their time was limited to work on the project from the point we joined in.

So a couple of challenges in the collaboration of the two research teams needed to be overcome:
– Working together with a six hour time difference
– The WUR team catching up on the work the SUNY team already had done
– Joining these two groups together to form one researching team
– The WUR team to keep involving SUNY as they moved fast with a large team and more time
– Working together different educational styles and backgrounds

This was, obviously, challenging for both sides. However, it was also a perfect opportunity for everybody to learn how to cooperate under difficult circumstances.
To go completely go  through the project and all its steps is too much but let me discuss the different styles of cooperation we touched upon.
We started off with trying to come together as one team. To close the gap which was already between us, not so much because of the ocean, but through the different starting points. This meant we had a Skype session every week with everyone of us, including the teachers. It soon became apparent that this was a very time consuming and not a very effective form of communicating and cooperation. The SUNY team had to leave their beds rather early to be present and we would had the day nearly behind us.
After this we moved to small research groups. We divided the chosen topic of aquaculture within the nexus OBNL in a couple of larger topics and formed small subgroups.
We let it up to the research groups how to organise communication amongst themselves. Some chose mail, others chose WhatsApp. Nearly all groups hosted small Skype sessions amongst themselves. These groups were mainly used to gather information and not so much on writing policy briefs yet. For most groups this construction worked well and served its purpose.

We also conducted a lot of interviews with experts in the field all over the world to gather information. Collectively we contacted over 140 experts through e-mail, skype, phone calls, and actually visiting the ones that were nearby. We also organized a panel discussion with experts to cover certain topics and the different views and challenges that exist.

A team of 4 students from the WUR even went to the European Commission in Brussels to talk to experts there and receive feedback on our work.

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The next stage was to bring all the information together and form policy briefs. There is a myriad of options how to share documents and data. For this project we chose to use Dropbox because it is system that was familiar to all of us and allowed for the organisation of data into several maps.
This organisation of this was also a startlingly difficult feat of management for those involved as a result of everybody using different schemes and ways to upload and file the data.
In the end we rather let go of the idea of bringing all the information together and decided to work in groups to work on policy briefs.
This provided shorter communication circuits and allowed for quick feedback on each other’s work. The SUNY team had their exams coming up at this final stage of the project which reduced the time they had for the project even more. However, because of these small groups, agreements could be made among the group members so everybody knew what they could expect. Stress was building up like it always does at the end of a project and some communication lines were failing and misunderstandings were born. It required tactical communication and diplomacy from both sides to meet each other in the middle on issues of discarding topics from the policy briefs.

As a result, we managed to organise a Skype meeting with everybody for the UN to present our work. Both students from the WUR and SUNY did presentation work and we closed off the project in a team effort.
I think everybody involved learned valuable lessons regarding information sharing, working with a time difference, and working in a large segmented group. Sometimes it was a hard lesson and sometimes we learned without noticing. What would we do differently when we could do it all over? A lot. But that is not how life or learning works. Spending too much time to try to manage an ungainly beast like this project is the exact mistake that we needed to make to prevent us from doing that in the future.
Student Experience: 
Daphne Schalekamp: The cooperation with the SUNY students was in some ways very challenging, yet a valuable learning experience. The most difficult part, in my opinion, was to find a way to feel like one research team rather than two separate groups at different ends of the Atlantic attempting to work together. This was made harder by the fact that the time SUNY students had available for the project was different from the amount of time we as WUR students had available throughout the project. The SUNY students started the project before we did, therefore, they started out having a big influence on the topic of the research we would be performing. This changed around when we as WUR students jumped into the project with a full time availability whilst their team kept working on a twelve hour a week basis. Since the Wageningen team was meeting and working together on the project every day for eight hours, the project was moving forward in a rapid speed and changing constantly. It proved to be difficult to keep the SUNY students up to date and involved in the decision making process. Though throughout the project we tried different organization and communication techniques to change that, nothing seemed to work well, which resulted in some frustration, at least on our side. What worked in the end was the decision to create small subgroups consisting of a mix of SUNY and WUR students whom were working together on a specific subtopic. This diminished the “us-and-them” feeling that had been there at the first part of the project because there was more one-on-one contact between group members from the different Universities.

Yanniek Huisman: The IEPC course was a good learning experience in teamwork, especially because it included collaboration with the overseas students that worked according to a different time schedule.

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