Starting a nature-based revolution in Ukraine

March 23, 2020

Image: Unsplash

The COVID-19 global pandemic shows that we're capable of mobilizing as a community to respond to life-threatening issues. We can see the power of the “collective” emerging throughout the world: from open-source 3D printing of medical supplies, to free entertainment for time in quarantine. At the same time, we can't help but wonder why we can't react like this to the issues of climate change and environmental degradation, which will lead just as grim consequences if we don't act.

For years, climate scientists and biodiversity experts have called for immediate action to stop further extreme weather events, mass extinctions, displacements, death from air and water pollution, and so on. But we're continuing business as usual in most cases.

Many say rapid change from one day to another is impossible. Well, the COVID-19 crisis shows that it is possible. Even without intending to, we're improving air quality, pictures of clear Venice canals are being posted on the internet, and some say that the lock-down has saved thousands of people from death from air pollution. So there are number of points we can learn for future environmental actions from this crisis, and can use our time in quarantine to reflect on our impact on the planet.

Indeed, reflecting and learning ahead of future actions is important, and there is a clear need to act on environmental issues during this time of crisis. There is evidence showing that environmental factors are affecting the spread of COVID-19 (e.g. lungs damaged by dirty air worsen the disease). And while our attention is focused on the pandemic, seasonal burning is going on in Ukraine,  polluting our air and making the virus crisis more serious. Everything is connected!

So we need to talk and act on environmental issues even more during this crisis. That's why we want to keep talking about our journey exploring environmental innovations in Ukraine.

When we just started working at UNDP’s Accelerator Lab, we quickly realized that environmental issues are not on Ukraine’s plate of priorities – rather, the country is hungry for economic growth and welfare.  Moreover, while Ukraine is rich in IT and tech inventions, solutions inspired by nature are rarely mentioned by large companies, creative startups, civil society, or government.

We started out with the hypothesis that natural solutions get us to a sustainable future faster. Conventional R&D cycles are slow, and climate change won't wait – so we need to look for biological blueprints that have been successful over millennia to launch ground-breaking ideas, faster and in a truly sustainable way (there is no such thing as waste in nature­ – waste is always another creature’s shelter or food). Nature has had millions of years to evolve the best solutions to problems that we humans are now facing. Moreover, if you look at our old traditions, humans have been used to working in tandem with nature for a long time. So we reckoned that if we dug around a bit, we’d be able to find local innovations inspired by nature in every village in Ukraine. And if we try harder, we might even start an innovation by nature revolution in Ukraine.                                                                         

Our efforts have shown that few people have heard about innovations inspired by nature: biomimicry, bio-design, nature-based solutions and others. Our second discovery was that there is no consensus here for how to describe many of the complex bio-innovation terms such as nature-based solutions (NBS) in Ukrainian. For that reason, we started with the basics; we worked in consultation with the environmental community to define the term in Ukrainian. Yes, we created a wiki page  about nature-based solutions, or “природоорієнтовані рішення” in Ukrainian.

The environmental community was overwhelmingly satisfied of this national achievement of establishing the Ukrainian version of NBS. Organizations began to edit and improve our initial wiki page, adding their stories and experiences. Many started contacting us, sharing their work on NBS-related projects. In this way, we’ve started a small Nature-based Community in Ukraine.

Next, we wanted to join efforts, act and experiment together with the community of environmentalists in Ukraine. In November 2019, we conducted several seminars and meetings on the topic with a growing circle of new partners. One such meeting (Urbanyna) gathered 500 participants in a huge old market building in Kyiv’s Podil district. But the coolest event for us so far was the one organized in partnership with  Cost Action-Circular City,  Change Agents  and CO Green Wave  –  the Community Safari.

The idea of a safari event is to empower grassroots activists to collectively identity problems in their city and then explore possible nature-based solutions projects. We must add that one more important point of the safari was to produce a set of experiments at the end of the event; small practical solutions not giant urban planning projects. The safari teams worked non-stop during the event, but they are now working even harder on their five experiments in Podil district of Kyiv, testing composting, green walls, moss modules, drainage system and green valley implementation. And for us at the UNDP Accelerator Lab, the most important experiment is to test whether grassroot initiatives can influence the planning and landscaping of their city. Would the bottom-up approach work in this case, and if so, how?

While we wait for the safari’s experiments to bear fruit, from our experience of running the event, we’ve already realized that the concept of a Community Safari works very well. For that reason, we created an open source toolkit that shows any community how to run similar events and develop their own nature-oriented experiments. It is already available for download here.

In April, UNDP together with the Ukrainian Biodiversity Fund and UNICEF will scale up the Community Safari concept and give a “push” to millions of cool local initiatives in Ukraine.

Working on innovations by nature is certainly an enjoyable journey and can only get better with world-class partners. That’s why we’ve partnered with the Biomimicry Institute in the United States and with a number of Ukrainian NGOs to join in the Global Biomimicry Challenge – but more about that in the next blog.

Last, but not the least, let’s use the time of self-quarantine and physical distancing to reflect on how we can unite and mobilize resources to address the environmental crisis with the same urgency as we’re responding to COVID-19.

Do you have any good nature-based ideas? Do you work on such projects and know about the topic? Get in touch with us at!