Sailing through the storm: learning from local knowledge about the climate crisis in the Global South

UNDP Accelerator Labs
4 min readFeb 3


By: Alberto Cottica, R&D Specialist, UNDP Accelerator Labs

Drought in Tana River County, Kenya. © UNDP / Michael Kibuku

In the Global South, climate change is a development problem. It is both a problem and an amplifier of other development problems, such as subpar infrastructure, weak institutions, multidimensional poverty and armed conflicts. As such, it is a priority for UNDP, and it has been for decades, going all the way back to the 1992 Earth Summit, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was first opened for signing. Addressing climate change is built into our strategic plan, with green transitions as a direction for change and building resilience as a signature solution. Through the Climate Promise, we systematically support developing countries in implementing the Paris Agreements. We are one of the agencies of the Global Environmental Facility, where we contribute by helping countries the world over to design and implement activities consistent with the protection of environmental resources.

From our point of observation as the UNDP Accelerator Labs, we learn from communities in the Global South as they try to adapt to climate change through bottom-up action to achieve safety and resilience. This process is local, reactive, belated and sometimes conflictual. It operates under very tight time constraints, as often people’s immediate livelihoods are affected, and there is no time to wait for a global political agreement. It looks more like firefighting, or sailing through a storm, than like the rationally planned, harmonious effort advocated publicly by experts in the Global North, and it vindicates the approach of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment Report: “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” And yet, this bottom-up action displays signs of self-organization and makes use of local and indigenous knowledge not necessarily available to national-level policy makers.

Mobilizing collective intelligence to fight the climate crisis

This entanglement of climate change with so many dimensions of sustainable development means that we need to attack the climate crisis. So, the UNDP Accelerator Labs are focusing on learning about bottom-up solutions to trigger climate action. What we are trying to learn about is collective intelligence, the phenomenon that happens when, working together, many individual people make up a collective that generates insights that none of the individuals can produce in isolation. We have used collective intelligence approaches before, to learn about informal economic sectors, where structured information is scarce on the ground, and to inform our own learning about how to deploy fast, flexible, accountable responses to development challenges.

This time, we want to know how collective intelligence is being applied to fight the climate crisis, what is working and how we can do more with it. We will be asking questions like: how is local and indigenous knowledge influencing adaptation strategies? How do patterns of land ownership affect adaptation? Where are the “double dividend” cases, where progress on other dimensions of development will automatically curb maladaptation, like poaching and logging? How do you build constituencies when evidence doesn’t seem to move people to action?

Collective intelligence is inherently participatory. This is an advantage: IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report warns us that effective measures against climate change are not realistic without a participatory approach. We need public participation to make the transition fair and acceptable to all. We need local and indigenous knowledge, because adaptation is irreducibly local and contextual. Thanks to their global reach, the UNDP Accelerator Labs are uniquely positioned to get a holistic view of the opportunities for action available in the Global South. To further systematize that view, we partnered up with NESTA’s Center for Collective Intelligence Design, with whom we have worked together in the past to understand the ways that collective intelligence adds value to sustainable development.

Opportunities for action: water management, conflict resolution, solar powered local economies…

While climate is a global system, the consequences of climate change tend to be local. Both impacts and their associated risks depend on local vulnerabilities; for example, the actual damage dealt by a flood in a specific locale depends on construction technology, drainage infrastructure, disaster preparedness and so on. This local dimension gives communities in the Global South an opportunity for action: they may not be able to stop the emissions driving climate change itself (most emissions happen in the Global North), but they can act to protect their people from its worst consequences. This action is based on knowledge that is itself local, valuable, but hard to map.

So, UNDP is building a global portfolio of learning about collective intelligence for climate action. The emerging elements are shaping up:

  • We are deploying crowd mapping and tapping into community knowledge to discover and scale up locally successful adaptations to floods and droughts, both in urban contexts (like in Panama and Uganda) and rural, remote ones (like in Guatemala, Mozambique and Bolivia).
  • In some countries (like Kenya, Sudan, Togo and South Sudan) the same phenomena alter the patterns of transhumance followed by herders, leading to conflict for resources between herders and farmers. Here, UNDP powered by its Accelerator Labs is promoting peer-to-peer exchange and integrating local knowledge and geodata to improve resource allocation and support peacebuilding efforts.
  • Elsewhere, deliberation, ethnographies and (again) crowdmapping are being deployed to design successful adaptations. This is the case for urban areas in North Macedonia, preparing to face longer and harder heat waves; remote island communities in Fiji, learning to live with solar-only electricity generation; farmers in Samoa tracking the spread of invasive alien species; mining communities in South Africa, who hold the keys to a just transition away from coal mining; and displaced communities in Maldives, already relocated to escape rising sea levels, who now need to re-learn cyclone preparedness in their new context.

Over this year, we will be working globally on this perspective, learning as we go. If you want to know more, or feel you have something to contribute, get in touch with or



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