Would you know a win–win solution if you saw one?

To reach the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, we might need to implement cross-sector solutions that advance multiple goals simultaneously. But what, exactly, is a win–win solution?

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Before you read this post, ask yourself if you can define the term “win–win solution”. Would you know one if you saw one? Here’s an example: near a national park in Borneo, a health clinic provides affordable access to high quality health care, allowing people to pay for their health needs without illegally logging in the national park; this leads to lower forest loss rates and lower carbon emissions from deforestation. This intervention demonstrates that rural health care near forested areas can combat climate change, but is it a “win–win solution” for both health and conservation?

Called to action by the local to international interest in win–win solutions, the Science for Nature and People Partnership convened our Ecological Levers for Health Working Group: 28 researchers, practitioners, and philanthropist joining forces to find examples of win–win solutions for health and conservation and understand what makes them viable. As we embarked on this endeavor, we quickly realized that we had a problem: we didn’t all agree on the definition of “win–win”.

Some members of the Ecological Levers for Health Working Group meeting at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, California. Photo credit: Ginger Gillquist

Our problem had an obvious solution: we would go look up how other sustainability researchers and practitioners have defined win–wins in the past and then use their definition. The sustainability literature certainly uses many relevant terms, such as synergy, co-benefit, and win–win. But we were surprised to find that these terms were rarely defined. Even when the terms were defined, we found conflicting definitions or definitions that we could not figure out how to apply to the many proposed health and conservation examples that we were exploring.

So we put our brains together and came up with our own process-based definition. We found that in order to define win–wins, we needed to put them in context with 8 other outcomes: lose–lose, win–lose, lose–win, lose–neutral, neutral–lose, win–neutral, neutral–win, and neutral–neutral. Like lose–lose and some neutral–neutral scenarios, win–win solutions only occur when outcomes in the two sectors are positively correlated, and unlike any other outcomes, win–win solutions increase value for stakeholders in two sectors relative to baseline values. This new framework helped our 28 team members with diverse perspectives to discuss and document how we categorized intervention outcomes.

If stakeholders can agree on baselines, values associated with baselines, and how baselines will change due to an intervention, they can agree on whether a given intervention will be a win–win. More importantly, they might find interventions that aren’t win–wins but that still represent high value outcomes. For example, in the health care as climate action example above, conserving national parks might be a positively valued, neutral conservation outcome, because the goal is to avoid changes in forest cover. Ultimately, we think we can learn much about win–win solutions and other high value interventions by comparing them to the outcomes that we would rather avoid.

Skylar Hopkins

Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University

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