It's an oft-repeated truism but“We live in uncertain times” is an oft-repeated truism that has never been truer than it is today.

As if the Climate Emergency, major shifts in geopolitical power and other global forces weren’t challenging enough, the world’s largest public health crisis for a century means we are in epoch of almost unprecedented disruption to our economies and societies.

Will the global community come out of this disruption weaker or stronger?

We must start by understanding that all the major challenges we face are systemic in nature.  The pandemic and the climate emergency are two primary examples.  We will fail if we try to tackle them with piecemeal actions.  Systemic challenges demand systemic solutions.


Furthermore, given the scale and complexity of these global challenges, many of the solutions must be new.  They must be novel.  They must be put in place quickly.  Time is short.

This is why our two agencies have formed a new partnership.  It’s a partnership that is surprising some people, but it makes clear sense given the Scottish Government’s determination to foster a fairer, greener and more lasting economic recovery.

After all, how can SEPA protect the environment if the economic recovery is not a green one?  How can Scottish Enterprise create lasting prosperity if we don’t create the low-carbon jobs and industries of tomorrow?

We believe that this partnership positions our organisations to move quickly to play our respective roles in implementing the Higgins Report recommendations which were published this week.

Let’s look at one example of our joint work.


In the Levenmouth catchment in Fife, we are joint signatories to a Sustainable Growth Agreement to promote the regeneration of this part of Scotland.  The original partners in this programme are Diageo, Fife Council, Fife College, Forth Rivers Trust, Scottish Water, Sustrans, the Central Scotland Green Network Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Keep Scotland Beautiful.

Recently, five more partners announced they are joining: Network Rail, the Coal Authority, Zero Waste Scotland, the Fife Coast & Countryside Trust and Historic Environment Scotland.

This is an outstanding set of partners from business, government and the third sector driving  practical actions.

HeraldScotland: CEO of Scottish Enterprise, Steve Dunlop,CEO of Scottish Enterprise, Steve Dunlop,

The partners are working on how the Government’s re-establishment of the rail link can be done in a low-carbon way.  Sustrans is investing over half a million pounds to scope out the creation of an ambitious network of walking and cycling paths and a series of river parks which will connect with the rail network and also re-connect isolated communities to each other and their environment.

Levenmouth is already quietly leading in low carbon innovation and the partnership will support the expansion of the area into an exemplar low carbon community of the future.  New uses are being investigated for old industrial sites.  Opportunities to clean up contaminated land sites and turn them from eyesore liabilities into community assets are being explored.

Students at Fife College have produced design and promotional material for the partnership, including apps and 3D site virtual reality for the active travel and rail projects.  The students are developing their skills by working on real on-ground projects.

A telling action took place during the lockdown.  At the start of the lockdown, the partnership was deep into consultation with the communities to understand community aspirations and needs.

The lockdown naturally took precedence over and temporarily halted this engagement.  The partnership shifted its effort to work with those on the ground to help deliver food parcels to people who needed them and looked for innovative ways to maintain the dialogue and trust earned so far.

An animation, virtual consultation rooms, social media interaction and competitions are among the ways the partnership has kept the communities talking and involved, in a time when having something to look forward to has never been so important.

HeraldScotland: CEO of Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) Terry A’HearnCEO of Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) Terry A’Hearn

This type of activity was never dreamt of when the partnership was designed, but it happened naturally because the nature of the partnership has snowballed.

This is partly because instead of a narrow focus on water quality alone in the River Leven (SEPA’s traditional focus) or a narrow focus on attracting inward investment alone (as sometimes happens with economic development agencies such as Sottish Enterprise), the partners have become galvanised to support the prosperity of the region in every sense.  A new social contract is being formed.

This goes to heart of the new types of innovation that must beat at the heart of 21st century partnerships.  It is no longer enough to partner together to simply attract an investment or build an asset.  These actions are vital, but the Levenmouth programme is showing that deeper partnerships can also quickly shift their focus to the resilience actions needed in an unprecedented crisis.

The potential of this new way of working has been recognised by John Elkington, the inventor of the world-famous ‘triple-bottom-line’ concept of profit, people and planet.  Elkington has advised major companies across the globe over the past thirty years.  Elkington’s think tank, Volans, has identified the Levenmouth project as a pioneering Scottish partnership which is a potential model for global economic recovery.

Elkington recently published a new book entitled Green Swans.  According to Elkington, a Green Swan is a new disruptive action which has the ability to transform the global economy and create the different type of prosperity which the 21st century needs.  The first of the three recipients of a Green Swan was the Eden Project in Cornwall which has attracted nearly 20 million visitors since it was established.


This week, Volans announced that the Levenmouth partnership is to be the first living case study in its Green Swan Observatory, propelling the project to the global ‘one to watch’ list for innovative approaches.

“The alignment of environment and economic agencies with private partners to accelerate regeneration in Leven can be a model for Scotland’s green recovery”, Elkington said.

This is evidence that, as Scotland has done in the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, we can punch above our weight and be a breeding ground for innovation that can help change the world.

Scottish Enterprise and SEPA are pursuing this new approach in other parts of Scotland.  How can  we help develop Glasgow, especially along the Clyde by finding innovative ways of tackling flood risks?  How can we help harness the industrial expertise and technologies of the Grangemouth complex to help create the low-carbon products and services of the future?

How do we help sectors such as whisky distillers and barley growers which operate in supply-chains in drought-prone parts of Scotland to find innovative ways of reducing water usage so they can maintain production and protect our rivers and lochs?

In every single one of these challenges, Scottish Enterprise and SEPA are but two of many organisations which will come together to create the economy of tomorrow.  The fact we can bring a combined economic-environmental focus will give these partnerships a head-start.

We believe that our unusual partnership will be one of many novel Scottish ‘assets’ that is created as people, organisations and communities act in the best tradition of our nation – stepping up, not stepping back, when the big challenges are to be tackled and the big opportunities are to be grasped.

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This article appeared in the June edition of Business HQ Magazine 2020.