Building the Case for Smart Choice – An Interview with Jessie Martin
Sound science, compelling stories – that’s the formula we’ve seen work time and time again in communities across the American West as they tackle climate change and water security.
Earth Economics has long been known for providing very smart science based information, but many of us were left scratching our heads “how do we use this to protect our water sources?”
Thanks to Jessie Martin, Earth Economics’ new Executive Director, this respected organization is charting a new course to best communicate their data findings. In this issue of Confluence, Jessie talks about how they are positioning themselves as a translator of qualitative information to quantitive value for both social and environmental benefits. Good news for everyone working to encourage investments in our water sources and green infrastructure in the West.
What projects at Earth Economics are you most excited about as you take the helm?
It’s hard to choose because we are involved in so many complex areas of systems change, and it’s all incredible. But some of our new, more iterative focus areas stand out as really exciting. For example, we are working on a project with Seattle Public Utilities to identify utility investments that are both a public benefit, but beyond that can actually create wealth in the community. To be helping to understand and quantify how public entities’ investments can actively drive prosperity close to home is so impressive and exciting, especially on the proof of concept level that we can then apply elsewhere.
Outside the utility world we’re also starting to gain traction in the impact investing space, which is great to see. We recently released a report that helps calculate a rate of return on sustainable land management practices in agriculture, and that work is catapulting us into broader finance conversations around monetization and financialization of these assets. We’re really positioning ourselves as a translator of qualitative information to quantitive value for both social and environmental benefits.
And, a program that I’m especially excited about, and think Carpe Diem West readers will be too, is our new Urban Green Infrastructure Lab program. I think it really resonates with a lot of your work. All over the country, we are bringing together utilities, community groups, procurement players and other key stakeholders for no-cost, daylong labs to inform their planning processes in a way that moves green infrastructure implementation to scale. We built this program on a year’s worth of rigorous research encapsulated in the Green Infrastructure Blueprint, and the next step is putting it into action on the ground. (You can learn more about the labs and apply here.)
And we are using the term “Green Infrastructure” broadly, so this work is not just about built GSI solutions but the forest and the watershed and beyond. We see that communities who are successful in this work have a high level of community buy-in, and one strategy for that has proven to be effective is rallying a community around a beloved natural asset – we love our river, our lake, our forest. Now how do we integrate that love into all of our planning?
The shifts in funding at FEMA are so exciting for communities investing in source water protection; what lessons are you drawing from that long-term effort that’s now bearing fruit?
My main takeaway is that the recognition of nature as infrastructure is really catching on. Working in federal policy change is a long progress, but we’ve been so encouraged by our work with FEMA since 2011. Right now, we are working with communities heavily impacted by recent disasters to make sure nature is a key part of their recovery and planning solutions. We are working to make sure that nature is prioritized and valued right alongside the built assets that have historically driven this process, and we see that shift happening. There’s no doubt that conservation and restoration are key interventions in mitigation and resilience. These are strategies that save lives and save dollars, and to see federal and state agencies recognizing that and really acting on it is exciting.
With your interest in communications, and your training and practice as an environmental economist, what innovations are you seeing in how deep data is shared?
This has become a major focus area of ours, because we do all this data-driven, very detailed, science-based work. And then people don’t quite know what to do with it! How do we translate that detail into something usable? We have to help our partners translate the data into action, and a powerful way to do that is to tell a story.
There is no standard formula for making the case for nature, but there are some foundational principles like values-based messaging. And I don’t mean economic values here; I mean personal values. It’s really important to realize that those values and the case for nature are not the same for everyone. What works in Seattle doesn’t necessarily work in Tulsa. People want to know, how do nature-based solutions make my life, and my kids’ lives, better? And to understand that, you have to ask people. The economic values are critical, but we have to build support from the ground up, we have to get buy in.
So we are tailoring our outputs, and that’s a visible change that we’ve gotten good feedback on over the last year. The Green Infrastructure Labs are a great example of that. The original report is 70 odd pages with an econometric model, policy analysis, interviews –a ton of excellent research. But that wasn’t going to land with people unless we took it a few steps further. The research has value for researchers, academics, some policymakers, but it needs to be distilled and actually applied for a broader audience. So, we created a web-based resource center from that work that’s centered on 5 shifts, and in 2019 we’re helping communities build that into their planning processes through on-the-ground capacity building and implementation support.
Now for every report, we identify key storylines and the data that supports it. We give all our partners a guide on how to use the data to make really strong, meaningful points. And we’re starting to move further beyond valuation into actual monetization – so we tell you what it’s worth, but then we help you figure out how that value plays out in real terms via funding and financing mechanisms. I think we are seeing exponential growth in the usability of our work over the last year or so.
At Carpe Diem West’s Healthy Headwaters program we talk a lot about how to bring these innovative solutions to scale. Are you also working on that challenge?
Yes! The Blueprint and Labs are all about getting to scale. One of the ways we’re framing that is through a governance lens. We know that environmental and social benefits extend beyond jurisdictional boundaries, and across ecological systems, and we don’t have great processes in place for making decisions across human-drawn lines. So how can we help de-silo the planning process and make it less about agency-specific service mandates, and more about large-scale community outcomes?
So, in the labs, the first part of the day is about getting on the same page with a collective understanding of your community’s natural capital wealth, shared vision, values, and goals, and a shared language and framework to move forward together toward those goals.
The second half of the day is tailored to focus areas, from governance, to accounting practices, to community engagement, all aimed at moving toward these broad, community-level outcomes. We could be working with communities just dipping their toes into green infrastructure and others who are doing much more. The goal is to get beyond a tipping point for real impact in communities all across the country.
Jessie Martin is the Executive Director at Earth Economics. Jessie has more than a decade of strategy development and management experience in both the private and public sectors. She has led a variety of interdisciplinary teams for small businesses, non-profit organizations, academia, and Fortune 500 brands, managing process optimization, tracking systems improvements, and ensuring financial health. She has worked on issues that range from sustainable manufacturing to food justice to solar energy siting, and her economics research has spanned topics from the impacts of soil contamination to the determinants of public investment in green infrastructure. Jessie is an environmental economist with a focus on econometrics, and her hedonic pricing research has received international attention for research design and application. She uses both quantitative and qualitative methods in her work to inform her analyses with real world experiences, resulting in practical tools that maximize impact and are easy to use.