Planting Ideas and Cultivating Solutions

IDEAS FOR US Takes Local Action to Address Global Challenges

A polar bear stands alone on an ice floe. A melting island; a disappearing mammal. Krill, once a plentiful food source, diminishes. A shifting ecosystem; a dying species. A garden, once in bloom, wilts without water. A lack of resources; an arid seed.

The world faces a multitude of present and potential global crises — often put aside by belief that the world’s resources are infinitely abundant, needing no management. In Orlando, environmental solutions incubator IDEAS For Us develops, funds and scales solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges by organizing the public, private-sector businesses, and local elected officials to advance sustainability.

The organization aligns many of its key performance indicators with the results of the most collaborative goal-setting exercise in human history: the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development, which were adopted after three years of collaboration among 193 countries and nonprofits. In 2015, the 17 resulting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were announced to address issues such as eradicating poverty, halting climate change, assuring gender equality and stopping human trafficking and slavery.

“IDEAS For Us funds action projects that address as many of the Sustainable Development Goals as possible because addressing the problems at their intersectionalities yields the best solutions,” said Clayton Louis Ferrara, a biologist and the executive director of IDEAS For Us. “Our approach to sustainability is what we call the triple bottom line, which is being mindful of the economic, environmental and social factors within our projects and using that knowledge as a guideline to assure a positive economic, environmental and social impact on the people we are helping.”

IDEAS For Us started in 2008 in a dorm room at the University of Central Florida, where students Chris Castro and Henry Harding created the first chapter of Intellectual Decisions on Environmental Awareness Solutions, abbreviated to I.D.E.A.S. “Many of the environmental clubs on campus were very advocacy-focused, which certainly has its place,” Ferrara said, “but we always knew there was more that could be done than just talking without action.”

Ferrara and Castro, who serves as president of the group’s board and also as director of sustainability and resilience at the city of Orlando, saw the opportunity to turn the club into a nonprofit. They teamed up, and today the group is a 501(c)(3) and the only nonprofit in Central Florida that is accredited by the UN as a non-governmental organization or NGO.

Pruning the 17

Ferrara and Castro developed the “Five Pillars of Sustainability” in 2011 to help drive IDEAS For Us projects forward with a solid foundation for their actions. The organization’s goal is to solve the energy, water, food, waste and ecology crises of this era through sustainability, action, leadership and innovation.

Ferrara sighed as he rattled off global statistics. “This year we’ve experienced more carbon emissions than ever before in human history. The oceans have grown increasingly acidic — a 26 percent rise since the Industrial Revolution. Water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the population, and 60 percent of all wildlife has disappeared in just the last 30 years. If you want to know the future, look at the past. Data like this means major global extinctions and human suffering are inevitable without action.”

Data from the UN shows that globally, three in 10 people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and six in 10 lack access to safely managed sanitation facilities. It also reports that each day, nearly 1,000 children die from preventable water- and sanitation-related diseases.

According to the UN, only 57 percent of the global population relied primarily on clean fuels and technology as of 2017, falling short of the 95 percent target. UN research shows energy is the dominant contributor to climate change, accounting for about 60 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Growing Ideas

In response to statistics like those, IDEAS For Us supports projects that address harsh realities. “Environmental action is what’s important to us,” Ferrara said. “That’s why we started, and that’s still our focus today. It always will be our focus.”

The group’s hundreds of initiatives have included installing small-scale solar projects on homeless shelters in Miami; creating the internationally known urban farming eco-enterprise Fleet Farming; organizing environmental action projects in Central Florida, Nepal, Rwanda, Liberia and Romania; and spearheading the #LastStraw campaign, which encourages businesses to switch to compostable products over plastic and offer straws only by request.

The catalyst of this action is the IDEAS Hive, a local intergenerational, interdisciplinary think-and-do tank. The monthly meetings are open to the public and are held on the second floor of East End Market on the first Wednesday evening of every month.

The open-door policy allows for everyone to join the IDEAS Hive and be a part of the conversation and brainstorming process. They can participate in expert lectures, educational movie showings, community field trips and action projects. Ferrara and Castro invented the concept in 2013 to further catalyze action in cities trying to advance local sustainability.

“Our goal with the Hive is to bring the community together to focus on a particular environmental or social issue, learn about it, then form breakout sessions using human-centered design thinking for them to figure out different kinds of solutions,” Ferrara said. The Hive then selects and refines one of the proposed solutions and forms it into an actionable plan.

Urban Farming Revolution

One of the most popular local projects that evolved from the Hive is Fleet Farming, an urban agricultural program that turns lawns into food-producing gardens.

“This idea came to us in 2014,” Ferrara said. “It quickly evolved into garden installs for hospitals, retirement homes and university campuses. It brings organic gardening to those audiences and reconnects people to nature in the most basic and meaningful way — through the ecology of food.”

UN research shows one in every nine people around the world is undernourished. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture report that more than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in “food deserts,” areas that are more than a mile away from a supermarket.

Fleet Farming offers these residents access to nutritious fruits and vegetables. It has grown more than 3,840 pounds of produce and converted more than 70,140 square feet of lawns into food-yielding gardens.

Local and Global Impact

The IDEAS Solutions Fund is a micro-granting program designed to fund pilot projects that advance the SDGs around the world. Organizations, individuals, students and community leaders can apply on a quarterly basis for mentorship and funding from IDEAS For Us to help make their projects possible.

“In our last round that we held in the fall, we had 26 different countries apply,” Ferrara said. “It’s really exciting to see so many people wanting to take action in their community.”

IDEAS For Us plans to launch revolutionary projects around Central Florida in 2019. From creating floating gardens in retention ponds and public lakes, to installing trees and plants as permanent sources of food throughout the community, IDEAS will continue to work against energy, water, food, waste and ecology challenges with action.

“In order to advance communities, we have to have participation and a vision from the business community, the public sector and the independent sector nonprofits and charities. We need big businesses to stand up and help support our work because it works,” Ferrara said. “We’ve proven our develop, fund and scale model works at home, and we’re getting a lot of attention to build our efforts internationally, but we need more public and private supporters to keep our momentum in Orlando growing. This is where it all started.”

About the author

Elyssa Coultas

Elyssa Coultas

As digital brand manager and writer for i4 Business, Elyssa Coultas anticipates learning from the i4 team and continuing to grow as a writer, designer and entrepreneur.

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