Uygar Özesmi

This description of Uygar Özesmi's work was prepared when Uygar Özesmi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016 .

Introduction

Uygar Özesmi is a serial social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the development of a society and economy that is in harmony with nature. With the belief that a “great transformation” is needed, he has founded over a dozen organizations and initiatives working towards ecological and social development and sustainability in Turkey and beyond in the past 25 years. His work has positively impacted the lives of 10 million individuals, moving Uygar closer to his vision. His experience has culminated when he founded good4trust.org, a platform which brings together fair and sustainable producers with responsible prosumers.

The New Idea

Uygar believes that the severe disconnection of humans from nature is the root cause of the ongoing environmental destruction. Having observed how the current system is perpetuated by a socio-economic paradigm that favors the exploitation of nature and humans over and above sustainability, and compounded by ineffective citizen sector efforts in the environmental space, Uygar has dedicated his life to achieve the mindset shift needed among citizens. His insight is that no one initiative alone can possibly succeed in this, but only a transformation of several key building blocks:

1) an effective civil society, particularly focusing on environmental organizations, with the capacity and support to drive large scale change;
2) aware and empowered citizens with means to drive societal change themselves;
3) a new economic paradigm that rewards socially and ecologically sustainable enterprises.

Rather than creating just another environmental protection organization, he focused on orchestrating an entire movement for the past 25 years by starting, running, inspiring and accelerating initiatives that simultaneously work towards protecting the environment, empowering citizens and showing feasible ways of how to run a green and sustainable economy. His latest endeavor Good4Trust is currently acting as a best practices hub for the envisioned economic paradigm in which all stakeholders can nurture without harming one another.

The Problem

Despite a growing number of civil society and public institutions addressing the issue of climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that individuals’ inability to access generative consumption practices is fastening the environmental destruction even more.

For one, given the complexity of the issue, civil society organizations have so far failed to drive large scale change and seem to lack effective tools, the capacity and resources to do so.

Second, while awareness levels are rising, a second challenge appears to be that citizens – intimidated by the complexity and severity of the issue – feel disempowered and incapable of contributing to solving the environmental crisis. With the realization that there is no easy solution, people stop paying attention to the issue and feel fear, helplessness or guilt. This goes hand in hand with a general lack of engagement and involvement of citizens with civil society organizations or volunteering (in Turkey only 5% of citizens are involved in nonprofit initiatives, while the country ranks on place 132 in terms of overall donations from citizens to civil society organizations).

The third and arguably most complex challenge is that society and the world economy are in disharmony with nature. Society’s current economic paradigm is based on the exploitation of nature, over-consumption and profit-maximization – which at the same time has us to become increasingly self-centered and egoistic. Thus, to address and overcome the environmental crisis, society can’t simply try to decrease pollution, CO2 emissions or firefight symptoms, but must address, challenge and fundamentally change its current socio-economic paradigm.

The Strategy

Uygar has played a key role in simultaneously increasing the capacity of civil society in Turkey to protect nature, in empowering citizens to take active roles in environmental protection and in disseminating models for a green and sustainable economy. At times he has achieved this by founding organizations himself, at times by steering main players in his direction and at other identifying and bringing in new catalyzers to the game.

Disappointed by the little number of civil society organizations in Turkey he has been setting up and inspiring over a dozen of new environmental protection initiatives in Turkey over the years. Among the first was Doğa Derneği - one of Turkey’s most influential nature conservation organizations until this day, as well as Turkey’s first Nature Conservation Federation KarDoğa bringing small NGOs together, and Kuşbank which started as a birdwatching community turned into the country’s largest early warning system for larger environmental issues and meeting place for environmentalists. (Kuşbank detects cases of unusual drops in the number of birds in a certain area that signal environmental damage). KuşBank then became the pilot of WorldBirds, that then finally merged with eBird, catalyzing a global system.

Last, but not least he gave birth to Good4Trust, an online platform giving social enterprises space to grow and receive support by directly connecting conscious consumers, and environmentally friendly producers across Turkey. Good4Trust gives individuals, Uygar refers to them as ‘prosumers’, the chance to directly reach the services and products of vetted social enterprises fulfilling the highest social and ecological standards possible. Opposite to a regular e-commerce site Good4Trust creates a community, enables producers to suggest new ecological friendly products and receive commitments from individuals, that promise to purchase the product or service, given it goes into mass-production. On the one hand this allows producers to offer new products they’d otherwise not produce given they don’t know if there’s a market for it beforehand, on the other hand this decreases overproduction as producers would only produce whatever the buyers commit to consume.

Besides founding his own initiatives, he has also been a crucial intrapreneur in driving some dramatic changes and improvements within several existing large-scale organizations. He led TEMA Foundation, Turkey’s largest environmental organization, where he revolutionized the organization to become Turkey’s widest and deepest citizen engagement platform – to name a few of his successes there, Uygar initiated a record-breaking outreach campaign collecting 780.000 signatures and eventually halt the privatization of forests in Turkey.

When he saw necessary synergies possible to achieve his grand vision, Uygar also did not hesitate to bring catalyzers in. He went on to lead Greenpeace in Turkey and the Mediterranean Region where he quintupled the organization’s income and led another record-breaking campaign collecting over 800.000 signatures that ultimately changed legislation around fishery in the country.

Realizing that changing the mindsets of people and involving every citizen in saving nature is as key to protecting the environment as is effective organizations he began broadening his work even further. First by enabling environmental organizations to much more effectively engage with millions of citizens via disseminating best-case-practices, appearing on two weekly radio shows and sharing his vast knowledge with the leaders of the environmental movement and civil society in Turkey through thousands of talks and seminars. Second by directly empowering citizens – looking for successful models, he decided, instead of founding his own initiative, to bring change.org to Turkey, which allows individuals to start their own societal movements and campaigns. He went on to grow it to more than 8 million active users (in a population of 75 Million), making the Turkish change.org community one of the most active globally. Third by increasing capacity across universities of Turkey - founding an Environmental Science Program in Erciyes University and inspiring various environment focused departments at universities across the country, as he currently teaches a post-graduate class at Kadir Has University.

The Person

Uygar is one of the most important, acknowledged and sought-after reference point in the environmental field of Turkey and beyond. Since his early childhood, nature has always played a key role in his life – he describes his interaction with nature as ‘transcendental’. He developed a deep interest for all things related to the environment and started to self-identify as a ‘naturalist’ from his teens on.

At age 17, he won the Turkish Research Council award and published his first peer reviewed scientific paper on nature. To deepen his understanding of the environmental crises he went on to study Earth Science (BSc - Middle East Technical Univ.), Environmental Science (MSc - Fulbright Scholar, Ohio State Univ.), and do a Phd in Conservation Biology at the Development and Social Change at the University of Minnesota.

At the age of 19, he became the advisor of Adnan Kahveci, the then minister for the environment in Turkey. It was then that he realized that nature conservation was only possible through organized and simultaneous action by civil society, individuals and politics. He moved on to establish, co-create and run over a dozen civil and environmental protection organizations in Turkey.

Wanting to “walk the talk” as one of the founders of Sustainable Building Council of Turkey he constructed an award winning zero-carbon house solely from ecological materials.