Environmental leadership – how we built a tool to connect investors to sustainability projects

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Environmental leadership – how we built a tool to connect investors to sustainability projects

Brainforest is a collection of Business Investors, NGO representatives and Climate Change experts looking to make a difference. The group actively seeks out investment opportunities with a focus on sustainability. Around the world, leaders of potential forestation projects are eagerly awaiting funding so they can begin or continue their work.

Here’s the catch though; an investor needs to understand the risk, opportunity, credibility and morality of any investment project before they can commit. They need assurance that a project is legitimate, secure and ethical if they are to be a part of it. Whilst there is certification available for forestation projects, this is very costly and can take a long time to secure.

Brainforest were keen to find a clever way of overcoming these challenges through the power of technology. They approached the Digital Detox team because of our experience in working on not for profit campaigns and our proven technical ability.

The goal

We needed to develop a visual representation of how to connect investors with projects through an intuitive online platform. Imagined as the ‘Airbnb for investment,’ this would allow Project leaders to add details of planned or progressing projects on a visual, listing style online platform.

Then, investors would be able to browse projects, review information, make risk assessments and obtain further information to inform their decision-making. Brainforest were also keen to harness the potential of technology for automation of data and images. This would speed up the manual process of reviewing projects and calculating overall costs of a project.

Where to begin?

Brainforest were keen to see a visual representation of how this investment platform could look. The big challenge for the DD team was a lack of real data to use. We worked closely with a subject matter expert in the field of sustainable investments and made some assumptions about the type of information investors would need to know. We also hypothesised the information a project manager would usually share with potential investors.

With some realistic assumptions in place, we then needed to visualise the online platform. This started out as pencil sketches on a piece of paper – the best place to begin when trying to visualise a complex user journey!

Brainforest project

Once we had mapped out a feasible user journey, we used an online wireframing tool called Sketch to produce a more professional looking version of our doodles. At this point, version 1 of our prototype was born and we added a logo and working title for the project, which was ‘Timbr’.

The challenges

We understood that there were three main areas of concern for investors when considering a potential investment in a sustainability project:

  • Security of their investment : risk versus opportunity
  • Authenticity of the organisation : including ethical practices
  • Credibility of the project : and likelihood of successful completion.

Whilst we wanted to make the visual journey as beautiful and aesthetic as possible, we knew that what mattered most to investors were facts and figures. We needed to speak the investors’ language and include information that would help them gain certainty against these three main areas of concern.

Next phase

Armed with our feedback from testers, we moved into phase 2 of the prototyping stage, building a design-led prototype. Now we had real evidence to match against our earlier assumptions, we could flesh out the prototype design with real data. We still had to make some assumptions but our design was beginning to shape into an authentic platform for investors.

We used the ‘Value Proposition Canvas’ to assess the benefits of the platform and work out how to make it a unique offering when compared with similar platforms in the market. 4 weeks were allocated to develop the prototype using InVision, a visual and interactive prototyping tool. At the end of the 4 week period, the platform looked like a real website!

Brainforest projects list

Design and technology

As user interface design experts, we had a few tools at our disposal for representing complex data in a visual way. The detailed search box at the top of the homepage provides a perfect starting point for an investor to set their search parameters. With dynamic drop-downs and a simple slider, the user can filter their search by product type, trees planted and carbon offset. Then they can determine their investment budget and ideal project location.

This means investors are able to connect with relevant projects in a seamless interface, without needing to commit to any contact before they’ve reviewed the specifics of each project. For NGOs and Project Managers, the website provides a platform for showcasing their initiatives, without the requirement for costly certification without certainty of investment. It minimises risk for both parties and provides a portal for connection that simply couldn’t be performed offline.

There are also dedicated sections for various audience types; impact investors, companies looking for CSR opportunities and funding partners. The strength of the prototype is that it allows users to interact with this content and get a real sense of how the website could function and the value it could provide.

Brainforest dashboard


It was now time to test out our prototype with real investors. We contacted a list of well known brands and investors and showed them the prototype for feedback.

We learned that appetite for risk differs greatly from one organisation and individual to another and companies have individual approaches to Corporate Social Responsibility measures. The need for trust, credibility and compliance, however, is universal when it comes to investment. We also got some feedback about the design of the platform and where it could improve.

The results

Armed with our enhanced prototype, we approached another set of companies and investors for feedback. They loved the visual representation of statistics, using graphs and images to bring them to life.

The Brainforest team is now keen to explore how we develop the concept to differentiate it even further from other platforms in the market. There is also a focus on the design; in particular imagery that will enforce this as a serious portal for successful investment, rather than a brochure-wear style NGO platform.

Quote from Brainforest's Jamie

The impact

  • Through our work with Brainforest, we realised an undiscovered concept into a tangible visual representation of possibility
  • Using a prototype approach, we were able to test assumptions and scenarios with a real audience to gain feedback
  • We worked with a subject matter expert to make informed assumptions that gave us a starting point to work from
  • Our investigation showed the scale of work and data required to realise this project, something that was unknown when we began.