Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Archive for the ‘leadership’ Category

Word Cloud of Obama’s State of the Union

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Image courtesy of Wordle.net

This word cloud was based on Obama’s prepared remarks.

Written by leifutne

January 25, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Gov2.0 Meets D&D: Reflections on the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation (Part II)

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Here are a few more observations I took away from NCDD 2010 Portland: The Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation last weekend. You can read my earlier post about this excellent event here.

Gov2.0 meets D&D
There seems a be a convergence underway between the open government or “Gov 2.0″ movement and the dialogue and deliberation (or D&D) community. The Gov 2.0 crowd is largely focused on opening up government datasets in the interest of transparency and civic innovation. It’s largely driven by government techies and open-source geeks keen on exposing data to the public so that citizens can create apps that improve, augment, or streamline government services and make government more responsive and accountable. For example, see efforts like Open311, Portland’s CivicApps project, the Vancouver Open Data Catalogue, the Open Gov West conferences, and Code for America.

Meanwhile, the D&D community has long focused on spreading better offline face-to-face interaction, through innovative social “technologies” like the World Cafe, Open Space, Future Search, Wisdom Councils, Study Circles, and Conversation Cafes. These are all structured dialogue or deliberation processes that are designed to better harness the collective intelligence of groups — for better learning, discovery, planning, and decision-making. And maybe it’s a generational thing (most D&D practitioners are not Net Natives), but until recently I’ve always sensed a general distrust of online communication technologies and strong preference for offline dialogue among most of my friends in the D&D community.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions that have long embraced technology, like AmericaSpeaks, MetroQuest, and the many online forums run by E-Democracy.org. Governments experimenting with online public consultation is not new. And there is a significant community of online facilitators that has been steadily growing for over a decade. But recent advances in deliberative software and the exponential growth of social media has changed the game, seeding the ground for much wider adoption of online public engagement strategies.

At the NCDD conference, I was excited to see a surge of interest in experimentation with new technologies for online outreach and citizen engagement, especially among government officials. I believe this is driven by several factors:

  • Growth of Social Media: As citizens get used to interacting with businesses and nonprofits through social utilities like Facebook and Twitter, they’re expecting to be able to interact with government officials and institutions via the same channels. Institutions are adopting enterprise social networking and collaboration tools internally, too. It only makes sense that those institutions would begin to engage the public via similar tools.
  • Eroding Trust in Government: Public trust and confidence in government is at record lows. Conventional methods of public engagement — public hearings, surveys, citizen advisory panels, public notices in newspapers — are boring and ineffective, and may well spur more apathy than engagement. As state and local government budgets grow leaner by the day, officials are desperate for new approaches that could help them do more with less.
  • Gov 2.0: The open gov meme is spreading fast by word-of-mouth in government circles. Public officials are seeing successful experiments with open data and the range of new technologies for collaboration and civic dialogue that are emerging. And many of them are eager to get in the game.
  • Deliberative Software: Recent advances in online dialogue and deliberation technologies mean governments have more and better tools to choose from in crafting their public engagement strategies.

The Importance of Inclusion
The need for fostering “equitable dialogue” was a strong undercurrent at the conference. In the World Cafe dialogue on Friday evening, one participant asked, “Is public engagement considered a leisure activity? For whom?” To which another replied that, unfortunately, Maslow was right — the people who would benefit most from getting more engaged are also the most likely to consider civic activities leisure, especially when they are struggling to feed their families. Several participants pointed out that the crowd at the conference was overwhelmingly white and over 40. One of the facilitators kicked himself publicly when he realized that, despite holding the conference at a university, no notices were posted on campus inviting students to attend.

It was also pointed out that we need to be careful not to let our fascination with new technologies blind us to their shortcomings. The digital divide is still very real. That means we need to pay attention to accessibility, and keep legacy modes of engagement in place — i.e. face-to-face hearings and community meetings, phone surveys, etc. — so that nobody is left out. Because for democracy to truly work, everybody needs a seat at the table.

Reflections on the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation (Part I)

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As I write this, I’m rocketing down the rails on the Amtrak from Portland to Seattle, headed home after the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation. This inspiring confab was the last of 5 regional gatherings held around the country this fall by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), a nonprofit that promotes the use of innovative social processes for better discovery, learning, and decision-making, in settings from neighborhood groups to corporate boardrooms, nonprofits to universities to legislative bodies. It was hosted by Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Concordia University.

The theme of the conference was “public engagement” — which was broken down into three broad topics:

  • Quality Public Engagement: What is quality public engagement and how do we educate others about it so it becomes broadly adopted?
  • Online Engagement: How can online technology enhance public engagement?
  • Collaborations that Work: How can we strengthen connections between public administrators, engagement practitioners and the public?

Kudos to NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher and the entire organizing team (especially crack facilitators Walt Roberts and Tod Sloan) for putting together a fantastic event that left me enlightened and inspired. It was the perfect antidote to the toxic partisanship of the recent election season.

A Few Highlights
My head is still spinning from the rich stew of ideas, models, processes and projects presented at the event, to say nothing of the amazing people. Herewith, a few highlights:

1. The People
The best thing about this gathering was the people. (I love hanging out with facilitators and social process geeks.) The attendees, about 180 in all, consisted of a mix of professional facilitators, academics, community organizers, techies, consultants, corporate and philanthropic leaders, and government officials. It was great to spend time with old friends and co-conspirators like Joseph McCormick, Susan Partnow, Howard Silverman, John Spady, Peggy Holman, Jim Rough, and one of my personal heroes, Tom Atlee. To finally meet folks long I’ve admired, like DeAnna Martin and Sandy Heierbacher. And to make tons of new connections with inspiring people who are in the trenches daily endeavoring to make democracy work.

2. The Process
Most conferences (and I attend a lot) are sorely lacking in one respect: interactivity. They don’t build in enough opportunities for dialogue — between audience and presenters, or, more importantly, between participants. The old, didactic model of experts at the front of the room dropping knowledge on the audience followed by a short Q&A period misses so many opportunities for participants to interact in creative, generative ways that spark new connections, deepen the conversation and harness the wisdom of everyone in the room. This conference, by contrast, was beautifully designed and facilitated for maximum dialogue potential.

The conference kicked off on Friday evening with a World Cafe dialogue, facilitated by Walt Roberts, on the state of public engagement. About 50 of us spent two hours shuffling from table to table every 15-20 minutes as we moved through a series of questions about the state of public engagement and ways to improve it. Between each round, we passed the mic around the room as people shared insights that had come up at their tables, and a team of graphic facilitators recorded our thoughts with markers on large paper murals with images and keywords culled from the report-backs. This was a great way to quickly meet a bunch of new people, generate a wide range of ideas and insights, and set a conversational, collaborative tone for the rest of the conference.

The main event took place Saturday from 9-5, with all 180 participants in attendance. The morning consisted of three plenary presentations of innovative dialogue-driven public engagement projects from Washington and Oregon (more on the projects below). After each presentation, rather than going straight to Q&A, the audience members turned to each other in groups of four to discuss what we had just heard. The mic was then passed around for people to share their observations and insights, or ask questions of the presenters.

The afternoon breakout sessions were organized using Open Space, a self-organizing process where anyone in the room can offer a session on any topic. Some two dozen sessions were offered — ranging from brainstorming sessions on upcoming public engagement projects to technology demos, conversations on race, gender, and privilege to envisioning a sustainable future for suburbs. John Spady and I presented together a demonstration of the web platform my company, Zanby, built for the Countywide Community Forums (more on that below).

After the breakouts we reconvened for a final wrap-up session where, again, the mic was passed around the room so that anyone could offer insights or reflections. In keeping with the goal of maximizing interaction, the last thing facilitator Walt Roberts did before closing was to invite everyone to look around the room and find someone you’ve been meaning to connect with but haven’t yet had the chance.

I wish conference planners everywhere would take a few pages from NCDD’s book and design many more opportunities for dialogue and interactivity into their events.

3. The Projects
The three projects featured in the morning plenaries were all noteworthy.

  • City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI): Several ONI staff presented about the variety of ways the city is institutionalizing public involvement in decision-making processes throughout the city government. Afifa Ahmed-Shafi, ONI’s Public Involvement Best Practices Coordinator, described the Public Involvement Principles [PDF] adopted last August by the city council. According to the ONI website, “[The] principles include partnership, early involvement, building relationships and community capacity, inclusiveness and equity, good quality process design and implementation, transparency, and accountability.” The city council also adopted a requirement that every measure submitted at council be accompanied by a “public involvement report” documenting how citizens were consulted in developing the proposal. ONI is currently conducting a baseline assessment of public involvement across all city offices, and is looking at other experiments such as participatory budgeting.
  • Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review: Established by the Oregon legislature in 2008, this reform institutionalized a citizen jury-style process for evaluating the pros and cons of statewide ballot measures. “24 Oregon voters are selected at random, and then demographically balanced to fairly represent a cross-section of the entire state electorate. This panel participates in balanced hearings where campaign advocates and policy experts present the arguments and facts about the measure.” After several days of testimony, the panelists decide how they would vote on the measures and write pro and con statements. The statements and vote totals are included in the official state voter’s guide.
  • Countywide Community Forums (CCF): [Full Disclosure: CCF is a Zanby client.] In 2007 Dick Spady, founder of Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, proposed a ballot initiative to establish a periodic public consultation process for King County government. After supporters gathered 80,000 signatures the county council adopted the measure before it had a chance to go to a public vote. Since then, every 4-6 months, the County Executive or the CCF board picks a topic and declares a new forum round. Past topics have included public safety, customer service, and county budget priorities. For a period of 4-6 weeks, the public (anyone who lives or works in King County) is invited to become registered “citizen councilors” and host or attend a meeting in their neighborhood where they watch a brief overview video about the topic, discuss the issues, and take an opinion survey. Alternatively, citizen councilors can watch the video, discuss, and take the survey entirely online at the CCF website. The website, which is powered by Zanby’s online community platform, also features a map and calendar of face-to-face meetings, as well as online groups for staff and volunteers to collaborate and manage the program. When a forum round is over, the survey responses are tabulated and presented in a report to the County Auditor, County Council, and the public. The most recent forum round, which took place earlier this fall, focused on “county budget priorities” and resulted in 766 surveys submitted.

I also learned about several other cool initiatives at the conference:

  • Marine Map – A web-based decision support tool for multi-stakeholder marine spatial planning, developed by EcoTrust. With some cool GIS technology, participants in a live workshop setting or online can draw a circle on a map to propose a protected area and get an immediate analysis of the impacts on habitat, fish populations, and economic impacts on nearby ports and fishing fleets. Check out this video.
  • A Pattern Language for Social Process (no link) – A physical card deck being developed by a woman named Tree that is meant to aide with creative problem-solving in community and organizational settings. I’m still trying to get my hands on a copy of the deck.
  • Ideas4Oregon – After this idea-generation contest drew 542 submissions for creative ways to address social problems, the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon’s largest community foundation, is working on plans to build a platform for better connecting the state’s social sector.
  • Family Support Network – Has a newly redesigned website that helps community activists to map assets (such as skills or equipment) at the neighborhood level and trains “community weavers” who help neighbors match needs and assets in times of crisis, increasing community resilience.

In my next post, I’ll share some further observations on the ideas and issues that came up in the discussions at the Portland conference.

Do We Need a Green Shock Doctrine?

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I’ve always been dumb-struck by the ability of the “disaster capitalists” to pounce on virtually any crisis and exploit it to push through their usual pile of right-wing prescriptions for curtailing civil liberties and expanding corporate power. The idea, as laid out by Naomi Klein in her phenomenal 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, is simple: in a crisis you can pass policies that would be rejected by the public as too radical under normal circumstances. And certain neoliberal economists, particularly the protegees of Milton Friedman of the Chicago School of Economics, have been masters at it. The PATRIOT Act, the corporate-friendly Iraqi constitution, and the free-market reforms enacted in Chile in the 1970s are just a few examples of the shock doctrine in action.

I’ve often wondered why greens have been unable to emulate that approach to push sustainable policies. What would a “green shock doctrine” look like? And would it be desirable?

In this recent post over at Worldchanging, Jon Lebkowsky points out a fascinating discussion on exactly that question that raged last week in the Campfire forum over at The Oil Drum. Guest blogger Altaira started off the discussion by noting a profound shift in the mood among many of her friends and colleagues in the environmental movement.

In brief, many now admit openly that human overshoot has gone way too far and that the programs they run are like band aids when the wound calls for a tourniquet. They lament the rise of expectations for a narrowly defined version of progress that will only deepen our predicament. It now seems undeniable that structural and psychological requirements for global economic growth have much more sway than any rhetoric about sustainability.

Although the depth of despair is greater than usual, most of these thoughts are old news. However, a couple of new conversational memes have emerged. First of all, my friends are turning inwards, becoming concerned about personal and family security. Second, they are considering adopting a new strategy that plans for responses to crisis and breakdown, rather than their usual fare, which is advocating for course corrections to avoid troubles.

The ensuing discussion is worth a read, though it focuses mostly on extreme scenarios — i.e. what green policies should we be prepared to push through in the event of the complete breakdown of Western-style industrial capitalism?

I think a more interesting set of questions is:

  1. What green policies are practicable now, in the face of current and potential crises?
  2. Is a “green shock doctrine” strategy even desirable?
  3. Has such a strategy ever been used before? If so, where, and with what results?

Regarding the first question, I’ll just say anything that gets atmospheric CO2 concentrations back down to 350 parts per million or less by the year 2050, and defer to my wonky friends at 350.org and 1Sky.org for the details.

The second question, I fear, may be moot. I believe a “green shock doctrine” is not necessarily desirable (any “shock doctrine” implies a measure of undemocratic exercise of authority in the face of catastrophe). But I do think it’s inevitable, as rising sea levels, droughts, and climate change-related resource conflicts drive leaders to impose more energy-efficient, sustainable policies on their populations.

Which leads us to the third question. I can think of at least four examples where some semblance of a “green shock doctrine” has been used to push through more sustainable policies in the wake of a crisis: 1. Curitiba, Brazil, 2. Japan, 3. Cuba, and 4. Greensburg, Kansas. Herewith, some thoughts on each:

1. Curitiba — In 1971, a young architect named Jaime Lerner was appointed mayor by Brazil’s military junta. As I wrote awhile ago in Utne Reader, Lerner set about reshaping Curitiba into what is often hailed today as the greenest city on Earth. He imposed a transit-oriented urban growth plan that concentrated new development along several public transit lines fanning out from the city center, with huge areas of open space set aside between them. The result is a hub-and-spoke growth pattern where nearly all homes and businesses are within walking distance of both transit lines and the city’s extensive park system. Lerner also invented what’s now known as “bus rapid transit” (BRT). Long articulated buses carrying up to 300 passengers each on dedicated guideways give riders essentially the same experience as light rail, but without the rails, resulting in much lower costs to build and maintain. BRT has spread fast in recent years, epecially in developing countries like Colombia, Guatemala, China and Indonesia, where equivalent light rail lines can cost up to 20 times as much to build. These days, Lerner avoids the question when asked, but he as been quoted in the past as saying he could not have accomplished what he did in Curitiba if it had been a democracy.

2. Japan — Many countries responded to the 1970s oil shocks by imposing steep gas taxes and other strong measures designed to steer consumers toward more energy-efficient behaviors. Japan, which has to import nearly all of its energy, took it to extremes. The country has some of the world’s strictest policies on waste reduction and energy efficiency. Every year, for example, the most inefficient ten percent of refrigerators and other home appliances on the market are banned. And all factories are required to increase their energy efficiency at least one percent per year. As the New York Times said in 2005, these policies have helped create a culture  in Japan where being more energy efficient is a patriotic act. That is one of Japan’s greatest competitive advantages in the new clean tech economy, and is a major reason Japan’s new government was able to offer one of the strongest carbon-emissions reduction proposals of any country in the runup to the UN climate negotiations taking place this week in Copenhagen.

3. Cuba — In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, its long-standing oil-for-sugar trade deal evaporated as well. So Cuba was forced to de-carbonize its economy virtually overnight. Large government-run bus-like contraptions called camelos (camels), pulled by semi trucks, replaced private cars as many Cubans’ main mode of transport. Not picking up hitchhikers on rural highways was banned. But the most notable effects were in Cuba’s agricultural sector. Faced with a cash crunch and a hungry and restive population, the government shifted food production from large, chemical-intensive farms in the countryside to small-scale organic farms and gardens on empty lots in the cities, called organoponicos. Today, according to the BBC, Havana alone has 200 such operations and produces 90% of its own fruits and vegetables within the city limits. Child nutrition has improved substantially. The organoponicos are run as privately-owned coops, where the growers are allowed to sell a percentage of their crops at farmers markets. And they provide thousands of jobs. This model may not be entirely replicable — setting up the organoponicos in the early 1990s required large amounts of enforced labor. But the result is a healthy, decentralized, low-energy, and secure food system. Surely there’s a lesson there for us.

4. Greensburg, Kansas — In the 2 1/2 years since it was flattened by a tornado in 2007, the tiny town of Greensburg, Kansas has been rebuilt as a model of energy-efficient, green architecture and design. But the political context that enabled the greening of Greensburg was a perfect storm (sorry, I couldn’t resist) that included a desperate population reeling from a major catastrophe (the town was nearly wiped off the map), a relatively progressive governor (Kathleen Sibelius), and some powerful celebrity and institutional sponsors (Leonardo DiCaprio and the American Institute of Architects) to push it through. And it was just one tiny rural farming town. It pales in comparison to the scale of the changes the “disaster capitalists” pushed through in Chile, New Orleans, South Korea, Iraq and elsewhere. You have to wonder, too, if it would have been possible under a different governor, or if Greensburg were an oil or mining town.

Each of these cases is worth a post of its own. And each one offers many lessons.

For me, they raise even more questions about what sorts of changes are possible or desirable in different political and cultural contexts, especially when the shit hits the fan. Perhaps the most unsettling question for a died-in-the-wool small-d democrat like me is this: Is democracy up to the task of sustainability?

I honestly don’t know.

Join Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change

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This Thursday, October 15, is Blog Action Day 2009, and the theme is climate change. Join me and more than 6,000 other bloggers around the globe as we do some major collective consciousness-raising about climate science, climate solutions, and the UN climate negotiations coming up in December in Copenhagen.

Written by leifutne

October 13, 2009 at 11:37 am

What is Leadership?

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Chief Oren Lyons reflects on leadership

Chief Oren Lyons reflects on leadership

Being a leader is a lonely and difficult business, says Chief Oren Lyons, of the Onandaga Nation. The toughest part is often dealing with the people closest to you. If you can stick to what you know is true and face the inevitable attacks that come from your family and friends when the going gets tough, you will have passed one of the true tests of a leader.

It’s the second morning of the Tällberg New Leaders Program, and we’re huddled around the Chief’s feet as he regales us with his reflections on leadership, gesturing grandly out at the sweeping view from our perch on a rocky hilltop high above Lake Siljan.

He reminds us to think like the Iriquois, who always consider the effects that any decision they make will have on the next seven generations. And by seven generations, he says, they mean seven entire lifetimes — nearly 500 years. That’s thinking long-term! He urges us, too, to stand up and speak out for nature. Pointing to a large pine tree nearby, he reminds us that it took hundreds of years for that tree to grow, yet a chainsaw could take it down in the blink of an eye. It will take great leadership to save these trees.

I don’t wear the “leader” label comfortably. There’s something intimidating about being called a leader. What or who am I a leader of? I don’t run an organization. I don’t have employees. I don’t hold public office. I’m a salesguy for a small software startup. Sure, we’re building online communities for organizations and movements that represent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. But the buck doesn’t stop with me. I would almost rather the New Leaders Programme were called the New Leadership Programme.

Still, I accept that I am a leader in certain ways. I can speak powerfully about things I care about. And at least some people listen. People do turn to me for advice and opinions on a variety of issues. And I’m a good networker. I have a talent for connecting people to each other to facilitate collaborations that sometimes yield powerful results.

Plus, 20 people sponsored me financially to help facilitate my participation in the NLP. So at least they think I’m a leader, or that it was worth investing money in developing my leadership potential.

The introduction to the NLP reads: “Successful leadership stems from seeing the early trends, understanding the path forward and having the courage to act.”

I’m going to keep chewing on this question. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Who are your favorite leaders? Why? Do you have any favorite books or resources on leadership? Please share them in the comments below.

Written by leifutne

July 18, 2009 at 1:00 am

Posted in leadership, Me, sustainability, tech

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My Still Life: 5 objects that show what matters most

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My Still Life: 5 objects representing what matters most to me

My Still Life: 5 objects representing what matters most to me

One of the most powerful elements of the Tallberg New Leaders Program was an exercise called Still Lives, led by British portrait photographer Elizabeth Handy and her husband, author and social theorist Charles Handy. Inspired by the 17th century Dutch tradition where aristocrats would commission still life paintings featuring objects that said things about their wealth, education, travels, etc., Liz decided to update it for this century.

The idea is simple: choose five objects that say something important about you – your values, your work, your family, your life story, whatever matters most to you – plus a flower, to add beauty to the mix. The objects can be just about anything, with a few key exceptions – no gadgetry (cell phones, laptops, etc.), unless they’re really unique to you; no photos of other people, they’re too easy; and no more than one book, to keep the objects diverse. Next, arrange them to be photographed. Finally, share the image with others as a way to explain what matters most to you.

On the second day of the NLP, we made our still lives, photographed by Liz. On the third day, we broke into small groups to share our images with each other. Later in the week, Charles asked me to share my still life with the full Tällberg Forum audience in the main tent.

Here is the video of me sharing my still life (4 min).

My five objects (plus a flower) were:

  • Rock – This small black stone is a piece of volcanic rock I pulled from a river of molten lava near the summit of Volcán de Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes. I stood twirling the clump of molten lava on a stick for nearly an hour, until it had hardened and cooled enough to carry home. It represents my son Mateo, who we adopted from Guatemala in 2007, because, like him, it’s a thing of immense beauty that came from a hot and violent place.
  • Clave – This Afro-Cuban percussion instrument is what keeps the pulse in much of Latin music. “Clave” literally means “key” in Spanish. It represents my wife, Cilla, who is the key to keeping a steady rhythm in my life. She reminds me when it’s time to turn off the computer and come to bed.
  • Flute – The instrument I’ve played since 4th grade represents creativity, passion and mastery. When I heard Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything, I realized that the flute is the one thing I’ve probably come closest to spending 10,000 hours working on.
  • Notebook – A Moleskin notebook, like Hemingway and other great storytellers used, is a place to record ideas and inspirations. It represents my work as a thinker, a journalist, and a storyteller.
  • Moss – The bed of moss in the back represents my work in the world, building networked communities, fostering interconnection, interdependence, and symbiosis. This patch of moss contained what looked like at least four different species of moss. I found it on a rock in the woods next to the hotel where the New Leaders Program took place. Knowing that this patch of moss could be decades old, after the photo shoot I returned it to the spot where I found it.
  • Lupines – The flowers I chose were 3 blooming stalks from the same purple lupine plant, ranging in shades from deep royal purple to light lavender. I chose these to represent the importance of diversity, of multiple perspectives and facets that can exist, and should be nurtured, within a single being.

For me, the Still Lives exercise was a profound tool for exploring what matters most to me. It was fun, creative, and deeply emotional. It’s easy for me to get stuck in my head, viewing things from an intellectual, analytical perspective. This exercise invited me to explore my own story, and my own hopes and dreams, by asking myself what the objects I carry with me say about me. And it provided a deep window into the lives of my classmates in the New Leaders Program. I won’t share their stories here. But you can see the touching videos of two of them Lagu Alfred Androga and Anu Bhardwaj.

Try this exercise yourself. What five objects (and what flower) would you pick to show what matters most to you?

Written by leifutne

July 17, 2009 at 11:48 pm

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