Archive for the ‘sustainability’ Category
Well, the cat’s finally out of the bag — Architecture for Humanity has acquired my former employer Worldchanging.com. As a member of AfH’s Worldchanging transition advisory group, I’ve been sworn to secrecy for several months. But now I’m thrilled to be able to share this announcement with you:
Architecture for Humanity Acquires Worldchanging.
Will merge with the Open Architecture Network to develop a robust center for applied innovation and sustainable development.
San Francisco, CA (September 19, 2011) Architecture for Humanity is honored to announce the acquisition of Worldchanging, a leader in solutions-based journalism, and to merge its’ assets with the Open Architecture Network to create a robust and informed network to bring solutions to global challenges to life.
It’s an exciting match, since design increasingly includes discussions of policy and planning, communication, social justice and science; issues that once fell outside the traditional bounds of architecture are now at the heart of professional practice. Bringing these two worlds together is a logical next step in sustainable development.
Cameron Sinclair, Executive Director of Architecture for Humanity, says, “We are thrilled to connect with the Worldchanging community in order to expand the ways we can continue to make a difference across the world. Each project we do requires innovative solutions, resourcefulness, and passion. It’s a perfect fit.”
Architecture for Humanity is thankful to the Board of Directors of Worldchanging for their hard work in helping create a smooth transition.
“I am grateful to the Worldchanging Board of Directors for their active stewardship of Worldchanging during this transition” said Stephanie Pure, Board President of Worldchanging. “Thanks in part to this positive team effort, Worldchanging has a bright future with Architecture for Humanity.”
Over the next six months Architecture for Humanity plans to transform their current Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org, an on-line network that empowers architects, designers, builders and their clients to share architectural plans and drawings, into a robust platform that provides dialogue and tools to support a shared vision of a more sustainable future across sectors. The combined strength of these communities, both created out of the TED Prize, will help spur innovation, learning, and best practices.
The new site, which will be managed by an independent entity, will include project management tools, offer case studies on innovative solutions and provide tools for aid and development organizations evaluate their programs in the field.
“Last decade was about imagining the solutions that could help us meet big planetary problems,” said Worldchanging co-founder and former Executive Editor Alex Steffen. “This decade will be all about putting those solutions to work. This exciting new version of Worldchanging is set, I believe, to become the online epicenter of applied innovation.”
Over the summer, Architecture for Humanity met with over sixty writers, contributors, stakeholders and supporters to envision the transition of these sites. “Worldchanging has helped frame the global conversation on sustainability over the past seven years, and we couldn’t be more excited for Architecture for Humanity to take the reins and continue to push the boundaries of what we can achieve together,” Worldchanging co-founder Jamais Cascio noted “I can’t imagine Worldchanging being in better hands.”
Many of the original writers to Worldchanging, including co-founders Jamais Cascio and Alex Steffen, have signed up to contribute to the new site. We look forward to a bright green future together.
Dearly beloved, please join me in a moment of silence to honor the life and untimely passing of another member of our media family. On Monday, November 29, one of the most important websites of the past decade, Worldchanging.com, announced that it will close up shop by the end of 2010. The main reason? The non-profit organization never was able to achieve financial sustainability without editor Alex Steffen maintaining an insane schedule of speaking gigs (more than 400 in the past 5 years). I’m proud to have been involved with Worldchanging, as a fan, contributor, employee and friend. I will miss it dearly.
In its seven-year run, Worldchanging has been an important intellectual watering hole for people interested in the intersection of sustainability and innovation. Under the banner of “tools, models and ideas for building a better future” the site has produced an impressive archive of nearly 12,000 articles on a broad range of subjects, from architecture to agriculture, climate science to microfinance, nanotech to urban design. Fortunately, that archive will live on, says the announcement: “It is our goal to see the archive of work here maintained, though the form of that archive is still uncertain.” Also, a revised and updated edition of the bestselling 2006 book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century is due out in March 2011.
Worldchanging served as both a launchpad for important new voices — like Cameron Sinclair, Dawn Danby, Sarah Rich, David Zaks and Anna Lappé, among many others — and a new platform for some venerable old hands — like Gil Friend, Terry Tempest Williams, Joel Makower, Jon Lebkowsky and Jay Walljasper. The list of contributors to the site and its eponymous book reads like a who’s who of some of the most respected thinkers and doers in sustainability circles. Worldchanging’s contribution to the public conversation about our common future is undeniable.
I first learned about Worldchanging shortly after its launch in 2003. The site quickly became my favorite source for story ideas about emerging trends in technology and social innovation during my last few years as a writer and editor at Utne Reader. I loved the focus on solutions that co-founders Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio and their team brought to a range of subjects I care about deeply, which they nicely captured with the optimistic catchphrase “bright green.”
I went to work for Worldchanging in late 2006, when I left Utne Reader and moved to Seattle. I joined the team as Publisher, alongside Steffen as Editor (Cascio had left early that year), just before the launch of one of the organization’s crowning achievements, the 600-page book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, a compendium of ideas and solutions in the spirit of the old Whole Earth Catalog. The book would become a bestseller and was translated into French, German and several other languages.
We were trying to leverage the attention generated by the book, and the momentum from a major grant from the folks at TED, to grow the site from its origins as a group blog into a professional, multi-channel idea factory. And we wanted to do it our own way, bootstrapping our growth through a variety of diverse revenue streams without having to rely on the largesse of foundations or large donors (and avoiding the inevitable strings attached). We created a series of local blogs covering the green innovation scenes in places like LA, Chicago, Austin, New York, Minneapolis and Canada. And we had big dreams of launching audio and video podcasts, conferences, book series, and turning the contributor team into a speakers bureau and consulting team. My job was to focus on building new revenue streams — initially reader donations, content sponsorships, and ads — to facilitate that growth and ease the pressure on Alex to bring in speaking fees.
Our efforts saw modest success, though nothing anywhere near what we had hoped. I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely ready for the role. I had some successful experience in both software sales and nonprofit fundraising. But I had no training or experience in media sales. I had agreed to unrealistically high revenue goals and had to learn on the job while setting up a sales operation entirely from scratch with no budget. There were other challenges inherent to the site’s content and the business model we were pursuing in an ad-driven media landscape, which I’ll elaborate on below.
In March of 2007, six months after I started, I left the staff mainly for personal reasons — my wife and I had moved to Guatemala to foster the baby boy we adopted later that year. In the three years since then, Worldchanging has continued to produce some of the best, most important content available, despite its continued financial struggles.
In the end, I believe Worldchanging’s demise was due in large part to the organization’s inability to craft a business model that could surmount several challenges endemic to the current ad-driven media ecosystem. (Again, I haven’t been privy to the inner workings of the organization for the past three years. So my analysis could be way off base, or at least out of date):
- Too General-Interest for Advertisers: In an era when sponsors insist on carving audiences into ever-smaller and more specialized niches, Worldchanging was never quite niche enough. The site was simply too broad, too eclectic, too general-interest for advertisers to fit into their ultra-narrow targeting algorithms. This is not a problem with the content, but with the advertising model. More financially successful sites in the green space focused heavily on a marketable niche, like product reviews (Treehugger), business (GreenBiz.com), architecture and design (Inhabitat) or green news and politics (Grist, which also had major foundation support and a 5-year headstart). We were also reluctant to go after most big corporate brands with large marketing budgets. We didn’t want to help them greenwash their images. And most of the cool green companies were too small and were spending all of their meager ad dollars on search engine ads. This is one of the great tragedies of the modern media ecosystem: general-interest publications, whether online or in print, simply can’t compete. It’s the shadow side of narrowcasting.
- Not Enough Traffic: Online, as in print, there basically are two ways to attract advertisers — scale and targeting. With enough traffic, you can overcome the niche problem. But we were never big enough to do that. And a couple months into my tenure at Worldchanging, after implementing several stats programs, we learned that our real traffic was significantly smaller than what our raw server logs were telling us. With more time and capital we might have successfully carved out a clearer niche in advertisers’ minds.
- The “Blog” Problem: Even with some of the brightest minds in the field writing for the site, and despite our efforts to reposition it as an online magazine, advertisers were reluctant to sponsor what they saw as a “blog” where most of the content came from volunteers with no editorial calendar or strong professional editorial filter. Advertisers crave predictability.
- Focus on Ideas: The site also suffered from its focus on ideas rather than products — something Utne Reader always struggled with as well. In the name of editorial integrity (to his credit), Alex steadfastly refused to add features like green product reviews — the sort of content advertisers will pay top dollar to sponsor. In 2007-08 there was a valiant attempt to appeal more to sponsors while maintaining editorial independence by introducing a stable of weekly columns, with writers paid to cover certain beats. I was gone by then and don’t know the details of the impact the move had, but obviously the new editorial model did not succeed in turning the Worldchanging ship around.
- Progressive Funders Reluctant to Fund Media: As my friend Bill Weaver says, media makers are the modern sorcerers. Changing the stories we tell can change the way people think. Yet foundations and investors interested in social change have never seemed to get the need to support media. Conservative foundations and corporations supporting the status quo got this long ago, which is why we’ve been outgunned for a generation by the right-wing media and punditocracy.
- The Economy: It sounds cliche now, but unfortunately it’s true. The cruelest irony of the Great Recession is that so many of the organizations that are rethinking our social, political and economic systems are entirely dependent on funding derived from the existing, unsustainable, consumption-driven economy. And those sources of funding are drying up on every front, whether it’s dwindling consumer spending, shrinking ad budgets, or cutbacks in foundation grants because of the downturn on Wall St.
I’m sad to have to write these words. Though just as sadly, I’m not surprised. Worldchanging changed my world in so many ways. My hat’s off to Alex, Jamais and all of the incredible visionaries who had a hand in this project over the past seven years. Thank you, thank you, and again, thank you. I look forward to seeing what we all created together live on in some form, and I wish you all success in whatever comes next.
Last month at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, I had the honor of helping my friend Jean Russell launch an exciting new ebook called Thrivability: A Collaborative Sketch.
Inspired by Seth Godin’s collaborative ebook What Matters Now?, the book contains short essays and images by 63 big thinkers, each focusing on a word or short phrase that has to do with creating a more thrivable world. Contributors include some of my favorite thinkers, such as Clay Shirky, Beth Kanter, John Hagel, Kaliya Hamlin and Tony Deifell.
Here is my own contribution, a meditation on the word “exclusion.” It appears on page 30 of the book. I’d love to hear your feedback.
Leif Utne, Zanby.com – Bainbridge Island, WA, USA
Ouch! Exclusion is such a harsh word. What place could it possibly have in a world that’s open, inclusive, and thrivable?
Like a hammer, exclusion is merely a tool. In its unhealthy forms, exclusion is used to oppress, to avoid accountability, circumvent democracy, and maintain established economic and political order. It brings to mind secret societies, smoky back rooms, nativism, and dehumanizing the “other.”
But exclusion can also be healthy and life-affirming. For individuals, that may mean choosing your conversations more wisely, lightening your load, de-cluttering your mental and physical space, eliminating distractions and focusing on what matters most. It means making space for solitude, contemplation, attention to yourself, to your breath, to nature, to being fully present.
Exclusion is not a choice of whether to exclude, or not, it is a choice of what to exclude.
For groups, healthy exclusion means creating safe containers in which to share and collaborate more deeply. It means being intentional about who and how many you want to share space with. It’s about creating and protecting sacred space. A good host has a talent for appropriate exclusion. It’s the social artistry of choosing who you want at the party, and who you don’t.
Every marketer knows that exclusion is a powerful tool. Done well, limiting access to a place, a group or a product makes it cool. Anyone who has launched a new online community can tell you that early on exclusion is vital — to set the tone and model the kind of interaction you want. It’s a way of establishing a new culture intentionally.
Exclusion can be about useful constraints, which spur creativity, whether you’re answering an essay question on a test or innovating new products. Imagine, for example, a candle. What is a candle without a wick? Without light? Without heat? Without wax? Such a thought experiment can help you identify which properties are intrinsic to something, and think creatively about novel ways to reproduce them.
Exclusion is part of evolution, particularly the conscious evolution we are living through now. It’s about casting off outmoded, destructive ways of thinking and being. And it’s absolutely essential to a thrivable future.
I’ve already gotten some great comments on this piece. One friend suggested “discernment” as an alternative to exclusion. I like that. It has much less of a negative charge to it. But that charge is part of why I find the term exclusion provocative. I like re-framing terms in ways that shift their charge.
Another friend suggested a different frame: pruning. For a tree to thrive, it takes pruning, which means making healthy choices about where to cut back so you can channel its growth in positive directions.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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:
- What green policies are practicable now, in the face of current and potential crises?
- Is a “green shock doctrine” strategy even desirable?
- 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.
A few days ago a friend forwarded me a link to this video of a speech by noted climate change denier Lord Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, asking what I thought of it. I watched that entire video — all 95 minutes of it — and in short, I think it’s bunk. Monckton is such a charlatan I hesitate to even dignify his buffoonery with a response. However, my friend asked me earnestly what I thought of the presentation, so I wanted to respond earnestly.
Also, it’s been awhile since I’ve taken a deeper look at the climate deniers’ current arguments. (I usually just avoid them as a waste of time.) And another friend sent me the link to a shorter video clip from the end of Monckton’s talk (see video at bottom), where he describes the Copenhagen treaty as a threat to “democracy” and “freedom.” So I figured this would be a good chance to brush up on my response.
While I cringe at most of Monckton’s nasty one-liners — characterizing environmentalists as a “communistic” murderous faction bent on world government, or mocking Al Gore’s accent (“Nahn Lahs”) — his presentation of the science does seem impressive on its face. But I know that the serious scientific community has long considered him a dangerous fraud with a talent for political theater.
Since, like Lord Monckton, I’m not a scientist, I can’t pretend to be qualified to debunk his claims point-by-point. I don’t even understand many of his graphs and formulas. But as one of his critics points out, “just because somebody uses a lot of numbers and formulas, that doesn’t make their analysis either scientific or credible.” And there are many more voices in the scientific community (real scientists, no less!) that I find far more credible than Monckton.
So I asked around a bit. No one seems to have yet done a thorough response to Monckton’s entire 10/14 speech in St. Paul, but I found a few useful links that address different pieces of his presentation. The first is a response to his statement in the video below, which has been making the rounds of the right-wing blogosphere. The other links discuss some of the bogus scientific claims he has been recycling for years — many of which showed up in his speech — and his decidedly non-scientific background.
1) PolitiFact: British climate-change skeptic says Copenhagen treaty threatens “democracy,” “freedom” PolitiFact, Oct 20, 2009
This piece fact-checks Monckton’s statement about the Copenhagen treaty with numerous academics and diplomats. According to PolitiFact’s Truth-o-Meter, Monckton’s whoppers earn a “pants-on-fire” rating.
2) In Congressional Hearings, Amateurs Invited to Confuse Climate Science Stacy Morford, SolveClimate, Mar 27, 2009
3) American Physical Society stomps on Monckton disinformation Climate Progress, July 19, 2008
4) This is a dazzling debunking of climate change science. It is also wildly wrong.
Deniers are cock-a-hoop at an aristocrat’s claims that global warming is a UN hoax. But the physics is bafflingly bad.
George Monbiot, The Guardian, Tuesday 14 November 2006
5) Christopher Monckton the “Viscount of Brenchley”
To put Monckton’s role in the climate “debate” into perspective, here’s John Holdren, the White House science adviser, who said at a conference late last year:
Members of the public who are tempted to be swayed by this vocal fringe should ask themselves how it could be, if human-caused climate change is just a hoax, that the leaderships of the national academies of sciences of every country in the world that has one are repeatedly on record saying that global climate change is real, dangerous, caused mainly by humans, and reason for early and concerted action to reduce those causes; that this is also the overwhelming consensus view among the faculty members of the earth sciences departments at every major university in the world.
The fact is that anybody who could believe that the cream of the part of the world scientific community that has actually studied this phenomenon could be co-opted by hoaxers or suffering from mass hysteria is just not thinking clearly.
UPDATE: Here are two more links to useful resources critiquing Monckton’s “science” (thanks to Brad at Hill Heat):
- A detailed list of the errors in Monckton’s July 2008 Physics and Society article Arthur Smith, AltEnergyAction.org, Sep 6, 2008
- DeltoidBlog’s Monckton archive Tim Lambert, ScienceBlogs
Noted climate science blogger Lambert has been tracking Lord Monckton for a long time. This page pulls all of his Monckton posts together in one place.
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.
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.
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.
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?
STOCKHOLM — “Damn you if you don’t put what you learn here to good use.” It was with that somber admonition that Bo Ekman welcomed me and 21 of my peers to the Tällberg Foundation’s New Leaders Programme (NLP). Ekman is the 73 year-old founder and chairman of the Tällberg Forum, an annual gathering that draws some 600 scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, artists and world leaders to a village in central Sweden every June to discuss the world’s problems. The former head of strategy at Volvo is a bit fatalistic about humanity’s odds for redemption in the face of the converging economic and ecological crises.
During the three days leading up to this year’s Tällberg Forum, June 22-25, I had the immense privilege to attend the NLP, an intensive workshop designed to give “people in early positions of responsibility an opportunity to think through their wider role in society… to improve the sensitivities and skills that will make them more effective leaders in their organisation and in society.” It was a chance for my cohort to meet some of our elders, reflect on our own paths as leaders, and build personal connections with peers and mentors to help ease our entry into the larger Tällberg Forum community that would descend on the town several days later.
Whether it was youthful naiveté or a necessary coping mechanism in the face of overwhelmingly bad odds, I’m not sure. But our group was decidedly more sanguine, even audaciously hopeful, about the future than Mr. Ekman.
This year’s NLP class was an impressively diverse group of 22 young activists and social entrepreneurs in our 20s and 30s. There was a journalist from Bangladesh, a Chinese student environmental leader, a socially-responsible investment adviser from South Africa, a Mexican entrepreneur, a Saudi princess, a foundation director from Berlin, a Tanzanian political consultant, a Zimbabwean sustainability consultant living in Sweden, an Indian-American clean-tech investor based in Toronto, and a New York-based management consultant who was born in Sudan and raised in a Kenyan refugee camp, among others.
The program was designed and facilitated by Rebecca Oliver of the Tallberg Foundation and Tom Cummings of Brussels-based Executive Leadership Partners. Following Cummings’ “Leadership Landscapes” model, the program shifted focus from the personal level to the organizational to the global and back, alternately giving participants opportunities to meditate on our personal stories, values, hopes and dreams; our roles as leaders in our families, organizations, communities, fields/industries, and the wider world; and to engage in a dizzying array of presentations and conversations with experts and leaders in sustainability, diplomacy, health, human rights, business, and science.
I won’t give a play-by-play of the entire program. That would take far too long to write. Instead, I’ll focus on a few highlights.
The “Oh Shit” Briefing
The opening afternoon of the NLP was a bit like boot camp, where they first try to break you down, so they can build you back up even stronger and more effective. After a brief ice-breaker and a welcome from the facilitators, we were treated to a mind-blowingly depressing briefing on the converging global crises from Carl Mossfeldt, VP of the Tällberg Foundation and a former financial industry executive. “I can proudly say that I designed the risk models that led to the failure of two banks,” he related with a wry smile.
Mossfeldt went on to explain how Phase I of globalization was characterized by economic growth leading to localized ecosystem crises. Now we’re in Phase II, in which localized ecosystem crises have started to interact with each other, leading to global system crises. Global systems are reaching tipping points – “planetary boundaries” – beyond which change begins to snowball so fast it’s impossible to predict accurately what the effects will be. In response to these ecosystem crises, social systems are breaking down – for example, the hollowing out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; or the crisis in Darfur, which is linked to desertification, which is driving northern Sudanese Muslims to migrate south, causing land disputes with the villagers of Darfur. One economist even argues that the current economic meltdown can be traced to the 5 hurricanes that hit South Florida and the Gulf Coast earlier this decade. Billions of dollars in insurance claims, the argument goes, destabilized the industry, which in turn destabilized the mortgage business, causing the chain-reaction that brought Wall Street to its knees.
Meanwhile, looking at climate change, the gap between what scientists know about the severity of the crisis and what the public and governments know is widening. “The tools we have available to address these crises are not working,” Mossfeldt says. “The questions we’ve been asking are not working. So what are the questions we should be asking ourselves now?”
Against that uplifting backdrop, Tom and Rebecca invited us to peel ourselves out of our seats and spend the next few days pondering that question, and to imagine our own roles in the answers. “Your life probably has plans for you,” said Tom Cummings.
What those plans are, I’m still not sure. But I came out of my week at Tällberg with a much clearer picture of the direction I’m headed, and a renewed sense of purpose and hope. I’m here on Earth at this point in history to help shepherd humanity through these crises. And my role in that process is to be a facilitator and community builder, using social technologies – both face-to-face and online – to help build stronger, more interdependent, more resilient communities that can weather the storms that are already engulfing us. The planet will still be here in 500 years, but will we?
As architect and social philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Dancing With the Stars
I have to pinch myself when I realize that Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister and head of the UN commission on environment and development, actually spent nearly 3 hours with me and my peers in an intimate, wide-ranging conversation on everything from her upbringing in a prominent political family to tips for maintaining personal energy and balance (“always get enough sleep”) to the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. We need a funding mechanism to pay for mitigation and adaptation to climate change that is automatic, Brundtland said. Perhaps 2-4% of all revenue from the global CO2 cap-and-trade system should go into a fund administered by the UN. “I don’t trust parliaments,” she says. If it’s not an automatic mechanism in the new climate treaty, then she fears governments will inevitably renege on their financial commitments to the fund.
My classmate Graham Sinclair and I even had the chance to explain Twitter and Facebook and discuss with Brundtland the merits of engaging in social media.
Other superstars we got to spend some quality time with included: Anders Wijkman, Sweden’s outgoing member of the European Parliament; Jan Eliasson, former UN special envoy to Darfur; Christine Loh, CEO of Hong Kong-based think tank Civic Exchange; and Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre.
My Mentor: John Elkington
Each of us was also paired up with a mentor – an experienced sustainability leader who had been to Tällberg numerous times before, who could show us the ropes, introduce us to others and help us navigate the crazy gathering that was ahead of us.
My mentor was John Elkington, the British author who coined the term “triple bottom line” – i.e. people, planet, and profit – in 1994, which he elaborated on in his 1997 book Cannibals With Forks: Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. A true guru of green business, he is now the director of Volans Ventures, a London and Singapore-based company that is “part think-tank, part consultancy, part broker and part incubator,” focusing on scaling social innovation. Volans recently published The Phoenix Economy: 50 Pioneers in the Business of Social Innovation.
I’m not sure ours was truly a mentor/mentee relationship. It felt more like meeting a colleague. John is incredibly approachable, and despite his lengthy resume, comes across as virtually ego-less — just as interested, if not more so, in learning about what others are doing, than he is in talking about himself. Meeting John was truly a highlight of the trip. I look forward to collaborating with him in some capacity in the future.
More to Come…
There were many other highlights of the NLP, several of which deserve their own posts. Check back soon for more…
Växjö, Sweden — Everywhere I turn, climate change is on my mind. I’m writing this at my sister-in-law’s house near Växjö, a college town in southern Sweden. Växjö bills itself as “Europe’s greenest city,” so-called by the BBC, for its range of progressive measures on climate, energy, and green building. My in-laws run a 200 year-old country manor house called Osaby Säteri, which sits by a lake on a 10,000-acre nature reserve. It’s a spectacularly calm and beautiful place. I can hardly imagine a better setting to rest and synthesize the massive input of ideas and inspirations that have been bubbling in my brain since spending last week at the Tällberg Forum and Tällberg New Leaders Program.
But despite the calm, I can’t get climate change off my mind. The weather here is unseasonably, oppressively hot — temperatures across Sweden have been in the high 80s for almost 2 weeks. The land here at Osaby is strewn with dead trees from a freak storm that blew through in late 2005 — yet another incident of what Amory Lovins calls “global weirding.” And the news is full of talk about climate policy and the upcoming UN climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen. Sweden took it’s turn as EU President just yesterday. We watched the inaugural festivities on TV, and between the musical acts, the only question the emcee asked prime minister Fredrik Rheinfeldt, of the center-right Moderate party, was “what will you do about the climate question?” He gave the right answer, “That’s the most important issue facing us,” and went on to talk about how Sweden will push other European countries to take action and cut CO2 emissions. Earlier yesterday, protesters from Greenpeace unfurled a banner on Stockholm’s waterfront that read “Tck Tck Tck,” part of a new campaign to drive home the point that time is running out for action on climate.
It would take weeks to relate all of my experiences at Tällberg here. It was a bit like drinking through a fire hose. For a detailed, play-by-play account of what happened at Tällberg, I highly recommend Alan AtKisson’s 6-part series “Camping At Tällberg.” Instead of giving my own complete chronicle, I’ll focus this series of posts on a few highlights, in particular:
- The New Leaders Program and the nature of leadership
- Planetary Boundaries — science shows that we’re screwed (or very close to it) on many fronts besides climate
- Social Enterprise and Reworking the World — fostering sustainable entrepreneurship and youth employment are key to solving not just economic and social crises, but the climate crisis
- Global Observatory — a taskforce formed at Tallberg to create a space in Copenhagen for a panel of top scientists to monitor the UN climate negotiations and mobilize grassroots activists around the world as needed to prod their governments to shift towards 350ppm CO2 in the atmosphere.
- Carbon War Room — an impressive new online toolset for activists and businesspeople fighting climate change.
I left Tällberg feeling both more desperate and more hopeful about the fate of humanity and the planet. I’m reminded of Tom Atlee’s line, that “everything is getting worse and worse, and better and better, faster and faster.” I can only hope that we end up on the right side of that equation. I’ll do my part to make sure that happens. And I’ll share my thoughts with you on the above in the coming days.