I saw this first last year at the Balaton Group Meeting where Junko Edahiro, a fellow life-long learner and enthusiast in the field of productivity, was using her “nu board” to take notes during the meeting. I usually use my iPad and Penultimate to take photos, written notes with my stylus etc, etc. and they sync to my Evernote account so I can search them later.  (See our blog post “Fast and Easy Workshop Reports with Penultimate“.) But as soon as I saw the nu board, I knew I had to have one! (Thanks to my Japanese Balaton Group friends for their kind gift – they are made in Japan!)

If you were sitting next to me in The School of Life gathering in London (on the timely topic of keeping New Year’s Resolutions) last week, you would have seen me taking notes in my small nu board with a thin black marker, filling a page with notes, taking a photo of the page with my phone (I was actually putting it into my mobile Evernote app), then erasing the whole page with the top of my pen (a mini white board eraser), and start writing again. I did this again and again throughout the 2-hour event.

The nu board (available in A4 and A5 size), is effectively a bound book of thin white boards. In between each board is a transparent page that you can either write on to overlay additional text/drawings, or use it to protect your previous page from wrist smears.  You simply write with the nice thin marker (the board comes with the white one below, and the blue nu board pens, available separately, have a harder and thinner nib for even crisper writing)…

Then you take a photo of your page (as I mentioned I put mine into Evernote, but you might keep photos in a different database system) and then simply use the top of the marker that comes with your nu board to erase the page (its very easy to erase if you do it right away, if you wait you need to use some elbow grease)…

…and you start writing again. There are 4 whiteboard pages in each nu board, so you can take 8 pages of notes before you need to take your photos if you want. I had just cleared one page when I was at the School of Life, as I had not yet processed the other pages (which were from the terrific TEDxPlaceDesNations I wrote about in the previous post), but the pace of the TSoL event made that fine.

There is also a separate unbound, single page A4 nu board that I was told could be used, for example, during workshops or conferences to keep time for speakers (e.g, writing up 5 MINUTES), or give instructions to people at a distance (CLAP! – just kidding). I look forward to thinking up interesting ways to use that too.

Nu board is a very clever and simple idea. It is a paper-free solution that takes away the problem of having a bunch of handwritten notes after a workshop or meeting that you need to store somewhere (of course you can take a photo of those too, but then why use the paper?) The improvement on my iPad is that the pen is thinner and I can take denser notes on the paper (the stylus I have for Penultimate is thicker so your writing is bigger, thus less words on each page – fine in some contexts, less so in others).

The mobile photo archiving is high tech, but the nu board is wonderfully tangible and low tech in your hands, giving you the satisfaction of writing, drawing and decorating your notes page, just like you did at school – but you don’t ever have to torment yourself about whether or not to throw those old school notebooks away. Presto! with a swipe, its all gone into your digital archive…

(If you want another reason to try something like this, have a look at this LifeHack article Here’s Why You Should Take Notes By Hand (instead of with a laptop) which discusses a new Princeton/University of California study that shows that those who hand write their notes learn more than those who take notes on their laptops!)

Balaton Books

We’ve recently put together the Balaton Group Book List of 124 books by Balaton Group Members. If you are interested in systems thinking, systems dynamics, sustainable development and related issues, you might be curious to look at this collection, which includes a wide range of titles from academic books to games books.

There are books by the Balaton Group Founders, from the Limits to Growth series to Thinking in Systems and Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling, among others. These are followed by over 100 titles by other Members (single or collective authorship) such as: Image 2.0: Integrated Modeling of Global Climate Change; Tackling Complexity: A Systemic Approach for Decision Makers; The Local Politics of Global Sustainability; Affluenza: How Overconsumption is Killing Us; Creating Regenerative Cities; What if Money Grew On Trees? Asking the Big Questions about Economics; and many, many more…

Donella and Dennis Meadows – authors of The Limits to Growth – founded the Balaton Group in 1982. The Group has met annually for over three decades on the shores of Lake Balaton to advance the boundaries of research and strategy for sustainable development, using a systems perspective. Collaboration among members has resulted in book projects, over a hundred conferences, new learning centres and NGOs and uncounted computer models, training programmes, planning methods, journal articles, films, videos, policy initiatives, educational games, courses and research projects.

This Book List provides fascinating insight into the Balaton Group Members’ considerable work over the years in these issues. We hope this collection helps others interested in sustainability issues find a wide range of thoughtful work in our field. Feel free to share the Balaton Group Book List page!

I often get asked for interesting resources to help people learn more about Systems Thinking –  what it is and how to use it for understanding the complexity that surrounds us, and for making effective interventions for positive change. For those of us in the sustainable development community, working with this complexity is a feature of ever day life.

There’s a new short video just out, called “A Systems Story”, which aims to introduce systems thinking and its key components (stocks and flows, archetypes, delays, etc) through a story. The example this video uses is not what we might expect to see – water resource management, the climate system, global commodities flow – the example that is uses to introduce systems thinking is love. 

The Budapest-based start up that produced it,  BEE Environmental Communication, with team lead Sarah Czunyi, worked for the past few months to create the video with seed funding from the Balaton Group‘s Donella Meadows Fellowship Programme. Sarah was a Fellow of the programme last year and used the stipend to create this innovative educational video as a way to learn about systems thinking through trying to explain it very simply, and in a visually appealing way – all in 4 minutes and 45 seconds. 

Whether as an eye catching start to a formal course on systems thinking  learning and applications, or a way to introduce a strategic planning workshop exercise that uses some systems thinking diagramming tools, the video can grab people’s attention and help spark a discussion about how things are interconnected, what possible influence elements of the system can have on each other, how things change dynamically and what kinds of effects an intervention might have on your system – be it love or climate change. 

See what you think!

With thanks to Guest blogger: Cristina Apetrei 
Back in January my friend Gillian and I were planning to go together to a Common Cause workshop, but we both cancelled last minute due to work obligations. When six months later I did manage to attend a similar event, she was very eager to hear what I learned and kindly invited me to write a guest blog post to share my experience with all of you.

Common Cause is an initiative started in 2009 by several NGOs in the UK who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about the values at the core of our society and what is needed in order to get more public engagement around various global (sustainability) issues. In an initial report – Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values (September 2010) – they looked at social psychology and cognitive science to investigate the relationship between values and behaviour. Later some of these findings were summarized in the Common Cause Handbook – which I recommend as a quick introduction to this discussion, although the full report is much richer.

The main practical conclusion is quite simple: An organization might well be striving for a certain idealistic goal, but it will not be very effective as long as it communicates in a language that enhances values which conflict with that goal. Therefore, we should always pay attention to how we frame and contextualize our messages, and be on the lookout for the implicit values that are being reinforced

Common Cause also says that some values are held more easily together by the same individual. To give an example, a campaign that frames the installation of solar panels as a way to save money on the energy bill reinforces the so-called “extrinsic value” of “wealth”. This value however is in conflict with values such as “protecting the environment” or “equality” that would be required for deeper engagement with the issue of climate change.

But value communication goes beyond the text of a campaign or the copywriting of a website; it also includes the context of an event or the overall culture of an organization. No communication is value-neutral, the Common Cause report argues, so try to nurture intrinsic values (self-transcendence, see Figures 2 and 3 How Values Work) rather than extrinsic ones (self-enhancement) if you want to see behaviours aligned with bigger-than-self goals.

Of course, one may read between the lines an implicit moral dimension here, suggesting that some values would be preferable to others, and this remains an open point for critique and debate. Nevertheless, I believe that the Common Cause approach at the very least makes us aware that not only are our behaviours determined by our values, but also that our actions shape the cultural value landscape that we are part of. As activists or sustainability workers, we are reminded that change does not happen in a vacuum, but requires a certain set of conditions to be met in our environment.

This has implications also for the work of a process designer and a facilitator, whose art is precisely about creating a space that is favourable to a positive outcome. I try to give a few lessons below:

1.      1. Think about the implicit frames and values of the participants
a.   Understand existing frames: Consider not only what each participant sees as the problem and the solution, but also the cultural frames that they may be employing in their evaluation. What stories do they have about the issue at hand, who is to blame in their view, who should take responsibility and why?
b.   Understand values: What underlying values do these frames elicit? Are these values compatible? Is the spectrum of values represented around the table very broad and what could be common ground for a solution?
2.       2. There may be more space for agreement than it appears
One of the findings of the Common Cause report is that people are not selfish, but value intrinsic goals more than their own interest. Also, appealing to people’s intrinsic values will over time reinforce them, while appealing to conflicting values will create confusion. If we take such insights as premises, how could the problems (or the difficult points) be reframed in a way that allows participants to more easily see the common ground?

3.       3. The context of the facilitation session  and dialogue matters
The space in which an event takes place also embeds certain values. To the extent to which you can influence the choice of the space and its setup, consider the following questions: Where does the session take place? Is it in a sumptuous room or is it on neutral ground, in an environment that makes everyone feel equal? What about group dynamics: who are the actors organizing the event and what is their relationship to the rest? Is there a speaker dominating the room or are hierarchies being reduced?

Whether you are working as a researcher, consultant, activist or facilitator, I hope this post will make you a bit more aware of the subjective fabric behind words and inspire you to think of your own role in promoting some values over others.

(From Gillian: Thanks so much to Cristina – also a Fellow Balaton Group Member –  for her intriguing post and report back from the Common Cause workshop – it sounds highly relevant, particularly to the communication and convening work that we all do continually in the sustainability community. Next time I will try to attend myself!)
Every year on the shores of Lake Balaton, a very unique group of systems dynamicists, systems thinkers and sustainability practitioners – called The Balaton Group – meet. The Group has met annually since founders Dennis Meadows and Donella Meadows (Co-authors of Limits to Growth) constituted it in 1982 to explore, exchange, support, dream and create together around the sustainability challenges that face our world. 
This year our meeting focuses on the SDGs and is titled: How Can the Sustainable Development Goals Advance Sustainability?  Now, Balaton Group Members are remarkable people, and one of them who participated in the recent deliberations that lead to the current SDGs wrote a thoughtful reflection on the meetings that he was attending as a part of the intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG). He called it The Turkish Astronomer…I thought it was a lovely reflection, it was poignant for me as I have sat on both sides of the room at these kinds of meetings, and I wanted to share it here (with his permission)…
I am sitting here at the morning hearing with stakeholders and major groups, morning after morning. This right now, as I write,  is the last one in the series, the Friday one. An African girl from a women’s group, also on behalf of trade unions is speaking.  Then an Arab one. Then a Latin American. Then a European. Then an old lady from Harlem.
What they are demanding eloquently, regularly, repetitively is what many of us yearn to hear during the day from UN Member States: respect to human rights, decisive action on climate change, observation of planetary boundaries, development instead of growth, new indicators for prosperity, win-win solutions for ecology and economy, natural resource accounting, contraction and convergence, and so on. The call for the establishment and use of new monitoring and evaluation methods for society, economy and ecology.
They are our Turkish astronomers. (Remember the Little Prince of Saint-Exupéry?) They are saying all the correct things. More than that: they are saying the essential things. But they  have the wrong clothes, an appearance that, ultimately, screens away this essence. They are not XY PhD, or Prof.dr. ZW or Director of the IIVSEM  (International Institute for Very Sound Expertise on the Matter). They are mere NGO activists of pressure groups with unknown but giveaway names. It is not their research. It is not their data. It is, in fact information from you, academics, scientists, research people from UN special agencies they rely on, they quote, they wield. They are people who listened to you, who read what you wrote, discussed it, teamed up and came together around it, understood it.
But they do not look likeexperts. They do not sound like experts. The do not have the business cards of experts. They are nothing but passionate persons impatient with the inertia of national governments that threatens their future, their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ future. They do not want war, violence, disasters, migration, hunger and thirst in their lives, and they find it intolerable that their representatives are not willing to make the right decisions to avoid the avoidable, and prepare wisely for the unavoidable.
But their members do not number enough to be taken seriously politically, and their identity offers an excuse to dismiss their messages as amateur personal opinions.  
But unlike the case of the Turkish astronomer, here we cannot hope for them returning “properly dressed” and thus credible to the same forum with the same message, this time to be listened to. 
Unless their ranks will be joined at the same fora by those whose spokespersons they became, they fight in vain.
Their “light cavalry” would need some artillery – the will not save the day by themselves.
Many thanks again for those of you, those of the science and expert community, who are engaging in this effort, through the OWG and through relentless lobbying your governments.
Warmest regards,


Every year I go to the Balaton Group Meeting eager to meet old friends, to engage, listen and learn more about what is on the frontier of sustainabilty thinking. This group of 55+ systems modellers, sustainable development experts, professors, practitioners and activists gather annually for a 5-day meeting to explore and share and ponder the past, present and future of the planet. They work to understand the dynamics, identify the leverage points for change, and search relentlessly for where the hope is.

I took pages and pages of notes this year (the 30th meeting, on the shores of Lake Balaton), and when I looked back at these notes just now I asked myself where the weight of the discussion lay – the models, the math, the crises, the peaks, the systems? When I put all my notes into a wordle, the above popped out.  I think it speaks for itself…

You go into a Library, you take down a book. You read its contents and you get some ideas, you think to yourself, and you ask a question (or a few).
What would happen if the library, and all the books in it, talked back?
It’s probably safe to say that we all belong to at least one professional network. We might go to periodic network meetings where we sit, contribute and talk to a few people. But what do we do to maximise the value (to ourselves and others) of these networks?
What if we thought of our networks as living libraries? And each member, the author of their own rich story of thoughts, reflections, learning and tips on the theme of our community?
I embroider here a bit on the story told on the first day of the start of the annual meeting of one of my own cherished networks, the Balaton Group.  A fellow Balaton Group member, Any Sulistyowati, described her perception of the group as a “Living Library”.
Whether at the face-to-face annual meeting, or virtually through the dynamic listerve discussions or other bilateral interactions, whatever question she has, idea to be developed, or reflection she wants to bounce off someone, she can go to our living library to query it, talk to one of the story-holders there, and go back and implement her learning. No matter what her question, there will be an authoritative voice or at least informed opinions ready at her request.
Now our network has some features that make this particularly true; we have built wonderful trusting relations, deep respect for diversity and perspective, and the unquestioned willingness to be helpful to each other. That is by design, and we are bound together, quite literally, through these shared values.
This group, in particular, is full of people with amazing stories, every one a page turner. 
Do you have a living library?

We were very sad a few weeks ago when Joan Davis, one of our speakers, and a Switzerland-based founding member of the Balaton Group, let us know that she was not able to attend. She was to be an important part of our programme, focusing on organic agriculture, and scheduled for Day 3 of our annual Balaton Group Meeting on “Food Futures”.

We are a group that focuses on sustainability, and very sensitive to travel and carbon emissions, so virtual contributions would be acceptable from a philosophical point of view. However, everything we have tried in the past to have virtual participation at our meetings has not really worked for many reasons. We thought we would try again this time, our of sheer necessity – and as I watch Joan on the big screen through skype video, we can see that it really works!

The quality of the connection, video and sound is excellent. We are just using a regular laptop with an integrated video, connected to a PPT projector, and a speaker connection (used for showing videos). The wifi is strong in this meeting room. So this is a good start – the technical support is great. However this is only part of our expectations.  One of our group’s values is that speakers stay with us throughout the meeting. This means that they get to know the group and can connect with our conversations and help us move ahead in our thinking through their inputs and contribute substantively to generative dialogue. Too often speakers parachute in and give their usual talk and leave, especially easy for a web-based part of a programme, giving the feeling of disconnect and potentially taking a group off in another direction. Here are a few things that we did to get this depth of connection with a virtual speaker:

  • Skype connection previously in the meeting week: Joan has been monitoring the presentations and discussion all week, so she is able to make comments on the previous speakers points in her skype presentations.
  • Know the participants: She knows the participant group and can mention names of participants and their relevent backgrounds, and can mention them as people that the group can speak to for further engagement around some of her points.
  • Support the two-way conversation: As you can see in the photo above, the laptop on the desk of our Chair Kevin Noone is facing the group, so Joan can also see us. Conversely, seeing this small image of ourselves in the upper right hand of the screen helps us be aware of the 2-way nature of this conversation. The Chair is also actively moderating, repeating questions if the microphone doesn’t pick them up, etc.

This was an excellent experience for the group, which has strong traditions and values around speakers contributions and social interaction during their events. However, in a time when travel restrictions (whether self-imposed or infrastructure/nature-imposed) and other things like health and finances increasingly keeping people home, this doesn’t need to impede good quality knowledge exchange and dialogue that creates new ideas, new meaning and new initiatives. We believed this in theory, and now know this from experience.

We started our annual Balaton Group Meeting this morning (held this year in spectacular Selfoss, Iceland). Our topic this year is “Food Futures” and we have already heard several speakers on the topic, including Karan Khosla (Earthsafe in India) who presented a systems model aimed at conceptualising the issues. John Ingram from the Environmental Change Institute (Oxford) shared with us some shocking facts like 15-50% of all food that is grown is lost between the field and the plate. With him we explored the suggestion that alleviating food security by reducing food waste is much cheaper and more environmentally sustainable than just increasing food production. Other Balaton Group Members wondered what reducing waste would do to the GDP (the growth of which might depend somehow on this waste) – an efficiency and resilience discussion will follow in our afternoon Open Space workshops.

We also had 2 brave Pecha Kuchists on the topic: Laszlo Pinter, formerly of International Institute for Sustainable Development and now at Central European University on gathering agri-environmental evidence through an indicator process with OECD. Andrea Bassi from the Millennium Institute was the second, speaking about the agricultural aspects of UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative.

We are currently in discussion and some very interesting ideas have come up, particularly sparked by a presentation about soil by University of Iceland Professor Vala Ragnarsdottir. She noted that currently soil erosion is 100 times faster than soil formation – and suggested that soil is a finite resource.

A systems map showed that the interactions of soil, people and food depend also on oil and mining (phosphorous). When these resources are gone/limited, what can soils deliver themselves and what can they recycle?

This brought up a few observations, such as the notion of “Peak Food”, mentioned by Alan AtKisson, which sent shivers down our spines.

Our Thai Balaton Group member, Professor Chirapol Sintunawa, noted that Iceland is importing topsoil from around the world every day (through importing food from countries such as his). This took us into a discussion of the notion of “embedded soil” (as opposed to, or in addition to, embedded or embodied energy in the lifecycle of goods). Could this be a new part of the accounting methodology that helps people make decisions around use of goods?

Oh, the Balaton Group – an annual opportunity to disrupt our paradigms and challenge our mindsets, and be with old friends who feel the same way.

In January of this year I wrote a blog post called The Return of the Age of Education, where I wondered if the kick one gets from acquiring stuff could be replaced by that from acquiring knowledge. Effectively, could personal growth replace economic growth? Can acquiring knowledge replace acquiring things? (For example, I was going to experiment with growing all my garden plants from seeds this year.)

I asked that question last week at our Balaton Group Meeting to University of Surrey Professor Tim Jackson, one of our speakers and a member of the UK Sustainable Development Commission which produced the recent, provocative report Prosperity Without Growth.

His answer changed the way I’m thinking about how learning can best contribute to sustainable development, and changing the social logic is a part of this.

Why do people buy things? (Probably there are many individual answers to this question.) Tim Jackson questioned greed as the primary driver. People may instead buy things to gain a place in the community. Tim drew on Adam Smith’s linen shirt example and spoke about the life without shame and the symbolic function of materials good and the importance of these commodities in our lives. So if buying is linked to participation and placement in the community (like keeping up with the Jones’) then individual learning may not be a good replacement, or at least not good enough.

So instead let’s look at community learning. Could this help people find their place (and minimize their need for stuff?) There are many examples of social “experiments” in intentional communities, local currencies, community agriculture schemes, which may better connect individual learning, through community learning, with sustainable development goals.

Of course it is not as simple as all that. In the current economic model, employment is a big driver, and it gives people the money to keep buying, which stimulates the economy, and signals to businesses to produce more stuff, that workers have to make, which keeps people employed. All this works until consumers stop buying (then comes the credit, for a while…) Replacing buying with something else has other consequences in the current system. One quote from this presentation stuck with me: Growth is unsustainable but degrowth is unstable. Tim gave some of the conclusions from their report Prosperity Without Growth, and if you’re interested in thinking about alternatives to the current macro-economic system, its worth a look.

The annual Balaton Group Meeting, featuring from 8-12 fascinating speakers in the morning formal programme, and anywhere from 15-25 parallel afternoon sessions in the Open Space portion of the meeting, is always full of provocative ideas. I captured a number of them here, made by some of our speakers including Dennis Meadows, Bert de Vries, Ashok Khosla, Kevin Noone, Tim Jackson, Jorgen Norgaard among others:

  • (On change) People and institutions are only willing to give money (for external research, projects, etc.) when they are no longer open to significant change.
  • (On resisting change) “Astroturfing” – When companies pay local people to fight their government over decisions that the companies don’t like.
  • (On coming discontinuities) Global society will change more over the next 20 years than it has in the past 100.
  • (On thinking globally) Global sustainability problems will still be experienced locally.
  • (On time horizons) A far-sighted dictator is better than a short-sighted democracy and neither works.
  • (On equity) Are we really living together on this planet?
  • (On economic growth) A primary anxiety of a firm is around capital mobility – that money will fly out of the firm if it does not innovate.
  • (On alternatives to economic growth) Here is a global dilemma – growth is unsustainable, and de-growth (decroissance) is unstable.
  • (On carbon emissions) We need an economy that takes carbon out of the atmosphere.
  • (On a service economy) There are also limits to a service, or amateur, economy – you can only take care of other people’s kids 24 hours a day.
  • (On decoupling) Where does environmental impact come from if not from economic activity?
  • (On the coming changes) These things take longer than you think.

Each idea, fascinating, and often bucking conventional wisdom. That’s what the Balaton Group Meetings provide each year for the 50 people who attend them. For a little history and more on this years meeting, see another Balaton Group Member’s Blog: Dormgrandpop.

Each year for 28 years, the Balaton Group has met on the shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary to discuss sustainability issues, systems dynamics, and global change.

This year’s meeting is focused on “Frontiers of Sustainable Development” and I have decided to try to blog the various meeting inputs. These follow…

I am at the annual Balaton Group meeting this week and we have been talking about, among other things, how to motivate people to change their behaviour – in this case, towards more sustainable actions.

One of our speakers on change agentry put up a slide titled, “Obstacles to change,” which included all kinds of reasons people give for not adopting more green behaviour (such as “my company needs to make a profit, my small contribution will not count for much, I can’t afford it”, etc.) Someone asked the quesion – are these obstacles to change, or rationalisations for not changing behaviour? Here was the argument:

People know what they want to do. When you encourage them to do something differently, they can easily come up with rationalisations of why they cannot possibly do it. Action emerges, it was suggested, in the right side of the brain. Action is vocalised, in the left side of the brain. Models, data, causal loop diagrams, and so on appeal to the left side of the brain. They can help people logically see what they should do and say so. In the right brain however, where the stories, emotions, images lie, is where the motivation to do something is initiated. The left side of the brain picks the song, but the right side of the brain dances to it.

If we want people to dance, to change their behaviour (for example after our systems visioning workshops), we need to do something that leaks over into the right side of their brain. We can’t just give them rationale, data, causal loop diagrams to get them to do things differently. That will help them find their direction. It will be the games, the images and maps, great questions and the heated discussions, that will get them to do something differently after our workshop. Let’s dance!

I recently spent many hours in Second Life with the goal of showing people at the recent Balaton Group Meeting what all the fuss was about. One of the goals of our climate change-focused meeting was to explore accelerated learning tools, so my workshop on Web 2.0 applications to environment and development issues was one contribution towards this end. In the main programme of my workshop I did not get into Second Life, mainly because my avatar had been stuck in an unfinished ski resort for months, still in her first change of clothes and going nowhere. So I rustled up another avatar and was determined to get her going (at least get a skirt on her) and go out and have some fun.

I succeded on that front, to get off the initiation island, to get her decked out in long blond hair and a jazzy outfit, and took everyone watching my screen to a few places that I knew were concerned with sustainability issues. First I went to Better World, a collection of socially conscious organizations and their various neighbourhoods. I visited the water centre and wandered through Camp Darfur. Then I teleported to WWF’s Conservation Island to have a look around – lots of lawn chairs, assorted animals running around, a couple of donation boxes in the shape of Panda Bears. But my main reaction was “HEY, WHERE IS EVERYONE???” These places are interestingly built and totally empty (at least the few times that I was there I saw no one.)

Well, that was a little embarassing to show to my open-minded colleagues. However, I busied myself in learning how to uncross my arms, sit down, and change the colour of my hair. It wasn’t until I met my husband in there (a software engineer for whom this stuff is at least Second Nature if not Second Life itself) who then took me to some fun places – on a hot air balloon ride (I still managed to fall out somehow), to a swimming pool where you can slide down a high water slide. He showed me how to dance and we went to look at speed boats. That was actually nice as I was in Hungary and he was back home in Switzerland with the kids. But even in these places people seemed to zoom in for a moment, wave their swords or whatever, and then split. I guess you can be as clueless socially in Second Life as you can be in Real Life.

My complete absorption in trying to figure it out, and find the interesting environmental sites (not to mention telecavorting about with my husband) was seen as a very scary sign of how people can get sucked into this virtual environment and ignore the world around them (the world around me at that time was participating in Hungarian dancing). My colleagues were intrigued, but not totally convinced. They asked, how can Second Life model climate change? Can the lights dim and go out from time to time? Can teleporting be rationed or controlled, or at least affect the energy available to do other things? Is cyclonic and anti-cylonic activity increasing in Second Life like it is in First Life? And what happens if the weather starts to destroy the coastal developments? Is there Linden Insurance coverage?

Tonight I got an email from one of these colleagues with this link for a website called “Get a First Life” – I love it – it makes me want to walk out of my office and find someone real to talk to!

Children’s stories are cautionary tales that help to relay messages of right and wrong, good and bad, and somehow our hero always pulls through.

Yesterday in a presentation at our Balaton Group Meeting by Dick Barber, a Duke University oceanographer known for his work on El Nino, we heard a story about black swans, which for me was the ultimate cautionary tale. The Black Swan, a theory made popular again recently by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book by the same name, is a large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. Black Swan was adopted as a metaphor for this phenomena because in the 17th century the Europeans, who felt they knew everything about swans, including that they were white, were astounded to find a black swan in Australia. Their science had not predicted that and there was no way it could have.

Dick Barber invoked the Black Swan concept in his talk about our oceans’ response to climate change and our global climate regime. Our climate regime sits in a narrow band of plus/minus 18 degrees and has stayed there for 4 million years (Dick said that this fact shakes his faith in atheism). The group asked him if climate change could cause this regime to shift or flip. Because our models are built with historical information, they simply cannot predict these events; they are “new under the sun”. Dick said that there might be two examples of climate regime shift/flip, Mars which froze and Venus which evaporated. Neither is a very cheery story.

Could our earth’s climate regime flip? We simply do not know, our models have no way to tell us. If the black swan is a cautionary tale, does our hero pull through in the end?

We opened our network meeting yesterday with a workshop on new media, Web 2.0 and social networking tools, and an exploration of applications for learning and sustainability processes. This network is the Balaton Group; a group of systems dynamicists, systems thinkers, and sustainability advocates founded by Dennis and Donella Meadows, who have been meeting by the shores of Lake Balaton to discuss global challenges and change for the past 26 years.

Yesterday during our workshop reflection, we queried our ability to “hear” voices not in the room. How much does our work and avenues of inquiry simply reinforce the messages that we want to hear, rather than minority (or in some cases majority) messages that are completely outside our experience? Network members are well-travelled, culturally sensitive, and primarily reached through electronic means, and now exploring the utility of blogs and podcasting; how much are we able to take into consideration those with whom we do not connect? One of our Members from Indonesia told a story about working with local communities in which they had provided computers for communication purposes. They had recently sent an email inviting people from those communitiesto attend a workshop, and no one responded.

In his recent book, “Stumbling on Happiness“, Daniel Gilbert talks about the view from in here. He puts together a compelling story about how hard, even impossible, it is to remember accurately a previous condition. A more recent experience will always color our evaluation of a past experience. So if those around us are sharing an experience with us, how easy it is for any of us to represent or invoke accurately a completely different context (do we really remember what it was like before we had the internet)?

When such a large percentage of our work is devoted to behaviour change of people that have a potentially very different motivations and contexts to us, sustainability advocates, how close are we getting to really understanding and speaking to the real thing?

This is a test message for a workshop I am giving this morning on Web2.0. We have a group who will be experimenting with blogs and wikis, tagging and other social networking sites. This message has the tag: BGM2007 (changed later to Balaton Group).

More later!

This is a test message for a workshop I am giving for 14 people this morning on Web2.0. From Emeritus Professors to sustainabity field workers, we have an interesting group of people attending who are exploring tools for accelerating learning by experimenting with blogs and wikis, tagging and other social networking sites. This meeting has the tag: BGM2007.