I used some of the precious end-of-year calm to reflect on our work over the last 10 years, and look forward to the new decade. What had we done? Practically speaking, I created a spreadsheet of all the Bright Green Learning projects that we have undertaken between 2009  and 2019 – projects of all types, from designing Training-of-Trainers workshops for Disaster Risk Reduction trainers, through a strategic review of an organization-wide capacity development programme in a large sustainable development organization, Public Private Development Partnership learning products developed for a UN agency, to facilitation design and delivery for a broad range of co-creation workshops, and on and on. We had undertaken 351 projects in all!

It was a wonderful exercise to look back and remember those projects, the different types, outcomes and outputs, the organizations we had the pleasure to work with, and all that we learned.  In my spreadsheet, I also specifically indicated WHERE we learned it, that is, I had fields that captured the region and the country where we had travelled to do this work. My motivation for collecting this specific additional data was to ascertain how many flights we had taken, and, ultimately, approximately how much carbon we emitted by flying to undertake these projects over the 10 years.

Calculating Your Carbon Emissions

This final step was a big job, and it took me some time to pull all the data together. Here is how I did it, in case it inspires others in a similar direction:

Step 1: On my aggregated project spreadsheet, I identified all the projects that involved flights (thus I did not include projects where we took the train or other ground transport) – I focused this exercise on carbon emitted from air travel. We had together taken 123 flights in the last 10 years.

Step 2: I divided all the flights taken into the four ranges that they use on the transport tab of the UN Carbon Offset Platform, that is:

  • Very Long Range: Over 12,000 km or over 14 hours of travel
  • Long range: Between 6,000 km and 12,000 km or between 8-14 hours
  • Medium range: Between 3,000 km and 6,000 km, or between 6 and 8 hours
  • Short range: Under 3,000 km or under 6 hours of travel

In order to calculate the flight times/distances, I used an online flight time calculator to get the figures from our home base of Geneva, Switzerland.

What I found was that the majority of our flights were short range (UK, Sweden, Jordan, Armenia, etc.), but still, nearly a third were long range flights (Tanzania, Japan, Singapore, Mexico, etc). If a country/city was at the upper limit of a range, I moved it into the higher range.

Step 3: For each of the ranges, I allocated a rough average of tons of CO2. I did this generously, using the upper ranges for the sample flights that I plugged into two flight carbon footprint calculators.  Note that I didn’t use the calculators to determine an overall carbon footprint, I used the flight components to establish a CO2 emission figure for each of my four ranges. I used two to cross check the figures – Fly Green and Flight Carbon Footprint Calculator (by Carbon Footprint).  I used these sites to attribute a figure to each of my ranges. (Note that they both also offer offset services.)

I ended up with the following tons of carbon for round trip flights in each of these ranges:

  • Very Long Range: 4 Tons
  • Long Range: 2.5 Tons
  • Medium Range: 1.5 Tons
  • Short Range: 0.5 Tons

Step 4: I did the math, multiplying the number of flights by the tons of CO2 emitted per flight. I came up with 152.5 Tons in total. This is the figure that I wanted to offset retroactively for flights taken in the last 10 years. I also wanted to take the yearly average and project into the future for a few years.

Choosing an Offset

Of course, it is one thing to calculate the carbon that you want to offset from air travel, and quite another thing to decide HOW to do the offset. This is a source of huge debate in practically any related community you ask. I asked my trusted network of sustainability and systems practitioners what they would do…

Boom. The first immediate responses were reactions to the whole notion of offsetting, likening carbon offsetting to a modern version of religious indulgences – where you can pay for forgiveness. That we should not have the delusion that you can “undo” carbon emissions, and carbon taxes were mentioned.

There was a lot of skepticism about carbon offsetting programmes, and that some of these programmes ignore wider local social, economic/ownership and ecological contexts and can cause more harm than good.  Someone shared an article about the rise of “numerical environmentalism” and the perceived movement towards “calculative rationality displacing other ways of knowing and interacting with nature” (T. Smith, 2019).  The method of measurement was critiqued, the fast pace of life, the other excesses we should also be offsetting. Ultimately, we should not fly.

Acknowledging that this is an imperfect exercise, but that we don’t want to “do nothing” about this issue, Lizzie and I decided on a two-pronged approach going foward:

First, we will make a concerted effort to fly less and take at least the following three actions to support this:

  • Collaborating with Local Associates: We have been successful in some of our projects to structure them differently – we do the design work for a facilitated workshop or training course virtually and then pass on delivery to our network of international Associates. For example, last year I had the pleasure to collaborate on a workshop in Ghana with my facilitator/trainer friend based in Accra. Lizzie worked on an important stakeholder consultation in Dar Es Salaam which was then facilitated by one of our Associates in Uganda, who was much closer than we were to the event.
  • Increase Virtual Work: We can also continue to seek virtual opportunities. Over the last years, we have been conducting most of our design and preparatory work virtually, sometimes only meeting our counterpart in person on the day of the workshop or event. We have also been helping to design and run virtual consultations, such as the four, 2-hour team consultations I am working on now with a distributed tri-continental team. Another option is blended consultations. Last week I had a career first, when more of the participants were virtual (15) than in the room (10). If I am there in person, that doesn’t do as much to lower my carbon, but over the entire workshop, it contributes greatly to the footprint of the whole event. These are different kinds of workshop all together and demand some new tools, flexing skills, technical facility with some of the most popular platforms and often technical support.
  • Continue Capacity Development: We will continue to build and support facilitation and training capacity in organizations and individuals who work in our community. The more these important leadership skills are embedded, the less need there will be for external support. Yes, we will keep trying to put ourselves out of a job. Of course, there are some contexts in which you want external support, and these we will gladly undertake. And at the same time, we will also work with organizations who want to build these skills, offer support and coaching to those who want to implement them in their organizations, and work with local and in-house facilitators on design elements of their work.

Second, we will go ahead and make a lump sum historical offset of our 152.5 tons, and pay it forward for the next few years, based on current averages.  As controversial as that might be to some, we didn’t want to do nothing about our past air travel. One network colleague pointed out the risks of offsetting historical emissions for future gains. She thoughtfully cited two main reasons: 1) There is a lot of uncertainty in this business. Whereas, the emissions are real/have happened, the future offsets are hopeful. We hope the trees get planted/cookstoves are distributed, and if they are, we hope they’re used properly for the amount of time for which the offset is calculated. In other words, you might not be getting exactly what you calculated for the offset, to cover the real CO2 emitted. 2) The feedback effects of the extra CO2 in the atmosphere have a cumulative effect, contributing to climate tipping points etc. We can’t know what else those past emissions actually contributed to, between when we emitted them and now in 2020, when we are calculating our offset. Of course, I can round up, make conservative estimates and add more at the end, but this may not cover this; we just don’t know. But in light of this uncertainty, and with the other option of doing nothing, we still decided to go ahead with our plan, and also to “pay it forward” as she suggested (more on this later).

In seeking the way forward, and of course there are many options, we decided to select a carbon offset that meets, at the minimum, the Gold Standard criteria of doing no other (non-carbon harm), and which has some additional benefits.

We ultimately decided to support a programme that is providing fuel efficient biomass cookstoves to refugees in humanitarian camps. The cookstoves, called Berkeley-Darfur Stoves (BDS), are being distributed in refugee camps in Africa by the non-profit organization Potential Energy, based in Uganda, with over 50,000 BDS stoves already in place. We chose this because it fits our values, because of the extensive work that has gone into understanding the offset value, and the fact that one of the co-founders is a trusted network member of mine.

We needed to understand the offset value to calculate how many stoves we wanted to buy.  Certified by independent third-party tests carried out in Darfur, each BDS stove offsets 2 tons of emissions annually, with a total of 10 tons offset over the 5-year life of the stove. For more information, the lifecycle analysis of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove is described in a 2016 academic article in the journal Development Engineering, “Avoided emissions of a fuel-efficient biomass cookstove dwarf embodied emissions” (D.L. Wilson, et al., 2016).

Each cookstove costs 40 USD, which covers the cost of the stove, as well as monitoring and other costs for Potential Energy. Donations for the equivalent cost of the stoves are made through their website.

To contribute to covering the historical emissions, we bought 16 stoves. And, as our historical average carbon emissions from air travel is 15.5 tons/year, I am going to offset our travel at current levels for 3 years into the future, with the knowledge that we aim to reduce this annually.

16 stoves (2009 – 2019)

5 stoves (2020 – 2023)


21 BDS stoves

I will keep the calculations for our flights annually as described above, and if we are off our annual average for some reason, I will adjust accordingly.  But our goal is to reduce our yearly flying time overall.

This is complex, and no doubt will provoke debate, but the alternative of doing nothing didn’t sit well with us, and we feel we have found a good solution for now. We will keep tabs on the debate and be flexible about how we go about this. Ultimately, we are committed to cutting down on our carbon emissions from flying. I wanted to share our process in some detail to encourage others to think this through and take some practical action, whatever that may be for you.

It has been great to work  with my co-authors Dennis Meadows and Linda Booth Sweeney on a book of  22 games that help people learn more about climate change. The three of us have been working in the sustainability field and on related issues for many decades. We’ve enjoyed building on some of the games from the Systems Thinking Playbook, relating them to climate change learning objectives, and also developing new games that can be applied in a number of different learning contexts (workshops, meetings, conferences, training courses, etc.)

We’ve organized the 22 games into three types – mass games, that can be played with any size group, such as in a conference setting; demonstration games that a small group can play while a larger group observes; and finally participation games, that groups from 5-25 people can comfortably play.  

The three authors have played these games for many years with many different types of learners, from students to senior policy officials, and have built into the game descriptions our own learning about how to frame them, brief and debrief them most effectively. Some are simple and take 2-3 minutes to run, others are more involved and can easily create an interesting dynamic and discussion that can take an hour to work through with participants. 

If you want to create a more interactive learning environment when working on climate change and sustainable development issues, consider integrating some of these games into your next presentation, meeting, workshop or conference. It will be one of the things that your audience and participants will remember!

The official publication date is 5 May 2016, but the book will be available beginning April 28. You can pre-order at the Chelsea Green site – The Climate Change Playbook. It will soon be up at IndieBound, and is active at Barnes & Noble  and Amazon , and of course you can order from your local booksellers as well. 

We hope that enjoy learning about climate change, and playing these games as much as we do!

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!

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,


This is an occupational reality that I need to remind myself about from time to time related to the work facilitators do. The resulting advice that I give myself may also be pertinent for trainers, event planners and staff members with bosses using “just-in-time” management or a firefighter approach to work.

You are invited to join processes when they are very important.

Leaders, teams and organizations invest in external support and help when the outcomes matter greatly – they need to gather information for the next submission of a critical funding proposal, they are bringing all their dues-paying members together for an annual inspirational meeting, once in every five years the Board meets to do strategic planning, they are trying to develop a historic industry standard through a multi-stakeholder process. These events can be milestones in the sustainability of an organization.

What if you, as a facilitator, have all of these things happening in the same month?

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen all the time, but it can certainly be the case that you have two or three big projects winding up very close to one another on your own calendar. Each one heating up in the weeks just before – potentially all at the same time.

It is important, as the Facilitator, to put yourself in the host organization’s shoes and not be surprised when calls run over (maybe by as much as 1.5 hours), when they really want to see you and not just have a conference call, when they are eager to talk through an idea with you  even at 11pm at night or on Sunday morning when they are having their last preparatory team meeting. The event you are helping them with might be THE event of the year for them and they will be putting every ounce of effort into it. And they will make many exceptions to make sure it is absolutely perfect, which is great, and will invite you to make them too.

What can facilitators do to manage these exceptions? 3 things immediately come to mind:

  1. Build in Resilience: This particularly in the form of time. Don’t schedule 15-minute interviews 15 minutes apart, don’t take meetings in 2 cities with only as much time as it takes to get between them in between, etc. Things will go over, they will be delayed because of last minute things on the host organization’s side, they will be postponed because the programme is not quite developed yet, etc. Building in resilience to take these changes (which may be last-minute-before-the-event for them, but be all the time for you, the facilitator) means keeping space in your schedule and in your head to work with these exceptions. 
  2. Husband your Resources: Try to maintain your routine even amidst these exceptions. Eat properly, exercise and above all SLEEP! Don’t wind up going to these very important events with a sleep deficit. This is another way to build in resilience so that too many late nights in a row don’t render you less than your usual creative and calm self. I wrote a whole blog post about this: Facilitators: To Your Health! 
  3. Planning, Planning Planning: And of course, this is perhaps the obvious one, but easy to short cut when you might be contacted late in a process, or when organizations are eager to save funds (understandably in the current global financial climate many sustainability organizations are particularly sensitive to this). This might sound counter intuitive, but more time budgeted for planning and preparing your event can easily mean less time needed for last minute fix-its for mission critical meetings. And again, good planning and preparation will build resilience into your system, because with all the known things planned and organized you can be more open to fielding the unexpected whether before or during the event. And unexpected things will happen – expect them! (These can be rather extreme –  I was holding an international learning event with 250 people in Moscow when 9/11 happened, we stopped everything and devoted a full day to dialogue to try to understand what was going on in the world from many international perspectives – from this, to a handful of people losing their luggage thus taking out one of your support staff members for a while to deal with that.)
All of these things take some effort in the short term, but have long term benefits. For facilitators, like the ecosystems or humanitarian aid or precious metals our host organizations are managing, building in resilience makes our work more sustainable. 

Today I had a real “You learn something new every day” moment – how often do you get an invitation to visit a nuclear power plant?

This afternoon I joined some Balaton Group friends to take a walk through the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant, located on the shores of the Danube about an hour outside of Vienna.
Our guide, the infinitely knowledgeable Wolfgang Kromp, Professor at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna and member of the Austrian Nuclear Advisory Board (and also a BG member), is an expert in all things nuclear and this historic plant in particular.

We started our visit with a “marketing video” in the main building. This video was made in the 1980s after the results of a referendum of the Austrian people prevented the newly completed plant from going into production. With a vote in November 1978 of 49.53% YES and 50.47% NO (a difference of under 30,000 votes), the plant which had taken 6 years to build with parts from all over Europe and at a cost of over a billion Euros, would split no atoms.

At that time, in 1978, the plant went into “conservation mode” for 8 years; that is, the workers carefully stored and maintained the machinery, and kept all the engineers on site waiting for a change in policy. But by 1985 it was evident that this would not come. At that point, the company started to sell off parts to various other power stations in Europe to recuperate some of the losses. Interestingly they started to buy parts back in 2005 because they repurposed the building into a nuclear security training center and a museum. Some parts came back, but some didn’t because they had suffered too much damage to be safe.

Our visit then took us over to the plant, where we entered the main entrance and saw where workers would come in and change out of their street clothes into bright yellow underclothes and a yellow or blue jumpsuit uniform, before going into the plant.

When they left for the day they would change out of their uniform (these clothes could never leave the building), wash and take a shower.

After that they had to stand on a scale and put their hands in a monitoring machine which would monitor gamma rays. If they were ok, they could leave and if not, they would suffer the “torture” of a hard body scrub, as Wolfgang put it, that would take off what seemed like layers of skin.

Then they would go up in the elevator to their work stations. This was interesting – nuclear power plants don’t have floors, they have elevations, so you go up to the top at 39.4 meters, and then come down to 35.5, 32.0 etc.

We went up to the top of the plant and walked down to see the different parts of the plant.

At 39.4 meters we saw the upper hall (this is the equivalent of what was destroyed at the Fukushima disaster) and here we could look down into the reactor vessel, which would have been the core of this 700+ megawatt plant.
We saw the (empty) fuel rods as well as the pond for spent fuel rods (water would have filled these ponds to contain the radiation). 

In a working plant, the spent fuels rods are moved from the reactor core after four years of use (every year 25% are moved), and taken underwater by crane to the spent fuel pond. Here they would be kept until they could be moved, still underwater, to another pond (this poses a problem as often there is nowhere else to take them).  Most of the radiation in the plants is in these ponds. In the below photo these cement cavities would be filled with water – the far pond, accessible through the narrow vertical door between ponds, is where the spend fuel rods would be stored until moved further away.)

Water is used throughout the plant for cooling, containing, condensing. What I learned as well is that nuclear power plants are very inefficient. They only capture about 30% of the energy produced and the other 70% is released into the atmosphere or in heated water. For example, this 700 megawatt power plant would lose another 1400 megawatts into the environment in the form of heated water into the Danube and heat dissipating into the cooling towers and into the atmosphere. Because nuclear power plants are so far from cities, you cannot really capture the waste heat as it is not all that hot (300C compared to 600C in fossil fuel plants) and also costly to move long distances, among other problems.

Here’s the Danube right outside the plant.
As we went down in elevation we saw the top of the containment vessel.

The turbines…
And into the control rod drive room (this is a translation from German and looked very much like a scene from Alien to me).
We finally ended up in the control room, where three different teams of 3 people would take eight hour shifts to keep an eye on what looked to me like a lot of machines that go “ping”. Right out of the 70s.




Overall, it was a rather sobering experience. Everything demanded such precision, such fine tuning, quick reflexes and the ability to look at hundreds of dials and data sets at any moment. How on earth you could not make simple human mistakes in here I cannot imagine.

Zwentendorf as a nuclear power plant was built but never opened as an active plant. Today it takes visitors and students on Fridays and is booked 18 months in advance. You can even take a virtual tour of the plant on the new owner’s website. Along the way it has been the inspiration for many unusual ideas for its use (such as a museum for “senseless technologies”, a children’s adventure land, a modern cemetery with the buried in glass cubes, and a venue for some Hollywood films). Today it is a renewable energy installation with citizen participation (with its 1300 solar panels sold out within a few days), a security training center, and a museum to remind the Austrian people of this decision so many years ago.

What a fascinating visit – with great thanks to Wolfgang and the team at ENV for hosting us!


Last week I had the great pleasure to play a trial of the new Green & Great Game with Piotr Magnuszewski.

(In case you want to know more about the kind of interesting people who develop useful learning games like this – based on computer models –  you can look up Piotr who is a faculty member of the Centre for Systems Solutions,  a Senior Associate of the AtKisson Group (as I am), and a Balaton Group Member  – a network of systems dynamicists and modellers, systems thinkers and sustainability advocates. )

Green & Great is a new simulation game that helps players explore the “business transition to sustainability“. The game can played online or preferably in a room with multiple teams, face-to-face, with computer assistance. Up to 6 teams, with 1-5 members each, can play simultaneously and the game takes around 2 hours to play the five 1-year cycles of company strategy and decision-making.

In the simulation, the teams run consulting companies that are advising businesses working in the energy and finance sector (currently, more sectors are being added). The teams go through the decision making cycle of bidding on projects, hiring people with specific competencies, developing internal projects and making staff assignments (and other HR decisions such as training).

The results of these decisions are reported using the Compass (N=Nature, E=Economy, S= Society, and W=Wellbeing) which gives you progress indicators for your company as well as information on your competitors. Teams also get market information annually, about how the sectors are changing, upcoming legislation, what is being expected by consumers regarding environmental reporting, etc.

Teams run their companies for 5 years, and all the usual things happen: people may quit (but of course you can do something about job satisfaction – training or green benefits anyone?), reputation is important (and again the choices on external and internal projects can affect that – what about that CSR reporting project?), sectors change as certain consumer and government demands around transparency change), companies make money (or don’t) based on the decisions they make and the impacts of their projects on those compass points (some projects may not be available to you, as in the real world, if your reputation in that area is below a certain accepted level). There’s a lot to manage and monitor, but then that is the nature of successful businesses and including those moving in and around the sustainable development space.

My two hours with the game flew by and I really enjoyed playing Green & Great. I found the game very thought-provoking, complex but not overwhelming, and fun! (Which is one of my top criteria for games!)

I played my company team on my own, which is always going to be easier, as I only had myself to convince for decision-making. Because we were trialing it, we talked quite a lot with Piotr and among the competing teams, which might be less in a real game. I can imagine however playing it with a team and the rich conversations which would surround our choices about what kind of projects to take, how to build up a committed workforce, to take our sustainability values seriously and still make a good income. I was delighted that I ended up with high scores around Nature, Society and Wellbeing and towards the top for Economy (not the highest, but a satisfying result – we didn’t go broke keeping our other three compass indicators high – not even close!)

The game is great for consulting company teams, or for businesses who are working towards and trading in the sustainable development field. It is also an excellent way for people in the NGO or public sector to learn more about their private sector partners and the environment in which they are working. The game gives good opportunities for insight into how business is transforming and can help enrich the dialogue with business that you find in public-private partnerships.

It’s available now to play, and you can either play it with your own teams internally, with mixed sector teams if you have a joint project, or if you are a game administrator/facilitator/trainer you can play the game with your clients. They are continuing to enhance Green&Great and are happy to have feedback (which I was also happy to give – it is nice when a game is constantly evolving.)

Curious? If you want to try it out for yourself you can sign up for a demo and free trial on the website: Green & Great

I won this gnome two years ago, a prize selected by my cousin who was organizing our annual Ohio family reunion. It was the gift for the family member who had travelled the furthest, and as I had come from central Europe, I easily won this award, and she knew I would. She had picked this piece of tchotchke for both me and for herself; our sensibilities were similar, and this Travelocity gnome reminded us of how far we had gone from our own farmtowns in the Midwest. She herself had lived in the UK for many years and had often contended for this title, and today…

If someone saw this gnome in a second hand shop, it would be no more than a piece of useless plastic, probably not weather proof so not even a garden variety gnome. However, with a story its value changes. But don’t take my word for it.

I was fascinated recently by a Studio 360 piece called In Search of Significant Objects, which told of a social and anthropological project which “demonstrated that the effect of narrative on any given object’s subjective value can be measured objectively”. That is, that an object had more value when there was a story attached to it.

I have seen this myself at a recent house moving “giveaway” party, where a friend of mine was downsizing to a smaller apartment and laid out all the things, clothes, vases, belts, shoes and assorted stuff that she needed to give away. She invited a dozen or so friends and colleagues over to take things away. Initially some of the best things went; however, an enormous pile of objects was left until she started to pick things up one at a time and enthrall us all with their origins, with stories of travels to hard to reach places, special gifts from visiting dignitaries, traditional dresses worn at historic events, and made in secret moments of important meetings by the personal tailors of powerful people. Almost everything went, and with each item, the story of its origin and provenance which was now complemented by the new owner’s own story of where she acquired it, from a remarkable woman who had already lived 40 lives.

The Significant Objects project proved this too. Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn conducted the experiment by buying unwanted objects at thrift stores, for an average of US$1.25 a piece, then invited writers to create new backstories for each object and then sold them all on Ebay, for over US$8000. You can see some of the objects – from candle holder, Fred Flintstone Pez dispenser, craft doll, to a jar of marbles –  and read the stories on the Significant Objects website. ( An odd and somehow beautiful little story about the jar of marbles that gives the artifact a completely different meaning increased its value for a new owner from $1 to $50 dollars.)

I am curious about these findings in terms of what they can bring to learning and my work, I am not quite sure yet. Will people find knowledge and information, or your work or ideas more valuable when there is a good story behind them? I guess the best speakers know that. Will people value and remember the things we give them (both physical and conceptual) when we join their well-crafted origin stories to them? If we stopped and thought about our own stuff and stories, would we throw away less/buy less meaningless stuff?

I’m not sure how much I would get for my garden gnome, but now, remembering its story, I want to keep it.

For those of you who are fans of the FishBanks game, originally developed by Dennis Meadows, there is a new online version that has been created by Dennis and John Sterman at MIT. In this free online version you can play as an individual or part of a class. It can be accessed here: FishBanks Online Version.

I recently ran it twice (in French no less) using the Board game version (in the photo above) and it remains one of my favorite games to play that provides profound lessons about common pool renewable resources management, using systems thinking, growth against limits, and collaboration vs competition.

If you want the Board Game version (which comes with software for your laptop, instructions and all the role descriptions and pieces), you can access it here: FishBanks Board Game Version.

This second link tells you more about the game, how to use it and what kind of learning objectives it reaches, as well as how to order it.

Let’s go fishing (sustainably)!

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?

Watch this 8 minute video taken at the recent TEDx Tokyo which features Junko Edahiro, Chief Executive of Japan for Sustainability, answering the question about what motivates young people today.  She introduces 3 “De’s” – trends which she observes to be forming a big part of the value set of young adults today (much to the consternation of their elders).

  1. De – ownership (from owning things to sharing things),
  2. De-materialisation of happiness (from happiness in buying things to person-to-person/nature),
  3. De-materialisation of life (happiness in our own lives without the lure of the monetary economy),

For the latter she talks about young people who are half farmer/half something else (musician, NGO leader, etc.). These people combine growing their own subsistence food needs with their mission-driven work – instead of investing all their time climbing a company ladder, climbing a ladder to pick apples instead. Junko talks about Japan, can these same trends be spotted elsewhere in the world?

Junko provides thoughtful examples, challenges us all to think about our own possibilities to “De” our life, and welcomes us to the Era of “De”!

(Note from me: Junko is a terrific speaker, fellow Balaton Group Member, and friend and I am delighted to see TEDx and Junko connecting their considerable talents in this way.)

My good friend Alan AtKisson, sustainability author, speaker and ideas engineer extraordinaire has written with his partner Kristina AtKisson this lovely little book called Half! A Simple Way to Make Life Better. You can “watch” the book on YouTube as Alan reads through it with you. It’s hand-drawn immediacy and the easy pacing make it light and yet thoughtful as you imagine all the ways you can half-size your life and double your benefits.

The website associated can be found at: http://www.choosehalf.net/ .

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.

I just finished co-facilitating a week-long leadership training course with LEAD’s Edward Kellow. Systems Thinking was one of the cross-cutting skills components, which started with an introduction on Day 1 (introduction and drawing Behaviour Over Time Graphs), and then on Day 2 we got into reading and drawing Causal Loop Diagrams. Both were entirely based on a case study which we would be exploring and visiting later that week – in this case the London 2012 Olympics and its sustainability legacy (See Towards a One Planet Olympics). I had introduced systems thinking in the previous year’s LEAD programme – See a previous blog post about: How to Go From 120 PPt slides to 2! I think this year’s approach to spread it throughout the week’s curriculum was even better. ) This game helped us pick it up even at the very end.

We had worked throughout the week in so many different groups and constellations, from Digital Pairs (everyone was given an unknown  partner before the workshop to introduce to the group the first night solely from online research into their Digital Identity), to Learning Trios, Presentation Groups, Daily News Groups and LEAD Associate Project Groups. To tie this together with systems thinking, to make visible these interconnections and to celebrate this work, I designed a new game for the closing, called the Flash Mob Game.

We had played the Systems Thinking Playbook Triangles Game earlier in the week (where people stand  equi-distant between two people who act as their reference points), and had explored how to spot systems around us, and to harness their inherent energies to help us meet our goals. So rhis new game was designed to play at the end to pick up those points, and to let people “close” the meeting in a fun way. Here is how the game goes:

Flash Mob Game

About this Game:
This game is perfect at the end of a longer workshop, or at least one that has given participants an opportunity to work in a number of different kinds of groups. It is an interesting way to make visible the  invisible connections that people have made over the course of the workshop. It also shows how something that from the outside seems chaotic, actually has a number of complex inter-relationships that only become obvious when needed, and over time (at least over the time of this game). Like a Flash Mob, the minute before and the minute after their inter-relationship becomes apparent, this seems like a normal crowd of unconnected and unrelated people.

Time Needed:
10-12 minutes

Space Needed:
An open space big enough for people to walk around in without bumping into things (can be inside or outside, we went outside).

Number of People:
From 15 to 50.

Equipment and Materials:
A bell or whistle (I prefer the softer sound of the bell).

Steps of Play:

  1. Ask participants to move to the open area to brief the game.
  2. Briefing: Tell people that they will be walking around on their own in the open area, and periodically stopping on your signal. They can walk anywhere they want and should keep moving without bumping into anyone (or anything!) While they are walking they should remain silent. Upon your signal (bell or whistle), they will stop, listen, and follow your instructions. When they hear the bell, they will start walking silently again.
  3. Ring your bell and ask people to start walking.
  4. Let them walk around for a minute, gently remind them not to speak if needed. Watch the group, this random milling around is somehow very beautiful.
  5. After a minute, ring the bell, and say the following, “Please go find your Digital Partner (pick a group in which they worked that week), say ‘Goodbye’ and tell them how much you enjoyed working with them this week.”
  6. All of a sudden people will go from a random place into a small group and start to talk. Give them a minute to say their goodbyes and a few words, and then ring the bell again. At this point they melt back into a meandering crowd, and start to walk again. Again wait a minute, and then ring your bell. This time say, ” Please go find your Learning Trio (or Presentation Group, or Daily News Group), say ‘Goodbye’ and tell them how much you enjoyed working with them this week.”
  7. I use the chronology of the workshop to call the groups, it just so happened that they started as Pairs, went to Trios, and then larger and larger groups. For the final group, I asked people to find their LEAD Associate Project Group, which was a newly formed group that would last for the duration of the 3-module programme. This time I told them to, “Find your LAP Group, say ‘Goodbye for now’ and tell them how much you are looking forward to working with them in the future”. Note: If you do not have any group or activity that continues after your workshop, you could say “Find all your fellow workshop participants, say ‘Goodbye for now’ and tell them how much you are looking forward to keeping in touch with them in the future”.
  8. After the final Goodbye, ring the bell and let the crowd start to walk again. After a few seconds, end the game and stop for a few words of debriefing.
  9. Debriefing: If this is at the end of the workshop, you might use it to reinforce some of the systems messages with a statement or observation about how if people outside could see the crowd walking they would never know what kind of interconnections there were in this group, what they have done and what they can do together. If it is earlier in the programme you can ask people to notice the different action at different time frames (random movement and purposeful groups). It is interesting to see how what might look like a number of interconnected people (things, ideas, etc.) might actually be connected in surprising, and potentially useful ways which you can understand if you observe the system carefully over time.

You could probably adapt this game to a mid-session time frame, or earlier in the workshop if you can identify different interconnections and inter-relationships between people and are sure that they are also aware of them. For example after introductions on Day 1, you could call it the Hello Flash Mob and ask people to find others who work in their sector, who come from the same country/town, etc. and say ‘Hello’ and tell them how nice it is to meet them. This would also help visualise a “crowd” self-organise and then melt into a crowd again. At the end of this version, you could ask them to find the people who are happy to be here, say ‘Hello” and tell them how much you are looking forward to working together this week/day/etc. I would still end with a bell and letting them walk away again. Then stop and debrief the game (as above).

Make sure you test it yourself, we just played it for the first time yesterday (and it worked beautifully)!

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite Flash Mob Videos: Central Station Antwerp, Grand Central Station New York

and Liverpool Street Station in London:

(Note from me: This (rather long) post was inspired by my partner in this exercise who challenged me to try to blog about our own process reflections. It seemed congruent to frame it as a “How To” – so this is my learning about learning!)

In many project documents and programme concept notes you see mention of building on or using learning from best practice. But how exactly do you go about collecting this, and in what form can you use it?

Identifying Patterns

We recently finished a 6-month learning exercise at a large international NGO which explored this issue. It focused on learning from a number of experiences in the last 10 years in a newly developing area of partnership work for the organization – providing independent advice for businesses on biodiversity conservation in their operations. The HQ programme manager saw some patterns developing that she thought would be interesting to capture, organize and make available for other colleagues around the world who were interested in adding this kind of work to their portfolio of projects.

We were also curious to see if there was a way to describe some of the common components of the processes that were being used as models that made them more easily transferable. And we wanted to learn from the Project Managers living and breathing these experiences about what worked and what they might change, if they did this again, in the different stages of their process. These included areas like governance, communication, contracting, etc.

Don’t Shelve It! (Why to Collect It in the First Place)

In this case, there were several reasons for collecting best practices:

  1. To help understand more about staff member’s work in this new field and to make it visible;
  2. To provide Project Managers doing this innovative work with an opportunity to reflect on their process and what they are learning, and to document this;
  3. To provide interested staff members with some basic “how to'” information, as well as to connect them with a set of experienced colleagues to whom they can go for advice; 
  4. To develop a set of models – in the form of diagrams, generic steps, and actionable insights –  that help to lightly organize the experiences (which developed organically in many cases). These model descriptions can help staff and potential partners more strategically choose from amongst them when a collaboration opportunity arises, and also help this new practice be more effectively communicated internally and externally.

The learning exercise therefore had two target audiences – staff members (both running these partnership projects or interested in starting them); and potential new partners. The first was considered to be more important at this stage as a focus of the learning exercise. As these are very different audiences, two separate products were designed as vehicles for the best practice information collected – a “How To” learning document for staff, and a promotional brochure for potential new partners.  The first one took 6 months to write, and the second took 1 day.

Do It in Steps: How We Collected Best Practice

A. What Makes for Best Practice? Identifying the Cases
One of the first steps in the exercise was to identify the cases that would become a part of the learning and analysis. We found that we did not need to worry about how to categorise “best” cases (by anyone’s subjective standard) as in every case Project Managers could pick out aspects that were working very well, and could also always pinpoint things that could usefully change or had changed for various reasons. Good practice was a better frame as it exhibited itself in every case we analysed, whether in setting up the project Advisory Board, how stakeholders were integrated, developing strategic reporting time lines, or using formal team building. Each Project Manager had innovated in interesting ways, and also had naturally come up against challenges. In some cases, they had effectively solved them for each other, but prior to this exercise no format existed to capture and exchange on these items.

We started with 10 cases and ended up using 7 of them for various reasons. We tried to get a variety of experiences from different parts of the world that were well established (i.e. had been going for some years, or were nearly completed) and for the most part well-documented. Each however had something in common, they worked with a new business partner with a specific goal of providing independent advice for biodiversity conservation.

B. Creating an Opportunity for Reflection: Gathering Information
For each case, although for most cases there was lots of descriptive documentation on the web, it often did not include process information. It was mostly framed as reporting details and quantitative data. We did use that as background, but our main input was conversation based, using Appreciative Inquiry stems for questions (e.g. focusing on what is working). So Skype or face-to-face interviews with the Project Managers and, in many cases, other delivery team members external to the organization, were built centrally into the process.  We focused in the interviews on what people thought worked very well and what could be different to make the experience even more successful. Creating an opportunity for reflection, we asked about learning along the different stages of the process, from preparation/set up through delivery, to reporting. And, because this was a newer area of work for an well-established organization, we explored perceptions of risk. We specifically asked for Tips for future project managers who might be running a similar exercise, and on the qualities that Project Managers needed to have make the project successful.

C. What’s Bubbling Up to the Surface? Developing the Model
It was only after all the cases had been written up, that we could step back and try to understand what some of the commonalities might produce in the form of a generic model or structure. In the stories of the Project Managers there were definitely repeating elements, process steps, even challenges. Some features were shared across all the cases, for example, all had some similarities in sequencing of process steps, all had a governance component – an external Panel or Steering Board that helped the advice given be truly independent, all were set up with some form of formal agreement between two organizations even if a larger number were involved. Across these common elements much good practice was exhibited.

Other things in the cases were clearly different, and what became apparent as we looked deeper, was a framework model that included the goal of the process, especially the depth of outcome desired – was the change on which the project focused a remedial action (e.g. trying to fix something in a specific location like a lake, harbour or protected area?) Or was it aimed at much broader social change? This was linked to the level of intervention – a field operation, a company, sector, supply chain or society. Each of these in turn had an optimal level of stakeholder involvement. We plotted the categories of projects and the individual cases along these lines to see what we would get.

What this analysis produced was a useful tool, a diagram, which collected the different kinds of experiences in one place, based on their key features. It effectively organized the diverse experiences in a visually interesting way and could be used as an aid to guide an exploratory discussion with new staff member or with a potential business counterpart.

D. Pulling it All Together: Producing the Best Practices Product
The “How To” Learning document was an exercise in synthesis. Although we had collected a binder full of data, and held hours of interviews, the result had to be a crystallisation of the learning. In the end, the main body of the document was 22 pages of text with diagrams which included an overview of the main categories we identified, each with a set of steps for implementation, tips for setting up and managing the processes, communication lessons, and a discussion of potential risks and management options. It was in the Conclusions section that we introduced the model that situated all the experiences into relationship with one another based on the features mentioned above (depth of outcome desired, stakeholder involvement, and scope of intervention). The case studies and resource documents were alphabetised in the Annex, along with a matrix snapshot of the cases in terms of their exact cost, time frame, managers, and level of public disclosure. The cases studies were also referenced throughout the document in the form of a three letter code, set up as a key at the beginning, so that for any tip or process step, readers could refer back to a real example in one of the case studies.

A Challenge We Faced in Developing Best Practice Advice

Even though the framework model was a key intellectual input into the learning exercise, we chose to put it in the Conclusion. This decision was based on what we found as one of our key challenges in this overall best practices process.

Innovation in organizations can happen in many different ways. A new idea or practice can be developed centrally and then tested in different locations/conditions to see how it works. The lessons can be gathered and analysed. This more top-down process exhibits a certain amount of standardisation at the onset, although different contexts will see practice gradually diverge from the first model. Another way, however, is more bottom-up. Some internal or external opening or trigger (policy change, global change, etc.) sparks new practices start to occur organically in different places and these experiences start cropping up in parallel to one another with very little horizontal interaction. They each understandably develop their own vocabulary, labels, and a proliferation of process peculiarities. If at this point you decide to undertake a learning or best practices process that includes some sort of meta-model development – which need a certain level of harmonisation of labels and a set of common concepts – then you might find this a little more challenging. You can still find incredibly useful best practices, and will get to be creative about the categorization and labelling of these.

In the end, each case we explored was indeed unique, and at the same time, their goals were very compatible, which made for a rich value-adding exercise to look across them and understand what makes for best practices, so that they can be shared, communicated, and used for continual improvement through learning in the future.

Before I started a workshop recently, I checked both of the Fire Exit doors to make sure they were not locked (believe me, it happens). I also roamed around outside the workshop room to find the fire extinguisher, which I knew was there somewhere (under a table – in plain sight if you are 1 meter tall or less). I also checked with the building maintenance team to see where the rally points were in case of evacuation.

These are things I do regularly now when I work in a new venue, and check again in familiar ones. Then I’ll start my facilitation work with a group by reminding them of these safety features, often before we get to the objectives of our day. Sometimes I format this information as quiz questions, to keep it light yet still draw their attention to it – it’s amazing how many people don’t remember these features in their own buildings. (I’ll admit that I didn’t either!)

This practice is drawn directly from my work with companies. In the past few years I’ve worked more and more with large private sector groups, many representing heavy industry, in and around their own buildings. Many businesses will start their meetings with a reminder of this information. In some cases they might do something more substantial called “Safety Shares”, or “Health and Safety Shares.” I even worked in one company HQ that asked visitors to watch a video about building safety in the reception area before they were able to enter the work space for our meeting (where they then still got the Health and Safety Share).

The Health and Safety Shares that I saw were interesting in that they provided opportunities to show statistics about some aspect of safety in the company or in the country/region where it is located. For example, in one workshop a company participant lead the Health and Safety Share with statistics on how many people have accidents from falling down staircases (one UK report stated that 28,602 people were hospitalised for falling down stairs in 2007-2008). This statistic supported the company’s stringent rule (signs everywhere) for holding handrails on the staircases in all the buildings and installations – an earnest rule that sometimes made visitors smile.

In that particular workshop, which was cross-sectoral and focused on sustainability, we brought in the “E” of “HS&E” which is now what many companies have renamed their Health and Safety departments (Health, Safety & Environment). After the staircase information another participant added some statistics about how many plastic bottles are being used, to sensitise people people about waste (15 million plastics bottles are used each day in the UK!) This was presented by one of the NGO participants as the “Environment” part of the “HS&E Share” and framed as a way to help society “hold the earth’s handrail.” It was both clever and profound as a way to interpret HS&E in today’s corporate social responsibility environment.

These Shares might also be complemented by inputs from the participants on things that they see on their way to work – safety infractions or good practice – as a way to bring the messages into their daily life, rather than just norms that are followed at work. All in all, this kind of HS&E share took about 10 minutes before the workshop (we even started a little early to take this into account), and was an interesting and thoughtful way to bring both the practical personal safety aspect into the room (including how to get out of it, fast!), as well as to position the workshop discussion in a much wider social context.

If you look around you right now, do you know where the emergency exit is? A fire extinguisher? Your local recycling station?

I am just about to comment on a PPT presentation that a couple of elementary school students made about what to do in case of a tornado (Among other things: Seek shelter under a sturdy table in the basement. If there’s no basement available, go to a first floor, small bathroom opposite of the tornado. Did you know that?) A teacher in Pickerington, Ohio (population 9,792) is running a timely project with his class on extreme weather conditions, what causes them and what to do.

But they aren’t making posters and standing up in front of their class (well, they might be doing that too.) They are doing their project using social media, so their learning becomes the learning of many. The students are doing their reports on tornadoes and hurricanes and the like in PowerPoint (with very nice visuals and lessons in word count that any good conference presenter should know). They are posted on a website in blog format, and they’re inviting comments through word-of-mouth viral spread from all over the world. To incentize interaction, they are giving the teams with the most comments, and with the comments from the furthest away, a prize. (Thus the reason I was called in I guess – an Ohioan who cares about tornadoes, based in Switzerland.)

The comments they are getting are interesting too, lots of positive feedback on their delivery, extra information and geographical comparisons from people who live far from their small mid-western town. No amount of classroom interaction would get them that.

I’ll put the link here, just for now, in case you want to go and give them some information on extreme weather events from your part of the world. As our climate changes and social media is just the way things are done, these kids will be doubly prepared!

I have been spending the last weeks at my desk developing a shared “curriculum” for a trio of sustainability leadership development programmes in different parts of Africa. I find myself writing about activities that help people make impact in their contexts and communities, and about how to take ideas from rhetoric to behaviour change.

That’s what I’m writing about, but what I’m doing is actually the opposite. I’m taking action and putting it into words. And I realise as I write this shared curriculum, ostensibly from existing materials, for a global programme that has already existed for some 15+ years, how useful and unusual it is for practitioners to take this extra step in their capacity development and facilitation work. That is, to actually write their “curriculum” down, or record it in some way – to capture more than just the content, but the learning process used (the learning objectives, the frames, the questions, the activities, the timing, etc.) Here are a few reasons why I think this is useful and important in this day and age.

Finding efficiencies and economies of scale

This curriculum development exercise was initiated because of a consolidation of three existing programmes who want to create efficiencies and economies of scale from sharing past and future learning investments and practice. These programmes are located in the same “region”, but that region is Africa, and we all know how big that is. So frequent face-to-face work and oral exchange becomes less viable, and flying the one person around who knows how to do X-by-heart is also more problematic. It needs to be documented some way so that everyone can use it.

Democratising the learning process and creating on-demand resources

Writing the process learning down, or recording it in some way, helps move the learning from the expert model, where the knowledge is kept in one or a few people, and makes it available to a wider community of other facilitators (or would-be facilitators). Although distance knowledge sharing is aided by conference calls and video skype, (although still somewhat limited by accessibility), it is still rather impossible to download days (or years) of process this way, and unless you record the exchange, it is not available later when you might need it as an on-demand resource. And even if it is recorded, it is probably not tagged so not searchable later (and who will wade through 40 hours of hand-held workshop video?) I know change is coming in this area because I participated in a demo webinar of Quindi, which is a software package that aims to capture all aspects of meetings including video recording, which then is organized through tagging and bookmarking, but I have only just heard of this recently and not seen it in practice yet.

Promoting knowledge retention and exchange

When each programme team started their own training work many years ago, they probably did not anticipate that they would be in the position one day where they needed to share everything. In this global programme there were initiatives to report on curriculum, outlines were shared, presentations made, but not a lot of learning content was shared across the network and used by other programmes. As a result, I am not finding as much of the curriculum and learning process documented as I would like for this exercise I’m undertaking. It exists in the heads of the facilitators and faculty, but without a great deal of investment, that is very hard to use. Putting action into words can help document the learning process into reusable learning objects which then can be shared and really used.

I wouldn’t mind how this was done – practice and learning materials could be taped and YouTubed and well-titled, recorded into how-to podcasts, blogged, or simply written up (well-labelled -not pdfed please, what a pain to reuse!) and stored on a hard drive somewhere ready for emailing, even better on the cloud. Not only would it be useful for me, but it would be useful for anyone new (and in this time of high turnover, new colleagues are not unusual.) We would all benefit from this tacit knowledge of how things work, whether it is to build it into a new learning process, or share good practice with other parts of the larger leadership development network.

Creating Social Learning Opportunities

Writing things down or recording them in any way takes time, and it is certainly easier for a facilitator to simply have a learning framework in your head, to put together your materials and make it happen. And this immediacy can be very good for learners (but not so good for your peers – in fact, the better you are at facilitating learning activities, with your stock of tried-and-true games and activities, the less likely you are to record your process I find.) However, I think you can do both. If you want to contribute to social learning, and in turn benefit from the conversation that happens when someone can see and query your practice, then find some way to record it and make it useful to others who can then benefit from your work and grow the practice overall.

People who work in leadership for sustainable development need to help leaders make transformational change, and put their words into action, but in order to help this leadership learning community to strengthen its own practice, we also need to put this action, somehow, into words.

Thanks to the BBC for a slightly odd, but very environmentally-message friendly holiday video!

PS: And just to make more of a learning object out of this (e.g. more than learning that squirrels can play the saxophone), this is the first time I have embedded a video into blog post, much easier than I thought to copy in the code. OK, maybe the squirrels are more interesting – Happy Holidays from me!)

For an event that combines product designers, technology experts and policy makers, you want to move into as many innovative “integrative” spaces as possible. That takes buy-in from all parties, as well as lots of courage!

On Tuesday, the second day of a 2-day international conference on sustainable products and services in Essen, Germany, we took the familiar format of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” and converted it into “Who Wants to Be a Sustillionaire” (credit to the CSCP team for the title!) We used this modified format to do something interesting and new for plenary reporting on a series of 5 parallel workshops, in which 200 people from 29 countries took a set of project ideas to their next stage of development.

Many conferences have a combination of plenary sessions and parallel workshops as a part of their design. The challenge is how to bring in the learning and outcomes from the parallel work back to the whole group in a way that is not a boring sequential set of oral reports from the workshop organizers.

It’s an interesting decision about whether to do plenary report-backs at all. Really large conferences don’t bother. Medium-sized ones with community-building goals, often try. And it is a challenge for organizers and facilitators to do this in a way that is engaging and not sleep-inducing (heaven forbid adding into the mix the after lunch snooze-time zone.)

One compelling reason to do after-workshop reporting, is that it ups the stakes in terms of quality outcomes. If you need to report back to 200 people what you accomplished during your 2 hour session, you put some extra effort into it and want it to be good. Another pro is that it promotes more authenticity in reporting, as you have your whole group of 40 or so participants in the room witnessing and hopefully validating your description of what came out of the event.

So there are some good arguments around why to try to bring some of the flavour and learning from parallel sessions into a plenary setting. We decided to do it.

So back to our game session, “Who Wants to Be A Sustillionaire”. We thought it would be interesting to get each of the Project Incubators (the titles of our parallel workshops) to give us two questions, in the familiar multiple-choice format of the game show. We would combine them all into one game round which would be delivered by Powerpoint in the plenary after the conclusion of the parallel sessions.

On each slide we had the question, and then an A, B or C choice. The next slide had the same question with the right answer highlighted. There were 10 questions. Each question was asked to the audience by the game host (in this case it was me), and their answers were collected in different ways. After some of the questions (at least one per workshop) I asked someone from that particular Project Incubator, either an organizer or participant, to tell us a little more about the question’s answer and in doing so some of the results of their workshop.

It was ambitious, we got some laughs, and good humoured responses. In retrospect, I would do it again. Here are some of the things I learned about the conversion process, converting the game show format to the learning format, that I would consider next time:

What I liked:

  1. I could administer the game from the audience, I had a lapel mike and walked through the audience as I asked the questions which were shown on the big screen at the front of the plenary. I also had a hand mike, so I could either ask the group to respond, or I could ask individuals the questions. It made it more spontaneous.
  2. The quiz was at the end of the conference, so I knew many people by that point, and when I needed to pick an individual to answer a question, I knew who might be happy to answer a queston in front of a group of 200 people, and who might add a little extra humour to their answer.
  3. I thought 10 questions was about right, I would not have wanted more (perhaps a few less, but generally, the 10 questions went pretty quickly).
  4. I thought it worked well to collect the answers in different ways. For some I asked the audience to stand if they thought it was A, B or C; or asked them to raise their hands; or ask individuals. I could also lightly play on the ask the audience, phone a friend etc. (although no one took me up on the latter). I couldn’t easily use 50:50 as we always had 4 answers.

What I would try or do differently next time:

  1. I would number the questions (1 to 10), so as the game host, I could tell when we were getting near the end and raise the drama.
  2. I think I would put the questions in order from very easy to hard, like in the game show. Ours were mixed, and all of them had some funny answer choices, which was good, and at the same time made the questions continue to be rather easy. Next time, I would make the first ones very funny and easy, and then get gradually harder so that people didn’t automatically know the answers. It might give me more opportunity to get discussion going within the audience and not just between the audience and me.
  3. I would vary the kinds of questions – we used a template to make it easier for the session organizers to give us their questions. We even gave them some samples, and then asked them to give us the wrong answers in advance and then give us the right answer after their session. I think having different kinds of questions, and different numbers of answers (e.g 2, 3, 4, 5) might have given more variety, and therefore be easier to animate.
  4. I was a good idea to have question “stems” (e.g. What are the priorities for…? What is the role of…?) which were sent in advance (5 days) to the organizers who could use them to frame their questions. In the future we could go back to the game show for some familiar stems, to even further connect the audience to the energy of the tv game.
  5. I would build in a little more time between the end of the workshops and the quiz in plenary – we had a courageous 30 minute coffee break to collect the final answers, check through them and run the game. It did feel like the quiz was very fresh which was great, and perhaps little more time would help iron out any little hiccups, let us look over the quiz as a whole for the build in difficulty and drama, and give us a test period. A lunch break time length would be great.
  6. I might add a final question that is not directly related to the indvidual workshops but was a comment on the overall goal or message of the conference – that could be the 1 million Euro question.
  7. Adding monetary figures overall to each question might have added some fun, at the end I could have asked who wanted to donate their winnings to the Project Incubator follow-up (hopefully everyone would have raised their hand!)

These are some of the things I learned from the experiment to convert a game show into a conference reporting game. It was infinitely better than stand up reports, gave some interesting energy to the end of a lively conference, and gave people a shared experience that could continue to bind them together (more than sitting shoulder-to-shoulder together and listening to podium speakers).

I think it also showed the organizers in a good light, as courageous and willing to try something new. It promoted the idea that there are always new ways to do routine things, things that we might do without giving it much thought, especially in a familiar setting (in this case, like a conference). How can we keep from going on autopilot and missing out on the innovation and energy that comes from trying something different and new? And for sustainability, we will take all the innovation and energy we can get!

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.

Can you go too far with experiential learning? This is learning by doing, as opposed to learning by more passive means (listening to a speaker, watching TV, etc.) Experiential learning has the potential to get deeper, be more memorable, to create an experience or a learning moment that you can draw on or act upon in the future.

The (all too) oft-quoted Confucian saying, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand,” argues for this more interactive approach to learning. So how can we make, or take, more learning opportunities outside of formal learning situations – into the informal learning environment. What about this…

I am a member of a thoughtful book club which is just about to finish reading The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle. It is a powerful book about inequity, humanity, and the poverty/environment interface. In the book two families live within 500 meters of each other in the outskirts of Los Angeles, one on a fragile hillside in a makeshift hut of stolen pallets eating domestic cats and thrown away produce, all by-products of the incredibly affluent (in relative terms), gated, chardonnay- and smoothie-drinking estate which sits downhill; only a 2.5 meter high stucco wall separate these two worlds. One is a family of illegal Mexican immigrants, the other can be characterised by their upper middle-class, double-income urban flight.

So before this sounds like a book review, to the point, and back to my book club and learning. We try to link the evening of each of our book club discussions to a meal. I see a potential learning opportunity here. Now, I am not eager to sacrifice either of our pet cats, so how else might I make this discussion of haves and have nots, of the extremes between poverty and over consumption, deeper and more personal – more experiential?

Might I ask my fellow readers, when they enter my house to pick a number from a hat? These numbers might determine their places at the table for our discussion and meal. Maybe the “1’s” will sit at the head of the table. They might have a table cloth, polished cutlery, a nice bottle of wine and a warm meal, with a starter, dessert and coffee. And what about our number ”2s”? Maybe their half of the table will feature a newspaper covering, tin cans of tap water to drink, a spoon, and a small bowl of yesterday’s beans and rice, barely warmed over, to share?

How might that make people feel? What kind of a discussion would ensue – would it be different? More congruent with our book’s message and therefore more powerful? Will we learn more than we would have from our usual discussion? And more importantly, how might we look differently at our food and drink at our next meal?

(Bonus question: Will people be happy to come back to my house for book club again?)

Tonight I spoke at the Geneva Forum for Social Change on a panel called, “The Power of One: Individual Choices Affecting Environmental Change.” It followed and riffed off of a film which was shown just prior to the panel discussion called, Garbage Warrior, about Mike Reynolds decades long fight to give architecture and building a space to innovate towards more sustainable living. I started my introduction with one of Mike’s quotes from early on in his film…

“Mike Reynolds said that ‘progress is made by making mistakes’. I would say rather that progress is not made by making mistakes, but progress is made by learning from our mistakes (and our successes for that matter.) Learning is not necessarily implicit in making mistakes. People make the same mistakes over and over again. So does society, we see it all around us.

Just two days ago, I filled up my diesel car’s tank with unleaded petrol, from empty, right to the top. And that is not the first time that has happened. How did this happen? I was simply not thinking about my actions or the results, I was not fully present, I was thinking about what I was going to be doing in the future and not what I was doing at that moment.

For the last 19 years I have been working as a learning practitioner within the sustainability community, most recently as the Head of Learning and Leadership with IUCN. From this experience I know that learning takes work; it actually rarely just happens. They say you “Learn Something New Every Day”, and you probably do, but don’t notice it, its passive rather than active learning, and therefore don’t necessarily deeply learn. To deeply learn you need to deliberately close your learning loop, particularly through building reflective practice.

Over the years, I have seen a shifting paradigm in adult learning from more centralised teaching, to facilitated learning which includes an important component on reflection: noticing, naming, capturing, sharing your learning, in order to embed it and make it more accessible for future use (for yourself and others) -so that you can really learn from your mistakes, and successes, and help others learn from yours and their own too. Can we be more present around our choices as consumers, voters, (petrol buyers)? Can we start to more deliberately learn our way towards more sustainable development?

(Warning: very long post. You can grab a coffee, or be entirely forgiven for moving on to your daily Dilbert email…)

Thursday as I was going to the airport to catch my flight to New York, I heard an economist on BBC talking about the Madoff Affair and the breaking news about the Satyam chief who disappeared $1b. He and the reporter had a discussion about greed. And the economist said that society now realises that there are limits to economic growth, and that this observation has been influenced by the growing social acceptance over the last few years of the ecological limits that we find ourselves bumping up against from climate change.

Now here’s the part that made me smile, the economist then said that people have a drive towards growth, but that they have to find different ways to better themselves, and not just in economic terms. What music for the rather small group of people that have been humming this tune for years.

Many engaging options for achieving this state of “betterment” have been proffered over the last decade or so. Below I am going to share some of the great ideas and the people behind them that I have heard about. I would also like to add learning something new, or relearning something, to this solutions list. Learning has always been an implicit part of this desired exchange – the trade off between materials goods (or perhaps the feelings of satisfaction/achievement/competition derived from them), for the same feelings derived from non-material activities and their impacts, which are hopefully less costly, less resource intensive, and less polluting.

So, I’m going to champion learning explicitly as an option or an ingredient for obtaining that different feeling of betterment that the economist was talking about. But before that, as I mentioned, people have been working on this. Who’s been on the case?

For years the sustainable development community has not only been talking about limits, a notion initially sparked by the famous book Limits to Growth first published in 1972, but also what society can do differently. These SD practitioners have long promoted replacing material rewards with quality of life rewards, or at least trying it. For example, for the last 5 years, Japan for Sustainability (JfS) and its Chief Executive, Junko Edahiro, has promoted Candle Night on the summer solstice. Candle Night has become a global phenomenon which aims, in a way, to get people to practice an alternative. It’s a “voluntary, participatory, and creative cultural campaign that suggests that people share “alternative ways of spending time” and “more diverse scales of affluence” by temporarily turning away from goods and information as an experience shared by society as a whole.” The campaign creates awareness, dialogue, initiative around these lifestyle alternatives, and JfS is behind it with its deep well of expertise and information when people want to go further.

“More fun and less stuff!” has been a rally cry of the Center for the New American Dream since its founding in 1997. This consumption-focused organization runs effective long-term campaigns including stopping junk mail, parenting in a commercial culture, green procurement, and says about itself, “The Center for a New American Dream is dedicated to helping support and nurture an American dream that upholds the spirit of the traditional dream—but with a new emphasis on sustainability and a celebration of non-material values. We envision a society that values not just “more” but more of what matters.”

Vicki Robin and her partner Joe Dominguez, originally wrote Your Money or Your Life in 1992 to help people “change their lifestyle and transform their relationship with money…” This book has just been re-released in its second edition, and updated “for the 21st century”. Vicki made a lasting impression on me many years ago at a workshop when, just prior to her presentation, she asked the group if they liked how she was dressed. Elegant and colourful, she delighted in telling the group that her entire ensemble cost her just over 3 US dollars, due to clever repurposing, thrift shopping and exchange.

Vicki and her work are backed in part by the Simple Living Network, which provides tools and resources for people who are interested in “conscious, simple, healthy and restorative living.” This links up with the Voluntary Simplicity movement and leaders such as the author Duane Elgin , who wrote “Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich” in 1998. This as you can imagine is a community which goes way back.

For many people today, these are ideas whose time has come. They now fit together more comfortably with the Ebay culture, which is ultimately about repurposing and recycling. And thankfully as people dive further into this there are great resources available, which the people and institutions mentioned here, and many others, have been working to produce and refine for well over a decade. After all, it was in the 1990s that the term “Affluenza” was coined, with its definition including “…the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses,” and “…an unsustainable addiction to economic growth.” There are serious messages and there is also humour involved – listen to Stockholm-based sustainability practitioner and writer Alan AtKisson sing his 1997 song, “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On.”

And I think we need to be very careful about messaging. Leisure activities, more quality time spent with families, more consciousness, simplicity, back to basics – all of these things do resonate increasingly with the wider society in this time of economic turmoil. For the last 10 years or so, however, the sustainable development community has dealt with reactions of unpalatability (is that a word?) to their messages, with sustainable development perceived as being about giving up things, or loss of a certain lifestyle. Maybe when the words recession, or depression, are tossed about in the media, doing with less seems more plausible, although I think that most people hope it is a short term thing. I am not sure these changes can afford to be short term, so maybe now is the time to aggressively promote those options, or aspects of these options, that add things of value to people’s lives.

The current financial situation has created a global dialogue around alternatives to economic growth but it has not taken away that very human desire for betterment and progress. Maybe developing more internal, individual metrics of development will help, and learning something new – whether the motivation is re-skilling for a career change, investing in management abilities that keep your team flexible and highly productive, seriously introducing DIY beyond the odd paintjob, or deciding to plant your vegetable patch entirely from seeds (not as easy as it sounds), learning may be both a good option, have good results, and be a good message for many.

We are here at the Society for Organizational Learning’s Annual Conference in Boston and will be writing a bit this week about what we are learning.

Yesterday I had David Isaacs, one of the founders of the World Cafe, sign a copy of “The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action” and we have noticed that in this community asking powerful questions (rather than the answers) often gets the most applause in the plenaries. In fact, there seems to be no particular expectations on the part of SoL members to answer all the questions – they celebrate the good ones. Here are some of the good ones Lizzie and I heard yesterday during a panel called “Purpose Beyond Profit”:

  • What if educators had the same attitude that car manufacturers in Europe have, that they “owned” their students for life. How would they educate differently?

This question was inspired by Peter Senge’s comment about how EU regulations are requiring European automobile manufacturers to take back cars that they build, so they build them differently. After students leave educators’ classrooms they then become parts of educators’ communities – they might leave their seat at the front of the classroom, but they never leave their life.

  • What is the current US Administration’s analogy of putting a man on the moon?

When Kennedy came into office, he dreamt of a man on the moon in 10 years and set this as a challenge to his scientists. 8 years and 2 months later, there was a man on the moon. At the time, the average age in the NASA control room was 26 (meaning they were on average 18 years old when the challenge was put forward). What will be Obama’s man on the moon? And what and how can we learn about best tapping into today’s 18 year olds to make this dream come true?

  • What is in our system that we don’t know the long term effects of yet?

This was a great question asked by Darcy Winslow, founder of Designs for a Sustainable World Consulting with over 20 years experience working at Nike. Her presentation inspired a question from the audience:

  • When businesses cut costs are they really cutting them – or are they just moving them into customers or into the community?

When taking a systems viewpoint, cost-cutting exercises take on a whole new meaning. The archtype called “Shifting the Burden” comes into mind. A similar question can be asked by institutions and project teams.

These questions provoke many lively conversations and ideas which connected people and their experiences and really demonstrated how asking great questions can add energy to a process, help people think differently, and get things moving.

Did you know that in unicycle races, it is the last person that crosses the finish line that wins? That is because it is much harder, and takes more skill to ride a unicycle slowly.

Sound counter-culture? What is it about our social norms that make us assume that bigger, faster, and more, is better than smaller, slower and less?

The sustainability community asks a similar question – why are high growth rates and GNP standard indicators of success? How can we help society see growing more skillfully, and possibly even more slowly, as akin to winning?

Even at work, winning sometimes seems to be about having the largest team, largest project portfolio and the most money – this can set up unhelpful competition among people with shared overall goals. Maybe we could flip “winning” to the team that collaborates most and generates more work and resources for other teams. Let’s follow those unicyclists. Let’s change the rules.

I have been working in my organization for almost five years. How much do I know about the work of my + 1’000 colleagues in different technical programmes and offices around the world? I would say more than most (thanks to the designing diverse workshops with a variety of teams) and still much less than I might like.

I just watched a couple of great episodes of Nature Inc. For some time I’ve been hoping to view these (having missed many when aired on TV; luckily now they are downloadable by episode as MP4s. I digress.) Anyway sat at my office desk, watching these in search of inspiration about the important links between business and biodiversity, I learned much. And, to my delight, much of what I learned was about what my own organization is doing in different parts of the world! I will be following up with my colleagues and seeing what lessons we can learn from creative and compelling communication channels like Nature Inc in helping us spread the word, outside and in! What others stones should I unturn. Where did you last learn something about your organization when you least expected it?

It is not always easy to get new ideas and practice embedded into an established work environment. How can we use existing “energy” flows to promote new ideas as well, and in the process help us change the current system?

We recently had a competition with a neighbouring institution, a large international conservation NGO, to reduce our institutional carbon emissions from transportation over a week as a part of a national awareness raising campaign. Our internal Green Team did the math and calculated how much carbon we all emit from our weekly commute to work, the other organization did the same. Then for a designated week, we did everything we could to reduce this. People carpooled, they took the train or bus, they rode their bikes, they walked. We did very well, but sadly we did not win the competition this time, although we really wanted to win.

If we do it again next year I have an idea how we might win. I wrote a post a few months back on technology enhanced mobility in the workplace of the future. I think it would be a great thing to experiment with for many of the reasons that are discussed in that post, however, there seems to be no immediately compelling reason to try it out. Maybe this is one that connects the existing interest of the institution to cut carbon and to win this competition in the future, with an interest to explore new ways of working. We could test it out first with a few “Work At Home” days where everyone possible works from home, to get used to this new work modality, and then we could launch a “Work At Home Week” that would coincide with this competition. If we did that, we could explore a more flexible work environment, get our technology tools in place to support it, and win that carbon emissions competition! (unless of course someone from WWF also reads this post…)

Do you know where your water comes from? For the first few years after moving to Switzerland, we filtered all of our water, and bought bottled water frequently. Having lived in other urban areas around the world I tended towards doubt about water quality from taps.

Our local council last week sent out a simple information leaflet with some interesting information. The water from our taps comes from three sources: springs (like Evian!) (53%), underground water table (11%) and Lake Geneva (36%). The latter is only pumped into our water system from spring to autumn; during the winter, our water network draws entirely on water from springs and the water table, which is of such good quality that it enters the network without any treatment. The lake water is only lightly treated to take out sand, adjust ph and add some chlorine. This information is incredibly useful and sufficiant to make me feel both fortunate and foolish about wasting money on bottled water (Evian is just across Lake Geneva from us) and on expensive water filters when our water is such good quality. I just didn’t know.

The second thing I didn’t know was how much water on average we used in our area. Apparently, me and my neighbours use on average 403 liters of drinking water per person/per day. I wondered how it could be so high, so I went to the BBC’s excellent water calculator to see what my household water consumption estimation would be. This is a very simple, visual calculator (no math necessary!) According to the calculator, our household uses approximately 160 liters of water per person/per day (I would like to know who’s using the other 243 liters per day?). The calculator compared that to the average British household (155 liters per person per day) and also identified the places of highest use in my house and gave some useful tips for water saving. Now that I know how good our water is, it seems a pity to flush so much of it down the toilet!

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?

Which is more sustainable?

* A cotton diaper (nappy) OR a disposable nappy?
* A diesel compact car OR a Prius?

* A compact fluorescent light bulb OR a regular light bulb?

The answer is…we don’t know – it depends on what you do with them.

Nothing is intrinsically sustainable or not. You can easily leave an energy-saving bulb on 24 hours a day every day and have to change it all the time, or you can turn off a regular bulb when you are not using it and make it last much longer. You can drive your Prius to the corner shop 10 times a day, or you can drive your diesel rarely and car pool and take the bus most of the time. You can use cotton diapers, but if you throw them away as soon as they get soiled and buy new ones, you are not too much better off.

This thought exercise was introduced to me by Dennis Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth, who spoke at our institution on Friday. His candor about the state of the world, the imminent impacts of climate change, and the consequences of the global oil peak tended towards the terrifying. Coupled with this is the notion that within our current political structures politicians cannot make the kinds of decisions that they need to for radical change.

Then this simple thought experiment. We talk about the need for behaviour change. We hope for new technologies. And actually what we need is both. We need people to use their Prius for car pooling, and to turn off their energy efficient bulbs when they are not in the room. We might say that anyone who cares enough to buy that Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb, would probably be good enough not to leave it on all the time. But do they? Do you?

Since we already have lots of nifty technology (improvements could always be made) we probably could use a lot more understanding of the behaviour change side of this equation. Technology takes a long time to develop and embed in current processes/systems, but behaviour change can in theory happen over night. Eveyone knows someone who has quit smoking, lost lots of weight, became passionate about a new hobby, or quit a good job and moved to a new city to start a new life. We are capable of radical change. (Of course there is a lot of psychology in here, and it is not so easy – see the previous post on What Do Change and Strip Poker Have in Common.)

Then we need to bring these things together. Learning sits at the heart of this dynamic process. We could usefully strengthen the knowledge to action links for all of us; even for (or even especially for) those of us working in the sustainable development field. Dennis Meadows ended his presentation with a game called the “Sound of one hand clapping” which made the powerful (and even a little painful) point that actions speak louder than words.

On Day 2 of our Fixed Meeting Week, we had a fascinating session on the “Future of Sustainability” that featured a speaker from China, an economist currently working for a UN agency in Geneva, who spoke to us about China and how its government and 1.3 billion people are approaching sustainability.

You cannot pick up a paper or magazine (or turn on the TV for that matter) without hearing about China these days, and for many environmentalists in their discussions about sustainable development, it is the elephant in the room.

This speaker shared with us some refreshing insight into what China is doing in our field. First, he spoke about how China is translating the concept of ‘sustainability’ into ‘harmony’. Apparently, in 2005, the Chinese government shifted its focus from growth, to building a harmonious society. The concept of harmony has had its root in Chinese culture for thousands of years. Unlike ‘sustainability’, the concept of a ‘harmonious society’ is made in China. So it is more likely to be accepted by Chinese policy makers and people. Harmony is also an embracing concept; it means harmony within a person, between people, and (newly added) between people and nature. In fact this latter type of harmony is the foundation of this concept, as without harmony with nature, the other two types of harmony become increasingly difficult to attain. This concept of a harmony is being spread pervasively; the speaker saw a sign on a highway toll booth in rural China which read, “Collect tolls harmoniously”. When the Chinese government wants to do something, it can do it. Which brought him to his next point.

China’s political commitment to building a harmonious society is backed up by a strong state environmental protection agency, which in China is getting unprecedented power. While other sectors develop more fully in China, he said, that people are happy to have a strong central government and environmentalists are particularly happy that the state EPA has a much strengthened role.

The final point that our speaker made was that China is experimenting with sustainable living on a very large scale now. He noted that on an island near Shanghai, they are building the world’s first ecological city, which will become the model for 40 more cities of this kind that will be built in China in the next 20 years. Built using renewable energies, public transport, and more, these cities will help China learn about how urban sustainable living can be approached by its growing population.

Our speaker gave some final thoughts; China wants to play a role in a more sustainable world, it can play a role and it will play a role. How can we welcome more Chinese colleagues into our discussions, meetings and projects to learn together about what works for sustainable development in all parts of the world?