bringing it home

Since joining The Natural Step Canada in August 2011, some of my writing has been published on the organization’s website. Below are excerpts from a handful of blog posts that live over on www.naturalstep.ca, posted here for easy access. Click on the “Read more” links to see the full post.

Supporting Collective Impact through Backcasting
October 17, 2012

At The Natural Step Canada, we are increasingly hearing calls for “more innovation” and “more collaboration” to facilitate progress on sustainability challenges. Many organizations – including many of our own clients and partners – have recognized that there is only so much that they can achieve on their own, and that there are plenty of obstacles to overcome in partnership with suppliers, customers, regulators, and yes, even their competitors.

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Raising the bar: Nike backcasting from a bold vision of success
September 11, 2011

In May of 2012, hallmark company Nike published its Sustainable Business Report for 2010/11, demonstrating that it is increasingly reaping the benefits of integrating sustainability into its core business through a world-class vision and strategy.

Nike has contextualized all of its sustainability efforts relative to a bold, aspirational vision:

“Our vision is to build a sustainable business and create value for Nike and our stakeholders by decoupling profitable growth from constrained resources.”

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The Reality of Ecological Debt
August 27, 2012

Wednesday, August 22nd was “Earth Overshoot Day”, the date on which humanity exceeded the bio-capacity of our planet for the entire year of 2012. In essence, we have now utilized all of the resources that our planet can provide in a calendar year in a sustainable scenario, and for the rest of 2012, we will continue to deplete the planet’s ability to provide the resources we need to sustain our society in the future.

The concept of Earth Overshoot Day was developed by Global Footprint Network and the new economics foundation as a way to express the increasing stress placed on the natural environment by human activity. In the 1970s, humanity’s consumption of natural resources began to overstep what the planet could replenish. In 1992, Earth Overshoot Day fell on October 21. In 2002, it was October 3. Not only is the trend moving in the wrong direction, but it is accelerating.

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You can be a sustainability leader – Applications now open for innovative MSLS program
December 7, 2011

There are signs all around us that our society is out of balance. Our institutions are failing us, we are riddled with debt, we are lacking social cohesion and trust, and we are consuming at an ever-increasing rate – all the while becoming less happy. These patterns are wreaking havoc on the habitat that sustains us – the Earth – and the social systems on which we rely. If we draw these patterns out to their logical conclusion, the story does not unfold happily.

To address a series of massive and interconnected challenges that includes poverty, pollution and toxicity, species extinction, and climate change, we require a) a unifying strategic planning approach that will allow us to thrive within the planet’s limits, and b) leadership that inspires systemic change across sectors, borders and disciplines. The Master’s programme in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability (MSLS) offers these two things in spades.

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Alberta Sustainability Champions Gear up for Success
November 2, 2011

On October 13 and 14, nineteen professionals gathered in Edmonton to build their capacity as sustainability practitioners by participating in The Natural Step Canada’s Sustainability for Leaders Course – Level 1: Foundations (join us at the next session coming up in Vancouver).

Participants included professionals from Enermodal EngineeringWorley ParsonsEdmonton AirportsStantec,Bullfrog PowerAIMCOLandmark Group of BuildersEIDOS ConsultantsServus Credit Unionand Earth Legacy, municipal leaders from the City of Red Deer and the Town of Stony Plain, and educators from Bow Valley CollegeGrant McEwan University, and NAIT. I had the pleasure of facilitating the course with my colleagues Sarah Brooks and Colin Baril.

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Please support Masters level education in Strategic Sustainable Development
September 18, 2011

In the small town of Karlskrona, Sweden, young leaders from around the world gather every September to begin a Masters program in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability (MSLS) at the Blekinge Institute of Technology. The course is based aroundThe Natural Step Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, and it turns passionate students into empowered change agents for a better world.

Over the past few years, alumni and friends of this unique program have contributed to StratLeade Sustainability Education, a non-profit whose mandate is to support the MSLS program.

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connecting a few dots with hurricane sandy

Our rampant fossil fuel usage – and the economic growth paradigm that demands it – is bringing us rising global surface temperatures, less Arctic Sea ice, less predictable weather, and a greater number of significant storms. Hurricane Sandy is the latest of these storms to affect mainland North America, and she brings with her a death-toll, lasting damages, and a significant price tag for both clean-up and lost productivity. (The trading floor of the NYSE will be closed again tomorrow, marking the first consecutive day closures because of extreme weather since 1888.) Score one in the case for climate action and renewable energy.

As I write this (just before midnight ET October 30), millions of people have lost power in their homes or offices. Downed power lines are a small part of the picture, as 16 American nuclear facilities lie in the path of this storm, which boasts the largest area ever recorded for Atlantic storm. Many of these may be shut down tonight. Unpredictable, violent events can have more catastrophic effects than power outages on nuclear plants, as last year’s tsunami and Fukushima disaster in Japan illustrated.

But if we continue to invest in large, centralized power facilities (nuclear and otherwise), we will be far more vulnerable to large-scale power outages. As storms become more frequent, violent, and unpredictable, our responses should reflect our need for resilience. Score one for the case for the decentralization of power generation.

It’s awfully ironic that the largest storm in terms of area that has ever been recorded should occur in the midst of a U.S. election campaign (and, unfortunately, after all three Presidential debates) in which neither candidate has bothered to mention climate change in any substantive way. “North American energy independence” simply won’t cut it if it only translates into not buying it from Saudi Arabia.

Our continued ignorance of consequences will continue to yield more serous – well, consequences.

Credit where credit is due: Thanks to David Roberts at Grist whose tweet drew my attention to the nuclear facilities in Sandy’s path.

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why an economic reboot is inevitable

Most of the media coverage about Occupy Wall Street and the plethora of other occupations was that protesters were angry about corporate greed. It was true, but only part of the picture. The economy has, for far too long, existed in opposition to moral code that governs how we interact with each other, and with the laws of nature.

Money is lent into existence by an extremely small minority, and consequently comes with an interest rate attached. By and large, those that lend money become relatively richer because of the interest payments they collect, and those that borrow money become relatively poorer because of the interest payments they make. As the resulting gap between rich and poor grows, so do social ills such as crime, disease, mental illness, etc. Now add some reckless deregulation and the aforementioned corporate greed. What do you see when you draw this out to its logical conclusion? It’s probably not pretty. Occupy Wall Street is not over. It’s likely just a precursor of larger social action or fundamental systemic change.

The good news is that the economy’s rules are all human constructs. Economic success is measured by growth only because thus far we have misguidedly agreed that it should be. In fact, the entire economy is a human construct, created over time to serve society’s needs. It is becoming increasingly clear that the economy is not serving human needs, and for too long we have focussed on serving the economy.

Remember the meaning of economy? “Oikos” and “nomos”. Managing the household. The concept of an economy only exists to serve society, and not the other way around. Currently, the economy is serving very few of us to good effect. So let’s re-invent it entirely according to real, non-negotiable, scientific rules that govern the planet, and moral and ethical rules that govern how we treat each other.

Societies can be judged by how they treat those that have the least, and yet our policies turn us away from that ideal and have us chasing after the ones with the most.

We have the power to stop serving this economy. We can demand change from our politicians at all levels. We can remove our money from big banks and keep it with a credit union or co-operative whose charter states that it exists to serve the interests of the community. You are not a consumer, whose role is to deplete, diminish and destroy. You are a citizen, whose role is to be accountable to your community.

The economy is a human construct with rules that we can change. The natural environment has its own rules that cannot be changed, and have also been ignored for far too long. We must find a way to adapt the economy to suit. There is ultimately no alternative.

So, how do we adapt the economy? We must acknowledge that it is a sub-system of our human society, and not the other way around. And we must acknowledge that our human society is a sub-system of the natural world. We can adapt our existing economic tools and theories to reflect this reality, starting by redefining what economic progress means and how we will measure it.

Let’s get our idea of dependence straight. Without a healthy planet, we are nothing. Without humans, the planet would be fine.

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you can be a sustainability leader

There are signs all around us that our society is out of balance. Our institutions are failing us, we are riddled with debt, we are lacking social cohesion and trust, and we are consuming at an ever-increasing rate – all the while becoming less happy. These patterns are wreaking havoc on the habitat that sustains us – the Earth – and the social systems on which we rely. If we draw these patterns out to their logical conclusion, the story does not unfold happily.

 To address a series of massive and interconnected challenges that includes poverty, pollution and toxicity, species extinction, and climate change, we require a) a unifying strategic planning approach that will allow us to thrive within the planet’s limits, and b) leadership that inspires systemic change across sectors, borders and disciplines. The Master’s programme in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability (MSLS) offers these two things in spades. I attended this program in 2009-10, and it has given me an incredibly sound footing in systems thinking, a science-based approach to sustainability, and the ability to work collaboratively with diverse groups of people. I also gained skills and valuable experience in strategic planning, project management, team work, group process facilitation, presentation, and more.

The MSLS program is offered in beautiful Karlskrona, Sweden, where I forged strong friendships with 67 brilliant and passionate change-makers from 29 countries. It became clear to me early in the programme that great things can be achieved when groups rally around a common vision for a better future, build community, listen deeply, lead authentically, and collaborate in their work. This is the type of foundation on which a sustainable society can be built.

Applications are open for the 2012-13 cohort of the MSLS programme until January 15th, 2012. If you feel an impulse to lead meaningful change toward a vibrant and sustainable future, and want to be part of a global network of people who share the same vision, this is the programme for you.

Please visit the website www.bth.se/msls to see the full programme brochure and application procedures. If you are an EU citizen, the Swedish Government fully subsidizes your tuition. For students from outside the EU, tuition is 100,000 SEK (just under $15,000) for this 10-month program. Scholarships are available and if you are a fee-paying student, you are welcome to visit www.kitesh.org to find out more about the free services available to assist you in the application and funding process.

Cross-posted on The Natural Step Canada website here.

Credit where credit is due: For this post, I borrowed heavily from Georges Dyer’s post on Strategies for Sustainability.

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balancing power and love

Last night I saw Adam Kahane speak about his book “Power & Love”. Crucial to the work is that both power and love can be generative and degenerative; generative when deployed together, and degenerative when deployed alone. After delivering dozens of lectures about the book and the experiences it is based upon, Kahane has synthesized much of the subsequent discussion into “Ten Rules about Love and Power” to guide our thinking about employing them most effectively.

Power and love are both terms laden with cultural meaning, so let’s define them upfront to prevent confusion. Kahane uses philosopher Paul Tillich’s ontological definitions, where power is “the drive of everything living to realize itself, with increasing intensity and extensity”, and love is “the drive towards the unity of the separated” (Power & Love, p.2). Because of my interest and thesis work in systems-thinking, I was intrigued that Kahane found it necessary to introduce Arthur Koestler’s notion of a “holon” before getting into the rules. A holon is something that is a whole in itself, but is simultaneously a part of a larger system. We live in a world of “holonic levels”, where a cell is a whole, but also part of an organ; the organ functions as a whole, but is part of the body, and so on. Rule #1 suggests to me that power and love dynamics must be examined in the contexts of part, whole, and both.

So here are Kahane’s ten rules, followed by comments related to some of them.

  1. All social systems are holons.
  2. Every social holon has a two-sided power drive (discussed above).
  3. Every social holon has a two-sided love drive.
  4. Lack of love makes power degenerative.
  5. Lack of power makes love degenerative.
  6. Holons tend to favour power over love.
  7. Power vs. love is not a choice, but a dilemma of polarity. It is a mistake to be only in one or the other.
  8. When love dominates, make a power move.
  9. When power dominates, make a love move.
  10. We learn to balance power and love when we attend to the moments of imbalance, by making the balancing move.

Degenerative power (#4) is pursuit of actualization that oppresses others’ abilities to actualize. This is quite common in societies like ours in which individualism is heavily emphasized. Kahane noted that positioning another group as “the other” can quickly become reciprocal and highly unproductive. Degenerative love (#5) manifests as the sacrifice of an individual or group’s self, identity, and/or actualization, perhaps to be part of a whole. These situations can be equally harmful (#7), but Kahane notes that the latter is more dangerous because it is less acknowledged (#6).

Some in our society have greater endowments to self-actualize, which is what we traditionally perceive (misconstrue?) as power (#6). A related and difficult question that Kahane raises is: “If the power folks can get where they want to go without the love folks, then what incentive do they have to involve them?”

Kahane also suggested that best conflict resolution processes are the ones that reveal more of reality to the participants. Consider: 1) Discussing scenarios that may unfold and how they might affect all parties; 2) Sharing personal, impactful, human stories from all parties; and ideally 3) Undertaking learning journeys to see different parts of the system at play, to create shared experience and mutual understanding. It would be difficult to argue against seeing more of reality to gain a better understanding of a situation. After all, nobody wants to be ignorant, do they?

In some cases, there are systemic constraints on parties that make it difficult to participate in dialogue or make the desired or necessary power move or love move. In these situations, there is always a love move available: to acknowledge the aforementioned constraints and human challenges, which creates shared understanding (#9). Ultimately, this is how conflict resolution begins, by establishing common ground.

The generative forms of power and love must inherently exist together, in balance, because they facilitate each other. Without the other, each alone is degenerative. Our challenge is to recognize the degenerative moments (#10) when we are exercising power inappropriately to self-actualize and become whole at the expense of others, or when we sacrifice the self inappropriately, losing our “part-ness” and becoming powerless.

Credit where credit is due: Thanks to the good folks at SiG@MaRS for hosting, and to Adam Kahane and all who raised interesting questions and points for discussion. This post is full of your insights. 

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leaders choose themselves

During my studies last year, I was required to write reflection essays about my evolving understanding of leadership. I found the exercise incredibly useful, and I continue to explore these ideas from time to time. More than anything else, I am convinced that leadership is a choice, even if much of our mythology tells us otherwise.

Leadership is not position-based. The CEO at your company probably displays many qualities of leadership, and that may be why he or she is in that position – not the other way around. Leadership is not bestowed upon us, like a superpower, and it is not individualistic.

A leader has a vision and draws others into it; it is a shared vision, or the leader aspires to make it so. Leaders engage others to work toward something better, often through great storytelling. Canada’s recent election campaign was saturated with attack ads that derided all of the political leaders. Not surprisingly, the leaders who offered a positive vision of the future scored higher in a public poll about their leadership capabilities

A leader is not surrounded by apathy for long. A leader chooses to aspire for something more, looks for ways to engage others, and takes initiative. Indeed, the only thing that has truly ever been rewarded is initiative.

Shameless plug: Check out the work of my good friend and colleague Matt Mayer and the LeadWell Initiative, who are based in Calgary and conducted the aforementioned leadership survey. They do a bit of tweeting from time to time.

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innovating innovation

Innovation is about finding a better way to deliver something of true value. Adding one more blade to a razor doesn’t qualify.

I’m most impressed with innovations that truly consider the notion of value. Owning a car adds value because it allows me travel to any destination that a road leads, at any time I choose, relatively quickly, cheaply, and safely. But I also lose value from having it sit on my driveway when I’m not using it, paying for insurance, repairs and fuel, spending time to maintain it, etc. (The societal effects on air quality, health, safety, climate, and isolation also must be part of the equation.) It was only a matter of time before some savvy innovators realized that community members would gladly pay a fee to share in the value-positive aspects if someone else would assume the value-negative aspects. Born were AutoShare, ZipCar, and many others.

We live in a manufactured culture of consumerism (pun intended). Many of the products and services offered are accompanied by things that do not add value, but we pay for nonetheless. When I go to the dry cleaner, I am in search of clean clothes, not a bundle of wire and plastic – and the obligation to dispose of it somehow. The true value of the service is skewed in this instance, and I am left wondering what percentage of the cost is related to the hangers and plastic coverings over each garment. How much less could I pay if these unnecessary materials were not part of the service? (I now bring a garment bag for drop-off and pick-up at the cleaner, but haven’t asked for a discount yet. Stay tuned.)

E.F. Schumacher called for a shift from our consumer economy to a contributor society. This is a fundamental a shift, but not an overly difficult one. It has everything to do with our intention. For innovators, it’s about delivering value without degrading value elsewhere or in the future. For customers, it’s about demanding exactly that, and using our money to support those that do it best.

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