Making Change for Sustainability – a wicked problem?

WANTED: Sustainability Change Process – must be simple to understand and able to generate significant long-term results with minimal short-term financial investment.  Candidates must be able to motivate and inspire others to achieve collective and individual action. Resulting change should shift the entire system toward sustainability.  Only processes that disrupt normal business operations need apply.

I have a “wicked” problem.  And if you are a change maker for sustainability and corporate social responsibility, you probably have one too.   I am working with a non-

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve.

governmental organization (NGO) and a group of partners, to launch a city-wide environmental footprint reduction initiative.   Smaller projects of this nature have been run before.  This time is different.  Everyone is working together.  We are in for the long haul.  The group is dedicated to long-term systems change.  Hence our need for the magical sustainability change process mentioned above.

Reaching for the Old Bag of Tricks?

Whether it’s business or municipal sustainability change,  we often reach for the tools and approaches we have used in the past.  Let’s get together and brainstorm, use an organization focused theory of change model or study it!  I have heard it said that we tend to act like “systems” when we create problems, but we act like individuals when solving them.   Cities have often tackled the “elephant” of residential conservation one bite at a time.  Utilities, municipalities, NGOs and citizen groups work together loosely, in small groups or not at all.  The result, no single initiative tips the system or is able to go the distance.

Increasingly, we see the serious, complex, systemic and interrelated nature of the problems we face demands new approaches.  The old bag of tricks alone or collectively just won’t do the job.  Moreover, we need a radical level of solution creativity and innovation.  This is something that emerges with authentic co-creation within a diverse community of change makers and by testing new ideas and concepts without fear of failure.

Theory_UThe Future of Sustainability Change

So what does this charmed sustainability change process look like?  If you have been following the work of Senge, Scharmer, Westley and others you will see a trend toward Change Labs and Design Labs.  These sustainability change processes bring together group psychology and dynamics, whole system and complexity theory, design thinking and in some cases computer visualizations and simulations.

This is where most of us zone out.  It seems complicated.  We are still looking for the magic formula.  But really this is about figuring out what question needs answering and if there’s an appetite for collaboration to answer it, working together to identify collaborative priorities, and getting down to testing and developing new ideas together.   The only magic is learning about these new processes, applying them and learning from that application.

This is why the work of The Natural Step’s Sustainability Transition Lab  and the resources provided by Social Innovation Generation’s (SiG) Knowledge Hub  are so important.   It’s also why The Natural Step’s conference:  Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability, June 10 & 11, 2013, in Guelph, Ontario is where you will find me in June (I hope to get a few folks from our Conservation Initiative there too!).  We need to share a common understanding of the way forward.  We need to be open to co-creating an emerging sustainable future for our communities and companies.  We need to develop a new competency as sustainability change makers.  In the words of Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  So put away the old bag of tricks and join a new sustainability change maker movement.

Next Steps for New Sustainability Change Makers

The Emerging Social Innovation Field – Tim Draimin, Executive Director, Social Innovation Generation (Webinar), May 16th, 12-1 pm

Strategic Sustainable Development for Communities: Reports, guides and tools to help implement your sustainability plan (Free webinar), May 23, 2013, 2:00-3:00 pm

Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference, June 10 & 11, 2013, Guelph, ON

Join over 200 leaders, social innovators, and decision makers from large and small businesses, corporations, higher education institutions, government, non-profits, social enterprises, social venture capital firms, and more in exploring how we can effectively collaborate to create a sustainable future.

Join over 200 leaders, social innovators, and decision makers from large and small businesses, corporations, higher education institutions, government, non-profits, social enterprises, social venture capital firms, and more in exploring how we can effectively collaborate to create a sustainable future.


 

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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