Community as Technology

December 30, 2009
This was originally published on the WorldChanging blog, here.

With new options for collaboration, telecommunications and social networking coming online at a furious pace, it’s worth pondering how society will continue to change as a result. Having the tools in place is, of course, only half the battle. The rest is learning to shift our ways of thinking and working away from models that favor segregated specialties and exclusivity to relationships that encourage and enhance co-creation.

I recently had an experience that underscored just how important our ability to work together will become. As a coordinator and participant in the Hållbarhet2009 Learning Journey and Conference in Australia, I saw firsthand what climate change looks like. As my group traveled for ten days through southern Australia, we came face-to-face with the frightening signs of a warming world: charred landscapes from the worst bushfires on record, resulting in hundreds of human fatalities from vaporized towns, and thousands of kangaroos, koalas and other fauna dead from heat and thirst. Mighty rivers like the Murray, Darling and Snowy were reduced to a trickle in the south while the whole landscape becomes one swollen river in the north. In the midst of raging fires, alerting, helping and being helped by your neighbours was the difference between life and death for many Australians.

I traveled with 24 fellow alumni of the Masters in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability program, and we brought with us our own tools and technologies for making a bright green future. We encountered many other tools along the way: new engineering technologies (e.g. biochar from pyrolysis, organic solar cells and biodiesel plants), new cognitive and conceptual ‘technologies’ and tools (e.g. The Natural Step, Resilience), new agricultural technologies (e.g. biodynamic agriculture, and permaculture community centres) and new social technologies (e.g. Open Space Technology, World Cafe, peer coaching, Presencing and Theory U). We also were fortunate to experience some ancient technologies from the local 40,000 year-old Aboriginal culture in the form of rituals for imparting both the knowledge and the reverent respect required to live in this harsh landscape.

The group discusses permaculture at CERES.

Throughout the trip, we met with a diverse group of sustainability luminaries, including global systems scientist Will Steffen, Australian Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts (and former Midnight Oil frontman) Peter Garrett, Aboriginal activist Isabelle Coe and sustainability guru Phillip Sutton. Though their areas of expertise varied, they expressed a common interest in finding new ways for individuals to think and collaborate for the sake of the ‘whole.’

Our geographically dispersed community was already well versed in the practices of collaboration and co-creation. We had self-organized the event using many of the online tools at our disposal: Skype, Basecamp, wikis, Google docs, Maratech, iCal shared calendars and email listservs.

Realizing the relevance of community itself as a technology, we joined many local and international sustainability networks in exploring the possibilities for collaboration at a dialogue hosted by the Global Sustainability Programme at RMIT. As we talked through the barriers preventing us from scaling up our impact, I recognized that many of the inspiring forms of community-enabling technology we had encountered could be brought to bear in overcoming these barriers. For example:

Barrier: The desire to ‘get more done urgently, now’ rather than taking the time to really connect, listen and build the trust that underlies collaboration.

Community-Enabling Technology: Reestablishing rituals. For example, Aboriginal people inviting visitors to their traditional lands to participate in welcoming ceremonies, a kind of spiritual technology: circling a sacred fire and breathing in the smoke generates a visceral sense of respect and connection with each other, other species and creation.

Barrier: Being too identified with your own profession/network/clique, and its language, symbols, models, paradigms and habits can seriously inhibit inter-network collaboration, even within the sustainability movement.

Community-Enabling Technology: Encouraging information Cross-Pollination. Universities (e.g. BTH, UTS and RMIT) are encouraging transdisciplinary research to enable innovation across departmental, sectoral and epistemological boundaries.

Barrier: While democracy and consensus are always the best way to decide and collaboration always the best basis for action, total democracy and collaboration can be problematic. Knowing when and how to take a strong lead or stand within a group is a challenge.

Community-Enabling Technology: Taking a stand. Activists and NGOs are using new political tools to push elected representatives to respond appropriately to the climate emergency. As are scientists through forums like the Wentworth Group, IPCC and IGBP that aim to provide timely, consensus recommendations to inform national and international policy.

Barrier: While teamwork was important, critics can emerge if you appear to surrender your values and commitments in favour of group consensus. For example, take activist-turned-politician Peter Garrett and his struggles to uphold his values within the Labor party.

Community-Enabling Technologies: Using new collaborative tools. Community, business and all sides and levels of government are working together through institutions like the Murray Darling Basin Authority, and using new market mechanisms for trading water rights to protect the long-term health of the world’s third-largest river system.

Real-time display at CSIRO Energy Centre, Newcastle.

The barriers to collaboration for sustainability described above are so very real, and are at least as important as the engineering or technical barriers to sustainability. It seems the concept and practice of community: sharing, co-creating, and supporting is not just a warm fuzzy concept, but actually critical to our survival. This was a point so devastatingly demonstrated in Australian communities during the fires.

We are now a global village whether we like it or not, with no enemy except the momentum of our unsustainable culture and the forces of nature we have unleashed. Though individuals need to act strategically, authentically and boldly, acting in isolation is not enough to survive and realise our evolutionary potential. A shift in focus from individual heroes to mass collaborative leadership and action is required, and that shift will challenge our attachment to our primary identities as independent, autonomous actors.

It seems more important than ever to remember that sustainability is not the characteristic of one individual, organisation or nation; rather, it is the result of the whole system. The ultimate challenge for leaders in this space is to push the edges of what we can and must do together, as a community.

The significance of Identity for Sustainability

December 30, 2009

Beyond being one of the Max-Neef’s Fundamental Human Needs (see footnote) I think our identity is actually central to effectively working towards sustainability. Questions of identity have come up repeatdly during my personal journey since graduation, whilst traveling overland back to Australia, and most recently during the Hallbarhet2009 event.

Completing the MSLS program and having a shared sense of identity with 200 other alumni has been really important for my work. The shared terminology, concepts, values and worldviews create a sense of community, enable idea sharing and have given me extra confidence in challenging situations and new roles. Because I benefit from being part of that community, I also contribute to it’s development financially, and by supporting others through mentoring and advice.

So far, that all sounds like a win-win-win for me, the community and society right? Yes, and it’s not all positive. I have observed that if I am too attached to being a ‘MSLSer’ and to the particular way of viewing and doing things that entails, it can mean I stop thinking, stop addressing the particular needs in that moment and steer away from questioning my own assumptions. The same over-attachment can also create barriers to engaging with individuals or networks through using exclusive language or not empathising with their perspective e.g. ‘My definition of sustainability is science-based, globally-recognised and highly strategic, so I am not going to even engage in a conversation about the meaning of sustainability’.

Another significant component of my identity is my nationality. Since leaving Australia in 2005, I’ve worked and met with people from diverse cultures and landscapes. Increasing my ability to empathise with different perspectives is an incredibly important area of learning for me. I believe I am now much more aware of different ways of building trust and community, new appropriate technologies for growing, making, organising and transporting, and new ways of perceiving situations that lead to more creative solutions. I don’t have to permanently let go of my Australian-ness to continue to learn more, but I must at least temporarily let go of excessive identification with my habitual ways of seeing, doing and being. For example, the temptation to be overly casual, cut down tall poppies, or pretend that our (current) negative or (potential) positive contribution to reducing global carbon emissions is insignificant.

A deeper manifestation of over-identification with a particular part of myself is being excessively attached to a ‘small’, independent and limited sense of my own identity. Identifying with that part of myself can mean I am plagued by fear and self-doubt in the face of  personal, or the enormous global challenges we face. This over-identification with a small sense of self is the primary challenge taken on by most ‘enlightenment’ teachings, but has special relevance in the case of sustainability practitioners if it means you choose to protect your ‘self’ rather than open up to collaborating or leading.

Recognising the limiting nature of that sense of identity, I have found two ways to get beyond my ‘small’ sense of identity. One is through personal practices meditation, contemplation, and deep dialogue where a common experience is that all of what and who I am is much bigger, and more than what ‘I’ alone simply think, feel and can see. The resulting expanded sense of self creates the mental space for me to face, respond to or ignore my own fears and insecurities e.g. ‘I am not just my emotions and thoughts, so the prospect of being embarrassed is less scary‘.

A second way to get beyond a limiting sense of identity has been learning more about the lives of those who I admire. This may be Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) or Gandhi, Vandana Shiva or Karl-Henrik Robert, or even close peers. Despite their super-natural achievements they are all human. Really (sometimes it’s hard to believe) they are made of flesh and bone, and prone to forgetting names or suffering from food poisoning (that’s what finished Siddhartha!) just as much as you or I. To me that realisation of their human-ness suggests there is every opportunity for me to make the same sort of commitments and efforts they did, and perhaps a similar positive contribution. That realisation really threatens the ‘small’ self’s fondness for hiding and making excuses,, which are perhaps the only limitations to showing the same clarity of  intention, dedication and creativity they show. For me, that realisation leads to a more liberating and energised engagement with life and sustainability challenges.

Through this selection of examples: MSLS, Australian and ‘small’ self, I have tried to articulate why asking ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What perspective am I identified with?’ are relevant to working itowards sustainability. Being flexible in your perspective, and questioning the value or overly identifying with one sense of self is, afterall, something we are also asking of those that we engage with in our  sustainability work. We are often challenging clients or colleagues to see themselves as a citizen rather than just consumer, as a grandmother as well as a CEO, creative generator of solutions in addition to a formal title such as ‘Procurement Officer’ or as a steward of the land rather than just farmer. So if I am asking others to loosen their attachment to a particular sense of identity, I think it can only help if I lead by example.

Perhaps you too might take some time to ask that question when engaging in your next sustainability project or initiative: Who am I, and which sense of self or perspective am I most identified with?

Footnote on Needs:

Our grandparents used to bump into each other and say hello while wandering through the village square and chat over a tea, while many of us now ‘bump’ into each other online and chat via instant messaging. However the fundamental needs that drive the desire to connect and be part of a community remain the same: like the needs for belonging, and participation. Through time and across cultures, these same underlying motivation have driven our actions. What has varied is how we satisfy them. Manfred Max-Neef’s model (view a version of this model here) describes these specific ten motivators as fundamental human needs.

Needs are relevant to sustainability,  because many of our current modes of satisfying those needs are dependent on large-scale consumption of material goods made from non-renewable resources. As an example, one way to satisfy the need for idleness (relaxation) may be to buy a cheap flight from London to a Greek Island, lie on the beach, and drink expensive champagne after a frantic week at work. A substitute may with a smaller ‘ecological footprint’ be to cycle to a nearby village with your friends, paddle in the river for the day, and sample some locally-brewed beer.

A version of this piece was originally published in the Winter 2009 edition of the BTH Sustainability Master’s Alumni Newsletter – ‘Trunk and Branches’, available here.

You can read more about how this concept of needs can be used with business in another post here or also in the June 2008 edition of Trunk and Branches, here.


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