A Sustainable Society is Possible – Chad Park’s post-Accelerate Reflections

“Growing complexity means that trends and data are amplifying and meshing at the speed of light, and those who are able to see the patterns that are emerging from this clustering of ideas and events will be those who can pull transformational futures into the present.”

Frank Spencer – Turning Wicked Problems Into Wicked Opportunities

Will complexity kill us or save us?

I was supposed to be in Calgary and Banff this past weekend. Instead, I’m staying in Ontario as the event I was supposed to attend was cancelled. As I watched the shocking images emerge of flooded cities in my native province, the scale and complexity of our society’s collective sustainability challenge was top of mind once again. So too was the fact, known but often forgotten, that we are part of nature – and tiny in relation to its powerful forces.

We know more of this is coming. The challenges we face are daunting indeed.

Sustainability issues like climate change are not “environmental” issues – a term that suggests they can be compartmentalized and kept distinct from other variables. Rather, sustainability issues are the intersection of social, economic, environmental and cultural issues – hence their inherent complexity. When we compartmentalize and isolate them in our minds, we risk missing the greatest opportunities to transform.

In his brilliant recent Fast Company piece called “Turning Wicked Problems Into Wicked Opportunities”, Frank Spencer challenges us all to consider complexity not as something to be avoided or “killed” but as something to be leveraged. “Nature itself moves from simplicity to complexity as a sign of growth and maturity,” he reminds us. “Despite the tremendous problems we face, our world of expanding complexity is an indication that we are growing as well. When we adopt this view, we will begin to realize that complexity is actually the catalyst for new ideas that can solve age-old problems.”

A Moment for a Movement: the Accelerate conference

On June 10th and 11th almost 200 people gathered in Guelph, Ontario for the Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability conference.

As I described in my opening remarks at the event, The Natural Step Canada convened the conference motivated by both urgency and hope. Urgency because we know that despite many good news stories by many organizations, we are collectively not making progress toward sustainability rapidly enough. Hope because we have been inspired both by many emerging approaches that offer a path to move beyond incremental change toward transformational change and by what we sense as a growing willingness by our partners and others to engage in systems-change initiatives via collaboration.

From the outset, there was a palpable energy and unique buzz at Accelerate. Those who were there know exactly what I mean. Those who were not only have to read the Twitter feed (view in Excel here) to get a sense of it. Some people described the uniqueness of the event to me as related to the humility and authenticity of the dialogue – a real sense that nobody was being “talked at”; rather that presenters and participants alike were learning together with a combined spirit of seriousness and hopefulness.

Throughout the two days and since, I’ve been thanked personally by many of the conference participants and congratulated countless times on the success of Accelerate, including by many people who were not there but who have sensed that something special happened. Some have asked me what I enjoyed the most. While many presenters left lasting impressions, I noted that two speakers who profoundly impacted people, Avrim Lazar and Adam Kahane, did so because of the way they each spoke to the complete person – head, heart, soul – and connected transformative social change to all of these elements.

The Natural Step on a Grand Stage

Beyond knowing that the people who came evidently got so much out of it, I think the best thing about Accelerate for me was the platform it created for The Natural Step to showcase what this organization can do, in terms of designing and enabling a transformative social process and learning experience. In his closing remarks at the conference the anointed (by me!) “elder” of the social innovation movement in Canada, former J.W. McConnell Family Foundation president Tim Brodhead, said that, “beyond the terrific content and format for the Accelerate event, part of the reason for the unique sense of hope and energy in the room is that we were all witnessing the ‘coming out of the closet’ of a marvelous organization that has been working hard under the radar for 10 years, and it excites us to be a part of it.

While it took place on a grander scale, it is true that the energy that arose at Accelerate was actually very much like what often happens in The Natural Step’s courses and learning programs, and even in our advisory engagements. Why? Certainly part of it is about discovering that we are with our tribe – kindred spirits equally as aware of the challenges we face and as committed to acting to create positive change. But it’s more than this.

I think the answer might actually lie in the Vaclav Havel quote cited by Accelerate closing keynote speaker Göran Carstedt:

Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but rather the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

For me, this insight helps answer the question of why so many people could leave a conference about such serious issues, where the deep complexity of addressing them is also on full display, so hopeful, energized, and in big or small ways, transformed.

Yes We Can

Consciously or subconsciously, most of us know we face serious, complex challenges. We know current efforts are falling short. We know that we tend to sub-optimize our efforts simply because of the institutions and organizing structures within which our actions are manifest. We know we can’t address our challenges one organization at a time, and yet we generally tend to work on them that way. We know that the underlying problem is in our mental models and worldview – stories we collectively tell about ourselves, like the notion that we are separate from nature - and that these are difficult to change. As some speakers said at Accelerate, the complexity can overwhelm and inhibit us if we let it. And so we worry for our kids and grand kids.

But hope is the most important ingredient for change. This is why I find the Frank Spencer article cited above so powerful. Complexity need not stifle hope – instead it can become the source of it.

In this sense, when they first elegantly and simply reframed the challenge of our civilization and boiled it down to four system conditions that could serve as design constraints for a sustainable society, the biggest breakthrough of Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt and his colleagues more than 20 years ago may not have been in the science, the process, the rigour, that are often cited as some of the strengths of The Natural Step’s approach. Rather, their biggest contribution may have been the space that this insight creates deep within people to allow ourselves to be hopeful.

We can describe a sustainable future clearly, and it makes sense. We are part of nature, and a sustainable society is possible. In fact, it is not nearly as complicated to imagine as we have thought.

Armed with this mental model, we can handle the ridiculous complexity we face by “training ourselves in the art of pattern recognition and sense-making,” as Spencer tells us is required to turn wicked problems into wicked opportunities.

What can be more hopeful and empowering than that?

Stay tuned for more follow-up material from Accelerate. Thank you to everyone – organizers, participants, presenters, sponsors, volunteers - who gave so much of themselves to make it a special moment for everyone involved.