Can Sustainability-driven Collaboration help get Canada “unstuck”?

Almost a year ago, The Natural Step Canada publicly announced a new strategic direction and launched a new program called the Sustainability Transition Lab. Aimed at tackling complex social and environmental challenges that no one party can address in isolation, the Sustainability Transition Lab blends a number of models and frameworks to help groups work more effectively together on systemic challenges.

I’m pleased to share with you the latest exciting development with this initiative. The story of the key steps since launching the program is provided in Saralyn Hodgkin’s blog Early Steps on the Journey of the Sustainability Transition Lab. The webpages for the Sustainability Transition Lab have been updated to reflect new learnings and developments, including an update on some of the newly-launched projects. We’re also pleased to have the opportunity to share learning together with you and other practitioners at the 2nd annual Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference, happening this June 5th and 6th in Toronto.

One thing we plan to explore in more depth at Accelerate is the potential for sustainability-driven collaboration to be an enabler for innovation and bridge-building, particularly on a range of issues where Canadians seem “stuck.” From the ever-present debates about our energy future, to the transportation and other infrastructure renewal challenges facing our cities, there is no shortage of wicked problems challenging our policy-makers and organizational leaders.

We think that it’s important that a multi-stakeholder sustainability change initiative not assume sustainability literacy among its participants and instead explicitly include a process design element to build shared language for sustainability. Our sense is that this will be instrumental in getting to shared intention faster among a diverse, multi-stakeholder group. In this sense and others, there are many lessons we can learn from sustainability-driven transformational change efforts at an organizational level. I explore some such lessons in a blog series launching today on the Social Innovation Generation website.

We also believe that embedding a proven paradigm-changing tool like the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD) into the Lab process can help build alignment among participants even among people who do not necessarily share a particular mindset and worldview from the start. This can help bridge the pro-business -- pro-environment chasm, unite ‘unlikely bedfellows’, and hopefully ensure the change process crosses the political spectrum and polarization that often characterizes sustainability-related issues. We need such bridges built in order to give the change initiative a better chance at enduring.

In this context, the point of introducing the decision-making approach of the FSSD in the labs will not be to teach about sustainability – rather it will be to help participants become more effective collaborators. 

Our hypothesis is that by doing the above, we can:

  • Achieve not only breakthrough results that shift a system, but also more subtle long-term impact  arising from improved sustainability literacy, broadly shared long-term visions, and a greater sense of inter-connectedness and hope;
  • Get there faster than might otherwise happen; and
  • Generate significant learning that other change agents will find useful.

In collaboration with a number of partners, we plan to test this hypothesis through a series of projects over the next 3 years, beginning with the ones profiled in this newsletter. This effort will itself be an experiment, given Labs’ emphasis on emergence. We will share our learnings – successes, failures, outcomes and results – as we go, to help advance the important and emerging practice of multi-stakeholder collaboration for sustainability.

We look forward to being on this journey together with you.

Want to engage further in the conversation about sustainability-driven collaboration? The Natural Step Canada is excited to host the 2nd annual Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference on June 5-6, 2014, in Toronto. Join us to deepen learning about collaboration from experts and practitioners, experience collaboration by creating connections with other change agents, and seed new collaborative initiatives. Learn more and register today!