Reflections from Hållbarhet 2009

Reflections & Lessons Learned – Hållbarhet Australia

From February 3-13, 2009, I participated in the Hållbarhet Australia Learning Journey, along with 25 other sustainability practitioners who share a common Masters in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability (MSLS) from the Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden. It was an absolutely extraordinary experience that clearly highlighted the invaluable roll a strong network can play in the personal and collective impact of sustainability change agents.

The following capture a few of the key lessons I took away from the experience that seem directly relevant to the work of The Natural Step in Canada and abroad:

Lesson 1: Self-organization rocks!
No single individual can recount exactly how Hållbarhet came to be. It emerged as a result of a few conversations started nearly two-years ago between passionate people who were willing to dedicate their time and energy to invite their MSLS colleagues to something meaningful and learningful. People flowed in to and out of event organization depending on their interests, connections and availability. This led to an organic participatory process, which drew on the diverse strengths of the individuals involved and yielded a professional, inspiring itinerary. In the end, not only did MSLS alumni convene in Australia, but Regional Gatherings also took place in Ottawa, Boston, Vancouver, London and Karlskrona.

Lesson 2: Co-creation is key
After a fantastic week packed with workshops, meetings with sustainability specialists, site visits, public engagement sessions, etc., the retreat in Thredbo got off to a rocky start. While there had been invitations to co-create the itinerary leading up to the retreat, many participants felt the four-day agenda was jammed with pre-determined activities. In their eyes, the schedule did not offer the flexibility that would meet their individual and collective needs. Whether the perceptions were real or imagined, the retreat facilitators reacted with a sensitive and genuine willingness to recreate the agenda; being able to really hear and respond to the concerns of the group required incredible patience, openness and versatility. I learned as much from the process itself as I did from the outcomes of the retreat, where the sweetest fruits of our labour emerged as the true spirit of co-creation was put into practice.

Lesson 3: Disasters can help ignite passion and gain perspective
Halfway through the Thredbo retreat, bush fires blazed in the southern State of Victoria. A thick smoke enveloped the valley as news reports notified residents of the rising death toll – 18, 42, 112…200 people. Being so close to the disaster was a bitter reminder of the human cost of our collective un-sustainability. While we cannot say that these devastating fires were a result of any single problem, as systems thinkers we could identify elements that related to all the System Conditions – i.e. the 10-years of drought in the region, impacts of climate change, poor land management, arson. We shed tears for those who had lost their lives and for the families left behind wondering why. We shared stories of what these and similar losses meant to us and to our work. Ultimately, we agreed that our time was best spent continuing our reflective and visioning journey, remembering to keep the big picture in mind and why feeling the impact of individual incidents such as the fires in Victoria is so important to our work.

Lesson 4: Humility = Compatibility
As sustainability practitioners, we are faced with a disconcerting dichotomy – that we are privileged with a unique understanding of the sustainability challenges we face globally and the corresponding urgency with which change must take place, while also needing to communicate with wide audiences in such a way that brings people along with us as we endeavour to create change toward sustainability. This means meeting people where they are; assuming nothing; checking our egos at the door.

On our own personal and professional journeys, we are bound to encounter opposing or even antagonistic positions about the details of sustainability. However, it is incumbent upon us to a) find common ground by identifying similarities in our work and perspectives, and b) provide constructive clarification where and when appropriate (i.e. “yes, and”), and to let misinformed comments slide when the real value will come from having a meaningful, non-confrontational exchange.

As said in the Hållbarhet Blog post by participant Andrew Outhwaite, “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.”

Lesson 5: Defining the “I – We – It”
During my studies in the MSLS program in 2008, I participated in a Pattern Laboratory workshop, which shared techniques on how to identify the patterns that inhibit or support groups in the effective execution of their work. The facilitators highlighted the importance of spending sufficient time defining the role of the “I” (the individual) and “We” (the group), before moving on to the “It” (reason the group has come together; the task at hand). While the MSLS Alumni had been operating as a loose network for five years, never before had the members come together to go through a process of defining who we were, both in terms of how individuals would relate to one another and how the group would interact with the rest of the world. As we deliberated the question Who are we?, Bob Willard’s words of wisdom – “go slow to go fast” – reassured us that our time was well spent and would help us answer the bigger question of How can we scale up our impact ten-fold?

Lesson 6 – MSLS Alumni Network and TNS
The MSLS Alumni network is seeking opportunities to gain skills, apply their expertise and widen their impact for transformational change toward sustainability. While we recognize that our experience and learnings at BTH are incredibly unique, we have also gone on to apply these teachings in new contexts and have since acquired a wide array of skills in applying systems thinking to work in sustainable development. Our strength as a network is in feeling part of a family that understands each other, where we can find extraordinary passion, competence and support. I believe that creatively managing this relationship with the network will help TNS scale up their own efforts, while simultaneously acknowledging and empowering this experienced group of sustainability practitioners.