As the global impacts of climate change become more clear and severe, the need to effectively respond and adapt to these changes becomes more urgent. Scientists tell us that there is no time to waste. Yet even as the central challenge of transitioning to sustainable energy becomes more technically feasible, social and political barriers hinder concerted action, especially at scale. What does it take to make progress?
As the global impacts of climate change become more clear and severe, the need to effectively respond and adapt to these changes becomes more urgent. Scientists tell us that there is no time to waste. In the autumn of 2017, the World Meteorological Association warned that the planet is headed for “dangerous” temperature increases by the end of the century.
Our partners in this sector worldwide, from North America to Europe to Africa, are alternately energized and discouraged. Even as the central challenge of transitioning to sustainable energy rapidly becomes more technically and economically feasible, concerted action at scale remains hindered by social and political barriers, including the deepening North–South divide.
What does it take to make meaningful progress?
As climate change ignores all national and sector boundaries, what’s clear is that collaboration is paramount, on a scale that humanity has never attempted. In 20 years of designing and facilitating systemic change initiatives on five continents, Reos Partners has seen that collaboration across sectors, ideologies, and cultures spurs both technical and relational breakthroughs. And also that collaboration is possible even in the presence of high conflict.
We’ve also seen that small breakthroughs can bring a renewed sense of agency and purpose that builds the momentum necessary for deeper change. As a member of Project Blue Thumb, a social lab that we helped develop, told us, “I have started to take action rather than wait for someone to do it for me.”
Here are some of the mental, emotional, and process shifts that in our experience enable the rare levels of collaboration and coordinated action that must now become the norm.
Let go of “solutions” and dig in for the long haul
The very notion of a discrete solution suggests a neat, discrete problem. At Reos Partners, we never set out to “solve” problems as large and complex as energy transition or climate change. Rather, we try to shift and ultimately transform the complex conditions that are generating the problematic situations so that something new, positive, and self-sustaining can emerge.
But true system intervention takes time, persistence, and broad collaboration. That’s why we so often work to establish ongoing platforms for change like the Electricity Innovation Lab (e-Lab), which is speeding the development of a distributed and renewable electricity system in the United States.
When the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) convened eLab in 2011 with support from Reos Partners, they recognized the US electricity sector needed to become more efficient, resilient, and environmentally sustainable. They were also tired of writing papers about what people should do and not seeing any of it get done. Technical know-how was clearly not enough. We see this across sectors, everywhere we work: people know what to do, but not how to do it.
The e-Lab is enabling progress by offeringa structure for long-term engagement and innovation across traditional institutional boundaries, among a diverse group of thought leaders and decision makers. It has spawned multiple projects whose participants are exploring the issues in-depth and partnering with other stakeholders to test new ideas. Just one of these is e-Lab Leap, which is working to ensure that low-income households have access to clean energy. As e-Lab’s reputation for innovation grows, e-Lab draws more cutting-edge thinkers — and funding.
“I’ve been working on these issues for about 40 years,” said Amory Lovins, RMI’s chairman and chief scientist, “and this is the first time, I think, that such a broad spectrum of thought leaders in the electricity industry has ever been together in one place . . . I think it’s going to speed up the transition by maybe a decade.”
Now e-Lab International is supporting government agencies and NGOs in establishing their own eLab-style entities. Currently, they’re advising organizations in Australia, Canada, and the European Union.
With climate change bearing down on us, the impulse is to work faster. And of course a variety of immediate actions must be taken. But the complex transformation that’s needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change requires that we develop a complex understanding — and that takes time.
Transformative scenarios are one way to develop a complex understanding. The structured yet open-ended process is an example of what we call a “purposeful detour.” Over the course of about six months, we guide diverse stakeholders in constructing several possible futures around the issue at hand, combining both rigour and imagination. The resulting stories suggest strategies and initiatives for shaping the future.
Consider the semi-arid regions of India and Africa. Home to hundreds of millions of people and already burdened by harsh climates and a scarcity of natural resources, they are especially vulnerable to climate-related impacts and risks. Yet most adaptation efforts have been reactive and short-term. To spur thinking on root causes and long-term adaptation, we undertook a transformative scenarios process for the ASSAR project (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions), which is coordinating a response to climate change across India and six African countries.
ASSAR’sdiverse teams are developing scenarios for what might happen in different “hot spots” in India and regions in Africa given the growing volatility of water availability. As with transformative scenarios projects in countries as diverse as Mexico and Indonesia, the team has struggled to put aside both the immediate crisis and what they want to happen in order to consider what might actually happen. But we anticipate the same result we’ve seen before: a set of scenarios that serves as the foundation for informed discussion, critical thinking, and integrated long-term responses.
Or speed up
While Reos Partners is focused on working systemically, we’re also excited about using what we’ve learned about long-term systemic intervention to enable smaller, more localized projects to make progress quickly.
Accelerator is an e-Lab initiative that we developed with RMI. While eLab brings together big players who can act on high-level strategic interventions in the US electricity sector, Accelerator brings together people who can by themselves make headway on subsystemic but high-impact projects. We invite small multistakeholder groups from throughout North America into highly collaborative four-day innovation boot camps led by trained facilitators and technical experts.
Accelerator topics have included distributed grid infrastructure, new business models and pricing mechanisms, national security, improving people’s access to clean energy, and microgrid programmes.
Many of the people and organizations we work with struggle to set aside conventional, linear approaches for the more open-ended experimentation that in our experience is so effective at breaking up stuck problems. But once they do, it can be eye-opening — and revitalizing.
The threatened Red Deer River watershed in Alberta, Canada, is one example of a place where fast-changing social, economic, and climate conditions have been overwhelming planning-based management approaches. We helped launch a lab there, Project Blue Thumb, to tackle water quality issues with a hybrid of focused planning and ongoing experimentation.
During any lab’s prototyping process, participants are often heartened by the sense of progress as they refine their initiatives relatively quickly. “There is a renewed sense of vitality among people working to improve watershed health,” said one lab member. “Before Project Blue Thumb, many of the meetings I attended were low energy. It has sparked a sense that more is possible, that through collaboration we might actually be able to improve watershed health."
Give everyone a voice
It’s a simple principle: only with a multistakeholder approach can we hope to create something resembling the full picture of a complex system, and subsequently, create initiatives that enable progress. A diverse spectrum of voices and viewpoints is the foundation of any Reos Partners process.
In addition to creating a complete picture, a multistakeholder approach can ease or prevent conflict. For the North Sea Energy Lab in the Netherlands, we’re bringing together offshore wind operators, fishermen, policy makers, NGOs, and others to create a shared understanding of the North Sea’s potential as a source of both food and renewable energy, and as an ecosystem. With fossil energy sources dwindling and a major scale-up of offshore wind farms planned, there is excitement, but also tension among varied interests: traditional claims on the Dutch portion of the sea include oil and gas mining, shipping, fisheries, the military, nature reserves, and recreation. The lab is designed to be an inclusive space for creating a new narrative, exploring integrative policies, and experimenting with space and function, for example by pairing small-scale fisheries with offshore wind farms.
It’s also our experience that pulling more people into networks and then improving the quality of their relationships sets the stage for breakthroughs. Take again Project Blue Thumb, which has brought together stakeholders from municipal and provincial government, the nonprofit sector, academia, forestry, and agriculture. Lab members say that the depth and breadth of their professional networks have improved, and it’s clear that in many cases, so has the depth and breadth of their thinking. Said one, “I have started to see the watershed through multiple lenses rather that just as an engineer.” And another, “What I thought were the issues are not the issues at all.”
Collaborate with people you don’t agree with
It’s not always easy to collaborate, even with people you agree with. Rife with conflicting needs and interests, issues around energy and climate often ask even more of us: to collaborate with people we don’t agree with, like, or trust. The parties may never agree, but they must find ways to move forward together anyway.
We call this “stretch collaboration.” As Adam Kahane, a director at Reos Partners, describes in his book Collaborating with the Enemy, we have learned how to help diverse, competing stakeholders move forward with no expectation of harmony or even any definitive agreement on the problem, never mind the solutions. Instead, the group experiments with multiple possibilities to discover what works, one step at a time. It’s the hallmark of our work.
The North Sea Energy Lab, described above, is one example of purposefully bringing together people who are at odds with one another. In that case, as a way to prevent deeper conflicts from forming during a challenging transition.
Step into the confusion
Facing the enormous scale of energy and climate challenges head on, thinking and working in new ways, slowing ourselves down when crisis is upon us, collaborating when it’s uncomfortable … People at every level of a system can find all this difficult, confusing, even distressing at times. But as practiced guides, we design our processes to give everyone the support and the time they need to feel their way through. On the other side, as we have seen again and again, is a more successful response to the complex challenges we face.
We invite you contact us about making progress together.
photo: (CC) Mariano Cuajao/Flickr