One in nine people worldwide are undernourished, population pressure is increasing, and natural resources are at their breaking point. These challenges seem to be accelerating faster than we can respond, and the implications are numbing. In many cases, we know what to do. But how do we do it? How do we revitalize our efforts and mount innovative responses equal to our challenges?
Reos Partners has been refining answers to “how” for 20 years, through our engagement in dozens of systemic change initiatives around the world. As we have discovered with the governments, NGOs, and corporations we work with, social breakthroughs in how we work together are every bit as important as the technical breakthroughs that usually consume our attention.
Another kind of breakthrough we see in our food, land, and natural resources initiatives is personal revitalization: transcending the discouragement and sense of isolation that can come from devoting oneself every day to problems of such magnitude and complexity. Multiplied across the membership of a global initiative, this is not a small thing. As a member of our Sustainable Oceans Lab said, “I feel inspired and stretched and less lonely, part of a committed network that is pioneering new approaches in ocean leadership.”
Here are some of the mental, emotional, and process shifts that in our experience enable breakthrough thinking, collaboration, and coordinated action on these urgent global challenges.
Embrace the overwhelming scale
Sheer scale is perhaps the first difficulty presented by many problems related to natural resources, land, and food. But it also presents the opportunity to have a systemic impact.
One of Reos Partners’ oldest ongoing initiatives is also one of our most far-reaching: the Sustainable Food Lab, devoted to redesigning the global food system. Launched in 2004, this lab continues to broaden and deepen its work of creating mainstream, market-based sustainable food supply chains for Europe, North America, and Latin America. Systems scientist Peter Senge has called it “the largest and most promising systemic change initiative I know of.”
Other large-scale food projects include the Southern Africa Food Lab, going strong with several extensions since 2009, and, in Thailand, an ongoing countrywide initiative designed to help young people in the cities return to their rural homes to farm. The Bhavishya Child Malnutrition Lab tackled the intergenerational context of child malnutrition in the Indian state of Maharashtra, whose population of over 123 million makes it the second-most populous subnational entity on Earth. It reduced stunting of children under age two by 15 percent in just six years — one of the fastest declines seen anywhere at any time.
Let go of “solutions”
The very notion of a discrete solution suggests a neat, discrete problem. At Reos Partners, we don’t set out to “solve” something like ocean acidification, deforestation, or food insecurity. The ever-changing complexity of such problems defeats “solutions.” Rather, we try to shift and ultimately transform the complex conditions that are generating the problematic situation so that something new, positive, and self-sustaining can emerge.
That’s why we so often aim to develop ongoing platforms for collaboration, such as the food labs mentioned above. No matter how successful a project is, there’s a high likelihood that at some point one or more elements shaping the system will change, and the system will get stuck again. But with an active platform in place, you have the capacities and networks to tackle changing circumstances and new challenges as they arise.
The Sustainable Food Lab, for example, has launched more than a dozen initiatives over the years. The Bhavishya lab itself ended after six years, having demonstrated the potential for cross-sectoral response to the challenge of malnutrition, and it left a legacy of initiatives to be scaled-up and replicated.
Many of the people and organizations we work with struggle to set aside linear approaches for the more open-ended experimentation that is needed to make progress on stuck situations. But once they do, it can be eye-opening.
The threatened Red Deer River watershed in Alberta, Canada, is one example of a context where fast-changing social, economic, and environmental conditions have been overwhelming the planning-based management approaches that used to work. We worked with local partners to develop Project Blue Thumb, a social lab tackling watershed management issues such as water quality. In addition to forging new alliances, the lab has undertaken numerous experimental initiatives. Said one lab member, “What I thought were the issues are not the issues at all.”
Trial and error, learning by doing … These methods are in some ways conventional. Yet they often get shortchanged in the face of funding pressures and the urgency of the task at hand. As David Obura of CORDIO (Coastal Oceans Research and Development—Indian Ocean) said of the Sustainable Oceans Lab, “For me the lab has validated what I feel we know intuitively, but lose as we mature professionally: that we should not and cannot overplan everything. By being open to the situation and people, and reflecting carefully, we should be able to come to a solution, and work to improve this at every step.”
Take a purposeful detour
Given the urgency of the challenges, the natural impulse is to work faster. While short-term problems do need to be addressed, long-term progress on complex problems requires that stakeholders develop a complex understanding. And that takes time.
The tension between urgency and thoughtful response is painfully illustrated by the issue of land reform in South Africa. Nearly 25 years after the end of apartheid, the promise of “land restitution” is largely unmet, and frustration is high. Yet the problem cries out for deeper understanding and fresh thinking. To help enable that, Reos Partners facilitated a transformative scenarios process, the Land Reform Futures.
Transformative scenarios are one way to develop a complex, and shared, understanding. The structured yet open-ended process is an example of what we call a “purposeful detour.” Over the course of six months, we guide diverse stakeholders as they construct a set of stories of possible futures for the issue at hand, combining both rigour and imagination. These stories enable us to generate and test strategies and initiatives for shaping the future.
The Land Reform Futures are providing a common framework for renewed, informed national debate and decision making on an economically and symbolically potent issue. “It created a platform to hear other people’s voices, and to confront my own views,” said one participant. “It took the pressure off always looking for solutions. By getting clearer on thinking, then getting clearer on a vision, it changes the energy. Then there is the possibility of things changing.”
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, not to mention the tensions inherent in survival-level issues, problems related to natural resources, land, and food often ask even more of us: to collaborate with people we don’t agree with, like, or trust. The parties 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.
That said, getting “enemies” together can create surprising new understandings and agreements, as it did for members of the Forest Industry Taskforce, a future-thinking government-sponsored project in eastern Victoria, Australia.
The task force brought together senior representatives from conservation, union, and forest industry organizations — three groups locked in acrimonious conflict for more than 40 years. After reading a Reos Partners report based on interviews with people from all three groups, a surprised forest industry representative said in a workshop, “I thought we were the only ones losing.” This realization that the predicament was a shared one marked a shift for the entire group. It became a touchstone that helped them get unstuck many times over the next year.
Even direct competitors can collaborate. Larry Pulliam, executive vice president of Sysco, said of the Sustainable Food Lab, “It’s pretty unusual that fierce competitors like Sysco and US Foodservice can come together and work for the higher good. The essence, the power, of the Sustainable Food Lab is that we can do one hundred-fold, one thousand-fold, more together than we can do by ourselves.”
Step into the confusion
Facing the enormity of our problems head on, thinking and working in new ways, slowing down when crisis is upon us, collaborating in uncomfortable ways … 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) Neil Palmer (CIAT)/Flickr