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Our Insights 30 Nov 2010

Bit by Bit

By Mark Lee

Expectations for COP 16 in Cancún are, in a word, low. This is in part realism after the disappointment of Copenhagen, but also shows fatigue; climate champions literally have not yet rallied the new energy (and new strategies) necessary to build alternate momentum after all that was poured into COP 15 fell short.

By Any Means

To find hope in the fight to arrest global warming, it may be more promising short term to look away from what national governments are doing under the official UN banner to the multiplicity of other paths forward being explored in other corners.

For example, on November 21st, the third conference of the United Cities and Local Governments ended with leaders from more than 135 cities and urban areas worldwide signing a pact to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions regardless of what national leaders do; their pledge will be presented at Cancún. Similarly, the US Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement stands in stark contrast to the failure of the US House and Senate to commit and pass a climate bill. And the November 27, 2010 New York Times featured two op-eds mapping means to accelerate climate progress by focusing on clean energy investment and applying existing technology and regulation to constrain non-CO2 GHGs regardless what happens on the Mayan Riviera.

By All Means

These and other lessons inspire. They assure that there is no reason to give up and provide examples of action from others who refuse to do so. They also suggest that focusing on transformational system change may distract from the efficacy of cumulative incremental change. In fact, they support an argument that genuine hit-by-lightning-like transformational change may almost never happen, and that even the greatest ‘transformations’ are really the result of cumulative effort, often by many different parties, over time. Consider for instance Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, in which he argues that innovation derives from ‘slow hunches’ – think of the many years and gradual insight that went into Darwin’s The Origin of Species – and from ‘platforms’ – consider software developers building on years of code written by others, or musical genres such as jazz influencing blues, in turn influencing rock.

Incremental Versus Transformational?

This issue – incremental versus transformational change – has been swimming in and out of my thinking for at least three years. SustainAbility mapped the concept of incremental versus transformational change in the second in our Skoll Foundation sponsored series on social entrepreneurship The Social Intrapreneur (2008). We argued then that too many potential market solutions to sustainability had been incremental in ambition and effort and therefore limited in impact, and that we had to do everything to unleash the courage and intelligence of social intrapreneurs (that is, social entrepreneurs working inside large corporations) potentially capable of leading systemic change via the development of new business models and discovery of new forms of value.

Or Incremental Equals Transformational?

But like Johnson and his platform ideas, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, speaking at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum in October in San Francisco, told the gathered sustainability faithful that a key lesson from the design community regarding breakthough innovation is that what looks transformational is generally the result of successive rapid prototyping – which entails many small (usually connected) efforts, learning from failure and continuous improvement. Tom Wujec, an Autodesk Fellow, and Tim O’Reilly, both speaking at that same GreenBiz event, said essentially the same thing – that the biggest changes depend on prototyping (and vision).

Blocking the Sirens

In Greek myth, Sirens’ songs lured sailors to crash their vessels upon the rocks – mariners had to tune out the sound to complete their journey; to survive. Similarly, might blocking the allure of the immediately transformational be critical to accelerating measurable progress on the great sustainability challenges – climate, certainly, but also equity, access and other issues?

To be sure, transformational results – including a genuine successor to the Kyoto Protocol – are required. But it may be time for sustainability advocates to express better the complexity of the challenges faced and the many steps that will be required on the journey, to applaud and support those braving the most paces (each really a leap of faith in terms of societal and market acceptance) with most speed, and to reward those whose continuous effort – efforts – propels us towards transformation fastest.

At SustainAbility, we will make a simple start. Where we have aspired near exclusively to the greatest number of transformational outcomes, we agreed at our recent global team meeting to track also the nature and speed of incremental steps taken with clients and partners, to plot trajectories towards transformation, and to engage our stakeholders in helping assess whether the rate of progress is sufficient to warrant continuation. Bit by bit? Indeed.

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