Collaboration for Sustainability 1: Intro

April 22, 2010 Leave a comment
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Wishing you a hopeful Earth Day, and thinking of the good people gathered in Bolivia for the World People’s Summit on Climate Change . . .

For the past few decades, the Interaction Institute for Social Change and Interaction Associates have worked to develop the collaborative capacity of individuals, organizations, and communities with the conviction that this holds the promise of greater effectiveness with respect to shared missions and goals.  We have long upheld and witnessed the importance of bringing more minds and hands together for the purposes of creating insight, understanding, alignment, agreement, strategy, and shared ownership.  Lately, I have been trying to specifically clarify the value all of this has to offer the unsustainable relationship we have with our planet.

In his most recent book, Eaarth (intentionally misspelled), environmental activist Bill McKibben makes it painfully clear that climate change is no longer a hypothetical or future event.  Climate change is here, and it is here to stay.  From decreased rainfall in some areas of the globe, to increased and violent precipitation in others, rising seas, altered ecosystems and migratory patterns, the Earth we once knew is taking on a different persona.  No point denying this, it is our new reality.  The only choice we have is to adapt to changing conditions and do what we can to prevent alterations that would render the planet totally inhospitable to our species.

The good news is that there is growing awareness of this threat and a greater consciousness that business as usual just will not work.  Also on the bright side, there is evidence that the knowledge and technology exist to shift to more sustainable ways of producing food and energy, transporting goods and people, housing and clothing ourselves.  But change, proactive change in any case, is seemingly slow to come.  Many observers say that what we lack is the political will and collective motivation to make the necessary moves now.  So how do we address the lack and gap?

I plan on spending a few posts considering how collaboration might be a key to the sustainability shift.  I will work with the following definition of sustainability taken from the Brundtland Commission (1987):

“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

As well as the following definition of collaboration, from Chrislip and Larson (1994):

“A mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties to achieve common goals by sharing responsibility, authority, and accountability for achieving results.  It is more than simply sharing knowledge and information (communication) and more than a relationship that helps each party achieve its own goals (cooperation and coordination).  The purpose of collaboration is to create a shared vision and joint strategies to address concerns that go beyond the purview of any particular party.”

And I/we will explore and see what reveals itself.  What does research and experience say about how more fully developed collaborative capacity might help us to maintain our place on this planet?  Stay tuned and/or feel free to go ahead and share your thoughts.

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  • Gibran says:

    I look forward to see how this conversation evolves! It seems more than prescient.

  • Linda says:

    Great Curtis! Looking forward to it. And amazing timing to start this on Earth Day!

  • Susan DeGenring says:

    Curtis, love it! Am studiously pursuing the social technology of co-creative group leadership, but in service of what I think? Solving these complex systems dilemmas. I will follow your post with interest.

    Right now reading Mark Gerzon’s Global Citizen. He, along with others I’m studying speak to a key which we tend to ignore in some of our treatments and codifications of collaboration–dropping into reflective mode, letting go of previous perceptions to see what new can show up. I’m convinced from all my experiences in groups that when we can create this co-reflection space and people share insight together (whether aligned or opposed) the end result is more powerful, sustainable and profound.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks Susan, Linda, and Gibran. I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thinking and others’ as this unfolds. And please feel free to invite others into the conversation. As you may know, John, Ash, and I are working on a book for IA on the connection between leadership, collaboration, and sustainability. And we very much see this growing out of precisely this kind of conversation.

    And Susan, specifically on your comment about creating space for co-reflection, I was in NH yesterday visiting with Beth Tener, former director of Sustainable Step New England and remarkable person all around. We talked about how profound it can be to simply create space for people to come together to talk over locally grown food. Lots of lessons about systems just in that practice!

    Susan’s housemate, Adam, a seemingly remarkable person in his own right, is starting a consulting firm that looks at the other end of the spectrum from co-reflection, where many well intentioned efforts seem to fail, which is co-implementation. He makes the important observation that we often have the best of intentions, and can create powerful convening spaces, but when it comes time to put things on the ground, it can get squirrelly (sp?). I certainly look forward to hearing more about his approach.

    And so the conversation is off and running. I am humbled and excited!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Curtis and all. Kalila Barnett said something powerful on Earth Day as the Boston Climate Action recommendations were being delivered to Mayor Menino. She said that climate action and sustainability work is not about “saving the planet.” It’s about saving our lives and the lives of future generations! Having co-facilitated that planning process with Jonathan Raab, many people in the process were inspired by the opportunity to engage in discussion and have their concerns both heard and integrated into the final report. It’s an ambitious set of recommendations that will take widespread involvement. People say that both God and the devil live in the details and in the doing. Here’s to hoping that we find more of God there than the opposite as Boston gears up to make meaningful changes to save our lives!

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Cynthia. And thank you for your important work in facilitating all that stakeholder involvement for the Boston Climate Action Plan. I think the point that Kalila raised about saving future generations is right on. And I think others are getting this as well. You see this evident in the shifting missions of the likes of Conservation International which formally recognizes the importance of “human welfare” at the center of conservation efforts. It’s what Peter Forbes and the good people at the Center for Whole Communities are trying to get more conservationists to recognize, while also helping those working on human welfare to understand the critical link of healthy ecosystems. And yes, may me find more divinity in our collective efforts towards these ends – having walked through the valley and the darkness.

  • Vanessa DiCarlo says:

    As a Dispute Resolution student at UMass Boston, I am hoping to pursue a masters project that marries environmental justice, empathy building, and public policy changes to meet the needs of Boston’s most vulnerable populations. The Boston Climate Action Plan has served an invaluable role in shaping the conversation for sustainability in Boston. I would greatly appreciate any further conversation on this matter; while the BCAP is a great start, I’d like to know, what are the people of Boston really thinking on these issues. Thank you!

  • Curtis says:


    Great question, and thank you for the good work that you are doing and want to continue to do! Are you aware of the upcoming Great Neighborhoods meeting on June 10th in Boston? That might be a place to learn more about your query. Also, groups like ACE and the Urban Ecology Institute are involved in this conversation. Another resource for community involvement in the issue of climate change is the Institute for Sustainable Communities in Montpelier, VT.

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