Transforming our existing ways of thinking, doing and seeing is not easy. We can’t do it alone. It’s made possible through conversations, collaborations and learning together. To this end, I was fortunate to convene a conversation with leaders — Sam Rye, Sarah McArthur and Brenton Caffin, in collaboration with States of Change. The conversation was in response to the provocations: how can we learn from COVID to take further, faster action on climate change? And how might we reframe an approach to system change for climate action in a way that inspires, motivates and sustains change?
“It is in the next ten years that we are actually determining the future of humanity and the planet”
— Christiana Figueres
Acting on the climate crisis represents a vast opportunity to improve wellbeing and our collective prosperity. More liveable, cities, stable climates, cleaner air, will be made possible through huge transformations in how we live, work and think. So, when an unprecedented global pandemic prompts world governments to amass 12 trillion dollars in stimulus measures — we have a rare moment in history to invest in our collective prosperity.
This global conversation provides some ideas and insight about how people, organisations and governments may do so:
Reflections & extensions of this conversation
Below, I briefly explore themes touched on during this conversation. I don’t attempt to transcribe or capture the breadth and depth of what was said by speakers and guests, but rather write key themes and questions to extend the conversation.
Design for systemic transformation
Increasingly, organisations and systems are victim to disruption and change (i.e, climate extremes, Moore’s Law). In response, many organisations are realising that traditional structures of predictability and risk control are less adaptable to change. Design and innovation are practices of making or facilitating change through creative, deliberate and co-creative processes. In the context of system transformation (i.e, shifting us to a future current state), this means not putting all our faith in new products and services but also aiming to change how we think, do and see. A common thread running through the practice areas of the speakers is design, innovation and systemic change.
Everyone is part of the COVID experiment
The speakers all spoke about COVID creating a natural experiment and forced transformation; and that the language of adaptation, experimentation and complexity — previously the domain predominantly of innovation teams — has become more normalised. Governments can respond to large scale societal problems, and importantly, “we should not lose this muscle memory,” says Brenton Caffin. COVID has enabled Melbourne’s City Lab to continually sense and respond, transforming and changing how things are done, says Sarah McArthur; and now the work now is maintaining momentum.
Hopefully, it has shown that good governance — that which includes listening to scientific experts, making sacrifices to protect the most vulnerable, building a coherent bipartisan approach to policy — have performed comparatively well, says Caffin. We have all become more data literate, and maybe this will transfer to climate science?
Incorporating the long term view into immediate responses
The speakers all touched on long term thinking: integrating different time scales into policy decisions today. Sam Rye spoke about making long term benefits of climate action today visible, so we can see the value of action today for future generations. McArthur says that while we can’t predict the values of future generations, we can make decisions today that would leave a better world for them.
Yet, human behaviour often values short term gain over long term benefits, baked into short term political cycles and biannual dividend distributions. So, how can people escape these short term incentives? There are good examples of responsible long term thinking: New Zealand’s natural disaster fund is endowed through levies to insure people’s losses after earthquakes; Norway has a sovereign wealth fund which aims to think long term and safeguard the future Norwegian economy; and Finland’s public innovation fund, Sitra, is working on sustainable prosperity and welling for Finnish society.
Public sector innovation can help get us all closer to thinking for long term prosperity — indeed, experiments for long term democracies are gaining traction, writes Climate KIC. Japan, for example has experimented with imaginary future generations in democratic decision making and discovered that when members asked to be the voice of future generations, 60% of its members selected sustainability. Signs of hope.
Paying closer attention to details, including nature
A third theme was about slowing down to pay closer attention — attention to data, life and nature. As travel and activity slows, animals and nature have rebounded, bringing animals into cities and people closer to nature, which could help us feel the benefits of our relationship to nature, says Rye. The Japanese have a phrase for this, it’s called Forest Medicine. Perhaps COVID-19 has made us aware of our deeper human needs, says Caffin. Last election, a political party ran an effective fear campaign on franking credits — do you think that would win today? Or might we feel a greater sense of solidarity, after seeing how our sacrifice protects the common good?
Cultures of transition and amplifying new practices
Covid has forced rapid localisation (i.e, Melbourne not able to travel more than 5kms), which has forced a transition to new ways of living our life. There is a parallel to climate change: when bushfires cut people off from supply chains, local resilience and community strength become essential. Perhaps we’re seeing an accelerant of our cultures of transition, says Rye.
I started a sequence of conversations as part of a practice-based leadership course within a Master of Design Futures, RMIT. I am grateful to everyone who participated in conversations and to the team at States of Change for providing an open, participatory platform for public sector innovation. The more we can provide opportunity to citizens with ideas and potential, the more likely we’ll knit together the fabric of ideas and people for a climate-focused renewal.
Brain, T 2018, “The Environment is not a System,’ APRJA, Vol 7(1).
Climate KIC 2020, Long Democracies, accessed here: https://www.climate-kic.org/opinion/long-democracies/
Department of Health, Australian Government 2019, Youth Taskforce Interim Report, accessed here: https://www.health.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/2020/08/youth-taskforce-interim-report.pdf
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health
IMF 2020, Fiscal Monitor: Policies for the Recovery, accessed here: https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/FM/Issues/2020/09/30/october-2020-fiscal-monitor
RSA House 2020, “The Future we Choose”, accessed here: https://www.thersa.org/events/2020/03/the-future-we-choose
Shore, K 2020, ‘Design Leadership: bridging worlds towards the collective imaginary, exploring design leadership for systemic transformation and human wellbeing,’ Master of Design Futures, RMIT.