Community as Technology

This was originally published on the WorldChanging blog, here.

With new options for collaboration, telecommunications and social networking coming online at a furious pace, it’s worth pondering how society will continue to change as a result. Having the tools in place is, of course, only half the battle. The rest is learning to shift our ways of thinking and working away from models that favor segregated specialties and exclusivity to relationships that encourage and enhance co-creation.

I recently had an experience that underscored just how important our ability to work together will become. As a coordinator and participant in the Hållbarhet2009 Learning Journey and Conference in Australia, I saw firsthand what climate change looks like. As my group traveled for ten days through southern Australia, we came face-to-face with the frightening signs of a warming world: charred landscapes from the worst bushfires on record, resulting in hundreds of human fatalities from vaporized towns, and thousands of kangaroos, koalas and other fauna dead from heat and thirst. Mighty rivers like the Murray, Darling and Snowy were reduced to a trickle in the south while the whole landscape becomes one swollen river in the north. In the midst of raging fires, alerting, helping and being helped by your neighbours was the difference between life and death for many Australians.

I traveled with 24 fellow alumni of the Masters in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability program, and we brought with us our own tools and technologies for making a bright green future. We encountered many other tools along the way: new engineering technologies (e.g. biochar from pyrolysis, organic solar cells and biodiesel plants), new cognitive and conceptual ‘technologies’ and tools (e.g. The Natural Step, Resilience), new agricultural technologies (e.g. biodynamic agriculture, and permaculture community centres) and new social technologies (e.g. Open Space Technology, World Cafe, peer coaching, Presencing and Theory U). We also were fortunate to experience some ancient technologies from the local 40,000 year-old Aboriginal culture in the form of rituals for imparting both the knowledge and the reverent respect required to live in this harsh landscape.

The group discusses permaculture at CERES.

Throughout the trip, we met with a diverse group of sustainability luminaries, including global systems scientist Will Steffen, Australian Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts (and former Midnight Oil frontman) Peter Garrett, Aboriginal activist Isabelle Coe and sustainability guru Phillip Sutton. Though their areas of expertise varied, they expressed a common interest in finding new ways for individuals to think and collaborate for the sake of the ‘whole.’

Our geographically dispersed community was already well versed in the practices of collaboration and co-creation. We had self-organized the event using many of the online tools at our disposal: Skype, Basecamp, wikis, Google docs, Maratech, iCal shared calendars and email listservs.

Realizing the relevance of community itself as a technology, we joined many local and international sustainability networks in exploring the possibilities for collaboration at a dialogue hosted by the Global Sustainability Programme at RMIT. As we talked through the barriers preventing us from scaling up our impact, I recognized that many of the inspiring forms of community-enabling technology we had encountered could be brought to bear in overcoming these barriers. For example:

Barrier: The desire to ‘get more done urgently, now’ rather than taking the time to really connect, listen and build the trust that underlies collaboration.

Community-Enabling Technology: Reestablishing rituals. For example, Aboriginal people inviting visitors to their traditional lands to participate in welcoming ceremonies, a kind of spiritual technology: circling a sacred fire and breathing in the smoke generates a visceral sense of respect and connection with each other, other species and creation.

Barrier: Being too identified with your own profession/network/clique, and its language, symbols, models, paradigms and habits can seriously inhibit inter-network collaboration, even within the sustainability movement.

Community-Enabling Technology: Encouraging information Cross-Pollination. Universities (e.g. BTH, UTS and RMIT) are encouraging transdisciplinary research to enable innovation across departmental, sectoral and epistemological boundaries.

Barrier: While democracy and consensus are always the best way to decide and collaboration always the best basis for action, total democracy and collaboration can be problematic. Knowing when and how to take a strong lead or stand within a group is a challenge.

Community-Enabling Technology: Taking a stand. Activists and NGOs are using new political tools to push elected representatives to respond appropriately to the climate emergency. As are scientists through forums like the Wentworth Group, IPCC and IGBP that aim to provide timely, consensus recommendations to inform national and international policy.

Barrier: While teamwork was important, critics can emerge if you appear to surrender your values and commitments in favour of group consensus. For example, take activist-turned-politician Peter Garrett and his struggles to uphold his values within the Labor party.

Community-Enabling Technologies: Using new collaborative tools. Community, business and all sides and levels of government are working together through institutions like the Murray Darling Basin Authority, and using new market mechanisms for trading water rights to protect the long-term health of the world’s third-largest river system.

Real-time display at CSIRO Energy Centre, Newcastle.

The barriers to collaboration for sustainability described above are so very real, and are at least as important as the engineering or technical barriers to sustainability. It seems the concept and practice of community: sharing, co-creating, and supporting is not just a warm fuzzy concept, but actually critical to our survival. This was a point so devastatingly demonstrated in Australian communities during the fires.

We are now a global village whether we like it or not, with no enemy except the momentum of our unsustainable culture and the forces of nature we have unleashed. Though individuals need to act strategically, authentically and boldly, acting in isolation is not enough to survive and realise our evolutionary potential. A shift in focus from individual heroes to mass collaborative leadership and action is required, and that shift will challenge our attachment to our primary identities as independent, autonomous actors.

It seems more important than ever to remember that sustainability is not the characteristic of one individual, organisation or nation; rather, it is the result of the whole system. The ultimate challenge for leaders in this space is to push the edges of what we can and must do together, as a community.

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