Resilient Futures looks at companies, organizations, innovations, business models, methodologies, financial models, and policies that bring creativity and imagination to the development and deployment of solutions that can restore ecological balance and build equitable prosperity.
Resilience is about bouncing forward. It is simply too late to “build back better,” a well-meaning phrase often paired with “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of catastrophes. There is no going back. There is nothing to go back to. Tipping points for climate, biodiversity and health are colliding.
Resilience means “building for better.”
Integrative design, a methodology that takes its cue from nature, provides a framework for how to do just that. There are three core principles:
Start with outcomes: What are the desired results?
Draw from an expanding, cross-pollinating assemblage of practices, technologies and business models. Integrative design is dynamic and transformative. It provides a roadmap for iterative improvement.
Evaluate each part of a system to make sure it performs at least two meaningful functions. The more functions, the better.
This is a whole systems approach that can be used to improve everything from the energy efficiency of buildings to the design of products, services and processes: anything that can be understand as a system.
As a journalist who covers beats as diverse as business, marketing, science (biology, micro to macro), transportation, engineering and tech, I have been fortunate to have many teachers. Journalism is the perfect cover for someone who loves to ask questions. I have interviewed energy experts, wildlife biologists, virologists, branding specialists. business consultants, engineers, educators, computer scientists, architects, urban planners, politicians, farmers, designers and veterinarians. I love a good trade show and am a regular reader of all sorts of industry publications. Networks of specialist “brain trusts” are alway there to turn to for guidance, teaching me the better questions to ask and how to spot pattern and synergies across disciplines.
In a world of specialists, I am a silo-skipping generalist.
I have also worked on the both sides of the byline:
writing for newspapers and magazines (including one the first major articles on zoonotic disease threats for BusinessWeek)
traveling for television documentaries (chasing horses, bears, coyotes, wolves, birds, pathogens and biologists)
embedding as part of the core team for a large military / civilian humanitarian exercise (Operation: Strong Angel)
heading up a Business Intelligence practice (better described as applied journalism) for a leading brand design consultancy (COLLINS).
For COLLINS, I wrote company backgrounders by the dozen and also longer white papers on issues relevant to client businesses. It was fascinating work that provided a chance to see up close how marketing professionals at the top of their game, working with legacy companies and game-changing startups at the tops of their games, packaged ideas and crafted messages.
I learned that when branding is done well, the most significant work isn’t what the consumer sees. It isn’t clever, beautiful logos, elegant typography, bold visuals or snappy copy, although those are important. They win awards.
The big payoff is internal, an articulation of a company’s purpose that can be transformational. For example, when a company that uses environmentally friendly green chemistry to make pulp from recycled paper (a material that will then be used to make new cardboard and paper products) sees itself not as a recycled paper company, but rather as part of a “Clean Materials Economy,” it opens up “the adjacent possible” for expanding into related businesses, pursuing partnerships, and identifying new use cases and customers.
“The adjacent possible” is a phrase originally used by biologist and complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman to describe the collisions of Earth’s “starter” molecules. Over time, these collisions led to the creation of all the molecules required for the emergence of life.
In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson describes the adjacent possible using the metaphor of doors:
“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”
Resilient Futures grew out this eclectic mix of experience and perspective, and also a profound sense of urgency. Climate change is real. Wildlife extinctions are real. The staggering loss of fertile topsoil from the world agricultural lands is real. Six of the nine “planetary boundaries” that scientists have told us are must-haves for humans to live happily on Earth have been breached.
We now live in a world where heat-stroke insurance is a thing because heat waves have become much more intense and last longer. We are starting to drop like flies.
It turns out that actually we do not need any new save-the-planet technologies to keep us from flying off a climate cliff although, of course, the more the better. Resilience is about using what’s on hand more effectively: seeing old ideas with fresh eyes and experimenting with combinations of technologies, methodologies and business models.
Across every sector, companies that lean into the constraints of climate change find new and better ways to do business. For example, a developer of “net zero” buildings in Boulder is able to get a 20 basis point discount on loans because the mortgages on his high performance buildings are easier for the bank to sell. This cheaper cost of capital effectively zeros out the additional costs of building cleaner and greener. That’s an instant return on investment (ROI), where energy savings start to accrue on day one.
There are eureka moments in labs where better batteries, non-toxic fabric dyes, and compostable packaging materials are being developed.
Now, it is a race against time. Will these efforts be enough? Without them the answer is both clear and dire. But when everything is at stake, there is also nothing to lose. On the bright side, we cannot do worse.
Several years ago, driving across Arizona to film the release of a pair of Mexican Gray wolves in the Blue Mountains, a senior scientist from the National Wildlife Foundation traveling with the crew quoted from Aldo Leopold’s essay, Thinking Like a Mountain.
The essay, from a A Sand County Almanac, recounts the day Leopold, then early in his career with Forestry Service, shot and killed a mother wolf.
“…In those days we never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no deer would mean a hunters’ paradise…
…I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced every two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer mail of replacement in as many decades…”
Thinking Like a Mountain is about humility, understanding that we don’t know what we don’t know, until we do. Once we do, we have to change.
It means looking more deeply and broadly. Leopold spent the rest of his career as a pioneering conservationist, studying how the parts create the whole. From micro to macro, it is all of a piece.
Leopold understood that health of the Earth depends on the health of the earth. Or has he put it, “the health of the land.”
That epiphany is the beating heart of Resilient Futures.
— J. A. Ginsburg
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