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A thread about one of the highest return, biggest bang for the buck climate-protecting investments I know of, one that is useful today in a time of weak climate policy and one that will also be essential when climate policy is stronger.
In my TEDx talk I call this high-payback investment 're-wiring the system' - it combines #SystemsThinking concepts, including: leverage, lock-in, and emergence.
Lock-in: This strategy focuses on infrastructure investment decisions. Once built, infrastructure influences carbon footprint, racial and economic equity, health and well-being for many decades - for good or for ill. Get it right and you've locked in good things for a long time!
But how do you change infrastructure decision from the status quo (generally high carbon, low social equity)? Infrastructure is super-expensive right?
That's where leverage comes in when your movement is under-resourced (like the climate movement surely is) you need an approach where small amounts of $$ produces big results. You need to be able to change how billions are deployed based on how you spend hundreds of thousands.
How to do that? You need to the capacity to act at moments of opportunity where infrastructure decisions are being made. Some of those are design moments. Some of those are financing moments.
Here's where emergence comes in. Generally no one constituency has the power to steer systems away from the status quo at moments of opportunity. (If they did, then that would redefine the status quo right?)
Here's where we have something else in our favor. A tremendous amount of the infrastructure choices that are good for the climate are good for other constituencies too: (health, jobs, saving money, energy security, etc).
Together these constituencies could steer the system at moments of opportunity, in ways none can do alone. But moments of opportunity come fast. And typically those different constituencies don't know each other or even think speak the same technical language.
When a moment of opportunity is identified, there isn’t enough time to build the shared understanding, common goals and trust needed to act together quickly and effectively.
But, here’s some more good news: building all of that (re-wiring the system) is not expensive! It takes time, skill, facilitation, listening, difficult conversations, and possibly work to heal old injustice.
It doesn’t take high tech apps or tons of rare earth metals or steel and concrete. It takes basically meeting space, coffee and baked goods, flips charts and markers.
That’s the emergence part: by connecting the parts of the system (the various constituencies) differently you change the outcomes of the investment decisions. And, relative to the costs of the investment the cost to re-wire (at least the $$ cost) isn’t that high.
By pooling knowledge, skills, budgets, and political capital together new networks can influence the decision that shape the next generation of infrastructure, potentially investments of hundreds of millions of dollars.
So what are drawbacks (because otherwise we’d have this approach common around the world right?)
You can’t control emergence. You can know such a network will help, but you can’t predict precisely when where and how. In fact, you are building it to influence choice points that haven’t happened yet and which you can’t predict.
Most donors don’t like this uncertainty. That makes it hard to fund this type of work (I can say from personal experience and deep appreciation of the rare funders who do work this way).
Lacking good models of processes like this, many potential participants don’t understand the potential impact, and, in busy lives and jobs, decline to participate in to a process that looks on the surface like ‘sitting around and talking’
Finally, no one organization or individual can claim the credit for successes No one actor delivers the results, that’s pretty much the definition of emergence.
Whether it’s to win the next election or secure the next promotion, lots of incentives push people towards more concrete (but less powerful) investments of their time.
And finally, it’s counter-cultural. It is a distinctly, complex and relationship-based way of work, with low control of specific outcomes and high uncertainty. That makes it feel different, and possibly uncomfortable.
There is a ton more to learn about how to do this work, and more understanding of its impact is needed to over the barriers I’ve just listed. It’s hard and humbling, but I believe the potential is both huge and under-appreciated.
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