When Change Agents Serve The World

Forum News

We are celebrating the first anniversary of the Forum’s first meeting. Tony Cooke, Lead Steward for the Capacity Working Group, writes about the Form’s development.

In July 2017, I got an email out of the blue from someone I’d never heard of inviting me to something I didn’t know existed. In the 12 months that have followed, that email has changed the way I think about the future and my place in it.

The sender was Steve Waddell, who I now know to be a leading author and scholar on ‘systems transformation’ (and, of course, Lead Staff and chief instigator of the SDG Transformation Forum), but who at the time I really didn’t know from Adam — in person or by reputation. The event turned out to be the inaugural meeting of the SDG Transformation Forum, a new international grouping of thought- and do- leaders who were coming together to discuss the why, what and how of transforming our civilisation to be truly sustainable.

I took a look down the list of invitees and, for sure, there were lots of impressive looking people with formidable biographies. For all the successes I’d had and the correspondingly impressive network that I’d developed over the years, I did not know very many of these people. They were a new community to me, and yet one that had similar interests in global sustainability to mine.

But why did Steve want me there, I was asking myself? What could I possibly say to this group of intellectualiti that they hadn’t heard already? I had a brief moment of panic followed by a moment of relief as I reminded myself that I was under no obligation to accept the invitation. But then curiosity got the better of me, and I wondered what insight or inspiration I would glean from a roomful of people who had been thinking more radically about what it will take for us achieve sustainability as a society. This was something I’ve cared deeply about and dedicated my working life to for at least the last 25 years. It had to be worth a shot, right?

Two months later, I found myself in Dundee, Scotland at Transformations2017 walking through the door into a crowded private dining room full of people who already seemed to know each other very well. Imposter syndrome immediately raised its head (as it has periodically throughout my career) and I braced myself for a barrage of polite but piercing questions designed to judge whether or not I was a somebody or a nobody.

I needn’t have worried.

By the end of the evening, conversation was in full flow and I was immersed in heated debate about the convergence of disparate strands of transformation thinking, knowledge and tools: the latest psychology research into sustainability mindsets; exponential technologies like blockchain and AI; collaborative innovation techniques; collective intelligence; place-based transformation; trans-localism; meta-narratives and memes; transformation of capital markets. I wasn’t sure what all of this meant, but I knew I had lots of homework to do!

What was abundantly clear was that, despite the obvious differences in people’s subject matter expertise or life experiences, this was a group of kindred spirits who cared passionately about being part of catalysing a sustainable future for all and who had, collectively at least, some transformational ideas about how that could come about.

By the end of the weekend, we’d laughed, cried, stewed, mulled and debated our way to one big idea. That whilst our primary reason for coming together was to discuss how we develop a transformation system for driving sustainability, the fundamental building block of that systems transformation was to be catalysing personal transformations at scale: something we summed up as ‘activating and supporting one million change agents for transformation’. A bold ambition for sure, and we had no idea if the number was too high or too low, but the intent behind it was to mobilise a critical mass of change agents and provide recognition that it is change agents who we need to be effective, both individually and collectively, to drive transformation forwards at local, national and international levels.

In the weeks and months that followed, innumerable conversations with our Capacity Working Group members, as well as other sub-groupings and individuals, have provided rocket fuel for my own ideas and helped shape a dawning realisation of how I can make my own contribution to delivering against this ‘one million change agents’ goal.

Against the backdrop of a current paradigm dominated by ossified, slow, bureaucratic, risk averse incumbent organisations who are increasingly struggling to adapt to (and survive through) a rapidly changing environment and complex set of systemic challenges, a picture is building of a globally connected, self-organised and radically more fluid community of change agents from across business, government, civil society and academia able to continually organise and re-organise to get jobs done. A community where knowledge of problems and solutions is socialised and democratised, enabling anyone to make a useful contribution regardless of their employment or location, and for anyone to thereby benefit from contributing.

There are a number of converging trends which will create the enabling conditions for this to happen including open data, blockchain and smart contracts, collaborative innovation platforms, self-managed organisations and universal basic income. When these start combining, they will begin to erode the necessity for establishing, capitalising or even propping up ‘permanent’ organisations (as if they’re anything like permanent anyway), and they will challenge the way we manage intellectual property as something to protect and privatise as opposed to something we socialise and improve upon collectively, rewarding everyone along the way. They will also challenge the deep-seated assumption of competition, rather than collaboration, as being the driver of innovation.

You might think of it as a global decentralised autonomous community for solving problems? It sounds a bit like a gig economy, but an intentional one that self-mobilises with purpose. If you like, it’s a transition from a power-based system of corporations (and other ossified institutions) ruling the world to a civilisation of change agents serving the world.

Of course, there’s no clear picture of how (or whether) investors will support this kind of transition and how regulators and policymakers will respond in an internationally appropriate and consistent manner. No doubt, a great many vested interests with fight this transition too. Nevertheless, I believe that this transition is coming, and coming fast.

This takes me back to a recent conversation with David Korten (author of ‘When Corporations Rule The World’) for my ChangeHackers podcast, in which David reminded me that we can’t take this transition for granted as inevitable, but that we can accelerate its emergence by recognising the value of place-based communities as the building blocks of this transition.

This is hard, granular work, but I believe that our emergent activity around Brightspot communities (e.g. Gulf of Maine, Bay Area, The Balkans) gives us a platform to build proof of concept around a model of collaborative innovation between the Forum community and these pioneering Brightspots.

Tony is also CEO & Co-Founder, One Planet Education Networks; and Founder & Host, ChangeHackers.org

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