The Social Labs Revolution

I spent a nourishing day recently learning about social labs — an extended process to solve complex challenges by gathering diverse stakeholders in an alternating rhythm of meetings and on-the-ground prototyping. In one example, a lab to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy sources brings together utility companies, alternative energy providers, regulatory bodies and end-users. Representatives of these different groups might meet once a month or once a quarter, trying out different possible solutions in between, in a process that can last for a year or a decade or more.

Unlike strategic planning, in which the most likely solution is identified, implemented and then evaluated, the lab process supports ongoing experimentation in search of many possible solutions, with learning and adaptation along the way. The premise is that this is the only viable approach to complex problems like poverty, healthcare, transforming finance and ethnic conflict. Read more

For the past two days, 12 of us gathered in Montreal to explore what happens when the spirit and practice of thrivability meet the world of impact investing.  The group consisted of local business leaders committed to the practice of thrivability; impact investors in search of what else is possible “outside the lines”; and thoughtful explorers and supporters of the emergent future.  Our goal was less to provide definitive answers and more to get something started – to begin to identify key questions for a more extensive exploration. Read more

This is part of a series of harvests from the Thrivable World Quest, a learning adventure across multiple cities to explore how organizations must be if humanity is to survive – and thrive.

On the first “island” of the Thrivable World Quest, we explored the need for Heroic Cause in organizations. And one of the things we discovered is that what’s needed is something that feels quite a lot like a Quest – a little boldness, a lot of determination, a sense of adventure, and a band of people who are resolved to defy the status quo and to overcome the challenges they face, against all odds. Read more

This is part of a series of harvests from the Thrivable World Quest – a learning adventure across multiple cities to explore how organizations must be if humanity is to survive – and thrive.

With the Thrivable World Quest, we’ve embarked on a huge group treasure hunt across multiple cities to explore the conditions needed for organizations to be truly in alignment with how life thrives and how people thrive.  Over ten months, we’ll stop at ten “islands” – different themes that we’ve found to be vital points of leverage in an organization.  On January 23rd, we explored the first island: Heroic Cause.  Our simple starting point in the exploration was the belief that a thrivable organization has to serve some bold Heroic Cause. Read more

Every time I speak to an MBA class about thrivability (as I did recently), it’s only a matter of time before someone asks: how do you measure it?  For some reason, it’s only MBAs who ask this.

As it happens, we hosted a Thrivability Montreal conversation about this question last year, with guest speaker Kristian Gareau, who was doing research on the topic for his Master’s program.  I took detailed notes that evening, but until now I hadn’t yet synthesized them into a blog post.  At the time, it didn’t seem as if we had come to solid enough conclusions, though there were many valuable insights that emerged.  Actually, that may be the conversation’s conclusion in itself: thrivability is measured more in insights than in conclusions.  After answering the MBAs several times since, those insights are finally coming into focus enough to share them here. Read more

Stepping out of the train station in the center of Amsterdam, I was immediately struck by the way the city flows.  “It’s orderly… but organic,” was the thought that came to mind.  There are three times as many bicycles on the road as cars (three times!), and even more pedestrians.  Then there are the busses and the electric trams.  Every centimetre of the city seems to be a swirl of constant motion.  And yet, in the week that I was there, I saw not a single traffic light or stop sign (nor a helmet, in fact, even on children).  It should have been rampant chaos, but instead it was a beautiful, self-organizing dance. Read more

I heard a beautiful story recently – a true story set at the height of World War II during the devastating Siege of Leningrad, when the Germans blockaded and bombed the city for over two years.  The story centers on the famed Hermitage Museum.  To protect the museum’s vast collection of paintings, the curators and docents took them all down from the walls.  But as a sign of their commitment to bring the paintings back, they left the frames in place.  During the siege, many of the staff lived in the museum’s basement.  And astonishingly, at least one continued to give tours to occasional visitors.  He would stand with people in front of the empty frames, describing the missing artwork in such vivid detail that it was as if the paintings were still in place. Read more

I spoke last week at Webcom, a Montreal-based conference about “smart cities” – meaning, those that are connected, informed and creative thanks to digital technology.  The message I shared was that cities are “smartest” when they operate in alignment with Nature’s core operating pattern, and that creating the conditions for life to thrive needs to become the explicit objective of our technology initiatives. Here’s what I said in my five-minute talk. Read more

It’s funny how life works – or I should say: it’s funny how death works.  I had a conversation about organizational hospicing with a friend last week Thursday and then the next day I was presented with an opportunity to practice hospicing in my own life.  My sense in both of these experiences is that there’s something important, potent – and generally overlooked – in that concept. Read more

5 hosts.  6 teams.  35 other cities participating.  48 hours to “rock the public sector.”

Those were the key stats of GovJam Montreal, a global event in which local teams applied the tools of “service design” to conceive and develop viable projects that transform some aspect of public service (meaning: anything that our tax dollars pay for).

I was one of the hosts.  With me were four experts in service design, each as wonderful and generous as the next.  They guided participants in a process of rapid project development that revolved around prototyping and role-playing.  My role was to tend to the flow of the event, to sprinkle strategic bursts of applied improvisation in support of collaboration and creativity, and to help participants notice what they were learning along the way. Read more