Happy World Environment Day: here’s how improvisation can save the world

June 5th, 2012

What does improvisation have to do with the environment?

As it turns out, plenty. We humans are the ones that have tried to tame and control the environment. Nature adapts to what is, and is resilient.

Michelle Holliday explains:

Living systems (like plants and people and companies) appear to be static things, but in fact, it’s more accurate to think of them as pattern and process.  They create themselves continuously through ongoing interaction with their environment.  And their environment is constantly throwing new, unpredictable things at them.  So what do they do?  They respond creatively and collaboratively to unexpected circumstances.  This is how all the parts of your body manage to maintain homeostasis (and you!), for example, even as you spring sudden changes of temperature, strange new foods and weird chemicals on them.  They improvise.

In our bodies and in other living systems, this creative process happens naturally, in the moment.  In our organizations, however, we’ve short-circuited this instinct, choosing instead to stiffly predict and control.  But our capacity to improvise is not lost completely.  It resurfaces in rare moments of peak performance that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”  In these moments, he says, “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  What he’s describing is nothing other than improvisation at its best.

So how can improv save the world? I’m going to hand that question to Belina Raffy who answers in this wonderful pecha kucha talk. Belina believes, and I agree with her, that

…the overarching problems humanity faces are so complex and require such a high degree of creativity, collaboration and inspiration that improv may be the only effective means of solving them.  Rational, linear, individually-generated solutions are simply not up to the task.  The challenge will be to find ways to play together even in the face of unthinkable disaster.

So on this World Environment Day, take a few minutes to watch this video and ponder how improv can indeed save the world! Belina’s definition of improv is worth pondering too: “co-creating joyfully, under pressure, an emergent narrative together.” Yeah.

If you’re in the southern hemisphere, we’re coming together for two days in July in Melbourne to further explore how the principles and practices of improv can be applied – to help save the world, and more! Want to join us? More information here. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, check out Thrivability Montreal.

Look! Out there, and all around us, for ideas, answers and solutions

November 24th, 2010

Above and Beyond

A weekly exploration of creativity – or something just ‘out there’

Biomimicry. If you’ve never heard the term before check out this TED video by Janine Benyus. The premise is that we live in a competent universe. Just about anything we want to do has already been done – by nature. Take spring for example (not a spring, although I’m sure there’s plenty of examples in nature for that). Spring. The season that comes after winter. Imagine designing spring, says Janine. Imagine indeed. Further, she says, imagine designing spring without policies, and committees, and protocols? Indeed.

Someone once said: maybe we just need to get out of our own way.

And when we’re stuck (a symptom of being in our own way) maybe we should take on the biomimicry mantra and ask ourselves: how would nature solve this?

Sustainable is Attainable

August 11th, 2010

In May, I was involved in a conference called Show Me The Change – all about sustainability, evaluation, behaviour change and complexity. There were lots of expectations regarding the conference and its outcomes. But here’s one that was probably unexpected.

It was a conference about sustainability, so we concluded that the conference itself should be as sustainable as possible. A no-brainer really. It was catered for by students from Swinburne University and it seems they were inspired. So inspired that they have since created this event called Sustainable is Attainable.

Here’s the details. If you’re in Melbourne this August try to get along.

Mecanix Restaurant and Swinburne Event Management class, Derby, are holding a sustainable dinner called ‘Sustainable is Attainable’.

Our dinner is to promote a healthy lifestyle that is ethical and environmentally friendly to the planet and our lives. The night will serve a three-course meal as well as tea and coffee and a presentation on how to live a sustainable life. Lucky door prizes will also be up for grabs. ‘Sustainable is Attainable’ is being held on both Tuesday 17th and Tuesday 24th of August at Mecanix training Restaurant (located on the Prahran campus of Swinburne) Building PE 144 High St Prahran.

Tickets are $27.50 and doors open at 6.30pm.

Booking are essential – please contact Mary Zougoulos on 92146589 or email Mary on mzougoulos@swin.edu.au.

A simple solution to a complex problem?

May 18th, 2010

Southern Australia, and especially where I live, is particularly bush fire prone. Bush fires start often from lightening strikes. Not much you can do about that except be prepared. In February 2009, the weather gods conspired to create conditions that we now describe as catastrophic – extremely hot and windy, nearly non-existent humidity. It was a horrible day and had tragic consequences. Bush fires wiped out entire towns, many people died, wildlife and stock also perished. A single day changed the lives of many people.

People rallied. Money was raised. Lives rebuilt. Others may never recover. The media had a proverbial field day, the recriminations began…and continue. Formal and informal investigations try to find the ‘answer’ – how to avoid a repeat. No-one wants to be in such circumstances. No-one wants to die in a bush fire. I don’t. I have a bushfire plan. I think I know what I’d do, but the only way to really know is to actually experience a bush fire. I’m happy to live with not knowing. I’m happy to have a plan that I never need use. I’m happy to live with the uncertainty and the knowledge that one day, I too may have to face a catastrophic bush fire.

I’m not happy to let it rule my life though. To give up the reasons why I choose to live where I do on the slim chance that I can tame, even avoid, the consequences of living with nature. I like living with nature. I like birdwatching. I like seeing the changing seasons, watching plants grow, discovering orchids, noticing the small things.

So I’m devastated at the recent ‘asset protection works’ done in the Ironbark Basin, near where I live. This is a small native reserve dominated by Red Ironbark trees, and is significant for its vegetation and history. Bulldozers moved in a few weeks ago and cleared a swathe of undergrowth supposedly to protect private homes that abut the reserve. Larger trees remain, so any devastating fire will crown anyway. Sure, I’m no expert on fire management or behaviour. I simply have a feeling in my gut that this is overkill. The ground has been laid bare. The winter rains will cause erosion. The understory vegetation may recover in time, or maybe not.

It seems to be a case of being ‘seen’ to be effective. Matthew May in his book In Pursuit of Elegance writes that we humans face two major obstacles when we try and solve problems. The first is acting – we favour doing something; and the second is adding – doing more must be better. The problem with this is that now it’s done, we can stop looking for other solutions. Problem solved! This, however, is not a simple cause and effect relationship. The ecosystem and human inhabitants and users form a complex web of needs that can’t be satisfied with a single solution of clearing the undergrowth. Dave Snowden uses his Cynefin framework to explore how we might respond when faced with complexity (where we might see the effects before we know the cause): we need to Probe – Sense – Respond, applying multiple small and diverse interventions to create options. The Ironbark Basin ‘asset management works’ is an example of applying a solution to what is considered a simple, maybe even complicated, situation where standard procedures and analytical information suggests what should be done. Only problem is, it’s complex. And the consequences will be as unpredictable as any fire that may race through the area in the future.

Time well spent

November 21st, 2009

Here’s some images from my recent trip to the US. I was there on holidays, and to attend the Applied Improv Conference in Portland, Oregon.


The highlights were the scenery, autumn colours, fresh snow, Yosemite (wow!), indulging my passion for photography, sharing the improv conference with my good friends Anne Pattillo, Geoff Brown and Chris Corrigan and the deepening friendships that develop from shared experiences, seeing Geoff and Chris improvise music on stage in Portland, and reconnecting with old friends. There were also some people I missed, and some new friendships forged, many ideas, time to reflect, laugh, and re-energise. Time well spent indeed.


August 12th, 2009

WattleIt looks like spring around here. The swallows are back and are renovating last year’s nest. The honeyeaters are collecting dog hair and spider web for their nests. Whales are on the move. And the humans come out of hiding from our short winter and start walking on the beach, along the cliff tops – and spend leisurely hours enjoying the sun in outdoor cafes. Until clouds roll in and a brief shower sends everyone scuttling for cover and diving into their bags for that scarf as cold air sweeps away the brief warmth.

A lot of my inspiration comes from nature, and luckily there’s a lot of it around here! Observing the shifts and changes in the local environment hones my observation skills, enables me to notice what’s going on. Seeing patterns in nature – often only visible over a number of seasons – helps me be aware of the patterns embedded in complexity. And being a part of the environment, rather than apart from it, reminds me of the interconnectedness of what we do.

Where do you get your inspiration?

You say tomato, I say…

August 3rd, 2009

A friend, who shall remain nameless for the time being, wrote an update on Facebook the other day saying she had just bought a new bathing suit. Now apart from the fact that I am insanely jealous of seemingly EVERYONE ELSE in the world who is taking holidays right now, and I’m not, this little update got me thinking about language.

Bathing suit. In Australia that translates as bathers.

Swimming costume. Well, that’s obviously a cossie.

Then there’s swimmers, togs, Speedos, boardies and for men only, budgie smugglers.

I can’t stress how important it is to clarify the meaning of words. As I work more and more internationally, I find myself asking time and again: ‘what do you mean when you say [insert word]’?

The more abstract the word, the more likely there is to be misunderstanding. I was once travelling through corn country in the US, from Indianapolis to Chicago. I was on an agricultural journalists’ tour. It was a lot of fun, there we were, a bunch of agricultural journos from around the world doing a road trip through wide open spaces, stopping to visit farmers. And the most amazing corn factory. They made everything out of corn. There were corn pens, and paper, and oil, and food. As far as I know the whole building was made of corn. But I digress. Apart from my accent meaning I was virtually unintelligible, obviously my questions made little sense too. We were visiting a farmer who had reclaimed a lot of marshy country. The water was collected into drains and flowed away. I asked where? He looked at me as if I was from another planet and answered, away. Obvious really. Then I asked about biodiversity. And his reply was that he grew corn and beans. Well, that’s OK then!

Over dinner one night I found myself having a heated discussion with a local journalist about organic agriculture. I don’t remember much, except the moment when I asked ‘what do you actually mean by organic?’ That’s when we discovered we were talking about two completely different things. There was some confusion regarding organic and biodynamic. Anyway, the lesson stuck. I’m reminded of this any time I ask someone what they mean by consensus, or outcome, or sustainable or even workshop! Or heaven forbid, facilitation.

It pays to clarify meaning, and simply illuminates how our different experiences manifest in the language we use.

Some reflections on the bushfire recovery process

June 23rd, 2009

iStock_Bark after fire

It’s nearly five months on from the Victorian bushfires that claimed many lives, homes, livlihoods, habitat, livestock and wildlife. I don’t live in the affected area. I’ve done a few workshops with people who do, and with people who have been affected indirectly.

I’ve seen some of the effects – physical and emotional. I’ve seen the blackened trees, felt the stillness, and the emptiness. Yet have been surprised by the resilience of nature, as the sound of a single bird fills the void and the sight of new, green shoots seems to sprout as I watch. I’ve listened to stories and to accusations, to questions and to answers. I’ve seen multiple emotions cross people’s faces in a moment. And I’ve seen great pain and great joy.

I’ve read reports of the inquiries. I’ve listened to people recount their stories. I’ve heard analysis. I’ve heard blame. And I’ve heard thanks. Directly and mediated.

And most poignant of all, to me, are pleas from people rebuilding their lives for ongoing support. Not for more money, although that helps; not for more visits from the agencies, although it’s good to know they haven’t been forgotten; not from tourists, although it’s good have their money flowing into the affected communities. Sometimes they don’t even have the words. They want their community back. They want the connection. The feeling of belonging.

I can’t give them what they want. Nor can anyone else.  This has to come from within. Community-building is community-centric. The time for facilitators from outside of these communities is passing quickly, although we can still provide valuable support through training, coaching and mentoring. In the end though, it will be up to these reinvented, fledging communities to bring their own groups together to re-build local capacity, and resilience. And a sense of belonging again.

This week’s cool links

June 13th, 2009
  • This simple idea is so effective, and creative – love it! Thanks to Patti for the link.

  • Les Posen is a fan of Keynote and audience-centred slideshows (as am I, and that’s where the similarities end!). I aspire to his level of understanding and competence with Keynote. This is is an interesting post about his recent meeting with the Keynote developers. Here’s a few bits to whet you appetite:

…my take on presentations was both complementary to Garr [Reynolds] and Nancy [Duart], but also came from a different place, away from designper se, and more from human learning and the brain sciences.

I showed how contemporary media are employing some of the graphical designs I too employ in my slide construction, and why.

What’s at the heart of Presentation 2.0? Think for a moment where we are now with Web 2.0. There is a direct line between service and product provider, and consumer, such that consumers or end users can blog, or tweet, or facebook about providers and influence the decisions of other potential consumers. We get valid information about product reliability for instance from bloggers and commenters on blogs, as much as we do from mainstream media reviewers. Think about the reviews you read on Amazon which includes “official” editorial contributions and reviews by purchasers, perhaps much more like us, and thus to be considered more reliable than biased writers.

Put these the concepts together, as I did to the KN team, and you come up with two properties in short supply currently (or more than ever before): Authenticity (who do you trust) andAttention (who should I attend to, given competing sources of information and competition for my time?).

I wanted the Keynote team to understand that when I construct my slides these two ideas stay in my mind, and they are more to do with my audience than they are with me. I need to establish my Authority and Authenticity for my audience to keep engaged, and I need to know how the brain works, so that despite my endeavours to increase the former two A’s, I embrace the challenges to the other A, Attention, which can wander due to how our brains function.

I spoke of these concepts early in my presentation, because it helps explain why I choose to perform certain slide constructions, and how I contemplate the intended impact on particular audiences.  Now I don’t know how any individuals in the KN team responded to my audience-centric approach, but I do know on occasions in responding to their questions, I had to work a little to get my point across, given the team is very much about the end user experience. But in my case the end user is myaudience, and Keynote merely a tool to achieve a particular series of effects upon my audience.

  • And if I had the means, maybe I should introduce Graeme Pearman to Les Posen. Graeme Pearman is one of Australia’s most eminent scientists with an international reputation in climate science. I heard him speak once. There was no doubt about the veracity of his science, the urgency of his message and power of his evidence. Pity about the powerpoint preso though! There’s an article in todays’ Melbourne Age newspaper by Jo Chandler (yep, I still read newspapers) that explore’s Dr Pearman’s excursion into behavioural science to try and understand our inaction on the climate change message. Here’s a taster:

[Pearman] had a revelation. He had  been suffering under the delusion that as knowledge of the physical world improves, ratoionalt-based information would lead to rational responses to such threats as climate change.

What behavioural scientists tell us is that rationality is circumstantially based. So what is rational to me is not rational to the next person because they come from a different circumstance. They also tell us that when we are confronted by a threat such as climate change, people experience many alternative emotions, and employ different coping mechanisms. The anxious might deny; the sad might avoid; the hopeless become resigned; the frustrated, cynical; the depressed, skeptical; the angry, just fed up.

New thinking

April 15th, 2009

For many years now I’ve had this Arthur Schopenhauer quote as part of my email signature:

“Thus, the task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees.” 

This TED video captures exactly that! This gives me faith that we can yet save the planet.