Collective visioning and design conversations change culture

Vision without action is useless. But action without vision does not know where to go or why to go there. Vision is absolutely necessary to guide and motivate action. More than that, vision, when widely shared and firmly kept in sight, brings into being new systems.
Donella Meadows et al. (1992: 224)

Any activity that involves a community, a business or an entire region in an open dialogue aiming to envision a more desirable future is the beginning of a design conversation that has the potential to become culturally transformative.

Visioning invites us to not be restrained by the limitations we perceive in the status quo and to let go of linear predictions of what our ‘unavoidable’ future will be like on the basis of yesterday’s and today’s prevalent trends.

Visioning opens up a space where we can have a multi- stakeholder conversation about the future we want, where we can design an ideal future and set clear intentions for what we would like to co-create.

Visions can serve as lighthouses that guide us towards a regenerative culture. Just as lighthouses are rarely the point of arrival, but only the beacons that direct us towards a goal that lies beyond them, so our current visions of regenerative cultures are unlikely to be accurate reflections of the regenerative culture we will co-create during the 21st century. Visioning together can serve as a catalyst for collective intelligence engaging all of us in a design-based conversation about a more meaningful and healthier future. Visioning processes educate and transform those involved in co-creating them.

The point is not to create a fixed vision. If we are truly ‘living the questions’ as we approach what we have envisioned, the vision will continue to evolve. Nevertheless, visions can help us to make sure we are going in roughly the right direction. It is important to understand that in the process of creating a vision of a sustainable community, society and civilization we should not be restricted by what may be perceived right now as insurmountable obstacles.

The initial formulation of a vision has to be idealistic, creative, poetic, aesthetic, ethical, intuitive and imaginative. The process of creating it has to be inclusive, collaborative, non-dogmatic and participatory. The design conversations that are part of the visioning process invite us to listen to multiple perspectives, value the contribution of diverse points of view, and co-create the common ground from which we can move forward together, with mutual understanding and respect.

Reasoning from only one particular perspective should not restrict the integrative and participatory process of creating the initial vision. First, the best-case scenario, the win- win-win optimal future state has to be clearly envisioned. This creates a collective goal desirable to everyone and provides the basis for engaging the participation of diverse stakeholders in the long-term process of turning such a vision into reality through appropriate design.

While scenario planning and forecasting are ways to look at the trends we observe in the present and extrapolate them to the future, the visioning process first creates an ideal future state as clearly as it can be envisioned collectively. Only after the vision has been formulated in detail do we ask the question how we might get there, back-casting from that vision to establish a series of milestone achievements in the transition from today’s ‘business as usual’ to the full manifestation of our vision. Here are some questions that can help guide an effective visioning process:

Have we identified the appropriate representatives of each stakeholder group that needs to be present in order to create an inclusive vision?

What are the different issues we need to include in our process of co- creating the vision in order to shape a comprehensive vision?

How does the positive vision of the future we co-created differ from the status quo of today?

Are we ensuring that our vision is not limited by our current, culturally dominant narrative and that it is based on the values we aspire to?

What are our basic guiding values as we aim to achieve our vision, and what might the milestones along the way look like?

What are the actionable steps that we can implement ourselves at the local level to manifest our vision step by step?

Is our vision desirable environmentally, socially and economically; and is it meaningful to all stakeholders?

Whether in corporate boardrooms, government think tanks or community groups, the visioning and back-casting process is already being used effectively. The impact of this work will be even more culturally transformative when we apply these processes in teams that include members of each of these different sectors of society. The workshops of the transition town movement, for example, include future state visioning and back-casting along a timeline to help people envision the future of their community, town, or neighbourhood in transition. Unfortunately it is rare for representatives of all the different sectors to attend such workshops.

Likewise, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has created a bold Vision 2050 — The New Agenda For Business (WBCSD, 2010) which details a series of ‘must haves’ (milestones) at certain points along the way which are necessary to achieve that vision. Bob Horn, a member of the International Futures Forum, summarized the content of this work as a timeline mural which can be downloaded on the WBCSD website along with a more detailed report.

The initiative has many merits and highlights important issues that are helping to educate business leaders in a more systemic perspective of sustainability, yet the report has its own shortcomings as it has been created within a closed community of business leaders and lacked the participation of more diverse, cross- sector contributors in the initial visioning process. The report is an example of trying to solve our problems within the mindset that created them. It does not sufficiently question the underlying assumptions and the dominant worldview that informed the Vision 2050. Nevertheless, the ‘must haves’ invite business leaders to ask important questions:

How do we incorporate the costs of ‘externalities’, like carbon emissions, ecosystems functions and water, into the structure of the marketplace?

How do we double agricultural output without increasing the amount of land and water used for agricultural production?

How do we stop deforestation globally and increase the yields from planted forests?

How do we halve carbon emissions worldwide (based on 2005 levels) by 2050 through a shift to low-carbon energy systems?

How do we improve demand-side energy efficiency, and provide universal access to low-carbon mobility?

There are many visions of a more sustainable world. Maybe we can learn from all of them. They range from the Earth Charter’s vision of globally shared human values, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the ‘Future we really want’ outlined by the Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity, to Leister Brown’s continuously up-dated ‘Plan B’, and visionary proposals for global systems changes made by Ross Jackson (2012), Albert Tullio Lieberg (2010), Roy Madron & John Jopling (2003) and others. These visions and strategies for the transition to a sustainable civilization are excellent starting points for living the questions together and initiating design conversations in our communities and businesses and with our political representatives.

[This section was edited out by my editor at Triarchy Press:

A good example of a regionally focused visioning project involving a wide diversity of stakeholders is the ‘Dreaming New Mexico’ process initiated by Bioneers. Similar processes need to occur in regions everywhere! We need local, regional and global visions of what a thriving future might look like and how we might create networks of collaboration so that regenerative cultures at different scales can mutually reinforce and support each other.

Starting in 1994, Maurice Strong (Secretary-General of Rio’92) and Mikhail Gorbachev (as co-founder of Green Cross International) led an international process that resulted in the publication of the Earth Charter in 2000 as a “shared vision of basic values to provide an ethical foundation for the emerging world community” based on i) respect and care for the community of life, ii) ecological integrity, iii) social and economic justice, and iv) democracy, non-violence and peace.

The Earth Charter has now been widely endorsed, but is not an official United Nations document endorsed by its member states like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Since Rio+20, the UN’s process of expanding and reframing the MDGs has involved thousands of people from all over the globe and has resulted in the proposal of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Open Working Group, 2014), which will inform the official post-2015 UN development goals.

The Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity (ASAP) founded in 2013 aims to “facilitate the global movement to craft a sustainable future by: i) bringing together parties interested in redefining the relationship between humans, economic life and nature, and ii) serving as a collective forum for information, debate and exchange”. Its members, who include thought leaders like Robert Costanza, Frances Moore Lappé, Hunter Lovins and Richard Wilkinson, have offered a response to the less than satisfying progress the world community made at the Rio+20 summit in a document intended to catalyze a deeper conversation about the future we really want.

It offers a vision for a new development paradigm that aims to achieve “equitable and sustainable well-being of human beings and the rest of nature” by “refocusing our attention on the ultimate purpose of economic life” and “systematically transforming business as usual to put people and the ability of natural systems to sustain them first” (Costanza et al., 2013). The document details a series of general requirements and strategies for achieving these aims. It lists several specific objectives in each of these areas: well-being and happiness, ecological sustainability, equitable societies, sustainable economies, and thriving inclusive communities. I encourage you to explore this vision document for yourself and to use it to start design conversations that can educate and transform your local culture and community.

In their 30 years up-date to Limits to Growth, Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows observed that “a sustainable world can never be fully realized until it is widely envisioned” and “such a vision must be built up by many people before it is complete and compelling” (Meadows et al., 2005: 273). They offer a start at such a process by listing a number of characteristics of a sustainable society (273–274).

Albert Tullio Lieberg has applied his 20-year experience in international development, multilateral cooperation projects and activism to formulating a vision of and roadmap to a “globally renewed society” in The System Change (Tullio-Lieberg, 2010).

Ross Jackson’s Occupy World Street — A global roadmap for radical economic and political reform (2012) outlines a sustainable “Gaian World Order” based on a redesign and restructuring of global institutions, rooted in “the oneness of all planetary life” and the “emerging holistic worldview”. Ross suggests a “break-away strategy” by which a pioneering group of nations would form a “Gaian League” to cooperate in prototyping viable alternatives to existing global institutions by establishing a “Gaian Trade Organization”, a “Gaian Clearing Union”, and a “Gaian Development Bank”, inviting all UN member states to join.

In their 2003 Schumacher Briefing Roy Madron and John Jopling proposed a globally collaborative network of Gaian Democracies beyond the “imperatives of the debt-based money system”, “placing responsibility for decision-making at the level of the holon and the holarchies”, and “shaped by the participative processes through which Gaian citizens have been thinking, acting and learning together” (2003: 126).

Leister Brown has been a tireless advocate for ‘Plan B’ — a rapid transition towards a more sustainable future, keeping his detailed vision of how this transition can be achieved up-dated regularly (eg: Plan 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, 2009; and the Earth Policy Institute’s ‘Plan B Updates’).

Robert Gilman, whose Context Institute has informed and inspired leaders of positive global change for over three decades, has recently launched The Foundation Stones Project to offer a core curriculum for 21st century change agents in the transition “from the Empire Era to the Planetary Era”. We need to build a vision of life in the planetary era.]

Collective visioning processes, structured through design conversations about the future we want to create together, need to take place in as many different contexts and locations as possible. The more diverse the participants in these processes, the richer the learning will be. Through collective visioning we can change the way we see the world around us. We can become hopeful again, inspired by the many opportunities for thriving together rather than struggling alone. Together we can co-design prototype expressions of this ‘new story’ which make us experience the benefits of regenerative cultures (H3 pockets of the future in the present).

Social technologies that can be used to facilitate collective visioning and design conversations include the Bioneers’ ‘Dreaming New Mexico’ methodology, the IFF’s World Game and Three Horizons framework; future oriented versions of World Café (Brown et al., 2005), John Crofts’ ‘Dragon Dreaming’ process, Otto Scharmer’s ‘U process’, the Elos Institute’s ‘Oasis Game’, and Adam Kahane’s ‘transformative scenario planning’ (2012). All of these processes can be engaging ways to learn from diversity and build communities of collaboration based on a shared understanding of the vast opportunities that lie in the transition towards regenerative cultures.

Culture evolves in conversations that help us question assumptions, evaluate our perspective, consider other points of view, inquire into meaning, and find shared values and intentions. These shared values and intentions form the basis for us to engage in co- designing our collective future. The mere act of engaging in transition design conversations with others is culturally creative. By learning from multiple perspectives, we learn to co-create a deeper systemic understanding. We begin to co-design our future together and thereby contribute to the emergence of regenerative cultures.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

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