By Steve Hamm
If you had been dropped by a time machine into the middle of a Zoom call on April 13, 2020, you might have wondered what on earth was going on. It was a diverse crowd in some ways — perhaps 20 people in all. Among them was Awraham Soetendorp, a reconciliation advocate in the Netherlands who had been one of the “Hidden Children” sheltered from the Nazis in Christian homes during World War II. Sarah Joseph, wearing a hijab, is an English writer and broadcaster who had converted from Catholicism to Islam at age 16. Frank Dabba Smith, an American rabbi living in London, is an advocate for peace in the Middle East and a historian of photography. Mama D Ujuaje, originally from Africa, is a chef and teacher who described herself elsewhere as a “plant whisperer.”
The participants touched on a wide variety of topics, ranging from the coronavirus and its impact on people around them to systems thinking, a method of understanding how the world works, to Doughnut Economics, an approach to measuring the sustainability of economic systems.
What connected everybody on the Zoom call was the fact that they were people of faith and they were participants in Pivot Projects. This was the first meeting of the Faiths workstream, and it was typical of the first meetings of a number of the project’s workstreams: There were a lot of introductions and exploratory conversations. Also typical was the fact that participants quickly elevated their observations to the level of the heartfelt and the profound.
Awraham, for instance, had been involved in a successful campaign by faiths leaders in the Netherlands to pressure the government to set aside 500 million Euros to support refugees in the Middle East and Africa. Its aims dovetailed with those of Pivot Projects — to help set humanity on a more humane path. “We are making plans to try to change the interface of the earth. I hope we will come together and fructify. I believe the world is ready for it,” Awraham said. He urged people to keep their minds open. “By listening to each other, we’re listening to God,” he said. “God tells us that we may not be able to reach our goal but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to do everything we can to try to reach it. Let us not be dismayed. Listen to the still voice. It will enter into us and give us strength.”
That was one of the first meetings of the Pivot Projects that I had attended after a former colleague of mine, Colin Harrison, invited me to join the group in a highly unusual role — that of embedded journalist. I knew Colin from when we worked together at IBM on the company’s Smarter Planet campaign. When LinkedIn alerted me in late March that he was a co-leader of a project focused on achieving environmental sustainability and resilience post COVID-19, I reached out to him immediately. In short order I was embedded, and a few weeks later I had a handshake agreement with an editor at Columbia University Press to develop a book about the initiative, to be called The Pivot.
The project, launched last March, is a global collaboration aimed at taking a fresh look at saving the planet in the midst of the COVID crisis using a systems approach. A group of volunteers numbering more than 200 at its peak broke up into workstreams to explore the intersections of natural and human-made systems including Sustainable Infrastructure, Finance, Urban Systems, Mobility, Water & Waste, and Agriculture & Food. To create a holistic take on the way the world works, the subgroups also included the humanities, among them Faiths, Education, and Arts & Culture. The plan was for the volunteers to create models of these systems, feed them into an AI machine made by an Israeli company, SparkBeyond, to discover new solutions to our sustainability problems, and then engage with cities and regions to put the ideas to work.
That Faiths group Zoom call that I sat in on was just a taste of things to come. The early meetings were often wonderful, free-flowing discussions. In some ways, they were like cocktail parties at the faculty club of a university — a bunch of interesting people were thrown into a virtual room together and they had a great time getting to know one another. The calls were also touchingly personal, at times. Participants talked about their children and grandchildren, and about their love for the planet and humanity. Alan Dean, who headed the Education workstream, once commented: “My daughter asks me why I get involved in all of this enviro stuff,” he said. “I tell her, ‘I’m not leaving you the house, but I want to leave you something more important: hope.’”
At other times, the volunteers struggled to get their heads around the enormity of their task. Would they actually be able to create comprehensive models of large swaths of human activity? How do you choose just 100 words to begin to represent an entire domain of knowledge in all of its complexity? What questions would they ask an AI machine and what answers would they get?
That was particularly challenging for the Faiths group. An initial round of brainstorming produced more than 500 key words. On further reflection, they decided they were missing some and swelled their list to more than 1000. Then they became brutally reductive and shrank the list back to 75. Then they expanded it back to about 125. Most of the groups came face to face with one of the main challenges of collaboration in the digital age: the fact that the work of the hive brain can be messy and exhausting.
The Zoom meetings themselves were more often great fun. You met all sorts of people and they called in from all over. One participant, Ian Mabbett, a chemistry professor in the United Kingdom, sometimes dialed in from a caravan in his driveway. Another participant, Manish Sah, a student in Kathmandu, Nepal, called in using a borrowed smartphone. You could see the Himalayas behind him. Richard MacCowan, a Scot with expertise in biomimicry, appeared in a tiny, well-lit room where he was surrounded by 27 house plants. He once demonstrated to a small group how you can drop a banana peel into a jar of water and two days later water your plants with the nutritious liquid.
The weekly all-hands meetings frequently featured exercises aimed at fostering camaraderie and generating ideas. During one meeting, the participants divided up into small groups and were tasked with creating “stories” aimed at convincing people to join the global environmental movement. In one of the breakouts, Shulamit Morris-Evans, an educator in London, wrote the lyrics to a song in about five-minutes flat, “We’re Here to Change the World.” Then she sang the lyrics to the tune of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from the musical My Fair Lady.
The volunteer staffing of Pivot Projects was dynamic. Some of the high-profile friends of the founders faded out after a couple of weeks — too busy or not interested. Meanwhile, there was a small but steady stream of new volunteers. People invited their friends, their work and professional colleagues, and, sometimes, random strangers.
Richard, leader of the Ecology and Planetary Health workstream, scouted for new members when he attended webinars on related topics sponsored by other organizations. He would write down the contact information for others who were on the calls and email them later with an invitation to join Pivot Projects. It was in this way that he recruited nearly a dozen people to his workstream — many of them from India.
Richard was one of perhaps two dozen people who had an extreme passion for the project and put an immense amount of time into it. These people joined multiple workstreams and could be counted on to show up for the Friday all-hands meetings.
From the start, though, the pool of volunteers skewed older, white, male, and Northern European and North American. That was a problem. How can you develop practical solutions to address the world’s problems if many types of people and places in the world were underrepresented or not present at all? Efforts to bring in young people were successful to some extent. The project attracted young folks from India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and some countries in Africa, in addition to Northern Europeans and Americans. However, while a few of the young people were outspoken and engaged, others, especially those from developing nations, tended to hang back. They faced language barriers and Internet connectivity challenges.
To me, it seemed like the people who joined Pivots Project were on a quasi-religious pilgrimage. They wrestled with some of the big questions of humanity. Why are we here? Do we have a purpose? What do we owe to one another? The questions were so enormous that it was difficult to achieve clarity of purpose sometimes.
Gamelilhe Sibanda, a UN Chief Technical Advisor working in South Africa, had an epiphany one day that brought him clarity. He had grown up in a rural part of Zimbabwe very close to nature. The community had a sustainable coexistence with wild animals and derived most of their natural health remedies from the forest. He had always thought of nature as something to be saved. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and while volunteering for Pivot Projects, though, he had a different thought. “It was my aha! moment,” he said later. “I realized the planet doesn’t need to be saved. We need to save ourselves from extinction. If we went extinct, the planet would heal quickly.”
That’s my big takeaway from being embedded in Pivot Projects. Our most important task as humans is to save our species from extinction. The 200-or-so-people who joined the project are paddling furiously to turn the ship of society in a more sustainable direction. They could use a lot more volunteers to join the greater cause and contribute in some way — ideally billions of you.
Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker living in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. This essay is adapted from the manuscript of The Pivot, the book he’s writing about Pivot Projects.