Archives for April 2013

Lost Dogs and Learnings for Localising Sustainability

Maggie, the original 'face' of the Lost Dogs of Adelaide Facebook page

My border collie, Maggie – the original ‘face’ of Lost Dogs of Adelaide

Here is a tale of how connecting and communicating through social media to reunite lost dogs and their owners created something unexpected, and how it can apply to developing communities for sustainability (or communities for anything else).

Being a dog-lover, and having had one too many experiences of encountering dogs on the loose late at night, or near traffic, I decided to create a Facebook page as a way to do something about it. The idea was that it would act as a virtual stobie pole (aka telegraph pole), where people could post ‘lost dog’ notices, and it could have a much wider reach than physical flyers in a limited location.

It emerged out of a frustration of not being able to call on someone who could help secure dogs when I wasn’t able – spotting dogs from a bus, or not being able to catch them at 2am, not knowing which Council’s dog catcher to call, on what number, or even if they would come out in the early hours.

So ‘Lost Dogs of Adelaide’ (LDOA) was born in October 2010 as a page. It quickly built a following of over 300 from my friends and members of a previous LDOA group (established before Facebook invented its pages, which offer a lot more functionality than groups). But with all my other commitments, I knew after only a month I couldn’t do the page justice with the time commitment that would be required to manage what I envisioned it could become, and how it would need to be run.

I put a call out via the page for someone to take it over. A young vet nurse from country South Australia responded, and said although she was not familiar with how to run pages, she could give it a go.

With a handful of tips and instructions from me, she built the page, developed collaborative relationships with other relevant Facebook page admins, sourced a double-digit team of volunteer admins to help manage the rapid growth and level of interaction and before long the page was at critical mass – people weren’t just posting pleas for help about lost dogs, cats and other animals, but were now actually starting to find them through the page (including a budgie just yesterday!).

screenshot of online news story about LDOA reuniting pets and owners

click image, then click again, for higher res screen shot

As at April 2013, there are almost 17,000 followers of the page (in a city of 1 million), 8 admins who organise themselves into ‘shifts’ so that someone is ‘on deck’ to manage the incoming flow of information and reshare it, and hundreds of animals have been reunited as a direct result of the page.

Along with its intended purpose of reuniting lost pets with owners, LDOA is also a conduit for a wide array of community announcements, from microchipping days and reminders about the importance of desexing, to fireworks and thunderstorm warnings.

In addition, some unexpected and lovely things have emerged:

  • people have taken it on themselves to go and help search for the pets of complete strangers, even late at night, when animals have been spotted and reported as on the loose or injured in their area
  • the page ethos is to keep lost animals’ pictures in albums and report back on outcomes of animals lost or found, and to let people know if they were reunited or returned home safe, or sadly, if they have ‘gone to the rainbow bridge‘ – people are following the stories of particular dogs, cats, situations; often people will come back to a post of an animal whose story they are following and ask for updates!
  • followers express both their joy for pets safely reunited, and their sorrow for the loss of a loved pet, creating a community of support and empathy for the owner
  • people have collected injured or deceased animals from the side of the road that they have been alerted to via the page, and taken them to a vet or animal shelter so that the owner has a chance of finding them (and getting closure in the case of deceased pets)
  • the admins and followers have ‘crowd sourced’ funding for six microchip scanners, whose custodians are located across the north, south, east and west of Adelaide, so that found, injured or deceased pets can be quickly identified, especially after hours
  • the page has driven off-line connections and friendships – personally, I have met with three (now past) page admins

ldoa Facebook page screen shot

Lost Dogs of Adelaide meets people’s need of finding, or at least putting the information out to find, their furry friends in what has become the recognised ‘go to’ place for lost pets in Adelaide.

I have lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with random people who I then discover are following the page.

Now, if I had gone to any funding body or authority with this idea, I would have likely had one or all of the following responses:

  • we need a business case/plan
  • we’re not using Facebook, we’ll have to build a custom platform
  • it won’t work, because it crosses jurisdictions and it will be a nightmare to co-ordinate all these local authorities
  • we’ll have to pay people to run it – who will fund this?
  • it won’t be able to be attended outside business hours
  • will costs be allocated according to percentage of dogs lost in each council area?
  • hand-wringing over a plethora of stuff including branding, disclaimers, liability and occupational health and safety

The Lost Dogs folks may not realise it, but they are part of a working peer-to-peer (P2P) community, as Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation explains:

…the internet is creating not just a great horizontalisation in communication, but also new forms of cooperation…it is now possible for people to meet together, declare their joint intention to produce something, and go about organizing this using a combination of ‘virtual’ and ‘physical’ means. These systems are based on people engaging with their passion, ie. doing things they actually want and like to do, to create a community around it…

No government.

No funding applications/competition for funds.

No hoops to jump through.

No bureaucracy.

It. Just. Works.

screenshot of online news story about LDOA reuniting pets and owners

click image, then click again, for higher res screen shot

In my assessment, Lost Dogs of Adelaide has emerged as a stellar example of both community building and social media engagement because it is best practice in both its technical use of social media platforms and how it manages the LDOA community.

In particular, it:

  • reshares content posted or messaged to the page by followers concerning sightings, losts, founds, deceased animals to the page – this is the most critical thing, because if people were simply invited to leave their information on the page wall, it would not appear in the feed of followers, which triggers sharing, likes and responses
  • is using an existing, familiar platform where people already are interacting, and which makes it easy to rapidly share content, especially from mobile devices
  • has proactive volunteer administrators who are committed, organised and professional
  • cross-posts information from other pages, animal shelters and local council pounds on the page, and provides advice on what action to take if a pet is lost (or found)
  • provides a free service, almost 24/7 (the hours of 2am-6am are usually less likely to result in admin support) – no organisation could match what LDOA offers in terms of both temporal and spatial coverage
  • it taps into people’s passion – their animals – and meets a need better than other options in terms of reach, prompt sharing of information, and being free to use

I never realised how many lost animals there were in my city before this page – but more than that, I didn’t realise how an online community could also be a real community that makes a difference in peoples’ lives, and how many kind and selfless people there are who are willing to give their time, attention and help to others.

If all of this can be achieved by a handful of volunteers, on NO budget, in less than three years – what can this same approach do for building peer-to-peer communities for sustainability, or for how government works?

How can the learnings of Lost Dogs be applied in other fields – local food, community currencies, sharing skills? Even if there is some extraordinary level of participation for reasons peculiar to this group, could some of the elements of LDOA be translated to achieving other community goals?

What is possible if we start with what we have – in this case, people’s passion, time, skills, knowledge – instead of focusing on what we don’t have (funding, resources etc), which is a ‘deficit’ model’?

Do you know of any other examples that use the collaborative, on-line approach of Lost Dogs of Adelaide to build communities and achieve positive, ‘real world’, social change?

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Changemaker Profile – Ben Dyson, Founder of Positive Money

headshot of Ben Dyson

This is the third in a series of Changemaker Profiles, which introduces the work of changemakers I know and admire, and offers insights into their approaches to communication and change work.

Ben Dyson is the founder of Positive Money, a not-for-profit research and campaign group working to raise awareness of the connections between our current monetary and banking system and some of our biggest social, economic and environmental challenges.

1. Tell us about the work you are involved with:

My organisation is working to get people to understand how the monetary system currently works and the effect it has on some of the main social and economic issues that we’re facing today.

We focus on raising awareness of the fact that, at the moment, around 97% of all the money that exists is created by banks when they make loans, meaning that it is banks that determine a) how much money there is in the economy, and b) how that money is used.

As well as giving banks the power to shape the economy and making it impossible for us to let them fail, it also has knock-on impacts on issues like indebtedness, inequality, economic instability and the environmental crisis.

2. What motivated you to be doing this work?

By accident, in 2006, I stumbled across a book which talked about these issues. It seemed obvious that the system was structured in such a way that sooner or later it would collapse. In 2007, the collapse started.

Over the first two years of the financial crisis I became more and more frustrated that journalists and politicians seemed to be clueless of the root cause of the financial crisis – the fact that banks had created enough money in 8 years to double the amount of money in the economy, and put most of this money into house price bubbles. The talk was all about the fact that people had borrowed too much and needed to live within their means, but no one was asking questions such as “Where did all this money come from?”

In 2009 I started blogging about this issue on a personal blog, and in 2010 I decided that to have any real impact we’d need to build an organisation. We launched Positive Money in mid 2010.

3. What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

One of the most rewarding aspects is to know that our analysis of the problems with the monetary system can be the missing piece of the puzzle for many social and economic issues that have seemed impossible to solve until now. We often have people telling us that they can finally start to make sense of everything that is going on in the economy and society at the moment, because they understand how finance and money is driving a lot of these problems. Once we understand how money is affecting these issues, it becomes easier to start to find solutions to some of these problems.

It’s also rewarding to see the ideas start to spread further. The chairman of the FSA recently gave a speech making some of the same points that we’ve been arguing, mostly as a lone voice, for the last two and a half years.

4. What do you feel is your biggest communication challenge?

Money and economics can be a very dry subject that seems quite far removed from people’s daily experience.

Our biggest challenge has always been to take out the jargon, make it simple and accessible, and make it relevant to people. I think we’ve managed to make the issue accessible (our videos for example are designed for people with no background in economics, although some of our books and papers are much more ‘in the deep end’, necessarily). But the challenge we’re working on most at the moment is to make it clearer how this is relevant to people’s lives. You might not care directly that money creation by banks can distort prices in the economy until it’s explained that this means you’ll give up an extra 5 years’ income simply to pay for the place where you live.

There are also a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the kind of ideas that we’re talking about. The first is the natural disbelief and the argument that “banks don’t create money”, although this one is easier to deal with now that more and more senior figures are open about the way this system works.

But then amongst those who know a little bit about economics or finance, there are a load more knee-jerk reactions that we have to contend with. The monetary system isn’t simple and it’s easy to very quickly get caught up in technical debates whilst missing the bigger issue of the effect the current system actually has. It’s always a challenge to keep people focussed on the realities of the impact the current system is having, rather than getting stuck in a technical debate about the mechanics of the banking system.

5. How do you handle a situation when you find yourself in conflict with someone about your work or ideas?

I find the best approach is usually to start by trying to see their perspective, rather than getting defensive immediately. Sometimes they do have a point, and we have changed our approach, proposals and messaging in the past to take that into account. The campaign is a lot more effective for taking that feedback on board.

If someone objects to our ideas our first reaction is to make sure they understand them fully. I don’t mind people objecting to something once they’ve read and understood it, and we regularly have fascinating and friendly discussions with people who fundamentally disagree with us. But I find it difficult to have much patience for people who misrepresent or mis-read what we’re suggesting and then start critiquing their own misinterpretation of the ideas. This often happens with other campaigners, politicians or journalists, who manage to form an opinion in a couple of minutes and ignore the fact that we’ve spent 3 years researching this system and looking at the impact it has. In this situation we normally try to meet them in person and find out whether the disagreement is based on misunderstandings, or whether it’s something more fundamental. Quite often these people didn’t fully appreciate the depth of the consequences of the current system.

But we have never expected to be able to get everyone on side with our analysis or proposals, and we don’t try to. The reality is that no major change has been made through complete consensus, so as Churchill suggested, if you haven’t made a few enemies yet you’re probably not making enough of an impact. But we do try to make sure we’re explaining the ideas in the clearest possible way and try to avoid causing confusion.

6. What’s your best piece of advice for change-makers and activists?

1) Spend a lot of time thinking about what will actually make the difference. A lot of campaigners spend a lot of energy doing busy work, when actually only a small amount of that work is effective. We fall into the same trap from time to time and have to keep re-evaluating our projects to make sure we’re always working on the thing that would make the biggest difference. The 80/20 rule applies here.

2) I’m not at all religious but there’s an element of faith in trying to do something this big (as with most campaigns that aim to change something on a huge scale). You do need to plan and figure out a strategy that could be successful, but a lot of the lucky breaks and contacts we’ve made could never have been planned for. A lot of it has just unfolded as we’ve gone on. So you have to some faith that once you start with something like this, even though it won’t be entirely clear how you can get to your end goal, the path will reveal itself bit by bit.

You can read more about the work of Ben and the Positive Money team’s work on their site, or in the book ‘Modernising Money’:

modernising money book cover

Modernising Money: Why Our Monetary System is Broken & How it Can Be Fixed

The product of three years of research and development, these proposals offer one of the few hopes of escaping from our current dysfunctional monetary system. Modernising Money shows how a law first implemented in the UK in 1844 (but never updated) can be combined with reform proposals that grew out of the Great Depression of the 1930s to provide the UK with a stable monetary and banking system, low personal and government debt and a thriving economy.

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Second Nature – Becoming Unconsciously Sustainable

human brain - left half grey cubicle farm, right half colourful image of people in nature

The sustainability and environment movement has long wrung its hands, imploring the world that if only we could live sustainably – mindfully and consciously – we could halt and reverse many of the adverse impacts of un-sustainability.

But I wonder whether becoming ‘consciously sustainable’ may not be the ultimate desired state.

This is just a thought I’ve had for a while – and I recognise that there are a lot of nuances to this within and between cultures and over time, yet I think its a fair, broad brush overview of humanity’s journey.

Once upon a time, we were:

Unconsciously Sustainable

For thousands of years, before human beings were ‘big’ in terms of our numbers, technology and population, we could have been considered as ‘living sustainably’, that is, living within the biological limits of nature.

We might not have been trying to be ‘sustainable’, in fact the very notion of ‘sustainability’ wouldn’t have even been a consideration.

But our impacts were limited, our collective footprint was well within nature’s capacity, and nature’s resources were plentiful. Where there was competition for resources, it would have been localised.

By default, we were unconsciously sustainable. There are small populations of human beings around the world who still live this way.

Then we became:

Unconsciously Unsustainable

It’s difficult to pinpoint when human beings first shifted into becoming unconsciously unsustainable – some would say the onset of the Industrial Revolution, some would argue at the time agriculture was invented.

Was it in the post World War II years with the rise of consumer societies in many parts of the world?

Was it only when we moved into overshoot and became ‘too big’ for the Earth, or was it when we adopted social and technological changes that put us on that trajectory?

At some stage, we transitioned from being sustainable to unsustainable, without realising it.

Many people remain in the phase of being unconsciously unsustainable.

Now we are:

Consciously Unsustainable

It’s also hard to pinpoint where we first became conscious of living unsustainably – when the impacts of pollution from the Industrial Revolution began to be evident? At the start of the 20th century when the nature conservation movement arose? In the mid 20th century with the rise of the environment movement?

Clues lie throughout history where ‘pushback’ can be found – such as the protecting of nature in parks, and the passing of key pieces of legislation such as clean air and water acts.

In any case, we are now more aware than ever of impacts associated with how we live, from climate change and biodiversity (species) loss, to water quality and availability, to overconsumption, sprawl and how all of this affects our health and wellbeing.

Many people are now conscious that, as a species, we are living unsustainably.

A colleague has suggested there is a subspecies of people who are in denial about being unsustainable – but I’m not sure if they fit into unconsciously unsustainable or consciously unsustainable!

So now we’re working towards becoming:

Consciously Sustainable

In a world where unsustainable has become the default way of living, some people have found or chosen ways of living more sustainably than others. Where people have a very small footprint through no choice, this may not be sustainable if their quality of life is adversely impacted eg. being unable to access healthy food or education.

As I noted in Time for Sustainability, asking people to ‘live sustainably’ requires them to make a conscious effort to do something different within existing system conditions. Yet the capacity for the human brain to make millions of decisions each day is limited, and so the brain has adapted with heuristics, which are ‘…mental short cuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision’.

human being looking down into a maze

In short, habit and defaulting to the status quo is easier than the effort required to change behaviour, and habit will generally take precedence over the time and energy needed to blaze new neural pathways.

My concern is – can we expect the vast majority of people to become ‘consciously sustainable’?

What if we could design the world that produces so much ‘unsustainable’ as the default, to instead produce the ‘sustainable’?

Unconsciously Sustainable

Rather than becoming ‘consciously sustainable’, I would argue that the ultimate goal is to come full circle – that we must make choices and design things so that we can’t help but live sustainably, without having to think too much about it.

Living sustainably in a world that has been designed to make it hard to live that way can be a struggle. There’s a lot of extra work and time involved in developing awareness about a plethora of issues, making decisions and pondering the trade offs.

This involves a high level of ecological literacy to begin with, and an understanding of complex systems (how things are connected and impact on each other) rather than a focus on single issues (which can result in adverse, unintended consequences).

Even equipped with this capability, it’s all too likely that you will end up trying to untangle a morass of information, or end up down a technical cul-de-sac wishing someone had written a life cycle analysis where none exists, as I have discovered many times in my work.

How are these things going to translate into people’s everyday lives eg. purchasing decisions in a supermarket, where the buyer is a busy parent trying to pick the most affordable healthy food choices for the family on the whirlwind trip home from work? Labeling systems are one answer in this context, however what happens when labeling systems for different issues clash – should you buy local, or organic? Is an imported product from a water abundant country better or worse than a locally grown product in a water scarce country?

Even for the aware, informed and committed, working out the best choice for every life decision in relation to a range of criteria including but not limited to sustainability, this complexity is exhausting and often overwhelming.

Do we seriously expect people who are less open to, or engaged with sustainability to grapple with it?

We need to make unconsciously sustainable the ‘default’ once more.

This is very much an abstract, philosophical musing, and a clump of thought clay that I have been shaping in my brain – please feel free to critique and reshape.

In researching this piece, I found only one other reference to this idea, Stages in Sustainability Maturity, although the context was that of business and organisational DNA, not humanity as a whole.

What do you think? Is it preferable that we are consciously sustainable, or unconsciously sustainable?

Have you seen other examples of this thinking?

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The Economics of Happiness – Strengthening the Localisation Movement

conference flyer with headshots of speakers

I recently had the marvellous privilege of attending The Economics of Happiness Conference in Byron Bay, Australia (15-17 March 2013).

This event was convened by Helena Norberg-Hodge, director (along with Steven Gorelick, and John Page) of the 2011 documentary film of the same name, produced by the International Society for Ecology and Culture.

The intent of these gatherings, the first of which was held in Berkeley, California in 2012, is to develop and strengthen the localisation movement internationally.

Key thinkers and activists from around the world, Australian activists and change agents and Byron locals convened to learn from each other, share stories and build connections between their work.

Highlights were many, but included a live Skype presentation and Q&A with Bill McKibben, climate campaigner and founder, and keynote presentations by:

adebayo akomolafe delivering keynote speech

Bayo delivering his keynote speech – image by The Economics of Happiness

One of the memorable experiences for me was the talk and workshop delivered by Charles Eisenstein, someone whose thinking and speaking style has resonated with me for a long time. Charles has the ability to touch and move people on an emotional level. Here is a short clip (12 mins) in which he speaks about the ideas that underpin his book, Sacred Economics:

There were also a plethora of workshops on a range of topics, all with a localisation theme, including food and farming, place-making, education, energy, and money systems.

My Post Growth Institute colleague Donnie Maclurcan was a workshop facilitator as well as a plenary speaker.

donnie and part of the workshop group

Donnie facilitating his workshop, which was attended by several dozen people

His workshop ‘Strengthening the Localisation Movement: Making the Most of our Abilities’ was participatory and offered attendees practical approaches they could take back into their communities – how to use an assets-based approach (starting with what is working, instead of diagnosing problems that need to be ‘fixed’), and how to quickly resource a movement by tapping into people’s passions, skills and knowledge. This can unlock energy in groups expressing the all-too-common lament of ‘we don’t have money and resources’:

Harnessed fully, there are more talents and resources within any small group of passionate citizens than are actually needed to manifest deep social change. It is just a matter of how willing we are to step back and see things through a lens of strengths and possibilities, and how creatively we can bring our multitude of capabilities to light.

– Donnie Maclurcan

The plenary talks were recorded, and will gradually be made available over the coming weeks, at The Economics of Happiness Vimeo channel. The first, a three part vid on the plenary ‘Localisation – The Solution Multiplier?’ is already available:

One of the recurring issues raised at this event was ‘how do we talk to people who don’t ‘get this’? How do we talk to our family, friends and colleagues?’

The reason I initiated this blog is to respond to that exact concern and to make a contribution to that plea for help – I believe we need to be paying a LOT more attention to how we frame messages and how we communicate, and equipping changemakers with the communication, leadership and personal skills they need to be able to do this effectively.

Here is a short overview of the event (9 mins) created by Echonetdaily, the NSW North Coast’s independent news service:

I particularly enjoyed some very rare in-person time with people I work with virtually, and the joy of meeting those I had not yet encountered in person.

Sometimes, it can feel like the challenges we are working on seem so insurmountable, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by things that aren’t going right in the world.

It is a tonic for the soul and spirit of change agents to spend some time with others who are engaged in creating these shifts, and be reminded of what is already happening, and what is possible.

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