Feeding sustainability: Malden launches

You might debate the food/energy/water nexus.  You can’t debate the food/energy nexus I saw Friday night in Malden, Massachusetts.  A thousand high school kids and their community created a huge amount of energy about food. That energy is being channeled to help launch an innovative experiment in using private means for public ends.

Returning from South Africa a few weeks ago I described that country as a sustainability laboratory. This weekend in a high school gym I discovered that Malden, Massachusetts, is a sustainability laboratory, too. Who knew?

What happened in Malden this weekend?

Lots of folks enjoying the event (including Congresswoman Katherine Clark)

Lots of folks enjoying the event (including Congresswoman Katherine Clark)

  • The event: Malden High School held its third annual Multicultural Celebration.  The event was driven by the school’s Multicultural Club whose purpose applies to the event as well: “We celebrate the myriad of cultures and backgrounds in Malden, and we strive to educate and inform students about those cultures as a way to further encourage unity and understanding in our society and community.”  Faculty liaison Yahaira Marquez and her students put on an amazing event, bringing together cultures through music and food in a way that I can only describe as joyful. Words don’t capture it as well as pictures, though.  Take a look at the pictures on Facebook to get a better feel for the event.
  • The launch: In partnership with the MHS Multicultural Club, Stock Pot Malden launched this weekend.  Stock Pot Malden is a “…test to prove that delicious and culturally diverse food + world-class business training for entrepreneurs + empowering every culture and community = good and lucrative business.” This test aims at answering the eloquent question: “If diversity is valuable, why aren’t we seeing millions of dollars directed toward it?” In partnership with MHS, Stock Pot Malden ran an International Top Chef Cooking Competition at the event, bringing added energy and excitement.
  • The process: Stock Pot Malden is also an experiment in combining sustainability and co-creation.  The project aims at generating local business development for immigrant communities by co-creating development rather than providing arms-length financing. It’s one of several fascinating experiments I’m watching in using traditionally private means to achieve traditionally public ends. Co-creation ran through the whole weekend:
    • The Malden Multicultural Club and Stock Pot Malden co-created the event
    • At the event, the participating families who cooked ethnic dishes, the high school students who ate and voted, and the professional chefs and investors from Stock Pot Malden co-created an emerging shared understanding of what the market might want
    • The following morning, two overlapping circles of project participants met.  One circle was Malden-focused, and includes locally-based managers and food experts. The other circle included investors and advisors, some local but others from Chicago, New Hampshire and Italy. The two circles worked as one group, fueled by the energy from the prior evening’s event but ruthlessly focused on the operational and financial realities. There were no roles. Nobody was limited in what they could ask or answer.  We were all just partners, trying to co-create a successful private enterprise with public values.

None of us know for sure where this is going to go.  That’s why it’s a laboratory.  But it’s starting to feel less like the laboratory of some mad scientist and more like a promising R&D venture. Stay tuned. Follow Stock Pot Malden on Facebook or Twitter. And watch for more of the public-private conversation here on my blog.

(The banner picture is “Pleasant Street, Malden, MA; from a c. 1906 postcard,” from Wikimedia Commons.)

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients]

Public ends, private means

Affordable student housing in a 12th century convent in Venice.  A food truck collaborative in a gritty Boston suburb.  Mobile-phone charging stations in Burkina Faso. This is sustainable development?

Yes.  This is exactly the frontier where new models for sustainable development are being created: unconventional, innovative projects to achieve public ends through private means.

These models come from optimism but also from frustration. The optimism reflects the belief that new things are worth trying. The frustration reflects the experience many have had trying to work around the limits of conventional models, including:

  • Private sector, especially the corporate world.  Society expects more and more from businesses.  But good intentions can be ground down by the complexities of fiduciary responsibilities and quarterly earning pressures. Investment is stranded in old business models – and even older organizational cultures.  We’ve seen good progress and sometimes great innovation from business, but the limits are real.
  • Public sector, in both the developed and developing worlds.  Even the world’s oldest democracies are seeing stalemate rather than statesmanship in addressing their biggest challenges. We’ve had to put hopes for public policy solutions off to the side; almost a sequestration of expectations.  At this point, we expect so much from business precisely because we expect so little from government.
  • Philanthropy and foundations.  They do great work, but they are often not in for the long haul.  They can be enormously helpful at getting something started.  Providing dependable, year-on-year baseline funding seldom fits their business model, though.  That makes sense – but only if what they help start has some other form of funding to remain viable.
  • Civil society and non-profits.  Many do amazing hands-on work to fill the urgent gaps, including feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. That work requires ingenuity to stretch scarce resources every day.  There is no surplus to invest in new models, not when that can be done only by taking food off the table at the soup kitchen.

All these sectors and models play needed roles but all have their limits.

Now we’re seeing fascinating work on creating and testing new models.  (In full disclosure, I should point out that some of this work is being done by my greatest mentors, intellectual partners and friends.)  This work is building unconventional approaches to:

  • Harness private means including capital, spirit, management rigor, creativity;
  • For public ends including interconnected concerns around economic development, jobs, environmental sustainability, housing, energy, diversity, transportation and education;
  • In financially-sustainable ways, breaking the dependency on undependable foundations, grants, government agencies.

One might almost call this nexus… truly sustainable development.  At the very least, it’s putting back in the missing “economic” piece in the sustainability “triple bottom line”.

What does this look like in practice?  There are lots of initiatives including micro-credit, transportation, energy financing and other areas. Three striking examples of different models can be seen in:

  • The Crociferi development in Venice, providing affordable student and faculty housing built on a base of a 12th century convent and tourism spending.   (The facility opened just a few months ago with publicly funded property investment and privately funded management.)
  • Projects around the world sponsored by the Low Carbon Enterprise Fund (a program of the ERM Foundation).  The Fund’s projects “provide finance and pro-bono technical and management support for low carbon entrepreneurs in the developing world”, ranging from fuel-efficient stoves in India to carbon-neutral, shade grown coffee in Latin America and Ethiopia.
  • A new project in Malden, Massachusetts aiming at local business development for immigrant communities based on co-creating development rather than providing arms-length financing.

The people deeply involved in these experiments are asking tough questions themselves.  Isn’t each project its own “special case” and if so, how do we extract common lessons? Does sustainable financing depend on meeting both public and private ends? How do we scale up? How do we do enough to really matter when no one project is that large? Can we scale up without new forms of “hybrid capital?” Is “sustainable development” even the right label for all this, given how much economic impacts are overlooked in the sustainability world?

Where will this all go? I’m not sure.  Nor are the people driving these experiments.  I suspect it will be non-linear path, filled with twists and turns and setbacks and surprises both good and bad.  Then again, the people driving these experiments got where they are today on non-linear paths that ran through (among other things) railroads, economic development, boards of banks and consultancies, Native American crafts enterprises, and grass-roots political organizing. What the paths all have in common is a focus on broader pubic needs and experience in making things work in the private sector.  Maybe we should call it public yearning, private learning.

I’ll try to keep track of these experiments and share the lessons learned. (I’m already learning lessons just from the reading they’ve each suggested; see the mini-bibliography at the bottom of this blog.) I’m finding that these experiments are all about connection: connecting resources and needs, knowledge and challenges, opportunities and people willing to pursue them.  They are also about connection at a very personal level: reconnecting with old friends, connecting them with each other, and tapping the energy and creativity of much younger new friends being drawn in.  The path won’t be linear but it certainly will be interesting.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.] 

Mini-bibliography:

Turning strategy into action: Getting the experience part right

Turning strategy into action is an overwhelmingly logical process.  Except for the 75% of it that’s emotional.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been involved in three separate conversations around the “strategy to action” process.  (Two were with clients, one inside ERM.) In each case, a big group session was planned to kick off the next step of the process. In each case, the process sponsors wrestled with two big challenges:

  • Aiming for too many outcomes.  We get greedy.  We want to get everything accomplished at once.  As we get more demands on travel budgets and schedules, face-to-face time becomes scarcer and more valuable. The natural reaction is to load everything into the agenda and get everything done in one meeting.  That produces an over-crowded, over-ambitious agenda that spins participants from topic to topic with more speed than substance. Which, in turn, makes the face time more frustrating and less productive.
  • Forgetting about the experience as we focus on the outcomes.  Outcomes are  important, but the participants are people, not cogs or chips.  Bad human experience seldom produces good outcomes.  Bad experience is even less likely to create learning, commitment, effective co-creation or an on-going community.

These aren’t new thoughts.  We’ve all had them, usually while sitting through a painful meeting someone else planned.  Think about the last one of these you sat through. The planner’s desired outcome was probably a laundry list of objectives.  Your desired outcomes were probably simpler: don’t get embarrassed, don’t pick up new assignments, and maybe get some other useful work done while no one’s looking.

These aren’t original thoughts.  Others have spelled them out before me.  Most notably, late last year my friend and strategy colleague Francis Gouillart wrote an eloquent plea for “Human experience before process, please” that’s well worth reading.

The challenge is to remember to scale down our objectives and scale up our attention to the human experience when we are the ones planning the process:

  • Do we know what the one most important outcome is?  What do we really need participants to know, understand, believe or do differently as a result of the process?  (If we don’t know that, why are we asking people to participate?)
  • Do we respect and value the experience participants bring with them to a session? Do we recognize their experience and give participants a chance to apply it to our process?
  • Does the process create the right experience?  Do we give people a chance to share insights and influence the outcome, or do we make them a passive audience?
  • Is the experience being provided at the right stage of the process?  Are we bringing people in to swallow a predetermined, precooked outcome?  Or are we giving them a chance to help choose the menu and cook the meal?

Maybe there’s a golden rule of process: Design the experience for others as you would have others design the experience for you.

[Opinions on this site are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of ERM, its partners or clients.]