The Highs and Lows of Leveraging Change – Part 2

The paradox of slow urgency.  And generating creativity and magic.  

From 6th to 8th February 2019, 500 people gathered together at Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany, for the Leverage Points conference.  The conference was focused on sustainability science and framed around the Donella Meadows concept of Leveraging Points.  The conference aimed to inspire us to identifying the critical leverage points at which we need to put our efforts to trigger and catalyse the change needed to deliver a sustainable future.

Taking a vibrant, creative and dynamic format the conference was a really exciting and stimulating experience and one that had quite a significant impact on me in a number of ways, both positive and negatively.  The second of three blog posts this contribution presents a set of reflections about the key challenges and weaknesses of this sustainability science movement, as revealed to me through my engagement in the conference, as well as some of the exciting opportunities and inspirations that I drew from it.


The paradox of approaching Urgency Slowly.

One of the important ideas that arose in the conference was that the types of processes that we believe will create action and change for a sustainable future, actually need to be given lots of time and need to be carried out really slowly.  They often require a larger commitment than can be offered by a typical funding bid and in many cases can actually take decades and generations to provide results because they are embedded in complex social processes and conflicts.  This need to work at a slower pace than we are currently used to, is actually felt much more broadly in society as is evidenced by a growing interest in the “Slow” movement, which advocates for taking more time over the the things we engage with, so that we can experience them more fully and implement them with more quality.  Slow food is probably the most famous example from this philosophy.  More and more people are looking to shift away from the fast-paced, competitive, quantity over quality approach to life that pervades western society and for which much of our environmental and social degradation can be attributed to.

But unfortunately this need and desire to take things more slowly is in tension with the stark urgency that global challenges, such as Climate Change, present us with.  With global temperatures rising and more and more frequent signs of the consequences of climate change, we need to be delivering action and change now. We (those of us who are concerned and empowered) rush to find the answers and solutions and we rush to engage and bring more people into the movement for change, and our minds rush around the fear and frustration that we still haven’t made the changes we need to make and we are/have run out of time.

I would like to argue here, however, that maybe Slow Urgency, or delivering Urgency Slowly, is the perfect paradox.  Whilst it seems contradictory, it may be that by approaching the urgency of the situation more slowly, more carefully and more conscientiously, we may be more likely to have success.  That, in the way that we rush into things and try to do things quickly and with mass engagement and maximised impact, (a mindset of the industrialised, capitalist culture that contributed to the issues we are trying to resolve) we actually don’t deliver the necessary outcomes and the change that we need.  But by giving ourselves more time, more freedom, less obsession with scale and more careful and responsive practices, it may be that we could actually deliver the change we need.  To repair and resolve the global problems that we have created, we need to use a different approach and culture than the one that delivered us to these problems in the first place.  That’s not to say that we spend the next 100 years working out what to do, it’s imperative that we start now and that we start with action.  But we need to give ourselves more time and space to make that action possible.

Let’s never forget the fable of the “Tortoise and the Hare”.  I’d suggest it’s more relevant now than ever before.


Seizing creativity and magic.

Creativity and magic were too central themes present in the Leverage Points conference.  Firstly in the way that the conference was designed and facilitated.  The space was built as a creative and beautiful space to inspire and relax.  Many different methods for encouraging dialogue, discussion and communication were provided including a ‘Transformation Timeline’, ‘Conversation Corners’ and ‘Knowledge Harvesting Wall’ at which a group of graphic harvesters created beautiful and creative representations of the conversations and discussions that had been taking place throughout the programme.  In addition to this music, theatre and dancing were included as tools not just for inspiration and vitality, but also as different forms of expression and exploration of ideas and concept.  These spaces and tools inspired me personally to think about, organise, and approach my work in a more multi-faceted and creative way, thinking outside of the box of traditional modes of academic research and publication process.  In fact it went as far as to renew my commitment to ensure that my PhD research produces something more tangible and engaging to share with the participatory research community, than just peer-reviewed publications.  What was particularly nice about all of this was that the atmosphere of the conference was very different to any I’ve been to before.  It felt less academic, less formal and less corporate, and more community-building, more friendly, more supportive.  It felt different.

But what really brought this idea of creativity and magic to the conference was the keynote speech by Prof. Ioan Fazey on the morning of the first day of the conference.  Ioan encouraged us to reflect on Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ in which a sorcerer leaves his apprentice to tidy up the castle.  In order to save time the apprentice tries using some of the sorcerer’s magic to do the job for him.  The apprentice successfully gets the spells working only to find they become out of control and he doesn’t have the wisdom to stop them.  The poem was epitomized by Disney’s film Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse features as the apprentice.  Ioan likened our present day situation to that in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where we’ve been trying out all the different spells that we’ve learnt, but they are out of control and we don’t know how to bring them back to order.  Ioan expressed that we have the knowledge and theory for what needs to change to deliver a sustainable world, but we don’t have the wisdom and the understanding of ‘how to’ make these changes.  This wisdom and ‘how to’ knowledge, Ioan argued, doesn’t come from a place of academic knowledge and theory-making but from a place of practice, experience and creativity.  He encouraged us to unleash our creativity and ask the really difficult questions, critiquing the approaches we’ve taken so far, and being prepared to try out and experiment with doing things completely different, and in doing so, we might just release some magic.


The above reflections are just a brain dump of my reflection after participating in the Leverage Points conference.  The comments are not water tight arguments and reflect a lot of personal experience I had at the conference.  They are therefore open to debate and I welcome further challenges and critique in the comments below.