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Are we still stuck in the Iron Age?

By Tony Cooke, CEO, One Planet Education Networks

Lately, OPEN has been working collaboratively with an eclectic group of fascinating people and organisations under the banner of the SDG Transformations Forum. The brainchild of Prof Ioan Fazey of Dundee University and Steve Waddell of Networking Action, the SDG Transformations Forum seeks to explore routes to systems transformations in service of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The premise is simple; we won’t achieve the SDGs with a business-as-usual approach. Instead, we need transformative approaches to how humanity organises itself to solve problems that are bigger than any one actor.

We’ve quickly identified that systems transformations won’t happen without organisational transformations that enable us to define problems, then collaborate on the exploring, testing, evaluating, funding and delivery of solutions at a pace and scale never before witnessed. This implies that we need to find new organisational forms that are more fluid, shapeshifting, task-oriented and, dare I say it, transient.

In turn, we’ve agreed that organisational transformations are underpinned by achieving  personal transformations of individuals in sufficient numbers. As such, how we sensitise, activate and support a critical mass of agents of transformation has emerged as our central challenge for building capacity for systems transformations.

Quite how we do this is as yet unclear, but a metaphor that has sprung into my mind is that of metals. I’m not sure if it’s at all helpful, but let me explain!

It seems to me as though we currently organise ourselves rather crudely in a manner akin to that of solid metals (e.g. iron). We form organisational structures that quickly ossify, then become unfit for purpose. We then expend a huge amount of energy and resources restructuring them into another ossified form to ensure their survival. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t, resulting in a painful amount of ‘creative destruction’ and ultimately a slow, expensive and inefficient recycling of resources into new organisations in need of investment.

Mercury, on the other hand, doesn’t behave like other metals. It flows, coalesces, breaks up under light pressure and then reforms. Any additional drop of mercury can join the whole at will, without any detriment to the whole. Losses, in terms of energy, time and resources are low and fitness for purpose is maintained on the fly. Imagine if the way we organised ourselves more resembled the way mercury behaves?

What does this mean for personal transformations? Again, we know a lot already about the behaviours, values, qualities, competencies of change agents; they are mission-driven, resilient, persistent, adaptable, creative, collaborative and self-less. They are exactly the kind of people who would thrive in a ‘mercury age’. In fact, they could drive its emergence.

To return to our central challenge then. As change agents ourselves, we could start by ensuring that OPEN and our collaborators across the SDG Transformations Forum prototype and model the behaviours necessary for transitioning from the ‘iron age’ we’re still stuck in to the ‘mercury age’.

I’m not sure if this is a helpful metaphor, but I’d love to hear your views….

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