The Urban Monk Podcast – David Gershon: Empowering Communities
Our social and natural systems are breaking down across many areas – finance, medicine, education, and climate, to name a few. Current tools can’t keep up with the rate of breakdown. The existing tools constitute what Gershon calls, “Social Change 1.0”
Many of the tools are legislative. They use coercion and top down “command and control.” Financial incentives, social protest, and awareness raising are also part of the 1.0 approach.
David Gershon believes that we need “transformation” instead of “reformation” if we want to create the powerful social and environmental changes that are needed. He teaches the “how” of social change. Thinking big, dreaming different dreams, and asking big questions, begin the process.
Asking the Right Questions
Some of the important questions:
- How do we start?
- What are the important actions we need to take?
- How do we do them?
- Will they make a difference?
Leverage points and behavior change must be pursued in the face of passivity, cynicism, and satisfaction with “fighting the good fight.”
The agenda setters, protesters, enlightened politicians, and others, have done their part of the job. They’ve illuminated many of the problems and created some consensus around what’s wrong.
Second Order Change
The emphasis must shift from determining what’s wrong and how to fix it, to asking, “what’s possible and how do we create it?” Once we have the answers, we must bring them to scale. That’s what Gershon’s “Cool City Challenge” is attempting to do. The Cool City Challenge goals are to create:
Deep carbon reduction. Disaster resilient neighborhoods. Green economic development.
The need for a shift in attitude and change in behavior applies to not only individuals but to businesses, as well. Rather than demonizing business for its role in climate change, a lot more can be gained by encouraging corporate social engagement and creating a vision of business as a force for social good.
The pattern of consumption and production in the developed world have created an inordinate and negative impact on the environment. The impact shows up in the amount of solid waste we create, our energy generation, water use, product purchases, and fossil fuel consumption.
David Gershon shared some specific strategies that individuals can pursue to directly impact social change:
- Lower your position on the food chain;
- Use “green” renewable energy options in your home;
- Examine your transportation activities and limit your use of fossil fuels through carpooling and public transportation;
- Meet more of your material needs by taking advantage of the growing sharing economy
We are at a unique time in human history. The threat of climate change, while presenting an existential threat, could also serve as a catalyst for tremendous opportunity. Carbon reduction, self efficacy and personal agency, strengthened communities, and survival of humanity – these are the stakes.
We get to choose and David Gershon can provide us with some of the tools when we make the right choices.
The interview notes for the show:
Pedram: Welcome back to The Urban Monk. I’m Dr. Pedram Shojai right here with David Gershon. This gentleman, he’s a futurist and a visionary, the CEO of The Empowerment Institute. He does a lot of work with the United Nations. He’s getting called in, he’s one of the foremost authorities on behavior change and community empowerment on the planet. He’s a large system thinker, he’s a big thinker, and he’s a delightful human being. I really, really like he and I have developed a relationship, friendship, and I’m tapping him as a valuable resource for our next movie and you’ll know why after you listen to this interview. He’s just on level in many ways. He’s written 11 books with the bestseller, The Low Carbon Diet, which is a 30-day program to lose 5,000 pounds. For all you weight loss junkies how’s that for a gauntlet. He’s doing it and he has proof for a lot of the thi ngs that they’ve done and so they’re doing data-driven decisions in having actionable plans to actually save the planet. I love this guy. Enjoy the show, I’ll see you on the other end.
Pedram: Talk is cheap and you’re on the ground doing stuff.
How To Re-Invent Social Change
David: Thank you, Pedram, very much. A word about the UN and a word about governments and a word about social change. Even if you have the UN working at its best, even if governments were able to work at their best, and there are many governments that do work at their best, take these some Scandinavian countries, there is a limitation on what policy can achieve when so much of the change that’s required is transformative and policy is primarily reformative. It is going to fall short. One of the things that I’ve been looking at is the question of how do we really think deeper about the how of social change itself. I call that reinventing social change. I wrote this book, Social Change 2.0, that looks at that, and as we think about the world right now and where we are what we are seeing is from a system’s point of view, that most of the issues we face are social system breakdowns, our economic system, our political system that you alluded to, our health care system which is your world, and education, it goes on.
The problem we face as a species is that the magnitude of problems we have to address, the issues we have to address are much greater than the way that the tools have been designed to a primarily legislative, to create a change. When a system is unable to perform against the expectations placed on it it starts to perturbate or it starts to oscillate, becomes unstable. That’s the state of our world right now. Then it either breaks down or it goes into low-grade functionality. That’s where we are, and in order to change that we have to do what in system’s theory is called second order change or move the system to a higher level performance and social value through a transformation intervention.
That’s the work that I do. The book I wrote is designed to do second order change and the issue of climate change which you teed up earlier and the work that I’m doing there, among other things, is the second order change solution. Let me just say one more thought. Then, please, the point that was not to discount that I call social change 1.0 but to enhance it and empower it through its integration.
Pedram: You’re very inclusive in that I think I want to speak to the frustrations of the world right now. We all know that there’s problems. We all know that things are not working. Oil spills in water and toxic and everything’s yucky, right? We know that this can’t be sustained but it almost seems like everyone’s relying on some bigger organizations, institutions, governments, everyone’s waiting for someone else to jump in and fix it and the people that are in the positions to fix it oftentimes are just trying to get re-elected and they’re not necessarily the types of people who care about this. As an individual how can I feel empowered to jump back in and take ownership of my life, my community and my globe in a way that is realistic? Because I think people think that they’re too small for social change and this is why I love this conversation and you and I have a lot of offline conversations and that’s why you’re here is because I’m just a big fan of this kind of thinking. Let’s jump in to how an individual can do it.
How People Can Become Effective Agents Of Change
David: You have gotten to the essence of really the challenge we have as a species right now. I lay that out as current solutions are not designed to address the issues. At the scale of magnitude those issues need to be addressed to have a real impact. We have to go into cynicism or we go into passivity or we go into what I call the good fight. We know we’re not going to make an impact but we’d rather do something than nothing. None of those are really very effective in actually getting the result we want. That’s where this is climate paralysis, for example, because that when we actually have to give right. We can live in low-grade conflicts, we can live in social inequities because the planet won’t go away, the ability for the planet to sustain life won’t go away. For climate change we’ve got to get right or we start to have to deteriorate and experience as human beings.
The question that I’ve been pondering for many decades now is how do you empower individuals to become effective agents of change. What I have found through lots of trial and error is that the place where human beings have the most, we, human beings, have the most chance of impact is in their own communities, because if you can do something at a community level you can build a model that can be scaled across many communities. National governments, international agencies look to communities as a place where new ideas and innovations, social innovations, are born. Communities are really the incubator, the place where possibilities are being developed. That’s where I come in because we can really have an impact. Politics does not get in the way particularly. Politics doesn’t really show up at the level of potholes or crime issues or health issues at that level.
Then the question is if we are working at the scale of the community where do you actually get leverage? How do you engage people? There really are 2 questions that at the end of the day one has to ask if one’s going to ask if one has had an impact. What are the pro-social behaviors that need to be adapted and how do you scale them? Because unless you get actual behavior change everything else is a means to an end, legislation, financial incentives, social protest. At some point we can talk about the current state of social change tools but we’ll get to that maybe later. The main point is it’s the individual behavior change at scale, community by community, that we have a chance to leverage a significant intervention.
That’s where I’ve honed in. As I did that I began to discover that there was one place in the community where we have the most potential and that was the scale literally of the block. Both sides of the street up to the corners because there’s shared social value. There’s a shared social purpose. There’s enough connectivity and there’s enough desire for connectivity and there’s now connectivity. When there’s a social need that’s not being met it can be leveraged. That’s a whole download on our strategy to do that but the program that we’ve designed to address climate change we call the Cool Block.
That idea is to address the issue of carbon reduction at the household level block by block, but also enhancing that by other key social drivers such as disaster resiliency and livability and water conservation. That when a person has a choice between actually connecting with their neighbors, having a sense of self efficacy and addressing these issues, some of which are survival, some of which are aspirational. They can have it all done for them versus not doing it and they want to connect if they could for the sense of community. They do, and we have found that. That’s the program that we built based on some several decades of work that we are now getting ready to launch. We think it could actually change the game. It’s called Overall Projects to Cool City Challenge.
Pedram:I want to speak to that real quick because this isn’t conjecture, this isn’t a guy theorizing about this. You’ve been on the ground level and you’ve been proving out these assumptions so this isn’t like, “Oh, hey, we should try this.” You have your data, you have your proof points, and now these are data-driven decisions actually showing we nailed it here, we nailed it there and now we’re moving in to growing this and scaling it and making it a model for, hopefully humanity. This is several years in the making, this soup has been cooking for a while. I’d love to speak to that just for a second just so people get how much work has gone into getting to the place where at and this is a real thing.
Changing The Consumption Habits Of The Developed World
David:I love that. It’s actually been 25 years in the making. One of the things I talk about in my book is that in order to be ready when the world is ready you have to be way ahead of the curve. Because when the world’s ready it’s not the time to experiment. I’ve been in school for quite a while trying to answer a bunch of questions. It began actually in 1989 when I learned about the fact that the world and the global ecosystem, well, particularly the global ecosystem, was deteriorating. When the word’s sustainable development is first being created and beginning with that journey. I had done a major global event prior to that and it was quite impactful passing a torch of peace around the world and engage 62 countries and 45 hits stating 25 million people in partnership with United Nations Children’s Fund.
It showed me that one could think big. One could do things that no one thought was possible. I asked the question: what is the highest and best use of my life? Where is the most important leverage point for change on the planet for humanity’s evolution? That’s where I began and I discovered that it wasn’t just that the ecosystem was unraveling but the reason … The United Nation’s created a conference called the Earth Summit in 1992, and they said it this way, “The greatest cause of the deterioration of the global ecosystem is the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production in the developed world, so if we’re going to change the world we have to change the consumption and production of those of us in the developed world.”
As I took that idea in I said, “Where’s the leverage point for that?” It became very clear the leverage point was consumption because if you change consumption practices you change production practices. Because men drives supply in business, that was the beginning. Once I began to get there then I asked, “Well what is the state of people actually changing their behaviors?: We found that they were asking 4 questions: Where do I start? Which are the important actions? How do I do them? If I did them will they make a difference to your larger point? Those become our drivers. I have been developing a whole program on empowerment. I knew a lot about empowerment. How to get people to change behavior, how to build visions that people could then be motivated to live their life spot. That began the journey. So many pause there because there’s a lot. I can go into a long discourse on what we learn from there but I want to just pause to just not go too far ahead of where your question might take us.
Pedram: You know what, you’re singing my song and you’ve been doing this for so long and proving it out that it just it warms my heart I got to say because it’s the same problem we have in health care is behavioral change and there’s literacy gaps and there’s motivation gaps and all the kinds of things that … Everyone knows you should eat well, so what? What do I need to do and how am I going to see the difference? People do diets, they gain the weight back, so screw it, I might as well just drink beer and forget about it. We don’t stand that opportunity when it comes to climate change because we are headed towards a very real potential extinction event. We have, I mean all the stuff that’s happening right now and say, Syria, right? This started as a climate change issue that people don’t really know about and now it’s an immigration issue and it’s a huge thing in the EU.
It all started with something that people are not interested in talking about because I think the elephant in the room is industry. It’s those containers of shoes that you … I mean, how many pairs of shoes do you need? It’s the containers of stuff that we’re getting manufactured in China and we’re spending our hard-earned dollars putting coal into the air to get yet another thing that the advertisers are telling us we need to wear to look cool. That, right there is, that’s the beast that you’re trying to tackle, is this economy that’s built on consumers constantly putting their money into Target and Walmart and wherever is moving this stuff. That’s a hay maker, man. That’s a revolutionary stuff. There’s a lot of people that are not interested in half of that conversation because that’s how they butter their bread. I’d love to sit on that point for a second because the core of this is really a very revolutionary, fundamental shift in how we live our lives. Once we understand that I think it gets way easier.
The Role Of Consumerism In Climate Change
David: Well, I’m happy that you’re not asking small questions. What a waste of time that would be. Let’s tackle this big question. There are different elephants in the room. That’s certainly one of them. Another one is our materialistic world view and lifestyle and how we perceive the world itself. It’s not just that this is the source of the problem. We’re at the effect in someone driving stuff that we don’t want on us it’s that our values are such that we’re not asking the right questions about what’s important in our own lives, where meaning and purpose exist, what would give us value, how do we fulfill a need non-materially. There are deeper questions, and then there is the question how do we become a force to empower business to be more inspired, to think differently, to play differently, because we do need things.
We may not need as many things, we may want more quality things because we’re in bodies so we’re not here to avoid the material claim. It’s a dance and the question that I always ask is where is the leverage point? Because at the end of the day that as Archimedes has said, “Give me a lever long enough and you can move the world,” and that’s what I’ve always been focused, where’s the lever that can move the world? What I found is empowering an individual to dream a different dream than the one that we’ve been given will empower them to ask different questions that will empower them to make different choices. I was just reading yesterday a report by Cohn who does research on corporate social responsibility. They said the consumers are changing. Their whole values is maybe it’s happening. Businesses are beginning to respond and the early adapters are asking different questions and they’re getting rewarded significantly because they’re asking different questions.
The ones that are succeeding are asking the boldest questions. My colleague that’s helping with the Cool City Challenge and a variety of other issues, her name is Josie Maran and her work, who’s helping support our work and who we’re into partnership with, is asking those questions. She’s in a consumer company that sells natural cosmetics. She’s asking these hard questions. There are not easy answers but there are important questions to be asked. Really almost they’re asking not just how do we reduce bad stuff coming at us or change our patterns of consumption based on our own values. Also, how can business become a force for social good? How can business actually step up and be part of the playing field to change the game itself?
Because business is playing way small considering its impact on the planet than it could be. The other part of our work is also to help invite business to play a much bigger game. We call it corporate social engagement. Having them on the side of the planet’s well-being and humanity’s evolution is a huge opportunity. There are bunch and pieces here. There’s not one easy answer to that big question.
Pedram: Sure, sure. We’re doing our next movie on the corporate side of this for the benefit side of the economy and what conscious capitalism means and we’re in discussions about how to capture some of these work that you’re doing on a block by block level to show this stuff in action. The good news is we have hundreds if not thousands of living examples of models that are working, companies that are doing the right thing, things that are happening right now that are changing the landscape of how we can fundamentally operate our economy differently. Because we’re in the time where it’s happening it’s hard to notice, I mean this era will go down in history books one way or another as being very, very critical transitional era in our development as a society. There’s some really positive indicators. I mean this is … I want to get a little more granular, talk about what’s happening on a block by block level. What’s the methodology where you guys are going in getting people to actually get engaged and then reducing carbon foot print? Because that to me is that’s where the rubber hits the road obviously.
How To Effect Changes In Consumer Behavior
David: I am delighted to have you ask me that question. I wanted to make sure we were ready for that question. We aren’t ready for that question, really, until we answer some of the bigger questions on how to hold the larger framework of the drivers of negative and positive impacts. We’re ready to drive the next level down which is the granularity of how we actually change behavior and bring it to scale. When we ask the 4 questions, where are we now? Basically we’re boiling down to what are the important actions? How do I take the actions? If I took the actions will it make a difference? Where do I start? We discovered that there were a lot of programs out there to provide awareness: 50 Simple Things to Save the Earth, 350 … There was no lack of awareness raising check list of things people could do but they weren’t doing them. Given my history of work around empowerment the question that I began to ask was why? They were asking these questions, they weren’t getting good answers, the tools out there at a time were not delivering, they were basically awareness raising.
What would it take to change behavior? If we could change behavior would it be sustained over time? If we were able to change behavior that will sustain over time could we bring it to scale so we could have a real impact? Those became the next set of questions. There was a question that I’m continuously asking, and what I’ll share with you is really something that’s taking place over several decades of iterative learning. One of my best assets is that I am a tenacious learner, so when I get questions I stay with them until I get satisfying answers than can then be proven out with research and data, and then built upon, and then continue to iterate. That’s the learning process, which is as important as the methodology I’ll share with you. Because what we need are people to know how to be good social learners, with social innovators, skillful social innovators, so that they can actually learn how to fish themselves. That’s lot of my work as well.
What we found was that we were taking the overwhelm of information around those 4 questions and it boil down to, at the end of the day, your life is around how-, your life in terms of its impact on the planet boils down to 5 metrics: how much solid waste you generate, how much energy you generate, how much water you use, how much transportation fuel you use, and how you consume products. Solid waste, energy, water, transportation, and purchasing of things. The question was where do we need to go to get people to have a more sustainable use of natural resource? What we found was, by the way, in America we use a third of the planet’s resource and we waste up to 75% through inefficiency and lack of awareness.
The low-hanging fruit was immense, is immense, because efficiency is certainly one of the easier place, it doesn’t even have to deal yet with our sustainability practices and our desire for material things to meet non-material needs. We created a program, we call it the Green Living Program, and it was based on those 5 topic areas along with empowerment. If I act but no one else does they don’t get very far. How do I empower others to also be part of the solution? Then we broke it down in each topic area into a set of recipes as opposed to check list. Since you deal with food a lot, you know that you can’t cook a meal very well with the rest of the check list, you need actual recipes. Step by step by step. You do this then you do this then you do this. Then we found that we have created a state-of-the-art program on how to live a sustainable lifestyle, 6 steps to live a sustainable lifestyle.
We realized that that was still not enough because the way people actually change behavior once they have a tool like that is around the notion of social norms. The key to a social norm, a new social norm, is a peer support group. When you get together with others and they start to change their behavior you start to create a new social norm. You know that about eating. All behavior change programs of any consequence have learned that. We created what we call the Eco Teams, a peer support group that creates peer motivation, peer pressure, and peer knowledge that take these actions and accountability. We built the program over 8 meetings and every 2 weeks. Here’s what we found out.
Based on working with about 20,000 people, and this is a learning process that took place over a number of years, we are able to help them reduce their solid waste by 40%, their water use by 32%, their energy usage by 15%, their CO2 emissions by 18%, their vehicle miles traveled, the amount of driving they do, by 8%. They saved on average about $255. We found that we had answered the first question, can we have substitute behavior change? We found many citizens saying to us, “Will you help us? This is huge for us. We spend so much money on providing natural resources and people waste them. It’s a big part of our budget not to mention all the pollution that is being generated and solid waste in landfill being filled up.” We started working with cities and they had started seeing these results and the next thing well, let’s find out if it sustains over time.
Then we started planning also this was so effective that it started diffusing to many different countries around the world, in Europe and Asia. Over time we had 8 studies done to see if this behavior change were sustained over time. What we found was that they were consistently, and one of the most robust longitudinal studies done by a university in the Netherlands, the University of Leiden, found that on average people took 26 behaviors. They sustain them over time and added 3 new ones, 53% of the people transferred what they learned to the work place. This is pretty consistently happening. We add to the next question, can you sustain the behavior change over time? Then the third question, which is really the next one and it’s still the one I’m working on because the scale is a big question then there’s different dimensions to scale, is can you take it to scale?
What we found was that, first of all people who went through this program followed a structure that we set up of how to organize these meetings and lead this self-directed meetings, 95% of those who came completed the program effectively. If they follow the form they would get these results. Pretty consistent. The question then was what’s the best platform for scaling? We did this with social networks, friends, we did it in the work places, we did it in service clubs, faith-based groups, and we did it with neighborhoods, particularly the block. It worked effectively at all the levels. When we got to the block we saw something that we didn’t see anywhere else. For starters, you could scale a block. We didn’t run out of social network, you could keep scaling it once you’ve found a formula. The second thing that we found was that we were meeting a much more robust set of social needs. Unmet social needs.
What we found basically … By the way, one of the other things we did Pedram, we debriefed everyone of this Eco Teams. We had lots and lots of data that we’re working on it. There’s 10 ways to invite your neighbors, more like 10 ways not to invite your neighbors. Maybe there’s 2 ways to invite your neighbors, and once we found that we get a lot of research to really test a simple question. This was the ultimate question that we formulated based on a lot of that research. If your neighbor said the following to you how likely would you be to come to their home, which by the way could also be their apartment if it’s a urban high rise. “Hi, I’m your neighbor from up the street.” You could really point to your house. “I’d like to invite you to a neighbor gathering to hear about a program sponsored by the city of,” whatever your city so they see the credibility. “To learn how to better conserve resources for the sake of our children, to get to know each other better as neighbors, and to create a healthier state and more livable block. The meeting is this Thursday night, 7:30 to 9:00. Can you make it?”
What we found was that on our research 43% said very likely, 42% said somewhat likely. I’m going to talk about a whole model of diffusion we called Everett Roger’s diffusion of social innovation at a moment, but that’s 85% of the people who heard that message, were predisposed, which is the late majority if you follow this whole model. Just huge. When we found … Then, so let me tell you what actually happened. When people did this about 75% said they would come, pretty close to the numbers. Well, some of them which is 75 and 85, it’s really hard to know precisely as they varied, half came and 75% joined. We were getting 25% of every block no matter where we did this, to do this, to participate, which is an amazing recruitment number.
David: What’s happening in Kansas City, Missouri and Portland, Oregon and the inner city of Philadelphia.
Pedram: We’re not talking about Kumbaya hippies, we’re talking about a swat of general Americans from different psycho-graphics, demographics. This isn’t just like the choir?
David: This isn’t about … We’ll talk about the choir because the choir is actually important.
Motivating People To Participate In The Cool Block Program
David: The point is that we were tapping a set of social needs that were much more profound than the demographics. When we broke down those needs it boil down to 3 intrinsic motivations, this is really important for your work with health behavior change or any behavior change. I’m doing some work around how behavior change now also as you know. When you broke down getting to … A program to help us get to know each other better as neighbors we were tapping in to the community. The need, intrinsic need, in people to connect with others. When we had said conserving resource for the sake of our children we’re tapping in to the need for meaning and purpose, the most profound medium human beings have, because through doing this they can actually feel like they were doing something for their children’s future or for children’s future. They might not be able to change the world but they could at least have an impact on the lives of those individuals they most care about, or at least feel they’re doing the right thing.
Then making my block healthier, safer, and more livable tap into the intrinsic need for self-efficacy or agency. My life actually could make a difference and I could make a difference where it really matters the place that I live and I’m raising my children or my family or whatever, or just myself. When you tap into these needs of meaning and purpose community and agency or self efficacy you are meeting a universal need that human beings have. We did this program for sustainable living, we did it for disastrous leniency where we got 68%, we did around livable hours in New York City, we did around livability and inner city for Philadelphia we got 61% participation. We did around carbon reduction at Portland where we got 41%. Over time we found this methodology could be delivered around different pro-social behavioral change needs and the Cool Block program is just highest, go up a little bit integrates all those programs because each of them by themselves was able to have an impact at the level of the block of neighborhood.
What we found was by themselves we did not experience carbon as scalable across the city or disaster resiliency or sustainable living. That’s where we nail down the Cool Block. Our thesis now is that the moment in time to live in. Thank God yesterday the Pope did his thing and Obama’s doing his thing, the time is coming where climate change is now on the agenda. The UN is doing its thing. The agenda setters are doing their job. Thank God for them. The right term for the Pope. They need to do their job because my job gets a lot easier when the agenda is set and people are now asking how rather than if. Anyway, that’s the story.
Pedram: The agenda setters set from the top down, what we’re talking about intrinsically is building from the ground up. I’d love to talk about that dual directionality and how this is the time for it. It’s a very exciting time because as this deploys on the ground level and the agenda is set that should accelerate this thing.
Why Legislating For Social Change Doesn’t Work
David: It should and it doesn’t have to unless we still … It is, this is where a lot of the work I do on social change and capacity building around the skills of second order change start to come into play. Because the 1.0 world, I call it the 1.0 world, people who try to create social, social change 1.0 so we have a context. Change 1.0 is based on legislation which is command and control. The belief that people are going to have to be forced to change if they’re going to change. We found is you can’t legislate lifestyle change. It’s based on financial incentives that the least you can incentivize people to change and we’ve learned also that people’s behavior is the last they can financially settle by themselves are not going to create that. We’ve got tons of examples of that. There are tools that can be used but they’re not, they’re supply side tools. Unless the man is there it doesn’t get very far.
California spent $300 million trying to retrofits. They got 5,000 and they were trying for some God knows the numbers, millions. Because they couldn’t get people to change behavior. Financial incentives by themselves don’t do it. Then you have the social protest. That’s our frustration, our venting process. That’s always trying to get 1.0 solutions so they don’t know any better usually, or they try variation but it’s important, these are all important but they’re not enough. Then the fourth one is awareness raising like the work that Al Gore has done around climate change. Knowing is different from doing. You know how many people in the health space know what they do, should do but they don’t do it.
That’s the 1.0 universe we’re playing in. The question then is how do we smartly use the 1.0 universe? Again the setters are awareness raisers, that’s great. In California we now have a carbon system, cap and trade, that really is going to be generating money and putting incentives in the right place, that’s great. Then we also have people out there like the 350.org people who are the protesters saying, “No, we shouldn’t do this. Divest this and that.” We need that. There’s a friend of mine called Dennis Hayes, he calls it “the ecology of action”, you need the whole of the ecosystem niches filled. Then you have the legislation efforts. I just heard today that China has created a cap and trade system, bless their souls, in line with California so that’s going to put pressure. When you get all of that going and then you have demand, and what demand does at scale is it creates drivers for the legislation, it keep drivers from the new technologies, it keeps drivers in the new market system that have to be built.
Block by block level we’re actually able to show an individual that if you do this and you get your neighbors to do this and they get their neighbors to do this and your city does this, not only will you have a higher quality of life but you can actually have leverage in the system to get all the supply side solutions better engaged. Now you got legislators inspired and you got all the people investing in green tech inspired who has now made any money on the green tech investments because now there’s demand. Now people are creating a new markets inspired. You get a whole system solution, 1.0, 2.0, supply side, demand side and that’s where you try to get smarter around how to do this kind of change.
Pedram: That’s partially where most of my excitement in this conscious capital movement lies is that as that demand shifts it will create a tsunami because it creates opportunities. We’ve seen it with farmer’s market, we’ve seen it with organic food, we’ve radically transformed our food systems already just because people were willing to go to the farmer’s market, put a couple of extra bucks down and meet the guy that grew their apples or whatever. That early stage shift into that 2.0 universe, as you would frame it, has actually proven itself out. Now, everyone’s talking organic, everyone’s really excited about this stuff. It started with the consumer, it started with the early adapters that said, “I want this, I choose this. I’m going to go after this.” Now, what we’re talking about is doing this on a block by block level and growing it and scaling it and getting it to go.
I’d like to get a sense of how vast of an improvement we can see with something like this in, say, carbon footprint. How quickly will we start to see a shift in numbers that will be big enough? At what scale to say, “Holy crap. This is actually changing our climate back,”? What are those success metrics might be?
David: Great question. Let me just say one thing more about block by block. The idea of a Cool Block is the scale I mentioned. The next level up is a Cool Neighborhood which is 10 Cool Blocks, now you have economies at scale where you can start having an impact on food systems, growing your own food, all kinds of things. The next level of scale is what we call the Cool Eco District, which is 10 cool neighborhoods. As you begin to think of the community and you break it into these different units, think of a body, a cell, then you got an organ then you got the next levels up, I mean I am running to my limitation of the fullness of all the … Well, I guess the difference is all because this could be cell, then what comes after a cell? It would be a …
Pedram: An organ, yeah.
David: Organ. I got it right? What comes after the organ?
Pedram: Just organ systems. Really from there there’s a bunch of organs that make up the body and systems that feed back and forth and communicate.
David: Okay, organ systems. Let’s call those 3 and then the body is the community. We’ll use and see that analogy if it holds up. The idea is that each of them has economies of scale as you work it. As you think about a cool city as each of these you start to see all kinds of possibilities and now you start seeing supply side, demand side, all kinds of things start to happen. One of the things that we found is that we’re able to get people through the hardest program that reduces carbon, which is originally part of the program, I call the Low Carbon Diet. They’re getting 25% carbon reduction per household. Now, let me give you a big picture on where and why I chose that intervention.
Reducing The Carbon Footprint Of Our Major Cities
Seventy percent of the carbon emitted on the planet comes out of cities. It’s a huge, huge leverage point. Seventy percent of that carbon on average comes out of the lifestyle choices we make on how we use energy for our homes and how we transport ourselves and our food. This is where we have a huge leverage, huge leverage. The demand side is the driver. The question is, what kind of an impact do we have? Let me add one more part of the Cool Block. The Cool Block is the how of a larger strategy which we call the Cool City Challenge. The Cool City Challenge is the Cool Block at scale but there’s one other thing. In order to get to the place where we can have the impact necessary it really affect climate, the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere we actually have to go pretty radically into a reduction process.
You can’t get there through the supply side, we’re learning that. What you got in the citizens is not only reducing a huge part of the foot print but becoming political advocates in the system or a change in legislation, a change in technology, and a change in new markets. You’re driving it. What we’ve put out in the table talking about where we started was a big hairy audacious goal, often called BHAGS, which is a carbon-neutral city by 2025.
Pedram: One carbon-neutral city.
David: By 2025 a carbon-neutral city that’s emitting zero carbon, which no one has done and we’re in conversations with a number of cities that are asking that question. One I’m not going to mention their name yet because they have not finalize this but they’re moving down the road pretty closely. The first city in the world that has committed this is Copenhagen. It’s a radical chance from a nation of just about everything. The Cool City Challenge and its tool, the Cool Blocks, and game is a carbon-neutral city. Part of what we’re getting ready to do, this is actually I guess you would call this a scoop maybe. This is the first time I’m sharing this with anybody, and we’ll be announcing it on Tuesday, myself and Josie Maran who’s the CEO of Josie Maran Cosmetics, is that company is committing over the next 5 years, I mean it’s a function of their financial wherewithal but it’s a commitment, to invest $50 million to create 20 cool cities in California, because California is the only adopter.
Pedram: Awesome. Awesome.
David: We want to change the game because we think we can in California. We want to change the game because California is where the most robust legislation exists, where the early adapters live, where California is, reason for being is as a Californian you can take pride, is to be a role model of what is possible, which is why you’re doing what you’re doing. Then it can diffuse to other places. Well, we want to go deep and we want to go big and we want to go wide. Wide in a sense of a whole state. The plan is to roll out the Cool Block next year and begin to actually see if we can take it to scale. Scale means minimum of 25% participation rate up to 75%. Invest enough money, serious money, money in cities you don’t normally see. They’re happy if they get $50,000 grants but a couple of million bucks over 3 years, $2.5 million to be precise, to scale this up. Have resources on the ground to get the whole system to work, to get really high quality on the ground leadership, to work very actively in partnership with the local government, local businesses, local NGOs, so it’s a whole system design.
Because there are so many things around the ground right now. They’re doing amazing work. In fact every one of the actions, a 112 actions, that are in the Cool Block program, represent an advocacy group of some sort. Someone’s doing the food, someone’s doing bikes, someone’s doing farmer’s market, someone’s doing community garden, someone’s doing disaster resiliency. Our job is to take what’s existing. As I’ve mentioned before to be smart about this you get the whole system to work. You don’t have to reinvent the wheels, the wheels are there. It’s connecting the dots empowering a whole system solution.
Pedram:These people are already in the ground, they’re well intention and they’re doing it. The fact that you’re showing up with cash in hand with a model that’s already proven itself out and is now ready to scale really helps move through the political bureaucracy, I’m very happy that you’re working with a company that’s thinking in a ‘for benefit’ way, I think if you’re a company owner you should look at what your company is doing and how it can pay forward into changing the world and making that part of your cause. That’s the new for benefit economy. That’s why the world is going into different directions because corporations have been able to dump costs on to the commons and now we’re in this process of correcting this.
Just to put a quick example for this is everyone talks about diet. Then you have a friend that say goes Paleo and all of a sudden you haven’t seen him in 3 months and they’ve lost 40 pounds, now you’re interested in the Paleo diet, right? This is what we’re talking about on a city scale is this first city, maybe the first couple of cities do this they can get to that zero carbon emissions place. Now, it’s not just a theory, it’s proven. My belief is that they’re going to fall like dominoes. Who wants to live in a world that’s falling apart? This is the promise of the future that we can enjoy and collaboratively thrive together. It’s exciting, man. I’m really, really enthusiastic about this.
By the way, Well.org has committed to following all of these with cameras wherever they go because I’m just in love with this idea. It’s something that I think needs global attention and it also needs local attention. Everyone with a cellphone and periscope gets involved in this should also be sharing this with their social networks. There’s a lot of ways to kick up the dust on this and accelerate it, and I think we’ll see it as we hit the ground running in the first city.
David: I’m so excited, Pedram. Your excitement and enthusiasm certainly is also infectious. One thing I want to say also about this is that, for me, there’s a key part in my empowerment world view. We haven’t talked about this empowerment framework that undergirds a lot of this, but one of them is the shift from pathology to vision. Simply speaking, pathology is a focus on what’s wrong and how to fix it and vision is a focus on what’s possible and how to create it. When we focus on pathology, our solutions are defined by the problem. When we focus on vision our solutions are defined by our imagination. We’re also putting a new paradigm on social change forward around where people focus their intention and attention. Part of what I see this is being, is we’re using climate change as the catalyst that we, it’s always been but not as a focus on what’s wrong and how to fix it but as an opportunity to create the future for human kind block by block, city by city, country by country.
Because if we improve our quality of life, we connect with our neighbors, we create all of the new things that we talked about, that people are doing all over the place they now become scaled, we built a whole connections around everything. You start to see the world that everyone has wondered if we could have. The only way that I think one gets that given how sort of … We’re not that go slow as a species, it’s hard to move a whole species on a journey. It takes some smarts on how to find a leverage point and then be successful at it. This is by no means a guarantee what we’re doing. We think we got a lot of the system conditions right. It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of good people working hard to make it work. That said, we have a catalytic moment. That, we often say, crisis is a terrible thing to waste. The climate crisis is a catalytic moment for being able to drive the changes we want for the world itself.
How You Can Help
Pedram: I love it. Dave, I’m obviously a big fan. I want everyone listening to this to be able to track and follow this as it develops because it’s exciting piece of news for our children’s children. How can people find you? How can they follow up with the Cool City Challenge and keep their eyes on this thing?
David: Thank you. Well, at the moment I’m just completing that program, finishing the book, getting it edited at the moment. They’ll be done and piloted next year in a city, likely Palo Alto, we’re in conversations with them but we’re just going to finalize those conversations. Then some other places as well. Then we’ll spend about a year working through building our technology platform, getting all the buzz word out. I’m thinking by 2017, sometime in 2017, we’ll be getting pretty close to being able to start the formal scaling process. Then I’m just going to give you the lay of the land, then we’re going to try to get to take 2 more cities on, because we were going to go from the prototype phase to the demonstration phase. We can do a couple of other cities. Then we want to get the 17 cities towards the end of the 5-year frame. We have that whole thing in motion.
That’s the journey, that’s the trajectory. The Cool Block Program itself does not demand that you do the Cool City Challenge, it just demands that… it doesn’t demand anything. It’ll just be available to people. Sometime next year they can go to our website, empowermentinstitute.net. In the interim, there are several things people could do. One is that if they want to start working on their carbon foot print, which is a subset, critical subset, but not the whole program, of the Cool Block. I have a book called Low Carbon Diet, which has been very successful in terms of taking off in meeting a need. It’s a best seller and people are getting results out of it. That’s a book people can work with following the same methodology in the short run, if they want to start that process.
Any one of these programs are also available on my website. Any number of these sub-programs are available. Then if someone is interested in actually thinking about the very process of architecting second order change then there is my book Social Change 2.0. Those are some of the things our institute and other way, that’s some more robust version that might be at later stage for people. Those are some of the different ways that people can plug in.
Pedram: Love it. Obviously you’re a busy guy. You’ve been doing a lot of things and it shows. Could I get like a cheat sheet from you, like the top few things people can do right now to green up their homes or something that we could post with this article to get people who are enthusiastic start it? Is that something you have somewhere?David: I don’t have a specific thing like that but I can tell you that there are several actions that probably would be most high leveraged around carbon foot print reduction. Bringing up one’s lifestyle is certainly a bigger question than just carbon. You have to deal with other issues. The carbon actions that have the most impact and I’ll start with the one that will be a softball for your world, and that is lowering where you eat on the food chain. Because as you eat more meat you use more carbon, you generate way more carbon emissions. You can save 5,000 pounds off of your carbon foot print. The subtitle in my book is “30-day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds”, so one action will actually get you that whole result, which is to go through from a meat-eating diet to a vegetarian diet. It doesn’t have to be in one fell swoop but it could be in stages.
Another one, simple one is if your source of energy from utility is using fossil fuels you can get the option to be using purchasing the energy, what do we call it, renewable energy option. The green option, I guess they call it. That can also have a significant impact. You just pay a little bit extra a month and you go from actually generating carbon to not generating carbon so that’s a huge impact on your foot print. I would say a third action that would probably be very helpful for people would be really taking a look at their transportation practices and looking at how they can reduce the amount of vehicle miles they travel to being more efficient through carpooling. If you do the Cool Block one of the great things is that all of the sharing opportunities are available.
Also I haven’t checked out the sharing economy. There’s so many ways to actually get your material needs met materially without generating more resources is also powerful. That’s happening all over the world. That’s another I guess you should say driver or input into the power of this Cool Block. You can be doing these things with your neighbors. You can do carbon diet with your neighbors and all those other programs.
Pedram: I just have to say, this is very encouraging and I would implore anyone who’s listening to, or watching this, to say don’t wait until 2017. If you can avoid it jump in now and do these few things that David had shared with us. It feels good, it feels good to be doing it and you realize that it’s not as hectic as you think and life is just as cool and you can feel good about not contributing to yet another polar bear not having a house. I think that there’s a lot we can do right now and I encourage people to do that. David, thank you so much. We’re out of time. You’re not going to do this forever. I just love what you’re doing so we’re going to keep following you and keeping our audience abreast of this obviously because it’s a very values-aligned with everything we’re about. Just hats off to you and thanks for doing what you do.
David: Pedram, my pleasure and honor and great joy to be working for you.
Pedram: Thanks. I hope you enjoyed it. Like I said, my goodness, what a guy. We’re talking about big thinking here, and we’re talking about big thinking that’s actually happening on a scale that can change the planet. I really want to know what you think and I really want to know what you think you can do in your life to bring this in. Just because this thing is booting up and it’s so big doesn’t mean that we can’t start right now in our own lives. We’ll post … If you’re listening to this in a podcast just please go, love it up and give us some ratings and give us some comments.
If you want we’re going to put some of these resources into a blog on Well.org associated with the story so I’ll have our team assemble some of the wisdom that he dropped because there’s some really good stuff here. All his stuff is from data-driven decisions. No one’s making this stuff up. We know that it works and we know that it’ll work for you. Let’s do it. Let’s do this together, let’s make the world a better place. We have a vision and we have the enthusiasm and we have a plan. Awesome. I think that’s a great place to be and I love being here. I love this conversation. I’ll see you in the next show.