Eli MacLaren

Innovation and Everyday Disasters

This week, I had the pleasure of welcoming Eisenhower Fellow Wil McLellan to the Business Innovation Factory. Wil has a fascinating personal story of transformation — the kind we love at BIF — and one that raises good questions about how everyday civic innovation happens.

I believe that citizen action does not require a force majeure, but we do have something to learn about how natural disasters create the conditions for extraordinary to emerge. Eventually our everyday disasters will have the impact of natural disasters. Wouldn't it serve us to behave differently sooner rather than later?

Wil had "retired" from the UK corporate world to Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand. He was running a successful gaming company, and taking advantage of the country's wild landscape to ski and surf. In February 2011, Christchurch was the epicenter of 6.3 magnitude earthquake, which tragically killed 185 people and decimated every building in the city's center.

His house gone, his office gone, Wil and his colleauges were attempting to live and run businesses from tents. Like any great entrepreneur, Wil looked around and decided there had to be a better way. If there were no buildings, he should build one.

Epic Innovation emerged as a result — a collaboration hub for entrepreneurs, gamers, software developers, film companies, and more. The outcome is impressive, but like many stories of innovation the process is perhaps more interesting.

As the project got off the ground, Wil started running into rules and regulations. He couldn't build in the "red zone" — the city area cordoned off for safety. He couldn't get financing without guaranteeing zero rental leakage (and the promise to throw out any tenant who couldn't immediately make rent).

One by one, each of these "rules" went away, because, towards the goal of community rebuilding, they weren't really necessary, they were simply preventing progress. People began collaborating in unusual ways in order to get the project off the ground. Trust was established where it hadn't been. People gave themselves permission to act and lead, because there was no alternative.

The process begs many questions about transformation:

How might we give ourselves permission to transform our communities in everyday times, not just extraordinary times?

Natural disasters are a great disruptor. They wipe out infrastructure, housing, transportation, and utility systems. They wipe out businesses and occassionally entire industries. They wipe out the "rules" about how communities are allowed to be built. They wipe out preconceived notions of what is, and force citizens to imagine wholly new possibilities.

Sometimes, in the wake of a natural disaster, communities rethink who they want to be and how they want to operate. In 2005, I worked with Sri Lankan fishing villages to fund efforts to rebuild a fishing fleet annihilated in the 2004 Tsunami. But the young men who remained in these villages didn't want to rebuild the fishing industry — it was their grandfathers' business. They wanted cell phones so they could build mobile based micro businesses. Of course, it doesn't always work like that. I also worked in Haiti in 2004 during a flooding disaster in Gonaive, and we hoped the communities would be rebuilt stronger and more resilient to disasters — but the devastation of the 2010 earthquake proved otherwise.

We can see, feel, and touch the impact of a natural disaster. People's suffering is out in the open, en masse. Natural disasters are sudden and jarring, forcing our attention. The impact is non-debatable. There is little room for dissent about the nature of the problem.

Unfortunately, our everyday disasters in education, health care, and community look different. They are more gradual in their approach, more subtle in their impact. Devastation is private — the family who loses a home, the single mom who loses her job, the young student forced to drop out of college. There is less shared suffering, and as such, there is no collective responsibility to think and act differently. We don't try to build a shared understanding of the problem; there is significant dissent about how to solve it.

If citizens thinking and behaving differently is possible in extraordinary times, the question is:

How might we simulate the conditions that encourage possibility-thinking and collaboration everyday?

The conditions of our everyday disasters are very different than the conditions of natural disasters. Yet, the latter catalyzes self-organizing purposeful networks. What are the catalysts that would work in our every-day? Funding? Platforms for participation? Opportunities to engage across sectors? Opportunities to share and connect around shared passion? Are citizens resistant to this type of organizing or are they lack the tools and opportunity?

Further:

How might we remove the unneeded barriers to transformation?

Wil's experience shows us that what we already know: outdated and unnecessary rules exist, and can go away when necessary. How do we create these conditions everyday, in order to enable us to experiment with new transformational approaches for community renewal regularly? How do we get at the levers, resources, and capabilities we need to experiment with new models everyday? How might lifting these barriers give citizens a sense of possibility, a willingness to engage in new ways? How much of citizen resistance is due to seeing the slog ahead of them when they will hit up against these rules? What if we could make it easy for citizens to engage in new ways? Would they show up?

I believe that citizen action does not require a force majeure, but we do have something to learn about how natural disasters create the conditions for extraordinary to emerge. Eventually our everyday disasters will have the impact of natural disasters. Wouldn't it serve us to behave differently sooner rather than later?

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