Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Gambler

On a warm spring evening, on an event bound for somewhere,
I met up with a gambler, we were both too green to speak.
So we took turns a-starin' and thinkin' about ideas,
'Til collaboration overtook us and we both began to speak.

She said 'Hey I've made a living out of greening people's meetings,
And knowing what their waste is from diving in their trash.
So if you don't mind me saying, I know you're competition,
But if we can trust each other I've an idea worth some cash.

(sing it with me!)

So in this instance should I fold 'em? Know I should hold 'em? 
Know I should walk away? Know I should run? 
Should I count my money and get up from the table? 
Will there be time enough for counting when the collaboration is done?

Collaboration in sustainability is a dicey thing. On the one hand it's necessary. We're facing tough challenges. More people and better ideas playing off each other can put us in a better position to solve problems. But collaboration isn't always easy in a competitive business world. Sometimes we tend to keep cards close to our chest.

Last year I did something that sounds like a gamble on the surface:
     I worked for free.
          With a competitor.
               Innovating about an idea.
                    Without a documented agreement.
                          To create an innovative product.

Crazy, right? Well, yes. Stupid? Maybe. At least when you put it that way!

Strange thing though? Never felt that way. Not once! Sometimes magic happens when the right people crash into a compelling idea. Things just click and you transcend uncertain and nervous worry about everyone's individual stake by being completely devoted to the mutual stake.

I'm really proud to finally be able to share a report that describes the outcome of the gamble: Get Your Green On, a mobile application-based event game(PDF). This report is the outcome of a fun and inspiring collaborative project with Judy Kucharuk of Footprint Management Systems and QuickMobile.

So glad we were all willing to take a gamble on an unproven idea, lay our cards down on the table and find an ace that we can keep!

Oh, and: Kenny.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

A Steady, Clear Current

They say when you die your life flashes before your eyes. I wonder sometimes what I might see in that moment.

Tea in an antique cup at my Gramma's. The outline of a snow angel in a patch of heavy snow. A Costa Rican downpour. My Dad in his sailing hat. Mum with a spray bottle pointed at him. My nieces and nephews playing in the waves. The epic silhouette of a blue whale gliding below a boat.

Today, on World Water Day we take time to talk about and act to conserve a precious resource. And while we acknowledge water's necessity for our survival, a pause too in tribute to the important role it plays in our fundamental happiness. As for me, it's the canvas upon which floats a happy, lucky and blessed life.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Sustainability: A Slice of Pi

It's 3.14pm on the 14th day of the third month. Time to raise a nerdy cocktail and celebrate a slice of pi!

You remember pi: that long, painful number your math teacher scrawled across the blackboard? The one you bragged to your friends you could memorise up to the 100th digit? (Don't tell me that was just me....I've seen you guys on You Tube!)

Even if you didn't have all of it in your head, you knew 3.14 was that number you had to memorise to plug into certain formula on tests. You may not have really understood what it was, or how it all fit together, but hey: got you a pass on your math final, so all good!

On Pi Day I've been thinking: there's a lot in common between one of the most well-known math constants and sustainability. And at risk of being terribly nerdy, a fun tribute is in order!

Ever get the feeling you're going in circles? Pi shifts our attention from the linear to the circular. You can use it to calculate the distance around a circle or the area of it. Sustainability too tries to shift our thinking from considering things as a straight path forward to a closed-loop system. Recycling circle: I'm looking at you.

The other parallel? It has been 4000 years. We've still not figured out either yet. The first evidence of pi dates back to 1900 BC. Today we're still trying to get more accurate in our calculation of it. 10 trillionth digit calculated - 10 trillion to go! Something tells me sustainability will be a similar journey: no end destination, only increasing levels of complexity, improvement and accuracy in how we practise it.

There's no numbers to express how much I 'value' you. Pi also has a value that can't be expressed. The numbers in it never repeat in the same way. Similarly sustainability seems 'invaluable'. Every time you think you've got the formula calculated along comes a new situation, or more complex sustainability issue (climate change, food security and global economic dynamics, anyone?). The only constant? Needing to go deeper and continuing to change!

It's not about me. It's about me, and you, and you, and you.... Maybe the most interesting similarity between pi and sustainability is that both are about relationships. Alone, they have very little benefit. As a string of numbers, mathematicians strive to get to a more accurate expression of the ratio of pi: the relationship between a circle's circumference and it's diameter. As a concept sustainability is a mix of interconnected ideas that practitioners strive to describe and refine. In the end, you can try to make these relationships more and more precise all you want. They still remain an expression about the relationship between things: their relevance and benefit comes from applying them.

So, raise a glass to pi. Raise a glass to sustainability. But most of all raise a glass to all those who use them for everything from engineering to science and event planning!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Wristbands don't solve war crimes, or event sustainability problems

I'm going to go out on a limb and take a guess that most of us didn't know who Kony was on Monday. But 6 days later, it's hard to find a single person who's not aware of the man.

As often happens with these kinds of things, social awareness of an important issue arcs on an expected path. Mad trending of the topic. Water cooler conversation. Broader awareness. Critique. Uncertainty and intellectual conflict about everything from the integrity of efforts to what should be done to really solve the problem. And possibly by next week Kony will fade into the background as the social speed of awareness-based advocacy slows and becomes old news. Those people who are devoted to the issue (and not the figurehead of Kony) will continue to work hard to solve it, while the rest of us will move on, feeling satisfied we helped raise the profile of an important issue that may bring a man and others like him to justice.

On March 8 The Atlantic published a critical piece on the idea that awareness-building about complex issues like war crimes is a very dangerous practise. Arguing that yes, it's important to care about issues, but that we are all kidding ourselves if we think buying and wearing a wristband will solve much of anything.

In reading the article I can't help but think about how a similar point needs to be made about sustainable events. Evidence suggests we sometimes assume sustainable events are about awareness-building. That getting the issue on people's radar is the problem that needs to be solved. If people know, they'll do better, or so we think. So, we provide hotel room guests with a choice for linen reuse and assume water will be conserved when the towels are hung up. We include a session in our conference agenda about sustainability and hope attendees will be inspired to make better decisions. We add a clause to an RFP to encourage suppliers share their sustainable practises so we can hopefully leverage more value from a purchase decision by balancing the triple bottom line, instead of just a financial one. All important steps to say to our stakeholders: these are things we care about and we think you should too.

Evidence also suggests we place a lot of importance on the experiential aspects of sustainable events. We provide opportunities for attendees to participate in volunteer projects. We feel good contributing to something important like delivering lunches to the homeless, planting trees or enabling a book drive for school children. We actively communicate what we're doing and embrace the 'feel good' nature of these programs. They often lead to a good photo opportunity to share with the world and indeed may help, even if only for a moment. All important steps to say to our stakeholders: our commitment to sustainability is visible and adds to your experience of our event in a way that we hope also makes you feel like you're contributing to a greater good.

Although they provide benefits, event sustainability initiatives that only focus on awareness-building and attendee experiences are dangerous for four reasons:

They reassure us we're addressing sustainability while enabling us to avoid attending to other highly complex social and environmental issues in the event industry. Take food, for example. I'll be the first to admit that diving into improving food sustainability at your event is an incredibly intimidating undertaking. It touches on everything from fair labour to energy, carbon, water conservation, ethics, genetic modification, packaging, toxic pesticide use, human health and beyond. It's very attractive to take the path of least resistance when faced with the option of diving into these complicated topics by researching and changing your supply chain. Eliminating bottled water, providing a sponsored tumbler and encouraging attendees to reuse it seems a much easier way to check off the sustainable food box.

They miss critical business opportunities that sustainability can contribute to. If we prioritise sustainable event tactics based on visibility and public relations potential we may overlook those solutions that can make the biggest difference to our bottom line, and the planet. Destination selection is one example. It's the earliest and arguably most invisible decision you make for your event. Yet it has the greatest potential carbon impact. It can also affect your budget immensely, potentially eliminating the need to invest in shuttles or additional directional signage and staff. Yet if attendee-facing sustainability opportunities get sorted to the top of the list we can miss this critical opportunity to make a big difference.

They divert precious resources from real actions that can make a material difference. Where time and money are limited it is essential to direct both to those sustainability measures that make the most material difference. That cut to the heart of a sustainability problem, rather than dealing with a symptom of it. For example, why spend thousands on a carbon offset when those funds could be invested in hiring someone to develop a comprehensive carbon reduction strategy for your event? One that actively looks at your decision making process and supply chain for ways to reduce emissions and business costs?

They expose you to risk. If the Kony story shows little else it reveals we have become a cynical and suspicious public. In the age of radical transparency, it took mere days for critics to question the story and intentions of the people behind it. The lesson to be learned? You can rest assured that when you hang up the poster for your event's CSR experience that someone, somewhere will have something to say about it. And most likely it will be a "yes, but": "That's nice you're recycling used soap, but how are you solving the problem of packaging waste? And access to clean water?"
Those event sustainability initiatives that only build awareness and promote experience in the absence of considering how it may make them vulnerable to critique do so at their own peril.

So should we be silent about characters like Kony, or forgo efforts to build awareness and engage our attendees in sustainability? Of course not, not if it's appropriate and the audience wants to engage. But we need to acknowledge these kinds of steps rarely solve root problems that are necessary to make the event industry more sustainable. To make that claim we need to continue to go deeper and farther than educating stakeholders and providing attendee wristbands.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Water Karma

I try to be a good water-conserving citizen.

Ellie, my cherished tumbler, has logged many miles onsite at events with me. In fact, since I was gifted her I reckon she's kept over 525 coffee cups and even more water bottles out of the landfill. Not bad, little Ellie! I also use my four minute shower timer from EventCamp Vancouver. Hair-washing day is a bit of a challenge though: thick long hair sucks up soap like a sponge and takes forever to rinse out.

Ellie :) Packed and ready for the road!

Even though I try through small steps like these, I still have a ways to go to be water wise. I could drive less. Eat less meat. Turn off lights and unplug appliances. There are many ways to reduce water use you might not even be aware of!

So this month I'm getting serious about it.

Today I'm starting a WATER KARMA jar. Consider it like a swear jar, except instead of adding a quarter every time you swear, you add one for every time you waste water.


Where's the money going? To support something that will pay for my water sins, of course! All quarters earned through April 21 will be donated to the GMIC's One Drop Challenge.

I challenge you to commit to your own water-wise changes, and where you can't to donate some Water Karma of your own!