When I returned to the US in late February after most of KiwiConnect’s New Frontiers 2015 convening in New Zealand’s Aroha Valley (pictured above), I felt well fed and aglow with ideas and questions, delighted with newly-discovered friends and colleagues, and wowed by the quality and caliber of the social systems weaving and interdisciplinary cross-pollination we (from Bioneers) were honored to be a part of.
Ecological, Social and Digital Innovation for Transformation
A collaborative vision birthed by Matthew and Brian Monahan (of Inflection, a Silicon Valley company they co-founded) in cooperation with several deeply knowledgeable New Zealanders who are sustainability and whole system experts, the event sought to seed innovation and prompt greater entrepreneurship towards co-creating what Charles Eisenstein calls “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”
The gathering assembled—with strategic intentionality—several diverse constituencies not often invited to dream together, from NZ and the US, including especially:
- Social entrepreneurs from the digital and high tech world
- Impact investors and philanthropists
- Local movers and shakers, high level public servants and policy makers
- Conservationists, permaculture practitioners, master gardeners and seed savers
- Māori people from several disciplines
- Culture workers, musicians, artists, poets, facilitators and other social innovators
“We” included three principals of Bioneers: my partner and husband, Kenny Ausubel, myself and Joshua Fouts, who are the co-founders and executive director, respectively.
We were invited to speak and contribute, with Kenny offering framing on the state of the world’s food systems and their relationship to ecological health, and Joshua presenting an overview of the rapid evolutionary arc of digital media, and helping context its tremendous power in spreading ideas and social movements while accelerating learning and connectivity, both locally and globally.
I’ve learned from the art and science of Biomimicry that the places of greatest innovation in nature are those where two or more ecosystems meet: where a river meets the ocean, or a forest glen meets a meadow and lake.
Since human systems are a subset of nature’s systems, the fertile value of bringing together diverse systems or fields applies to co-creating conditions that are optimal for social innovation.
The Monahans—with friends and family and Inflection and KiwiConnect colleagues—applied this concept adeptly, in collaborating to host a gathering that optimized the “edges” and appreciated very differing perspectives while still encouraging a unifying field of shared values. (For further info, see www.kiwiconnect.nz)
Perhaps we were also invited to celebrate the commonality shared between New Frontiers’ purposes and Bioneers’—a whole systems approach that brings together divergent disciplines, sectors and perspectives to encourage and seed innovation, while revealing the interconnectedness of issues, solutions and approaches that otherwise often show up in silos.
Like Bioneers, this event sought to create a safe space for creativity from all perspectives, while cross-pollinating applicable solutions and strategies. Like our events, arts were woven among presentations, with moments to appreciate and stretch our bodies for the kinesthetic among us.
As we have for 25 years, New Frontiers honored and appreciated the sacred, especially through a kinship with indigenous and aboriginal cultures, and the mystery that permeates and is unknowable throughout the natural world.
Why in New Zealand, you might ask? Our hosts first discovered this small country on the edge of the world about four years ago, and began dreaming into their relationship with it then.
They recognized the tremendous opportunity NZ invites to effect and accelerate progressive environmental and social change in a nation with a population of only four million.
They appreciated its youth as a nation, its immense natural beauty, the depth of its traditional Māori culture, and the extent of social healing that’s already occurred among the people there.
They noted the temperate climate, and relative abundance of natural resources, and saw how much people valued nature’s beauty, sanctity and resilience. They resonated with the warmth, kindness, humility and authenticity of the people and their culture that they found there.
They felt the palpable presence of that indigenous influence of the Māori culture liberally laced throughout the society. Policy makers with high cabinet level positions and elected officials all started their talks with a Māori invocation honoring the ancestors, the sacred power of the land and of each one present in the room!
A Beautiful, Sustainable Setting for Co-creation
To optimize the New Frontiers gathering’s success, they attended to the beauty and comfort of the spaces, the quality of the food, and most importantly, the caliber of the people.
Creating the conditions conducive to creativity and collaboration involves lots of pre-production, and the event was well planned and curated, with long meal breaks and networking time to facilitate people optimizing connections.
The hosting was caringly planned, with great organic and vegetarian food prepared by a gourmet chef. The conference itself was housed in a beautiful white dome, one that had been repurposed since it’s initial use in helping trauma victims of the Christchurch earthquake a few years ago. The dome was filled with beautiful and original artwork, and all of this combined to add to the magical mix of the whole experience.
To walk their talk in living lightly on the land, they’d built elegant composting toilets, and repurposed old billboards to create colorful solar-heated shower facilities. To host overnight guests comfortably while exploring repurposing valuable materials, glam-camping domes were set up and furnished with beds constructed from shipping pallets that typically (and so wastefully!) only use virgin wood once, then are discarded.
Talks ranged from an overview on invasive species and ecosystem renewal from the Department of Conservation, to an emergent conversation with biodynamic and permaculture educators and seed-savers, to impact investors, social entrepreneurs and new innovations in digital technology that can support social organizing for change.
In particular, we were excited to meet Benjamin Knight, a co-creator of Loomio, a revolutionary web platform that supports social movement building, who will be offering a keynote at Bioneers’ annual conference this year, October 16-18, in San Rafael, CA.
Most remarkable to me, however, was the consistent caliber and depth of the people I met there.
Each time I sat down with someone new, it seemed, we plunged into deep territory together, and I was wowed each time with the qualities of self-reflectiveness, deep listening and considered and thoughtful understanding that I encountered in each person I met. This was equally true of the local leaders and activists, as well as of the KiwiConnect team, Inflection employees and friends and family of the Monahans.
The renowned Austrian physicist, author and systems thinker Fritjof Capra says that the transformation to an eco-literate society—one that knows how to live in balance with the natural world—requires a collective shift from a focus on counting things to a focus on mapping relationships.
I understand this shift as visible in the emergent “relationship economy,” where people’s connections and capacity to accelerate each other’s personal and professional learning are deeply valued and prioritized.
This contributes toward a system where accumulating stuff is no longer the primary goal, where whatever’s truly in the common good rises to the top, and where the only true security lies in our authentic caring for one another, and in the strength and resilience of our web of relations.
This transition also speaks to some of the challenges we face as we stand between paradigms—especially with respect to evaluation, where it’s hard to assess relationships, qualitatively, harder than it is to quantify how much of something has been achieved.
If Bioneers has taught me anything, it’s the value of relationships, what’s known as social capital in the business world. As we’ve practiced, year by year, creating the conditions conducive to sparking leadership and innovation among all people, a marvelous outcome has been people meeting (both personally and professionally) and forming relationships that wind up significantly enhancing and informing their lives and careers.
These kinds of outcomes, however, while being deeply fulfilling of our mission and purpose, can be hard to track, as they don’t follow any proscribed timeframe, and can be mysterious in how they pan out.
It was humbling and thrilling to be able to witness a next generation of social entrepreneurs (or impact entrepreneurs) practicing that bundle of skills so wisely, so consistently, and with such clear vision and purpose.
Relational Intelligence: A Crucial Skill
As I’ve become increasingly passionate about women’s leadership and restoring the feminine in us each and all, I tend to see the world through gender-colored lenses. I yearn for a time when the feminine human qualities among us are prized as highly as the masculine, and when women’s leadership balances equitably to complement men’s.
Perhaps the most essential aspect of the feminine that’s needed in this time is what I call relational intelligence, a bundle of capacities that (through some combination of biology and culture) women often bring to their leadership in large measure.
Relational intelligence includes ways of knowing that are beyond the mental, integrating empathic awareness, intuition, deep listening, self-reflection, embodied awareness, cooperation and collaboration skills and a willingness to be vulnerable, to question, and to be humble and not know all the answers.
Relational intelligence also implies a deep respect for the “other,” and a curiosity about what differing perspectives may bring.
Informed by my experience with Bioneers’ ecological and social systems, with resilience and repair, with leadership and with women, this capacity to connect across differences is perhaps the most important skill we could cultivate in this pivotal time for Earth and the reinvention of human civilization, and New Frontiers’ team demonstrated and pulled it off with skill, dimensionality and lucid intention.
I bow in admiration for all those who contributed so deftly and capably, as all that was achieved makes me hopeful for our collective future.
Although I only experienced New Zealand through this one Aroha Valley on the North Island, (Aroha means love in Māori)—I couldn’t have anticipated how rich with awareness, learning and inspired vision this gathering of diverse innovators could be.
Before I left, Garth, a member of KiwiConnect’s team, asked astute questions that helped me to realize that we know of several place-based efforts currently occurring that are effectively advancing progressive change, including Envision Spokane in Washington state, and another in British Columbia, Canada.
What a gift it is to have the opportunity to learn from each, and share discoveries to advance learning among the field. Thank you, KiwiConnect, Monahans, and New Frontiers!