One of the more frustrating aspects of our engagement with global climate change is that the crisis is manifesting itself in various ways right now, whereas the proposed solutions always seem to be gradual and incremental "works in progress." Take the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has been assembling for 15 years, with -- let’s be honest -- precious little to show for it. The ramifications of a warmer world are already upon us; but it's not always easy to find agencies, programs or projects that are meeting the urgent problems with practical, shovel-ready solutions.
Which is why it’s so refreshing to hear of something like the Climate Resilience Lab, organized by PopTech, a "community of innovators" best known for their unorthodox, "disruptive" approach to problem-solving and their annual conferences up in Maine. For three days in February, the Lab brought together a diverse group of experts in Nairobi, Kenya, where they all collaborated on new ways of helping vulnerable communities deal with the impacts of climate change.
One of climate change's cruelest ironies is that its impact is felt most by those who are least responsible for it -- namely, the rural poor in the developing world. With that in mind, the Lab focused its energies on agrarian communities, and paid particular attention, as PopTech president Leetha Filderman explained to me, "on the role that adolescent girls and women might play in building community-based climate resilience strategies."
Through its uniquely collaborative structure, the Lab tried to avoid replicating the pitfalls that typically plague well-intentioned climate-resilience groups whose work on the issue routinely yields, in the end, yet another report. In fact, a stated goal of this gathering was to "move beyond the white paper" -- an explicit rebuke of what is too often the only tangible output from so many think tanks and NGOs.
As such, the Lab functioned more as an intellectual mixer than a typical conference. There were experts from the fields of climate science and sustainable development, of course, but about half the attendees were leaders and "big thinkers" from outside that realm. Technologists, gender theorists, journalists, geographers, and other specialists had an equally important part to play.
'We have to work hard to get people out of 'conference mode,' which is a more passive mode," said Filderman. "We want to hear everyone’s thoughts. All have equal time on the nonexistent podium."
To help shake things up on the first day of the gathering, Pablo Suarez, of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, and Janot Mendler Suarez, who created the Games for a New Climate Task Force at Boston University, debuted a new game designed to help players consider the role of gender in decision-making, specifically in decisions about how best to adapt to a changing climate.
[Click here for a larger rendering of the game.]
The game was far from hypothetical; scenarios reflected the actual conditions in rural communities mere hours from Nairobi. And so, on the second day of the three-day lab, attendees found themselves being piled into vans and heading out to the countryside for a field trip. "It's important to be in a place where everyone can see the challenges first hand," said Filderman. "In eastern Kenya, there's real concern that the region is going through a long-term desertification, and that it's moving more towards the desert-like landscape to the north, in Ethiopia."
In the area the attendees visited, maize has long been the main crop, but increasingly arid conditions aren't going to make its production sustainable for very long. They met one farmer in the village of Machakos whose lustrous green plot of land stood out from the brown, dusty landscape surrounding it. Later they looked at an innovative microinsurance project that helps protect farmers from droughts and floods.
The challenges are pretty clear, and some of the solutions seem evident. So what's next? As participant Ned Breslin of Water For People explained, the real challenge is in figuring out how to translate and transplant the successes they encountered beyond the borders of any single farm or village.
A three-day lab isn't going to generate any "true a-ha moments," Filderman acknowledged. But the goal of the Climate Resilience Lab wasn't to come up with some grand plan that could be implemented in all of the world's rural, developing communities. "Realistically," Filderman told me, "we'd love to see two or three real collaborations come out of the Lab," turning the results of brainstorming sessions on the third and final day into some interesting real-world projects.
In this regard, the Climate Resilience Lab reminds me of the PositiveFeedback events I've written about earlier. Both set the stage for collaboration between talented people from divergent fields, and both give the newly formed teams whatever support they can to make things happen.
Filderman is quick to note that the Lab itself is just a beginning. “The best is yet to come” out of these collaborations, she told me. As participants stay in touch with one another, PopTech will be sharing developments on their website, and I’ll be following along. And in June, the organization will be holding another big Resilience conference in Iceland, where many of the returning Lab participants will be sharing the progress that's been made on their projects. Stay tuned.