David Gershon, founder of the Cool City Challenge and other ground-breaking endeavors for social change.
Our correspondent, Aliss Terrell, interviews David Gershon, visionary social architect, climate activist, and author of
Social Change 2.0, and The Low Carbon Diet.
It seems we are at a turning point in American history. How do we address the challenges we are facing?
In America, our systems are stressed in every area—education, health care, politics, the economy. When a social system is stressed it can either break down or break through to a higher level of performance and social value. In systems theory, this is called second order change.
It’s important to understand the difference between social change 1.0, which is incremental, and social change 2.0, which is more deeply transformative.
Social change 1.0 is business-as-usual thinking, based on four approaches, the primary levers of government at national, state, or local levels. The first is command and control. Its underlying assumption is that the only way you can get people to change is by forcing them. You make them change by passing a law and punishing them if they don’t follow it.
The second approach uses financial incentives. You pay people or you incentivize them with penalties. The expectation here is that the only way to get someone to change is through economic interest.
The third approach is awareness campaigns by NGO’s, government agencies, etc. The assumption here is that there’s a deficit of information and, if we inform people, they’ll change. Of course, there’s a big gap between knowing and doing. So that has lots of limitations.
The last approach is protest, as in the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab Spring. People are saying “this is not acceptable,” but offering no alternatives, other than more 1.0 solutions.
When none of these approaches work, you have two directions left.
One is despair, cynicism, and apathy, states of mind where a lot of people are right now. The other is empowering people to want to change. My book Social Change 2.0 is about the kind of change that transforms the whole social system.
The Empowerment Institute helps people create compelling visions and acquire the tools to implement them. We build capacity for second-order change around the most strategic issues for our evolution as a human species, such as low-carbon living.
Right now we need to change the way we think about change. Trump is forcing people to look more deeply at their beliefs and methods, especially about climate action. If we lose our planet’s viability to support life, there isn’t a lot of latitude for business-as-usual approaches.
What do you see as the growing edge for the resistance movement? How can people go to the next level?
A colleague of mine, Dennis Hayes, helped co-create Earth Day in 1970. There were many different groups engaged, and he came up with the phrase “ecology of action,” an eco-system with lots of niches, each one important for the system to be healthy. We need laws, financial incentives, and awareness campaigns. But the challenge is that these first-order change tools are not sufficient to create change at the scale of transformation we want.
It’s very important to protest, to say no, but we then have to learn how to say yes. You can reinforce change with legislation and financial incentives, but if people don’t want change in the first place and those means are repealed, then you regress.
Let’s say Obama wants us to step up for climate change but businesses, cities, and individuals don’t care about it. A new President comes in with different priorities and we regress. If people are involved because they see the need for change and know what to do, then we have a lot better chance for sustained results. Ultimately, the opportunity is for all of us to define what we want, how we want it, and to focus on a more sophisticated metric for social change than, “We don’t like the bad things this person’s doing.”
There’s a hunger that hasn’t been here before. We’ve been assuming everything would get taken care of by a progressive political leader at the national level. We now see that’s not going to happen, and in fact would never have happened. Even if Hillary were president, people would have stayed complaisant. Now at least we’re awake. It’s a great moment.
What is the Cool City Challenge?
The Cool City Challenge is a non-profit initiative of Empowerment Institute to address climate change by reducing CO2 emissions at the grass roots level. It’s designed to make our cities more sustainable, resilient, and livable. The fundamental idea is that 70% of the planet’s carbon is emitted out of cities and 70% of that is from of our daily lifestyle practices, so that’s where we have to start in order to have global impact.
How did The Cool City Challenge develop and how does it work?
When I first committed to climate activism in the early 90’s, I explored ways to engage people in my quest. How does one get one’s arms around such a huge, globally challenging issue? What I can offer is a thinking process, how to conceive of a social innovation like this, how to design and architect it.
First I defined the end state as motivating individuals to adopt sustainable behaviors. The next question was, “What’s holding someone back?” “What beliefs are stopping them from taking effective action?” We found there were several issues: “I don’t know where to start. I don’t know which actions are the most important. I don’t know how to do them. And if I did them, I don’t know if it would make a difference. So I’m not sure it’s worth bothering.”
So we synthesized the information that was overwhelming people and created the Green Living Program to help them reduce their solid waste, use water, energy, and transportation more efficiently, learn to purchase in a more eco-friendly way, and then learn how to empower others. Through trial and error, we found we had to build a peer support group to generate social motivation for people to follow through. Then we had to develop structured meetings, action recipes, self-directed meeting guides, and a whole series of other things. This then became the first sustainable lifestyle program. More than an awareness campaign, it was an actual behavior change program.
After years of iteration, we found we were able to help people reduce their solid waste by 40%, water use by 32%, energy use by 16%, C02 emissions by 15%, vehicle miles traveled by 8% and people were saving about $400.
Then we asked two more questions: “People have adopted a more sustainable lifestyle, but will they continue over time? “How do we get enough people to do this so it has a far-reaching impact on climate change?”
We did eight research studies that showed new behaviors were not only sustained but improved upon. Then we discovered a way to organize people into teams at the block scale. Most people didn’t know their neighbors, so meeting them filled an unmet need. Social isolation became an opportunity instead of a limitation. We gave them a very simple script, “Hi I’m your neighbor from up the street, I’d like to invite you to a gathering about a program sponsored by our city, to better conserve resources for the sake of our children, get to know each other better, and create a healthier, safer, and more livable block. Can you make it? It’s this Thursday 7:30 to 9pm.”
The benefits drilled down into what we call intrinsic motivations, internal needs rather than external. We didn’t force people, pay people, or shame people. They were doing something because they wanted to. They wanted greater meaning and purpose, a deeper sense of community, and a sense of agency. “I can actually make a difference on the block where I live.” We were able to get a 25% recruitment rate per block.
So fast forward as we iterated on this model around livability issues in inner cities, resiliency issues in New York City post 9/11, water issues and carbon reduction across many cities. But the priority remained climate action.
This has led to our Cool Block program, which we’re piloting in California, integrating all these issues and this methodology into a block-based behavior change program. We’re now doing it in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, in partnership with a wonderful company called Josie Maran Cosmetics. They represent a new social change model in business, what I call corporate social engagement, where companies step up, take on big issues, and put real funding and commitment behind it.
So that’s our process. We’re just completing the pilot phase and we’ll begin scaling the program later this year. So far it’s working well, in fact, the 25% recruitment rate has gone up to 55% because of the multiple benefits this program provides: sustainable living, resiliency, climate action, an explicit focus on social cohesiveness and livability. It doubled thanks to this more expansive curriculum.
The Cool City Challenge was recognized by NASA and a consortium of Silicon Valley thinkers. Tell me about that.
In 2013 NASA and an organization called Sustainable Silicon Valley Partners sponsored a Showcase of Solutions for Planetary Sustainability. Hundreds of scientists, inventors, and companies submitted their proposals for better water management, energy use, and transportation to a panel of experts from academia, research, business and venture communities. The Cool City Challenge won the top prize in the category: “Most outstanding solution addressing human impact on the planet.”
Why focus your climate activism in California?
We looked at California because it’s the most progressive state in the US, it’s very committed to the issue, and as the 6th largest economy in the world, has autonomy to act. It was the best place to anchor our climate work, test it, and ultimately, scale it. The Green Living Program we developed in California, became our Global Action Plan that has now diffused to 22 countries.
Is the Cool City Challenge being implemented in other states besides California?
We’re not in a position to do that. We really just want to hunker down and learn how to get our programs working well before we start taking on the responsibility of other places anywhere else. I’ve had interesting conversations with a group called C40, the largest world cities dealing with climate change. They’re very eager to implement behavior change and very interested in our program, but I’ve told them we’re not ready for that level of diffusion yet. I work in cities where I can be very hands on and tinker until I get the social innovation working right. We’ve chosen three cities diverse enough to provide different kinds of social learnings.
You’ve outlined these programs in a series of workbooks?
Yes, and the blueprint is laid out in Social Change 2.0 so whatever social issue people are working on, they can use that framework. There’s a study circle guide for community projects, and questions to help people apply the content.
A template for action?
Exactly. The goal of Social Change 2.0 is to literally create a blueprint. It’s a pattern language for creating transformative social change. Lots of people are using it in many different contexts.
How much leverage does California have to resist Trump’s policies and how much can the state impact national politics?
It has huge leverage. Our constitution gives a lot of power to the states and local communities, so there are lots of possibilities. It will involve a negotiation process, but I see California, as the premier early adopter state, leading the way for the country. There’s an incredible amount of talent and financial where-with-all there.
Do you agree with urban planner Audrey Noeltner’s statement that mayors are like CEO’s and have more leverage than other politicians?
Yes, I would agree with her. Even Obama could only get so far. Communities are where you can do social experiments without all the crazy national politics. If you choose early adopter communities with a similar mindset, you don’t have to sell climate change, you present the benefits, how it will improve their quality of life and sense of meaning through the contribution they’re making. That’s what people really want.
Has Trump’s blatant disregard for environmental concerns changed national or international strategies for your work?
Well, it’s made everything I do more relevant. The biggest opportunity of Trump is not really in any one content area where he’s regressive. It’s about accelerating the learning curve for people to get smarter about the process of social change.
The climate work and all the social change work I do, the whole framework is now much more on the agenda. This is where people will need to turn after they frustrate themselves with protest.
There have been wonderful articles in the New York Times, by Tina Rosenberg, who writes the Fixes Column, and other commentators, who say protest is a venting mechanism, but then what? As Einstein said, you can’t solve the problem at the same level it’s created. You can’t hope for better results when you use tools that haven’t worked in the past. So I feel very privileged, very excited that our work over the last 35 years now has such relevance.
Do you think our democracy is in a state of emergency? Is there a real threat of a totalitarian take over?
It comes down to whether you see the glass half full or half empty. I see possibility where others see only problems. I believe in human beings’ ability to learn and grow, which is the core of our Empowerment work. I believe we’re coded for self-improvement because we want a better life and we‘re smart enough to evaluate what will allow that to happen. We’re relatively slow as a species, but eventually we come along. If you look at the last hundred years, you see we’ve evolved. So I don’t think we’re going to regress in that way. I think people are projecting their fear mentality onto the situation. What I find is that democracy is actually being strengthened in a way I’ve never seen before. The fourth estate, the media, is now more energized than they’ve ever been. The New York Times readership, cable news, Internet viewership are all up. The judiciary branch is more empowered than it ever has been. Cities and states feel more empowered. Other countries that became dependent on the US are now asking more profound questions about themselves.
There was an interesting article in the New York Times by Maureen Dowd, who said Trump actually has made America great again, just not the way he anticipated. And I agree! So, I’m not worried; the fear is getting people out of bed in the morning. It’s good people are awake and taking responsibility for our democracy. Eventually they will ask the next set of “how to” questions and when they do it will catalyze an evolutionary moment for transformative social change.
Any other thoughts about dealing with the “Alt Right”?
At the level of activism, the antidote isn’t just reacting to problems; it’s being clear about our choices, thoughts, and beliefs. If we respond in kind, with fear of “us and them,” then we’re just playing into that same polarization. The opportunity here is to think in a more inclusive way about our country and the world. I call it building a unitive field, a place where we see only “the us”.
Trump is a polarizing individual. So what’s the antithesis of that? We have to be disciplined every day. Where we place our mental attention is what we create. This is a key principle in Empowerment. If we believe in “us and them” and work from a place of fear, we’ll feel morally righteous while reinforcing what we don’t want. I don’t go to the fear place, generally.
In your webinar you mention your work with the Rhode Island Fishery partners and how synergy benefited the local economy and the entire Atlantic Ocean. How can we create synergy in the US and a compelling vision that will carry us forward?
That’s another growing edge–the next place growth needs to happen. On my website, there’s a section under Societal Empowerment, called “A Dream For Our World” about the First Earth Run we organized, passing a flame around the globe as part of the UN Year of Peace in 1986. We had 45 heads of state and 25 million people participating in 62 countries. 20% of the world’s population watched it through the media. It was a huge initiation into a unitive worldview on the planet. In that section, you’ll see “Seven Actions to Change the World” based on our learnings about building unitive culture: how to befriend the other, how to create experiences in a spirit of cooperation, how to be what we call a dream keeper, to believe we can be successful as a human species and make our earth a viable place over the long run. It’s a free tool and designed to be shared virally. I encourage people to put these actions in practice and share them with others.
There’s whole chapter in Social Change 2.0 on synergy as an accelerator of social change. To create a real solution you need the whole system, you need everyone to be involved, which is why Trump’s polarizing worldview will not succeed.
Obama was way ahead of his time. He was a unitive political leader unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Even though the world wasn’t ready for it, he kept using all of his skills and natural instincts to bring all of us into a unitive place, as best he could, within a divisive political system with built-in constraints. That’s why he came out of office with such high approval ratings.
In the Cool City Challenge we have to get government, business, and all different parts of the civic sector in place. It’s an eco-system. Synergy isn’t just a nice thing to have; it’s essential.
One tool the Empowerment Institute uses for behavioral change is visualizing present history from the future. Can we re-imagine our current political situation from a future perspective to pull ourselves toward positive outcomes?
We have to envision what we want or we won’t create it. We need to project what we want coherently into the future then backcast to see how to get there. It’s a very powerful tool I used in the fishery intervention that you described and many other projects, including the climate change work we’re doing. Projecting a new possibility for the future opens our imagination.
Another core principle of ours is shifting from pathology to vision. When we focus on pathology, our ability to generate a solution is defined by the problem. We’ll always be trapped in the history and the limited thinking of a problem-solving mentality. When we focus on what we want, our vision, then our solution is unlimited. Our vision of possibility propels us into the future.
Outside my office I have a poster: “And the angel shrugged and she said, ‘If you fail this time, it will be a failure of imagination.’ And she gently placed in the palm of my hand, the world.” (Author: Brian Andreas, editor’s note)
I feel this is humanity’s opportunity. We need to open our social creativity. This is where everything I’ve said comes from. My question has always been, “What’s possible and how can we create it?” It’s profoundly empowering and effective to place your focus on envisioning new possibilities. The problems don’t go away per se, but it activates your ability to generate solutions. It’s also much more fun because you’re always energized.
What opened your imagination and galvanized you to become an activist?
For most of my life, I’ve had this desire to make the world better and to ask the “what’s possible” question for societal change, my body, my relationships, and my work in companies. When you ask that question, you get surprising answers.
Recently I was invited to speak at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. These are business, government, and academic leaders who’ve been very successful by following the rules and who are now looking at their lives and wanting to give back. I started off by saying, “My biography is very different from the ones you might be seeing here because I’ve asked very different questions and gotten very different answers. What I offer you is to do the same. This is my number one question, ask it and see where it takes you. ‘What’s possible? And how can I make that happen?’” That has taken me here, truly. At each step of the journey, like during the Cold War: “What’s possible so these two countries don’t blow each other up?” Then “What’s possible for climate change, for personal evolution, for our empowerment work?” So that might give people a starting point. Imagination is fertile. Not everyone’s a social architect but everyone has an imagination and now we also have the tools to apply when we begin to dream.
What new insights have emerged from your collaborations and conversations since the election?
I’ll give you two thoughts on that from a social change point of view; one’s a story and one’s an understanding of the physics of change applied to social issues.
When we were organizing the First Earth Run, passing the torch around the world, we had Hopi elder Grandmother Carolyn come to the UN and offer the Hopi Prophesy. We had Iroquois Chief Shenandoa light the fire. It was an incredibly symbolic, powerful moment. One of the things Grandmother Carolyn said has always stuck in my mind. It was about noticing what’s not being seen. We only see the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is where it’s really happening, where all of it is.
So in this Trump moment, we see a prominent person operating from a fear state, pulling in people who also operate out of a fear state, and then getting a reaction, often of fear. People feel threatened by his narrow vision of “us and them.” But underneath that, the mechanisms of American democracy are being strengthened. The sense of agency is being strengthened. What appears on the surface isn’t the deeper reality.
And of course, everyone fears he’s going to take us into a nuclear war, but I don’t buy that one. I think our species is intelligent enough to prevent him from derailing our ability to stay on the planet. That’s one insight.
Then I’ll offer the science of change from a physics point of view. Contraction forces expansion and vice versa, as in Trump following Obama. We’re now in a period of contraction, and there’s a tremendous desire for expansion. People are not just reacting; they’re innovating and investing all kinds of resources in creating new societal possibilities.
The next four years will be a social laboratory. What we’ll see on the tip of the iceberg every day is the chaos and everyone’s reaction to it. Underneath, there will be a tremendous amount of positive, constructive social innovation, organized and designed, tested, like the work we’re doing, among others.
I see it as a fertile time to figure out as a species how to deal with systemic, deeply entrenched social issues. It’s an interesting paradox. What seems so bad is causing amazing innovation. Evolution is a mystery and we’re a part of it.
What are your news sources?
The New York Times and the Huffington Post, but I read books more than news. I choose authors with visions and strategies for the future that help me connect dots. I love Thomas Freidman’s vision because he’s not just reacting to problems. His new book, Thank You For Being Late, An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, has a lot of clear analysis. I’m very interested in periods of human evolution where we achieved major breakthroughs like the American Revolution. I’m inspired by Thomas Jefferson and his deep belief in human potential. I’ve been influenced by Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation and Jarrett Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel about how concepts spread more quickly when there’s an actual blueprint people can copy.
I’m a pattern thinker so I see patterns in everything. I look to the natural world as a fantastic teacher for social system design. I’m learning right now how bees use collective intelligence to achieve amazing results. I love what’s going on in technology because there’s so much innovation. One of my aspirations is to help upgrade the social change literacy in the technology world so their investments have greater positive impact.
Is it time for a Second Earth Run?
The “Dream For Our World” section on the website is somewhat of a Second Earth Run, using the power of the Internet to diffuse the same principles without having to run around the globe and physically enact it. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but the First Earth Run’s ultimate aspiration was to build a planetary unitive field, where we connect as a human species with the Earth we live on. So that is a start. There’s a video of the First Earth Run so you can have a vicarious experience of being there. All the essential elements we learned from that event are listed among the Seven Actions. If people apply them in their communities, they’re already effectively doing a Second Earth Run.
A Virtual Second Earth Run!
When the Trump administration is replaced in due course, would you accept a future cabinet position?
I enjoyed seeing that question in your list, but it’s probably not where I would add value! That model has constraints. I always say Obama was a 2.0 president in a 1.0 political system. Where I add value is in optimizing the whole social change eco-system, including the 1.0 and the 2.0, all the players who aspire to create change, from businesses, NGO’s, local, state or federal governments, and your basic every day neighborhood organizers, my heroes, the people actually doing it day to day, right in their own back yard.
Everything I’ve said about everyone else applies to me: there’s a vacuum, there’s tremendous potential, people are open, asking more profound questions, receptive to upgrading their ideas about change. But we have to also believe in the future or we’re actually creating a dystopian scenario. The movie Tomorrowland is a perfect case study. So I’m working with my partner, Josie Maran, on a strategy we call Reinventing the Planet, to utilize this high-leverage moment for second order change on a global scale to help people believe in and create the future they want. Just a small idea! Over the past year and a half, we’ve designed a four-part plan.
The first part is reinventing climate action to keep the planet viable for human evolution. The Cool City Challenge empowers individuals to reduce their carbon footprint. Starting in California, we can scale it across a city, then across cities around the world, to significantly impact climate change. It’s a whole system approach, with behavior change that creates demand for new technologies, new legislation, and new markets. That’s the first pillar.
The second asks “Is there an accelerator of human evolution to make us smarter faster, more skillful and conscious?” Our answer is the IMAGINE initiative. With 80% of the world in development mode, the leverage point is women’s empowerment. The key is what the World Bank and UN identify as “agency,” the ability to believe in yourself, envision and create what you want: ”I am and I can.” Our program is now implemented by 24 NGOs in 12 countries, improving the lives of millions of women, their families, and communities.
The third space we’re working in is reinventing social change itself with the international social transformation community at our Empowerment Institute, using the the Social Change 2.0 book and study circles. I’m also planning a MOOC for this kind of training at a global scale.
The fourth is reinventing business as a force for social good. We’re empowering corporations to increase their social impact and brand value by investing in second order social innovations. We call this Corporate Social Engagement. We’re creating a billion dollar Reinventing the Planet investment fund for projects we will help incubate in our Think and Do Tank: Reinventing America’s Inner Cities, Reinventing the Middle East, and other little ideas like that. The aim is for business to become a social change player on the planet at this critical time. So as you can see, I already have a lot on my plate!
You’ve invented your own cabinet post: Secretary of Sustainability for the World.
I will make a small tweak. How about we call it Secretary for Reinvention. That’s basically my self-anointed job title. Since “A Blueprint for Reinventing the World” is the tagline of my book, I’m stuck with having to figure out how to do it.
You have a favorite quote from St Exupéry. Since I’m speaking to you from France, shall we close with that?
Yes, it goes something like this, “When you want to build a ship, instead of gathering wood and assigning tasks, awaken in people’s hearts a desire for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Links and Resources:
Social Change 2.0
Webinar on Transformative Social Change
Cool City Challenge & The Cool Block