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Radical Collaboration
Adele Peters, 16 Sep 09

2136953043_e9d620963f_b.jpgThere are more than 55,000 environmental nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. today, and many more green businesses, all competing for the support of responsible consumers. At a recent event in San Francisco, a trio of green business owners suggested that this type of traditional competition may not be the most effective way to make large-scale change. They instead proposed a new model: radical collaboration.

The phrase ‘radical collaboration’ has been used to describe a variety of phenomena, from participation in Wikipedia and similar ventures to cross-disciplinary cooperation in academics. In business, it means creating alliances between a group of former competitors to solve problems together. The concept has been used by corporations: for example, when IBM was losing money on semiconductor chips in 2003, it made the decision to open its research to a network of competitors, and began a new, successful method of innovation that has now been expanded to other departments. Now some argue that the same type of innovation should be applied to the sustainability movement.

Two of the presenters in San Francisco, GenGreen and 3rdWhale are in the business of mobile green business directories. "They were our biggest competitor," 3rdWhale CEO Boyd Cohen says of GenGreen. 3rdWhale was an expert in mobile technology, while GenGreen had a large, successful database -- and both were scrambling to build iPhone apps and more. Ultimately, after meeting at a LOHAS conference earlier this year, the two rivals decided to work together and leverage their complementary strengths. They have also since partnered with Creative Citizen, an online community listing solutions for sustainable living. The three partners were so pleased with the results, they are now recommending similar collaborations for other business owners.

"Every single one of us has been working as hard as we can," says Creative Citizen CEO Scott Badenoch of the green movement. But he points out that the problem is more urgent than ever, and argues that the movement needs to work smarter, rather than harder. For him, the answer is radical collaboration and something he calls "sharesourcing"-- sharing the core competencies of one business with another, so that each ends up with more resources.

There are many more examples of radical collaboration as a trend. In May, we wrote about a collaborative project called Green Xchange, which allows companies like Nike and Best Buy to share sustainability research to speed innovation. Another innovative business, The Hub promotes collaboration by offering a space for people working on the world's challenges to come together and share ideas, resources, experience, and connections. The Hub has about twenty locations around the world, including a new U.S. space in Berkeley's Brower Center.

Sustainable development expert Hunter Lovins lists Walmart's new sustainability policies -- and the effect they'll have across manufacturing, as another example of radical collaboration. She argues that collaboration is necessary.

"If we don't act, and act immediately," Lovins says, "we will lose the opportunity to avoid runaway climate change. Whatever individual successes we might have... we are not getting the job done. If you look at historic transitions, they take too long, given the amount of time we have."

In traditional economic theory, competition is an important driver of innovation. But it can also cause duplication of efforts -- 3rdWhale was spending serious resources trying to re-create GenGreen's database, for example, before they decided to partner. And it's possible that reinventing the wheel will take more time than we have.

Adele Peters holds a Master's in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability from Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden.

Image credit: Creative Commons license

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Thank you Adele for naming this and calling out this conversation. I am delighted to read this article and to feel the winds of collaboration and cooperation come rising up from within the environmental movement, even if this has come up before…sometimes things don’t really take hold until a number of things align. I hope that this is that time.

I can’t think of many more important conversations that we need to have. If we really want to aggregate our power and our voice and create more of a movement across the disciplines, sectors. Radical collaboration is a friendly and worthy term and perhaps it will ignite those who struggle with the idea and implications of collaboration at this time of history and social/environmental upheaval. We might ask ourselves why we have historically had such a challenge to truly collaboration with each other, within movements and between disciplines/parties/cultures. There are many reasons, but one I see over and over again in our competition for resources is that we have lived long enough in the shadow of scarcity thinking (thanks to a defunct economic system) and we have begun to believe in the illusion so much that we fail to see the forest for the trees.

One of the hidden blessings of the WTO coming to Seattle is that it galvanized a kind of movement together across issue lines. We need something similar. Radical collaboration put into radical practice might just be the thing to wake us up to our true nature – our true connectedness with each other. The illusion is that we are separate instead of being interdependent. Implication for how we organize ourselves, what kinds of networks, associations, collaborative endeavors that we make that extend far behind the promise of private-public partnerships.

Collaboration of course is not a new concept even if it’s suddenly being named within one arm of the green movement as a way forward. There are so many amazing collaboration efforts that it is surprising to realize that the movement ‘as a whole’ is still figuring out HOW to do this. It’s one thing to know something cognitively and another to know how to practice it and do it authentically and consistently enough to see the change it would produce. I see that sometimes it takes many voices raising the banner in order for there to be an awakening.

Let the environmental movement wake up to the fact that if we were not separate and in competition (in subtle and not so subtle ways), we would be a power to contend with. We might move toward a movement focused on the conscious evolution of social systems.

When I think of collaboration, a whole ecosystem of memes and concepts comes up: collective intelligence, cooperation, cocreation, social synergy, whole systems. We are moving from Newtonian to New Science, from mechanistic to living systems. In that spirit, I want to give voice to a few recent predecessors to this idea of collaboration (without going back so far as Kropotkin or delving into evolutionary biology through the lens of Elisabet Sahtouris and principles of living systems).

The one that first comes to mind is the white paper that Gideon Rosenblatt of OneNW wrote back in 2004 entitled Movement as Network: Connecting People and Organizations in the Environmental Movement ( which spoke eloquently to this need for a radical shift in our approach to how we worked together. We are still figuring out how to do this. Let’s revisit this work.

Following on the heels of Movement as Network (and the great work of Network-centric advocacy and Advocacy 2.0…, we can read the wonderful article by Jed Miller and Rob Stuart in: Network-Centric Thinking: The Internet's Challenge to Ego-Centric Institutions Invaluable and we see the distinction between network-centric and ego-centric organizations. I had the experience some years ago to be working with some amazing folks from Europe who were part of Greenpeace International. They had a beautiful project called the People Project that wanted to bring together the enviro movement around climate change. It would have been ahead of its time and been so valuable, except that GPI had trouble letting go of the reins…They were a good example in that moment of being an ego-centric organization.

I would suggest that we could move from cooperation among organizations and individuals to even deeper radical collaboration and finally perhaps we might find ourselves somewhere in the realm of co-creation. That’s where each of us, each of our organizations is bringing forth our greatest gift and it is contributing to a social synergy the likes of which we haven’t seen. We complain about our lack of democracy. It is perhaps this lack of being able to work together across our differences that actually limits our potential for true participatory democracy or what I like to call synergistic democracy (

And finally, I must share the brilliance of the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and Howard Rheingold who about 5 years ago had the vision to do a course called “Towards a Literacy of Cooperation” through the Stanford Humanities Lab which I had the good fortunate to participate in. Still leaning in to how to do that bioregionally here in Seattle/Cascadia. IFTF was doing amazing work around the Technologies of Cooperation.

In the words of my friend and colleague Tom Atlee from the Co-Intelligence Institute: “The emerging social evolutionary movement combines the social change spirit of past activist movements with the evolutionary understandings, inspirations, and motivations emerging from a sacred understanding of evolutionary science and integral studies. Although it is informed by past political ideologies and agendas it takes its guidance primarily from the dynamics of evolution and natural systems and their analogues in the emerging dynamics of conscious social evolution. Its tactics include and transcend all previous movement activities and are, above all, grounded in collective learning and co-evolution.”

Changing HOW we have been organizing ourselves so that we are more unified with our diversity, so that we can collaborate and become systems of influence, networked together in more resilient webs, will be essential. The structures and architectures we find ourselves in determine our outcomes. We need radical outcomes to deal with these times. We learned competition and we have lived in scarcity thinking in many ways in many of our industrially-designed systems. They were imbred in ourselves. And now we have opportunities for evolutionary learning. Radical collaboration is a great iteration of evolutionary learning. Taking biomimicry (learning from nature) and moving it into the social realm.

“Biomimicry has been sourcing breakthrough solutions mostly in engineering, material sciences, the built environment, and various industries. Interestingly, social organization, including how we organize the ways we think, learn and know, have been only scarcely exposed to biomimetic investigation.” George Por

So yes to Radical Collaboration. Let’s access all the resources of those who have been naming this for some time and who have a lot of insight and experience to share!

Posted by: Sheri Herndon on 9 Sep 09

For the English word "compete", it's etymology is attributed* to [Latin competere, "to strive together" : com-, together + petere, to seek, strive ...], thus we may choose to consider its original meaning is free from any inherent notions of adversity, or ruthlessness toward one's rivals or even wishing one's opponents would perform less than excellently. Anyhow, that's my take ...

* The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition, 1976, ISBN # 0-395-20360-0

Posted by: paul t. horan on 9 Sep 09

“National Environmental Association”
Executive Summary
Of the US environmental movement’s numerous initiatives to address climate change, two are critical in the short term: influencing the legislative process through elections & lobbying, and getting the public to take action. While the 6000 or so US environmental non-profits and hundreds of green-tech firms coordinate on specific initiatives, the lack of true synchronization, especially among non-profits, is a major barrier to achieving significant scale and impact. Further, many key non-profits draw on the same few funding sources. Massive duplication of effort, inefficiency, fragmentation, and reduced impact result from the competition for funds and the overlapping and at times conflicting actions aimed at the same target populations.

In contrast, big business significantly outspends and “out-coordinates” environmental organizations on lobbying, getting legislators elected and informing the public. While it would be difficult to match business’ spending, the environmental movement can significantly enhance its leverage and impact by taking a page from big business’ playbook on how to align organizations with disparate yet overlapping interests; using the key harmonizing mechanism of a national trade association such as the US Chamber of Commerce or the American Banking Association. Further, associations have been instrumental in swaying public opinion, e.g. the insurance industry’s “Harry & Louise” campaign, the United Negro College Fund’s, "A Mind is a Terrible Thing To Waste," campaign and the California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk?” advertisements.

Even with differences in philosophy, interests and approach among environmental organizations there are areas of considerable overlap in which coordinated decisions, actions and funding would greatly enhance their power. A national trade association, properly structured with a core set of high-value services, provides this leverage. This association would:
➢ Foster agreement on the few key issues that are the most urgent to address in the short- and medium-term
➢ Present a common face and single voice to external stakeholders, especially legislators and the public
➢ Enable members to re-focus their efforts and spending on the areas closest to their missions
➢ Identify key influence and education opportunities and get the right members collaborating on these initiatives
➢ Assist in allocating resources to the most fruitful research areas, serving as a focal point for the most topical research and reducing the overlap in members’ research agendas

Posted by: Peter Hess on 10 Sep 09

awesome. the organization of the future is made up of competing, co-operative people and groups who work together to solve the big problems that face their entire industry while maintaining their own individual brands.

dee hock, founder of VISA, is the pioneer of such organizations -- he calls them "chaordic" and his book "one from many" describes how he created this new kind of organization.

so important, too, to organize ourselves differently, and relate to each other differently, so we can hold the bigger picture in mind as we take action. for instance, i leave about 80% of my interests and passions at the door when i go to my corporate job. most of us are in the same boat. but how would things change if the companies and groups we work in encouraged us to bring our entire selves to bear?

more on this at:

Posted by: Megan Dietz on 10 Sep 09

Is this for real?

My take is here:

Posted by: lou Gold on 11 Sep 09

Perhaps a federated approach with simple joint venture agreements among members should be explored. Under this approach organisations could keep their identity and membership base while speaking with one voice on all aspects of sustainability of the physical, social and cultural environments.

Posted by: Graham Douglas on 11 Sep 09

I believe this is the case of most non-profits and NGO's. There are way too many of everything from youth after-school programs, summer camps, and environmental groups. All of these groups are competing for not only the same audience but also the same pot of money and resources. Consolidation of groups and humility is needed to make the change. People's ego's and titles still get in the way even if they are trying to make a change for the better. Come together and the cream will rise to the top.

Posted by: Shadd Phillips on 11 Sep 09

oops. there was a whole section missing at my blog.

i'll re-post it here:

According to there are more than 55,000 environmental nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. today, and many more green businesses.

Nevertheless, the world-leading American lifestyle remains the largest per capita consumer and polluter.

Back in the States I was part of an outstanding grass-roots nonprofit called The Siskiyou Project. I used to travel around with an Ancient Forest slideshow and solicit support for our efforts to save the forest. I used say, "There are 3 things - from easy to hard. Give money, take political action and, hardest, change your lifestyle." I suspected that most people took the first option and that this was a strong financial base for the world of non-profits. I came to believe that something more was needed.

Worldchanging is now touting a business model of "radical collaboration". And I have always appreciated the thinking of the Lovins team. But I fail to understand how greater efficiencies will halt or reconfigure the inexorable collective march toward greater consumption and exhaustion of the earth's resources.

Are you impressed with the remedy?

Posted by: Lou Gold on 12 Sep 09

If I understand this article correctly, the proposition is that 55,000 discrete groups get together and collaborate.
The very large number of Groups and NPO's strongly indicate THE PROBLEM IN taking action or getting something done. There are just not 55,000 discrete problems to support 55,000 organizations; that many organizations, pulling 55,000 different horses, prevent things getting done.
The Collective can have an impact, but not through a 55,000 chorus singing different songs, but through that group singing the SAME song, working from the same page.
It should be worth some effort to review the 55,000 "different" Mission Statements to come up with the five or six real positions that, collectively voiced, can have an impact.
Marshalling the resources of 55,000 groups and millions of supporting members could achieve real results, but only by working together.
Egos disperse! Greens unite!

Posted by: SocratesRedux on 12 Sep 09

Change is personal. Corporate does need to take action. However, we are missing the opportunity of the logical approach.

I call on all of you to change your purchasing habits. Change YOUR attitude personally and professionally. Buy environmentally exclusively whenever possible. If given a choice, make it green. If given a choice, say no to a new cell phone. If given a choice, say "No bag thank you." If given a choice, think about the waste end of your purchase.

If we change our habits, the market will respond naturally. The water bottle industry is suffering. It is a faux paus these days to bring plastic water bottles to my kids soccer field. The price for a case of 24 bottles is half what it was 6 months ago...6 months ago. Look what happens when WE change, personally change.

I would like to suggest a radical collaboration of people and professionals. Let's talk about ways to reduce, reuse, recycle, reorganize, refocus, revise, repower.

The entire marketing system is based on what people want and what people do. If we really want environment, change you.

I refer everyone to the following documentaries that will give you inspiration to change, both in the reality of the depth and scope of our actions, but also in solutions that we can create through radical collaboration.

"Addicted to Plastic" by Ian Connacher will take you around the world and give you a true vision of the serious response that is required to change. From the Pacific Ocean to Ontario, Canada, Ian gives the viewer a serious, scientific and diverse perspective. His trips include a cruise in the Eastern Garbage Patch of the South Pacific as well as meeting a woman in India who collects over 3,000 used garbage bags per day, washing them and turning them into products sold worldwide.

"King Corn". The story of an acre of corn, from planting to harvest to production. The truth about how our meat is processed is examined and detailed, from birth to plate. What does meat have to do with corn? We have personally changed our own eating habits due to this movie and for your own health and those you love, please watch, inform, make a decision and take action.

There are many more documentaries about what is happening in our world that support the need to take action quickly. I recently enjoyed and was inspired by "Home", which is available on YouTube. Seek the truth or at least another side of the story.

Good luck to us all. Change is hard, but it is easier than say quitting smoking. It takes a second with every purchase. Examine the ingredients, the materials, the source of origin. Purchase with the environment in mind.

Posted by: Iain Robertson on 12 Sep 09

Could following the Corporate Ethics International model at be helpful?

Posted by: Graham Douglas on 13 Sep 09

Sherri Herndon's initial post is so eloquent, and other informative ones to follow, but I do want to address what is so often forgotten when great ideas come along -- the body. Getting people comfortable with actually DOING this.

Getting radical collaboration to be the way we actually ACT, getting radical collaboration TO BE radical activism takes training. Practice. What I think of as "rehearsal" (since my background is in theatre).

We have all spent our formative years, while our brains were developing, in ranked competitive hierarchies called "school," then (most of us) going on into the ranked hierarchical competitive jobs. The mirror neurons in our brains long ago got themselves entrained to competition as survival. The (deliberate) perversion of the early industrial capitalists of Darwin's "survival of the fittest" pre-empting Kropotkin's survival of those who fit with others, aka mutual aid, is still the dominant meme all around us, making it hard for our mirror neurons to switch and change.

So we have some real "re-entraining" to do, very deeply embedded ways of acting that are more than just memes, they are experiences. And we have to create training experiences to get us beyond the memes that really get radical collaboration into our BODIES.

So it seems to me we need to do two things: one, create hands-on, body-real rehearsal, training, practice that puts into people's bodies that radical collaobration = survival, equals power. I'm talking about carefully crafted and interesting games, theatre games, virtual play, but important to remember that actual body experience registers more deeply and lastingly.

Two, helping people become conscious of the effect of the visual/mental landscape all around them that continues to support the old memes.

And I guess a third element, too, is to share the Stories, bear testimony, to radical collaboration working.

Awareness/consciousness of the undermining around you.
Story/witness/reflecting the new reality, people's actual experiences looping back to confirm the rehearsal/praxis/play.

Radical Collaboration Action Training.
Anyone want to collaborate on that?

Posted by: MimiK on 14 Sep 09

It's nice to see that we are coming to the same conclusions everywhere...collaboration is the new competition. What's next?

Posted by: Alison Erlenbach on 15 Sep 09

Great piece, Adele.

I agree with Sheri Herndon that this is one of the most important conversations underway in our society.

I discussed the rise of collaborative culture with a panel at the Commonwealth Club of California last year, and cited a host of other proof points beyond the ones you've listed here that this form of collaboration is becoming less fringe and more mainstream everyday. Happily, it looks like the trend continues, but it is far too early to declare that we've reached a tipping point wherein measures of business success do not count natural resource exhaustion in the credits column, and where GDP is broadly recognized as a severely flawed measure of socioeconomic growth.

Your post helps us to build awareness of the possibilities. Adoption can only come after awareness. Awareness of what's enabling these patterns of collaboration is perhaps as important to the adoption phase as the results of the collaborations themselves.

Clearly, the Internet has brought a means of finding and connecting efforts, and the read-write capabilities of the latest generation services available on the web are key enablers. These and the rising sense of urgency to come together on important issues do not fully account for the foundational capabilities, however. One must also count the open source models for collaboration that emerged in the precambrian days of the pre-web Internet as enablers. Lot's of trial and error, natural selection, and extinction of collaboration models occurred in these early days of online collaboration on the backs of a relatively small group of passionate software developers and creative artists. The best of radical collaboration occurring today leverage these open source tools and models, which includes the creative commons
licensing model, advanced source code control systems, and generally accepted systems for project authority and decision making. Without these, collaborative efforts would be constrained to expensive systems of intellectual property protection in order to share their work, revision and iteration of ideas would be difficult at best, and expansion of collaborative efforts would be at extreme risk of fracturing and ultimately disintegrating. We owe a lot to the early progenitors of these tools and models, such as Bill Joy and Richard Stallman.

I hope we can, and trust that we eventually will, apply these models for radical collaboration toward the design of the products and services we consume. Leveraging all the preceding enablers can bring about previously unimaginable levels of collaboration among consumers. As groups of people go, consumers are notoriously difficult to organize. The absence of collaboration among consumers has served producers well. But that's all changing rapidly. Many service providers and product manufactures are seeking direct participation, beyond their pocketbooks,from their customers, in the improvement of their business.

Often cited as the ultimate culprit in the decline of ecosystems and social decay, it is our consumer driven culture that may ultimately pull us out of the tailspin and put us on track toward continuous improvement of living standards, social equality, and protection of our habitat. It will only be possible through very radical collaboration, but I believe we now have the foundation in place, and not a moment too soon. Let's get on with the adoption phase of radical collaboration.

Posted by: Scott Mattoon on 16 Sep 09

Collaboration = Innovation
Great article and looking forward to hearing more.

Posted by: carreralee on 17 Sep 09

I like this perspective as a way to get outside of traditional thinking. If radical collaboration unlocks greater efficiency through sharing and cooperation, great. If competition creates a powerful incentive to innovate, that's great too. I don't think it has to be one or the other. I do, however, think we need to be conscious of the world's limited resources. This is definitely an idea worth experimenting with. It's this kind of innovative thinking that is needed in such a critical period.

Posted by: David on 30 Nov 09

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