Architecting Systemic Change: A Framework for Addressing the Climate Crisis

Our world is hardly so simple. If we want to solve the climate crisis, the solution doesn’t lie in deploying one product or service. A silver bullet doesn’t exist for the climate crisis, because it is what Rosalind Armson calls a “mess” in her book, Growing Wings on the Way. The climate crisis is a mess of a problem, interlinked with politics, corporate interests, a globalizing world, development of cities, government capacity, extractive degeneration, and demands of a new future.

The four pillars of regenerative project design. Framework credit goes to my mentor, Peter Coughlan.

To fight the climate crisis, we need to harness the power of collective wisdom. COVID-19 has shown us what happens when society mobilizes to fend off an attack. It also has shown us the need for resilient societies. The wisdom to solve our climate crisis already exists in the room. It exists within the hands of large corporations, governmental entities, and most prominently, in us. By creating marked acceptance and eventual thought leadership amongst key stakeholders, we can shift society towards a regenerative paradigm.

An re-rendering of the five capital model found in the following citation: Campbell, Bruce, et al. “Assessing the Performance of Natural Resource Systems.” Conservation Ecology 5.2 (2002).

Currently the majority of corporations in the world is focused on transforming financial, natural, human, physical, and social capital into solely more financial capital. Success is denoted by return on investment, financial growth, and earnings per quarter. Natural capital is depleted for more financial capital, and unfortunately not replenished nor regenerated. What if it was the norm to invest financial capital with the goal of generating multiplicities of capital as output? What if success was measured in terms of how much natural, human, and social capital is generated in addition to financial? To achieve this, we need a a paradigm shift from that of extraction of crude oil, petroleum, and natural resources towards that of regeneration. My colleagues and I are currently working on a framework to achieve just this, at scale for the world.

The hypothesis is that to rapidly shift our society towards a regenerative paradigm, we need to create large-scale interventions or bankable projects which consist of four elements: distressed communities, strategic partners, regenerative technology, and benefit capital. A distressed community has the most significant need and are most willing to act. Strategic partners help facilitate the project. Regenerative technology can extract water from the moisture in the air in semi-arid regions or can take the form of carbon sequestering concrete. With trillions of dollars of benefit capital waiting to be invested in “green projects,” we will be able to create an unfair advantage to transition our world towards the new paradigm of regeneration similar to how extractive industries are heavily subsidized.

Once the four pillars are built, we can move towards the next steps of project design. In fact, much of our physical world is built through the process of traditional project design, denoted in blue below.

Framework credit goes to my mentor, Peter Coughlan.

Our world will continue to be built through projects, one at a time, whether that is large-scale water pipelines for agriculture, housing complexes in peri-urban spaces, or cleared forest lands for sugarcane plantations. What we need to do is augment the process with the orange boxes above, to ensure that new projects are not contributing to the narrative of extraction!

India is a place ripe for opportunity. Development at the cost of natural degradation or business-as-usual will not work. If India continues to follow developed countries’ path of extraction, the water crisis will worsen, temperatures will rise, and erratic weather extremities will compromise any sort of resiliency built. The opportunity lies in working towards a better way of development. With a population of over 1 billion and a land size a third of the United States, India is poised to become one of the world’s largest economies but not without enormous costs if it does business as usual.

My fellowship host organization, Alaap is currently approaching phase four, where we are developing the project scope with the help of the system maps we made. Over the past few weeks we have been developing thought leadership or marked acceptance amongst key stakeholders. Due to the  onset of the Coronavirus, we were unable to complete our 100 farmer interview. We completed 60 farmer interviews, covering the two extreme zones. In the field of design thinking, designers often design for the extremes. The idea is that by designing for the extreme needs, the majority rest (transition zone) will also be solved for.

Once the gates open and when it’s safe again, we hope to begin co-creation sessions with rural millennials in Bagepalli. What we are doing can be best described as ecosystem design employing the rigor of systems thinking so that we design the right thing, and the creativity and iterative nature of design thinking so that we design our offering right. Our need-finding work is revealing to us the ecosystem needs, and within that, the human needs we need to solve for. Only by solving these real and immediate needs, can we sustainably bundle forest creation and carbon sequestration into the model.

The vision at the moment is to show a proof of concept through a rapid prototyping phase in Bagepalli, which is two hours outside of Bangalore, and work to rapidly scale our model in clusters of Panchayats, which vary in size but can be as large as 5,000 families, at a time.

Donald is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Alaap in Champawat, Uttarakhand. For his Fellowship project, he is designing a business model for a social enterprise combating climate change and poverty through reforestation and sustainable livelihoods generation in the rural Himalayas. Donald recently graduated from a dual degree program in physics and in materials science engineering. As an undergraduate, he participated in three summer research internships, two being in Japan and Austria, in topics ranging from flexible electronics to designing transducers for quantum computing. His interests include appropriate and affordable technology, sustainable urban infrastructure development, and human centered design. He has participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program in Jaipur for his Hindi. His most recent project is designing and implementing a six kilometer water distribution system for two villages in the Ait Bayoud Commune of Morocco. He will be joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship to work closely with communities in the Himalayas and to define and create impact metrics for an early-phase social enterprise.

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