What Lady Gaga and I Have in Common

You might be expecting a humor piece — “I once dropped a piece of Parma ham onto my lap, where it draped across my leg as though it were a patch on my pants, just like Lady Gaga’s famous meat dress” — but I’m actually quite serious here.

I’m not really a Gaga fan, no “Little Monster” as she calls them (effectively creating a “brand” of her own fan-base).  I’ve seen one Gaga concert on TV, I’ve heard the hits on the radio. It’s catchy stuff, perhaps not my cup of tea, unavoidably sticky. But she’s clearly a real musician, versatile, skilled, committed.

And as I also still think of myself as a musician — even if my actual concert-style performances have been more infrequent of late, my playing rustier — I pay attention to the music business; and so I paid close attention to Stephen Fry’s profile article on Lady Gaga in the Financial Times on Saturday, 28 May 2011, followed by an article on the economics of her pop music/performance art empire in the same paper. (Online version here.)

And I learned some things that surprised me.

Let’s start with the tattoo. I don’t have one and never will; but if I did, I would be very likely to choose a line from the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, whose life and work I have studied intensively, resulting in one album of his poetry set to music. I even wrote a one-man musical play, based on his early life and letters, and performed it exactly once.

According to Fry, Lady Gaga has tattoo that consists of a long piece of Rilke’s writing, a quote from “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Then there is her approach to art and work, which one might call “Rilke-esque”. She lives her performance, 24/7. She is fully committed. She professes not to care about making money, and in fact went bankrupt last year — despite her enormous success — because she invested her own money in re-designing and re-tooling her tour, continuously, in response to her evolving sense of what needed to be done.

Without going into the philosophical details here about why, it should be obvious to anyone observing that I have for many years taken a similar approach to my work, at a much, much, much smaller scale of operation. (Just trying to make sure you know that I have no illusions of grandeur. My blog posts are read by, oh, several dozen people at the moment!) In fact, I used to conceive of my work as a kind of “global art project.” These days, I no longer make any distinctions between my “artistic” life and my “professional” life. Consulting on sustainable development strategy, writing, developing processes that bring people together to make change, making up songs and singing them to live audiences as part of a speech or a training session — even knowing when not to sing, because the role I’m playing and the purpose I am dedicated to achieving requires near-absolute adherence to the traditional cultural patterns of suit-and-tie and professional decorum — these all blend together now.

It’s not like I’m doing everything all the time, however. Sometimes a corporate client will specifically ask me to bring my guitar to the session on sustainability strategy (I have even sung to audiences of scientists, and military personnel, you-name-it). But sometimes, it is obvious that any hint of being a “creative person” should be left outside of the meeting. By the same token, when actually performing as a musician, I tend to leave the bullet points on strategy off the stage.

Basically, in each situation, I do whatever seems best to serve the overall purpose of advancing this transformation process we call “sustainability.”

It should be equally obvious that money is not my primary motivation. In fact, like Gaga, I’ve sunk a lot of my own money into developing the tools, methods, etc. that my colleagues and friends are now spreading around the world, with a kind of apparent insouciance to the current profit/loss/cash flow/balance sheet situation that has, on occasion, made my accountants roll their eyes. Why? Because the issues we are dealing with are deadly serious. They outweigh short-term financial considerations. So I do what I think needs to be done, where I see an opportunity to amplify and accelerate change, for as long as I can, and as long as I don’t put other people’s financial well-being at risk. (In truth, I believe or at least hope that this will prove to be a good long-term strategic investment in financial terms. I’m guessing Gaga thinks the same way. I’m also guessing she’ll end up making way more money than the entire sustainability movement will ever see in this lifetime.)

So, work, art, life … It’s all one thing. Sometimes it’s serious (e.g. working to help a country or a company fine-tune its sustainable development strategy), sometimes it’s just plain fun (e.g. singing the “Parachuting Cats” to an international conference audience). It’s not about “saving the world.” It’s about being *in* the world, as it is, in this particular moment.

Okay, let’s wrap this thing up on a lighter note, with the tiniest grain of potential truth in it. When I was a musician in New York in my 20s, I used to get my hair cut on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at the same place Madonna used to go to, before she got famous. And Lady Gaga, this generation’s Madonna, also comes from the Lower East Side.

So who knows — maybe all three of us have a hair-stylist in common, too.

Transparency, Confidentiality, and Consulting

Tomorrow I arrive for a week in the Republic of Korea on UN business. The purpose of this blogging intensive is to make my work more transparent, but this is one of those moments where I just cannot be very transparent … yet. This is the reality of the consulting life. Working with institutions and companies, you often find yourself in situations where confidentiality is essential. I’ve even had consulting engagements (and this trip to South Korea is obviously not one of them) where I was not permitted even to talk about the existence of the engagement — or even to say that I had been in a certain city at a certain time.

It sounds like secret agent stuff, but it’s not:  it’s ordinary course of business in some areas of business and political decision making. For example, there are times (and again, this is not one of them, I won’t be hinting anything here!) when funding, hiring, sourcing, or other decisions are at play, and too much transparency can actually *increase* the risk of corruption, undue influence, or influence peddling.

And there are of course a host of other reasons for confidentiality — but the main one is more or less the same as the reason your grandmother or grandfather might have not wanted you in the kitchen while she/he was cooking that special dinner:  watching the process disturbs the process. S/he would rather just present you with the wonderful result. Getting more people involved in the process would create a classic “too many cooks” mish-mash. Writers are like that too:  If I tell you too much about the book I am writing now, I may never actually finish it.

But often, after the fact, the cloud of confidentiality is lifted. Usually not all the way, but somewhat. I can tell you now, for example, that we’ve been assisting Levi Strauss & Co. with their sustainability strategy, benchmarking, and training over the past few years. And at the moment, I feel especially good about that relationship. You may have noticed that Levi Strauss just went public with a major initiative to raise the bar — dramatically — on corporate sustainability standards, moving toward alignment with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and challenging all companies to do the same. The best way to get updated on that is to watch the 3 min. video at their corporate website (lower left corner as of today – search on YouTube if you’re reading this later on in history):

Levi Strauss Home

Or read the short blog post from CEO John Anderson:

http://www.levistrauss.com/blogs/next-20-years

When clients make decisions like that, it make a consultant feel very good indeed. Please note:  I don’t want to overstate our role, either in this specific case, or in any client situation. The responsibility of an external advisor is always strictly limited to exactly that:  advice.  And again, consulting advice is often given under conditions of confidentiality precisely because it is the client who must weight a large number of inputs (including the inputs of multiple consultants, internal experts, stakeholder groups, etc.), make a decision, and face the consequences. My usual jest is that when things go well, the client rightfully takes all of the credit. When things go wrong, well, we consultants are partly there to help take the heat, or at least some of it.

So over the next week, I’ll be blogging and tweeting as normal, for this intensive … but mostly about other things, and about impressions from my first-ever visit to South Korea. Someday, maybe, I’ll be able to tell you more about it.

Closing Reflections on the Conference on Future Lifestyles …

This photo is from the closing session of the UNEP-Wuppertal “un-conference” on the the future of sustainable lifestyles and entrpreneurship (which I keynoted yesterday). What did I do here?

First, I sang. That’s not surprising to anyone reading this blog. But it was sort of surprising to this audience … and I don’t think I’ve ever had so many people come up to me and say something about just that aspect of a “talk”.

Second, Axel Klimek (CEO of ISIS Academy) and had far more serious business conversations with people than we expected. Conferences are usually about networking and seeking new partnerships or clients or friends … but this one was more effective in this regard that most. We’re going home with a number of very interesting opportunities to pursue.

Third, I got inspired by the way messages converged. Happiness and well-being really are emerging as centrally important. I didn’t plan that my keynote would echo the closing keynotes — to be honest, I didn’t even notice who was speaking until looking at the program today — but the fact that these themes emerged again and again tell me something (and I hope they tell you something).

Fourth, I reconnected with old friends, some of whom I had not seen in over a decade. That was an unexpected pleasure. And some of those conversations *also* may lead to new entrepreneurial possibilities.

And of course, I had a number of very lovely conversations … business talks with Axel and also Piotr Magnuszewski, also a member of AtKisson Group, about upcoming client projects … and the pleasure of new ideas and energy, especially listening to the youth just now.

Did we effectively advance the vision of sustainable production and consumption here?? Only time will tell … something definitely happened here. This was a conference that was very worthwhile …

Sunday: Half-Work, Half-Family

The half-family part of this short post is probably easy to understand … but why “half-work” on a Sunday with family? Easy answer: Monday deadline for one assignment (teaching an online class for the ISSP), and a keynote speech to give on Tuesday in Germany on The Future of Sustainable Lifestyles and Entrepreneurship.

Plus, the kids are busy playing with cousins, and I’m really just stealing a bit of time while everyone else is busy socializing.

So, “half-work” is an exaggeration. But at least I’ve gotten a few new paragraphs written for this report on economic growth and happiness …

Elation, Despair, and Professionalism

Yesterday and today, two days that could not be more different. Standing on stage at the royal theater in front of hundreds of people; sitting in the cottage behind my house that serves as my ‘Global Headquarters’. Moderating a panel of leaders and ambassadors; sorting receipts and dealing with corporate paperwork.

The purpose of this ‘blogging intensive’ is to make my professional life a bit more transparent, but that is proving tough already. Some details are boring; some of the ‘real’ stuff I just can’t write about publicly. And the time it takes to document is time not spent producing work on multiple projects.

Oh, yes there are multiple projects, so the most important decisions each day have to do with prioritization. Some things are urgent by default:  a magazine in the US needs a new photo, now, so I have to get one taken. Other things are long-term strategic … but if you put them off, you have no strategy. And then there are the in-between things, like the talk I’m giving at the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences next Thursday, a seminar on ‘Alarmism’ in scientific communication about global problems, or the keynote next Tuesday on sustainable production and consumption. Those are hard deadlines but still some days out, the ideas are still forming. Work on those will intensify in the coming days.

Then there is the constant stream of emails. Some are marketing related, some are clients wanting input, some are … well, we all know how the email inbox can quickly become the to-do list, if you’re not careful.

I have a master action list, where each current project is summarized, actions are listed, and prioritizations made. Usually, I actually use it.

But sometimes — especially a day like this, a Friday, sunny, after a strenuous week — you just have to put that aside, go stand in the forest, and think. It’s damned important, that thinking time. Feeling time. We tend not to talk about it, but I believe most people need those breaks where they appear not to be doing anything (or appear to be drinking coffee), but inside, the wheels are turning. I had a number of those moments today.

I admit that some of those moments are driven by something I’ve just read, something that brings up a feeling of heaviness about the great problems that sustainability concerns itself with. Today there was such a moment after reading — at someone’s emailed insistence — Wendell Berry’s latest short essay (actually a short speech, introducing Prince Charles at a conference on food — you can watch the videos here). He is speaking for local adaptation, and against global heroics. He and I debated, in print, this very point about 20 years ago; I have never understood why we cannot try to do both, to adapt locally, but work to change the global systems (energy, economics, patterns of production and consumption and trade) that make local adaptation all but impossible unless they are changed. Indeed, we must try to do both.

I am elated when I receive an offer from an intern to work 20 hours a week, without pay, on a project I care about. I despair when I read another article on the fate of the oceans in a warmed world, or the way transgenic material (that means, genes artificially inserted into basic food crops) has been proven absolutely impossible to contain and has escaped to corrupt “organic” and “wild” plant strains. But I’m a professional, a word that means that no matter what the emotional impact is of what occurs during the day, one continues to perform and produce. “The show must go on.”

This was a day of reflection and administration. In my next post, I’ll write about what is actually going on in my professional life just now.

To those who are following this “intensive” … good night.

SERIES: A Month in the Life of a Professional Sustainability Change Agent

Starting today, I begin a one-month blogging/tweeting/documentation intensive. I will be writing about my work — what I actually do, what I’m hearing and seeing and experiencing, and (some of) my reflections about that. Why?

Partly, it’s motivated by my interactions with students and trainees. I’ve been teaching an online course this month, some other workshops and classes are upcoming as usual, and I lecture now and again at local universities. The university students especially, but also the older trainees, always seem to want to know more details about what I’m actually doing — and more specifically, why I’m doing it. A few friends, some of my neighbors, and even some of my closest work colleagues want to know more.

So I am going to try an experiment in documentation. It’s awkward:  I am of two minds about this whole internet/blogging/tweeting thing. On the one hand, it seems like pure narcissism, and/or an invasion of my privacy. On the other, it increases transparency and contributes to the “hive mind” that I heard several speakers on social innovation talk about today. *Not* sharing some of experiences I am privileged to accrue seems ungenerous, because some of them might provide benefit to others working in this field. Sharing them seems egoistic. But I’ll stop the Hamlet-like ambivalence right here: here comes a flood of words.

Today seemed like a good day to start. My focus is going to be on my professional assignments, and today’s assignment — moderating the closing session of the Nobel Laureate-focused “Stockholm Dialogue on Global Sustainability” — was a joy. You can download the program (and eventually watch the video) here:

http://globalsymposium2011.org/program/stockholm-dialogue

The whole event actually surpassed my expectations — meaning, I left feeling stimulated, with some new thoughts, some new inspiration. There were some lovely moments, such as watching physicist Murray Gell-Mann — who won his Nobel in Physics back in the 1960s! — napping through the talks until it was his turn to speak, and then wowing everyone with wisdom, charm, and humor. He painted a picture of genuine and serious complexity, and yet did it with simple words. Asked by the other moderator, Johan Kuylenstierna, how we could possibly address all these problems, Gell-Mann said, “Well, I can tell you!” And he did. He told the anecdote of a famous French academic who had been at the World Bank, but who then decided to write a set of books about the global challenges. He wrote 21 such volumes, said Gell-Mann … but he never once mentioned how they linked together! “We’ve got to stop omitting that step!”

[Of course, I loved it that he said that, because that’s exactly what I say in our ISIS workshops. The first “S” in ISIS stands for “System,” and in my experience, that’s exactly the step in the planning process that is most often, and most disastrously, skipped.]

It would be dull, perhaps, to report further highlights, when they are all there on video. And in writing these blog posts, I’ll try not to repeat my Tweets. Instead I’ll tell you about lunch.

It was in the beautiful upstairs room at “Dramaten,” the Royal Theater of Stockholm, and it was the usual buzz of networking. I managed a short-but-wonderfully intense conversation with Janine Benyus (don’t miss her wonderful speech, it was such a pleasure to introduce her), on some professional matters of common interest (now you see how I’m going to deal with the fact that some of my work is covered by confidentiality agreements). I saw my good friend Sander van Der Leeuw, who runs the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, where I did the Resilience 2011 keynote earlier this year. (Video available here.) Former colleagues of my wife, who also works in sustainability, introduced themselves, and — as I do several times a day now, it seems — I apologized for not remembering people’s names, etc. Mike Schragger, my good friend and a strategic partner here in Sweden, and also technically my client today (he’s the one who recruited me to moderate, and his Foundation for Design and Sustainable Enterprise is paying the invoice, so that makes him a client), seemed very happy with the outcome, as did the team at Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm Resilience Center, the two linked-but-separate institutions that organized, mostly, this whole shebang.

And navigating around in that social beehive, I met someone who might even become a client in the future. That’s how this work works, you might say. One thing leads to another. Some clients come in through the website, actually. They surf, they find us, we have the background and experience and expertise they need, and they call or write. But others come through other doors, including referral, or from having read something somewhere (including my books), or — as today — from watching one of us in action.

The afternoon continued with workshops, Bill Clinton coming to a gala tonight … but I went home. I walked back to the bus station via the Stockholm waterfront, ate an ice cream cone lunch, and let my mind rest.

Song I’m thinking about: Jim Kweskin’s “Relax Your Mind” …

Designing a Big Push on Renewables

On May 9, at the invitation of Anders Wijkman, I had the honor of being one of the opening speakers at the World Renewable Energy Congress 2011, which was being held in Linköping, Sweden.

Just a few days before, I had gotten the green light from a UN colleague and client to go out publicly with the following idea, which was born out of my work for them last year:  to create an independent (non-UN) global campaign in support of dramatically increasing the world’s level of investment in renewable energy.

You can download the text of my speech (and slides) here:

http://bit.ly/jOtqnC

… and you can download the original technical note developed for the United Nations here:

http://atkisson.com/bigpush

I’ll update and expand on this post soon …

Watching Egypt 2 – “We r all vry hpy”

The quote in the above headline, “We r all vry hpy”, is a real email from a real colleague in Egypt, received not long after the fall of Mubarak. The extreme efficiency (12 letters) was in sharp contrast to another email, from an old college friend, which positively exploded with emotion and language, including the admission that “I have been crying for 5 days.”

Everything has changed in Egypt. Or rather, everything is just in the process of starting to change. And yet the world’s attention — as I write this — is on Libya, because that is where the “news” is. Egypt has practically fallen back into global news invisibility by comparison. That’s a pity, because what happens in Egypt, even more than in Tunisia, is ultimately going to become the template for an entirely new order of things in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt serves this region as a hub, not just geographically, but culturally, politically, and economically.

Watching Egypt has become a bit harder than it was during the height of the uprisings, thought not a lot harder:  it requires actually typing a few search words into the computer, instead of just looking at the news. It has also become less pleasant, since these days the news cites “tensions” and “violent clashes” between “men and women” and between “Christians and Muslims.” It’s almost as though the news is following the “there-will-be-chaos” script offered by Hosni Mubarak before his ignominious departure.

Now dethroned, the news is not being kind to former President Mubarak:  CNN ran a piece (which I watched in Latvia, or maybe it was Japan) showing how the pinstripes on one of his suits were actually made up of the letters spelling out his name, over and over. The letters were so tiny you would have had to be him, staring at his own suit, to really appreciate it. This suggests a rather enormous ego, of course; and yet I suspect the man truly believed he was doing what was best for the Egyptian people. And that he truly deserved the suit, as well.

My friends there have had their lives turned upside down, in surprising, unpredictable ways:  A schoolteacher at a private international school watches as those who have worked fewer years than she get laid off, because many expat families just haven’t returned. The budget has to be cut. A younger colleague SMS’s me that he’s so, so happy, amazing things are happening … Why? What? I ask.  I got married! he finally remembers to explain. It was obviously a snap decision, probably driven by the dynamics of this moment, though he doesn’t explain why. He is now seeing the revolution through the eyes of a newlywed.

Meanwhile, I wait to see if I will be re-engaged to continue the work we started last year, thinking about Egypt’s Green Transformation … Such a thing seemed both far-fetched and timely before “the change,” though the project was actually mandated by the Prime Minister. Now there is a new Prime Minister, and an entirely new set of political and economic circumstances … but whether this increases or decreases the timeliness of moving forward on renewable energy investments and green job creation is not terribly visible to me, just now.

Watching Egypt now means googling, getting emails, and reading SMS’s, usually through the tiny window of my telephone. I will keep watching, hoping my window gets bigger again … and praying, which I do very rarely these days, for a good outcome in that very ancient, very modern land. The world needs Egypt to succeed … and my friends certainly deserve it.

Watching Egypt 1 – Private Worries, Public Hopes

It was a relief to finally hear my client’s voice on the phone. She was a bit breathless, but not sounding in distress. She had been out food shopping by taxi just that afternoon (this was Monday, 31 January), able to find what she needed, “though many people are just buying up whatever they can get, and hoarding it,” she noted. She was surprisingly worried about work, and about the project we’re working on, a major strategy document for economic competitiveness and Green Transformation in Egypt:  “No one is going to the office, because there is no point, the internet is shut down.”

And of course, there was the fire.

The first four floors of the office building had been damaged by a fire set in the shops on the ground floor, probably in connection with looting. Fortunately, the offices of the Egyptian National Council on Competitiveness (ENCC) are on the fifth floor. So the home of one of Egypt’s most important small think-tanks, a place where a true transition to sustainability was being mapped out in careful detail, is still intact.

Whatever happens in Egypt, the country is going to need that Council, and that new Green Transformation strategy, more than ever in the coming years. One of the many documents I had absorbed in trying to learn about the situation there (as part of my work as a strategic advisor to the ENCC) was the most recent national Human Development Report. The numbers on youth unemployment alone, and the accompanying quotes from young, educated people (whose needs for a meaningful life had clearly not been met), were enough to make the events that are happening now in Egypt all too easy to understand.

Not to mention the many comments I had heard from many people when I visited there, on three occasions last year. These comments were usually whispered, or voiced only after a quick look to the left and the right to see who might be listening (if one were in a public place). It reminded me of being in China in 1982, when people I met on the street literally dragged me behind bushes to have conversations about freedom in some European language they were studying. Egypt was not that extreme, but the feeling of caution, bordering on fear, about saying what one really thought was something I encountered regularly on my visits there.

Suddenly, the whispers have grown to a roar.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say. But in this case, many Egyptian experts had 20/20 foresight as well. No one could have predicted an uprising of this kind, of course; and no one I have met while working there predicted it to happen now. But almost everyone said, either subtly or directly, that something like this — a “phase shift” or “nonlinear event,” an encounter with unsustainable trends, building up to a breaking point — was inevitable if Egypt did not make major, transformative changes, and quickly.

The world, watching Egypt, now sees the demands for political openness and justice that are visibly driving the protesters. What is not so obvious is the array of other issues that have contributed to this enormous, tsunami-like outburst of “We’re not going to take it anymore” public emotion.

For example, Cairo was experiencing water shortages as well as sporadic blackouts when I visited last year. These are not usual; they were practically a first. Egypt has prided itself on its provision of energy and especially water to its people in modern times; they are serious matters of national security. But one man I met was embarrassed to be photographed, because newly imposed water restrictions had prevented him from shaving for a few days:  “The Quality Control Director of a food processing factory [his job] should not appear in a photograph unshaven,” he told me.

Meanwhile, prices of some common foodstuffs and other consumer goods were also suddenly skyrocketing, some friends said, and those price increases were not being reported publicly. They were just being felt, and they were so significant that even my wealthier friends were feeling it.

And these were just the pressures visible to anyone.  While energy prices were still heavily subsidized, Egypt had recently changed over from being a net oil exporter to being a net oil importer. It was meeting the deficit — and the needs of its fast-growing population of over 80 million — by pumping out natural gas faster than ever. The production curves literally turned almost straight up.

Were these the indicators of a sustainable future?  Not a chance.

I am convinced these and other pressures, both visible and less visible (but widely known), helped to create a general feeling of unease, and that this feeling combined with the much more visible calls for democracy and openness that are now playing out so very publicly on the world stage. All of it taken together created a pile of very dry social kindling. The dozens of self-immolations that followed on Tunisia’s example were literally the spark that lit a conflagration.

Today, the hopes regarding Egypt are many. Indeed the hopes of the people there, and the hopes of the world on their behalf, have already become highly documented history. World leaders are speaking out in support of the protesters demands in almost unprecedented ways — or at least, in ways not seen since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The public statements of Egypt’s military are no less remarkable in their embrace of transition.

But I have private hopes, as we all do. First and foremost, as an outside observer with clients and friends in Egypt, I hope for their safety and security. (I could easily have been in Egypt the week the protests began, as I had been invited to the country for a work engagement, but felt the need to stay home for family reasons.)

And I also have private worries, more than I care to express in a public blog — worries for the safety of specific individuals I know and their family members. I join my voice to the prayers for safety that my client mentioned so many times, when I finally reached her on her mobile phone on Monday.

When it comes to the Egyptian transformation — for that is what we are witnessing — I think most engaged observers have both high hopes and big worries for its outcome. The opportunity for change is enormous now, and Egypt truly needs enormous changes:  this was a core message of the materials that had been presented to ministers and senior business and society leaders in May of last year. These Egyptian-born ideas about purusing a Green Transformation strategy — renewable energy, water consevation, sustainable agriculture, jobs and capacity development, innovation, education — were due to be presented in an even more strategic and practical way this year.  These were urgent matters before (they were being increasingly framed as national security issues) and they remain urgent, perhaps “super-urgent”, matters for the foreseeable future.

And now, one can add a phrase to the list of “super-urgent” matters, a topic that was essentially taboo just two weeks ago, a topic that numerous people essentially only whispered to me previously, a topic than anyone with access to a global news source can now plainly attest to as being the desperate longing of the Egyptian people, a topic that may even become the source of the accelerated sustainability transformation that Egypt desperately needs:

Democratic participation.

Letter from Syria / the Tigris-Euphrates Region

Picture the cement superstructure of some future small office building, vaguely futuristic in form, strange angles, sitting on scrubland. No walls yet, just empty space between the beams.

Strung between the beams is somebody’s laundry. It’s hard to imagine who would hang laundry here. The nearest residential housing is at least a kilometer away.

More scrubland. Suddenly, a brightly colored waterslide park erupts out of the desert.

The car speeds like a racer past the other vehicles on this hard, flat, macadam road. You pass sheep, walls, fields of stone and cedar, something that makes you think it’s a mosque. And finally, a Subaru dealership.

This is not exactly what I expected when I agreed to come to Aleppo, Syria, to teach the ISIS Method to a four-country regional development training. But then, I didn’t really have any expectations.

It’s been a busy period. I didn’t have time to think much about this trip, beyond the professional planning that the workshop obviously required. Something about Syria surprises me, but I can’t yet put my finger on it. Perhaps that’s why my writer’s brain seized on that just-started, very-unfinished building with the laundry fluttering:  I imagined photographing it, writing a poem about it. There’s something symbolic in that image, something about this region.

It is a region with a very promising future, this is what one feels, even if the flowering of that future is decades away. The region is like a futuristic building, the kind one has never seen before, still under construction.

I’m here because these four countries, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, share the water and fate of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They do not yet share much else — with certain obvious exceptions, of course, including the predominant religion, and thousands of years of history and cultural tradition. But the idea of transboundary collaboration on water, the lifeblood of this or any other region, is new.

So I have come as part of the faculty for a training program designed and managed by a Swedish firm, Ramboll Natura, and financed by SIDA, Sweden’s development aid agency.

And what an interesting group they have assembled! Sophisticated, engaged, questioning. Most are engineers working in water ministries and agencies of various kinds; a few are political scientists. I learn just bits of their life stories: a few have survived extraordinary traumas, though would never guess by looking at them. My dual nationality, Swedish-American, leads to a number of interesting conversations with some of them — about, for example, US-Iran relations. Perhaps, we conclude, the two nations have trouble getting along partly because they are more similar than they appear in some ways.

This is an ISIS workshop. We are using the Pyramid, but the focus is really on the ISIS sequence, Indicators, Systems, Innovation, and Strategy, in a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder context. These workshops cover a lot of ground, fast: that’s the point. That’s why the tools we use to teach the ISIS Method are called “Accelerator.” There’s no time to lose, the clock is ticking. We have to learn fast, plan fast, do fast.

But for this group — multi-lingual, not so used to working with each other, much working in English (their only common language) — I slow it down a little. We take our time analyzing the linkages among environmental systems, economic factors, social concerns (including regional security), and wellbeing. We need to:  there are a few comical misunderstandings, but there are also a few real aha! moments.

Surprisingly, the Indicators we look at that appear most troubling, at least in the long run, are not security-related, but environmental:  all the key indicators they select are in decline, region-wide. Social conditions seem to be steadily improving. Economies are up and down, but on the whole, the group is optimistic about the well-being of the people — with a notable caveat of uncertainty regarding Iraq.

But there is a lot of intelligence in this group, and a lot of passion to tackle these problems as well. Even some of the ministry people almost sound like activists at times. They are full of ideas — training programs they want to run, models they have developed, policy changes that need to be made — and it seems a pity that I only have one copy of The Sutainability Transformation to give away (they all vote on the best idea, the winner gets a book).

We have discussions about regional versus national perspectives, and the need to build trust. How do we do that? Step-by-step, we conclude. Start by getting to know each other, sharing information, doing things together.

Like this course.

My flight back to Stockholm, by way of Istanbul, leaves tonight at 3 a.m. It was a punishing schedule to get here, too. I’m exhausted and deeply lacking sleep. I’ve somehow lost my telephone.

It’s all worth it.