Recapping the First Energy Futures Lab Workshop

By November 23, 2015Planting the Seed

How do you accelerate innovation to an unnaturally high pace?

According to Bill Gates, in a provocatively titled We Need an Energy Miracle piece last week from the Atlantic, society needs to ramp up innovation in order to accelerate “a transition to new forms of energy” and avoid running a global 3 or 4 degree climate experiment.

His interview raised fascinating questions about the mechanics of how we might go about attempting to drive “innovation ‘at an unnaturally high pace.’”

These are the exact questions that the organizers of the Energy Futures Lab (EFL) have been grappling with for the better part of two years as they prepared to launch an initiative aimed at “accelerating the transition to the energy system that the future requires.

“I suggest that you should set the bar at making history, and history’s waiting out there to be made. You are the right gang to do it.”

– Avrim Lazar, former President and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada

In contrast with Gates, the designers of the EFL don’t believe that we need a miracle, but rather a radically different approach to stimulating innovation through collaboration: a blend of state-of-the-art change lab methodology with leading edge public engagement strategies, and a planning framework to guide human action within planetary limits. With these tools, the right group of influencers may have a chance at cutting through the mind-numbing polarization that characterizes ‘debates’ over the future of energy in Alberta, and leverage the province’s energy resources and expertise to become a world leading energy system of the future.

The core of the Energy Futures Lab process is the EFL Fellowship, and two weeks ago, all 40 of these leaders convened for the first time in Banff. The Fellows represent incredibly diverse interests from across the energy spectrum in Alberta, including oil and gas, provincial and local government, First Nations, and non-profits. Despite their differences, they all possess a proven leadership ability and deep desire to help shape the future of Alberta.

Avrim Lazar, former President and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada and key architect of the landmark 2010 Boreal Forests Agreement, welcomed the Fellows to the launch by reminding them of exactly what they were there to do:

“I suggest that you should set the bar at making history, and history’s waiting out there to be made. You are the right gang to do it.”

Over the course of the intensive three-day session that followed, the Fellows began to lay the groundwork for this ambitious undertaking. They took stock of one another’s experiences, expertise, and motivations, gave voice to common energy narratives at play throughout Alberta, and explored efforts already underway to transform how the province produces, distributes, and uses energy. The Fellows were guided through mapping exercises to reveal barriers to change and leverage points within the energy system where small interventions may result in wide-ranging effects, and had the opportunity to pitch initiatives to the group as projects for collaboration.

Predictably, given the range of perspectives in the room, the Fellows did not always see eye to eye on either problems or solutions, but that friction, the organizers emphasize, is what will give the initiatives that emerge from the Lab a robustness that would otherwise be missing. There were disagreements, debates, and some uncomfortable discussions over the course of the session, but there was also common ground.

The three day session in Banff was only the first of many meetings of the Fellows slated to take place over the next year but already a number of themes are becoming apparent.

  • This is a community bent on making history. Just about the only thing the Fellows have 100% agreement on is that the EFL is not going to be another forum for great discussion. If this isn’t about doing, they’re not interested.
  • Engaging the public is essential to success. If actions taken by the Fellows do not find fertile cultural ground, they’ll be doomed to fail. The EFL will need to frame initiatives that are compatible with the narratives being lived by Albertans, or find ways to shift those narratives.
  • Sharing matters. The session opened with each Fellow presenting an object that symbolized commitment to the Lab. From family photos, to a 425 million year old fossil, to a Fellowship of the Rings DVD, what each brought said something authentic about themselves and was an investment of trust in the group. The value of the relationships forming out of this trust is difficult to quantify but absolutely essential to effective coordinated action.

A number of questions and tensions are also emerging from the process. Fellows and Lab organizers have until January to ponder these before they meet again in Edmonton.

  • How deeply does a group of actors need to understand the complexity of the Alberta energy system in order to identify high-leverage opportunities for change and effectively forecast barriers? Where do we draw the boundaries around our attempts to map such a complex system?
  • To what extent must a group of collaborators share a common vision of success in order to effectively coordinate action?  Certainly, we can all agree that a future energy system must be sustainable, but how important is it that we all hold the same definition of sustainability?
  • The possible rewards are vast, but the ambiguities of the Lab process can sometimes be frustrating for participants. How can we balance the desires of an action-oriented group, accustomed to pursuing specifically defined goals, with a process that, according to change lab guru Adam Kahane, is “emergent, unfolding, but almost never according to plan?”

In the coming months I’ll be following developments in the Energy Futures Lab, touching base with a number of the Fellows, and tracking EFL public engagement efforts. If the aim is history making, consider me a primary source chronicler with an inside track on events as they take shape.

I am honoured and excited about the opportunity to play a role, however small, in the effort to accelerate innovation in Alberta an unnaturally high pace and I cannot wait to see how it turns out.

Tyler Seed is a communications professional and writer for the Natural Step Canada. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability from Blekinge Tekniska Högskola in Sweden.