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Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf, Change? (probably most of us)

Sustainability is all about change: making paradigm adjustments in the way we work, live, and play to ensure that our places are vibrant both now and for future generations.

But change is not something we take to all that easily, myself included. Despite the fact that many of my colleagues believe I’m something of a change junkie, I like being on solid, predictable ground and to bank on the fact that tomorrow (and my role in it) will look just like today. But then there’s that line from John Lennon: Life happens when you’re expecting something different.

Will these changes make my education, experience, skills unnecessary? Will these changes entail being evaluated differently? If we strive for aspirational change and fall short, will someone blame me?

Almost 25 years ago, I was travelling overland in a Jeep from Algiers to Capetown. One of my closest friends from college, Ben, was with me in his own vehicle. The trans-Africa route has always been tricky, complicated by the fact that the heart of the continent, the Congo (then known as Zaire), has only a few months of bone-dry weather in which to navigate. After that, the rains come, the heavy lorry trucks that have ground down the earthen road into deep ruts become filled with water, sometimes as high as three meters, and the trans-Congo “highway” becomes impassable. Ben and I had timed our trip to ensure we drove through the Congo before the rains came. They came early. Trouble. We arrived at the river town of Lisala (on the banks of the Congo River) with a decision to make: Continue driving on despite rumors of the flooded-out road ahead or put our jeeps on a ferry and float our way to Kisingani. We decided on the latter. We queued up to have our Jeeps loaded onto the ferry by crane only to watch the huge Unimog in front of us plummet into the river when the crane failed. We waited another two weeks for the crane to be fixed, queued up again, but decided at the last minute that we preferred risking impassable, wet roads over having our Jeep dropped.

The experience has stayed with me ever since.

We ask a lot from our business clients: Changing their approach to how they design goods and services so that they have benign effects on the environment, re-thinking their entire supply chain, making behavioral adjustments to the way employees work, making investments in their facilities that result in lower impacts on the environment, etc. And we ask similar things from our community clients: Integrating various siloed aspects of planning so that there is cohesion among housing, transportation, parks and recreation, etc. thinking beyond just infrastructural improvements to programs that enhance the quality of life for all. Of course, we always quantify the value of these changes a priori so that our clients clearly understand what this means to them.

But at the end of the day, the case has to be made for each individual in a business or community who will be expected to shoulder the responsibility of these changes. As we’ve been told time and again, it’s all about WITFM, what’s in this for me. Will these changes make my education, experience, skills unnecessary? Will these changes entail being evaluated differently? If we strive for aspirational change and fall short, will someone blame me? Do I look stupid embracing what seems to be such idealistic stuff? And so on.

I get it. I really do. I was not a happy camper coming to that fork in the road in Lisala way back when. Remembering that discomfort years later and channeling it into the critical aspect that change management plays in sustainability has made a world of difference. At least I’d like to think it has.