This story came out of our ‘Mountain Trail’ learning journey on Scaling landscape restoration for systemic impact. For more context on this, read this story. Cover photo: Women support group. Chattisgarh, India.
In a previous story, we’ve explored a critical reflection on the scaling of ‘solutions’, emphasizing the importance of building resilient systems if we want to achieve systemic change towards healthy landscapes. In this story, we’ll explore what it means to build to a resilient system. Seerp Wigboldus, Researcher at Wageningen University, identifies five characteristics for scaling resilience. We can find these to the work of our landscape partners. Reflecting on how to create these characteristics in your landscape initiative may help guide your scaling strategy.
Diversity is a necessary precursor for evolution. The bigger the diversity within a species, the bigger the likelihood that new traits will be born. Also in our society, diversity brings new ideas and fresh perspectives. In the context of scaling, we can apply this by making room for different perspectives. We often get stuck on the question ‘what approach works best?’. A more effective question to ask could be: ‘How do we make room for different approaches and perspectives?’
It can help here to be aware of the different roles in a system. Metabolic proposed twelve roles for systemic venture building (read the article for all roles). Just as in nature, there is a role for a ‘scaler’, who focuses on creating economies of scale from an existing product, service, or innovation. At the same time, the ’integrator’ brings together existing technology or models to provide new holistic value. Together, they make sure that the most valuable ideas get the needed resources while keeping the balance in the system where needed.
To value diversity, ask yourself: what role can I or my organization best play in the landscape? And for which roles will we need to find partners?
Quality before quantity. When you want to scale, you need to be strong enough. Know your strength and your focus. To scale up, if you dilute yourself, you lose everything. So, focus on your core qualities. – Bas van Dijk, Commonland
Never bid on one horse. If you put all your resources into one idea, and it fails, you will lose everything. Focusing on one line of work also brings the focus to quantity over quality. Wij.land learned this in their farmer’s network.
At a certain point, we opted for a shift from such many farmers to possibly fewer farmers, but with more actual transition on the farm. We don’t want to count the number of farmers as a KPI for how successful it is. This says nothing about the quality of the transition. Instead, we have focused on a more diverse service. – Rosa Vendel, Wij.land
A more diverse service gives you the safety net needed when one innovation did not work as expected. So, always have multiple activities running in parallel, multiple services, multiple ideas, or multiple crops, whichever applies to your situation.
It should always be possible to change direction. We see this in Commonland and our partners as we are entering new phases. At Commonland, for example, we are transitioning from working with a few partners to reaching more landscapes through collaborations and partnerships. In India, the CHiRP project is in the process of scaling from two pilot projects to a much larger 200,000-hectare landscape involving more diverse stakeholders. In Southwest Australia, landscape partners are bringing together the many existing efforts to an integrated landscape approach.
For all of us, it is crucial to stay flexible such that when circumstances ask us to change direction, we can do this. Flexibility is foremost a mindset. You need to be open to learning from practice, let go of your current path, and hand things over to partners that can do the work better than you can.
Scaling is also about letting go, to some degree about losing (tight) control of your story. How to get comfortable with that? When your story is adapted, improved, and taken forward without you. – Jim Mackintosh, Commonland
Robustness is about the ability to continue creating impact even under shocks or stress. A key ingredient for this is trust. Trust within your organisation, trust in the landscape partnership, trust of farmers, and trust of landscape residents. Building trust takes time and it is an often underestimated process.
A large part of the work of Living Lands has been focused on scaling deep, as it is in line with the Living Lands approach to understanding cultural values, relationships, and local realities. Changing hearts and minds is based on trust, something built over long periods of ‘being in it together’. – Liz Metcalfe, Living Lands, South Africa
Paying time and attention to how you organise and set up your team and organisation deserves as much attention as the model of scaling you think about or work with. – Willemijn de Iongh, Commonland
Lab processes such as Theory U create a container, a ‘space of belonging’ for building this trust while innovating at the systemic level. Learn more about these processes in this publication.
Scaling doesn’t always mean growing your own business or initiative; it can also mean connecting with like-minded initiatives around you. For example, Australian regenerative farmers Jeff and Michelle McManus grew a network of distributed smaller independent farms in their region, of which the combined environmental, social, and economic impact is greater than what they could have achieved through their own farm alone. You don’t always have to be one large (industrialized) central facility for processing any primary product. But more, smaller, decentralized, and yet connected networks of processing facilities that will provide jobs, ensure food is connected to the land on which it is produced, and build the story more deeply between consumers and producers is also a route to scale.
“There are other appropriate forms of scale.” – Michelle McManus, regenerative farmer, Southwest Australia.
Next to farm networks, other examples of networks for landscape restoration are entrepreneurial networks (read about them here), learning networks, creative networks, or advocacy networks. A practice key to bringing about these networks of change is weaving. Weaving entails connecting people, projects, and places in synergistic and meaningful ways. A powerful example of weaving in landscape restoration is the Bioregional Weaving Labs collective; a growing collective of 25+ international system-changing organisations, with the aim of mobilising and supporting 1 million changemakers to restore, protect, and regenerate 1 million hectares of land and sea in Europe. Learn more about this collective here. To learn about the practice of weaving, read this guide by Adrian Röbke, who also presented during our public Summit (recording here).
Connectedness is also a key ingredient in the process towards a holistic landscape approach. Landscape restoration often starts with small initiatives popping up in the landscape. Farmers that are starting to unite to learn about regenerative practices, a regenerative business starting up, or an NGO setting up a reforestation project. These initiatives are led by early innovators, often very motivated people with a lot of passion. This phase is essential, as it’s impossible to start a huge partnership from scratch. Connecting these initiatives in a meaningful way makes the transition from this phase into a landscape approach.
“While there are a lot of exciting regen ag, natural capital accounting and First Nation participation activities taking place that are enabling us to identify and share pathways forward, the reality is that most of these activities have been with the early innovators and the impact is only just starting to take place as a very patchy mosaic in the landscape. What is exciting is knowing that the next and larger cohort of farmers on the innovation-to-adoption pathway is now starting to adopt more regenerative practices. The foundations are in place and the time is right for a landscape scale approach.” – Keith Pekin, Perth NRM, Southwest Australia
Scaling should never be a purpose in itself, but rather a means to have more impact. The characteristics of resilient systems can help expand our vocabulary to help us formulate our ambitions for a thriving landscape. They help us ensure we are not scaling for the sake of scaling but nurturing the seeds of positive change.
Instead of asking ‘how do we scale?’, ask: how will I contribute to resilience at scale? What role do I have in my system? What seeds should we nourish, and what should we let go of?
How would you answer these questions? Are you contributing to creating resilience at scale? Let us know in the comments!
“The diversity and interconnectivity of life that we are part of, and that we depend on, binds us all. We struggle to see this because we mainly use our rational minds — and that’s when things become fragmented. When we observe with the heart, and truly listen to nature — and to each other, we find out how connected we all really are.” – Willem Ferwerda, CEO and founder of Commonland