When I started working for Commonland a year ago, I was asked to host a learning journey for our landscape partners to support them in the important work that they do. When I asked “What is the most important topic our landscape partners need to learn about right now?” the overwhelming majority of the answers were related to scaling and growth.
Scale is so inherent in its functioning that the questioning of scale is a non-topic even when talking about sustainability.
However, our conclusions from that journey lead to some surprising insights that we are sharing in a series of articles on scaling.
Obviously, we aim to scale our impact and restore more communities, more lands, more nature, and we need to do it fast and make it big, there is no time to wait.
If anything in the world truly needs to scale, it is restoration, right? So, the first important questions we focued on was how to make it happen.
The paradox is that widening our reach to thousands and millions of people or hectares of land, means losing the intimate relationship that initiated the transformation we wanted. We need a way to scale that preserves our values for community, connection and nurturing relationships, while reaching the scale and speed our world demands.
We slowed down and started reflecting on our assumptions about scaling and its necessity. We started to ask different questions. Should we scale wide, to reach more people, or should we scale deep to create more meaningful impact on a smaller group? Or perhaps, we should prioritise lasting impact over time?
These are different dimensions of scaling, and our purpose and priorities should determine which ones to focus on. We must transform our own beliefs about scaling so we can transform the systems that lead to degradation, instead of multiplying solutions that only heal surface level symptoms.
Nature, as always provided a great source of inspiration and new perspectives that we can use as we develop our holistic landscape restoration initiatives.
There is no natural “scale” in nature
There is a lifecycle of birth, thriving, death and rebirth, so we might ask ourselves, what needs to die so that something else could grow?
💡Insight Ellie: We should be thinking about ourselves as an ecosystem. What can this hospice [supporting the dying out of the old system] look like? What can be our role in this?
A typical example of successful scaling is a franchise, like McDonalds, with the idea of complete replication of identical products, branding, quality, and pricing all over the world. It aims for maximum efficiency and devouring all competition and resources mindlessly. McDonalds is the business version of a monoculture.
If we replicate the same solution throughout a landscape, we may irreversibly exploit the resources of our system, if we bring the same solution globally, we lose context that made it so relevant in the first place.
Then why would we use this same approach to scale nature-based solutions as well?
In nature we have rich and varied ecosystems with native species that have evolved to be perfectly adjusted to the local climate and context and the death of one supports the thriving of another for an overall healthy ecosystem.
So, what could we do instead? As one of our participants put it, we could be more like a Chinese restaurant – serve the local market the best you can, follow a set of shared principles, let go of the ego that your way is the best way, and trust that others will get inspired, adapt to their context, and do their best to serve their local market.
💡 Insight Jim & Willemijn: Scaling is also about letting go, to some degree about losing (tight) control of your story. Get comfortable with your story being adapted, improved, and taken forward without you.
For a landscape restoration organization this would mean letting go of organizational growth and partnering with and empowering other organizations to do similar work to reach impact at scale instead of organizational scale. In nature, we want to nurture a thriving ecosystem of species, in a community, we want to nurture a thriving ecosystem of organisations, all with their own unique role, functions and story.
Reflect 💫 Who are the players in your landscape that need to be nurtured? Who are the ones you can partner with instead of competing? How might you create better environment for organisations with purpose like yours to thrive?
Invasive spices can destroy an ecosystem.
When we offer a “solution”, how do we test to see if it is not an invasive one?
We love bringing in “solutions” or “best practices” from elsewhere because they worked so well. This can possibly work but we need to remember at what cost and how an external innovation could impact the whole ecosystem, especially if we aim to implement it “at scale.”
A foreign invasive species can take over a fragile ecosystem and destroy it within months. When we try to import a solution at all costs, we make our ego of a “savior” more important than the ecosystem we work with.
The innovator becomes an intruder, the idea becomes more important than its impact or its intended purpose.
We allow the context and the environment to work with the suggestions we offer as a starting point, not an endgame.
💡 Insight Rosa: we can easily get into a mindset of ‘what are we giving’. This is a process of reciprocity. You need to find your core and from there you build on with others.
Reflect 💫 What are your organizational strengths and how can you use them effectively to increase the impact you are making? What should you NOT do and let your partner organizations use their strengths to focus on it?
Diversity is an essential characteristic of a thriving nature; it builds resilience in an ecosystem.
How do we grow with resilience in mind?
🥾 Example from practice Wij.land: “We have started to actively seeking out cooperation with partners (such as farmer advocate organizations, and agricultural collectives). It was a conscious choice to collaborate, with the aim of enabling them to carry out part of our work. The idea is that we work on the sideline so that we also have time to tackle other topics.”
The first two points in this article intended to convince you to build a landscape partnership. The next step would be to align on purpose and shared vision and create space for diversity of approaches, methods, and frameworks. The alignment is crucial so that we move in the same direction. How we get there can be through different means and different paths.
💡 Insight Liz: I have realized how important it is to change the vision of not trying to scale ourselves alone (we cannot do all the work ourselves), but to be a focus of inspiration for other entities that can start to inspire others. This issue is perhaps not clear to all members, who believe that we should and can do everything.
Some essential guiding principles might be crucial but those should provide enough flexibility for each partner to come up with their own strategy. Think of playing a game – we all agree on what does it mean to win. We all agree on some rules to follow and then we all come up with our own strategy to play the game and enjoy it. If we cannot agree what winning means and what are fair rules to play by, we will end up just fighting instead of having fun.
💡 Insight Shekhar: There can be different kinds of vision. One vision never fits into one landscape. Different visions can be accommodated, which leads to different groups.
Once you have built trust and alignment with you partners, you can also become a support and learning network for each other, which is an added benefit to partnering – you don’t have to be alone in figuring out the challenges of restoration. Of course, you can also count on the 4 returns community for that!
💡Insight Laura: It’s good to share our challenges. Be clear about expectations. Trust, patience, the base must be strong.
Reflect 💫 How can you build safe and nurturing space for diverse perspectives and initiatives to co-exist and collaborate effectively?
Hint: Build a governance structure that embraces diversity. Our next Mountain Trail is going to dive into that topic.
A thriving ecosystem has a healthy balance between competition and symbiotic relationships.
If we want to impact a whole landscape, we need both – competition benefits a variety of niche groups, symbiosis allows for deeper and longer lasting impact.
In a rainforest we observe layers and layers of plants that compete for every bit of sunlight they can get, and that competition doesn’t make them weaker but more inventive about the ways they can reach to the top of the canopy or manage life with less sunlight.
Competition creates the variety of innovations and approaches that ensures the diversity we need to build a resilient system.
Competition alone is not enough though. Symbiotic relationships are also crucial for a healthy system and those are the partnerships that we build because we cannot succeed without each other. Like pollinators and fungi that communicate and facilitate the exchange between plants, we need organisations in a landscape that address common challenges and build support systems and infrastructure. Think of, for example, governments, wholesalers or marketing agencies that serve restoration initiatives.
💡 Insight Keith: There is a growing number of key stakeholders who are willing to work collectively to have a real impact on landscape-scale restoration.
Reflect 💫 How do we build and maintain healthy balance between competition and symbiotic relationships for the benefit of the whole landscape?
- Who are the partners that we compete for the same kind of audience and resources with?
- How can we stay different enough so that we can reach people or lands that the others can never reach?
- Who are the partners that will be able to cross-polinate for us and take the seeds of our work in a place that we could never reach ourselves?
- How can we make sure that they receive a good quality seed to take further?
Transformation in nature takes time, trees don’t grow exponentially so why do we have to?
Reaching scale fast does not necessarily mean that we can maintain the quality of transformation in the long run. Scaling a system or a solution is very different than maintaining it. No matter how quickly we manage to reach people in a landscape and change their behavior, it will still take twenty years for the biodiversity to restore itself.
Not to mention, that a change of behavior will be only temporary if people don’t change their worldviews, beliefs, and values, and that takes much longer and deeper work. We need to build strong, lasting relationships, and trust overtime. There is no short cut for that:
💡Insight Rosa: one of the most important and difficult aspects we encountered in scaling is how we can keep the slowly built trust and ‘family feeling’ with partners and farmers.
In addition, an ecosystem is limited by its geographical boundaries, resources, and typical climate. You cannot outgrow it naturally and you cannot fully copy it elsewhere, so what, if anything, do we replicate that goes beyond a landscape and its specific context?
💡 Insight Bas: 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.
Therefore, we should focus on scaling also a narrative, a value system, and a set of guiding principles on restoration, not a single approach or solution. That takes a lot of conversations, deep listening, curiosity and a beginner’s mindset, and that is a whole other story to explore.
Reflect 💫 Who are the potential partners you can talk to next week and explore a shared vision with them?
Link to Roos’ article