Solutions Labs 2010 Kick-Off at Duke

I like structure. I like to know what my day will look like so I can plan ahead. Itineraries and calendars are my friends (especially when they are color coordinated). So when I decided to go to an "unconference" with no set agenda, I really didn’t know what to expect. All of these questions fluttered into my head: what the heck is an unconference? No agenda? How do I prepare? For those of you out there who have similar questions, this post is for you.

A few weeks ago, the Green Innovation in Business Network (GIBN) kicked off the first of ten events scheduled for 2010. The Solutions Labs use an open space "unconference" format to gather professionals from a variety of industries plus government and non-profits together for a day of discussion, experience-sharing, brainstorming and problem solving. The Solutions Lab held on January 28th was graciously hosted at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina by Duke's  Corporate Sustainability Initiative .

The day began with an introduction by Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. In his casual, conversational style, Ariely helped us explore the reasons people aren’t more motivated to act in favor of the environment. He then led us through possible mechanisms and motivators for change: things such as reward substitution, ego utility and the power of competition. After Dan’s passionate and comedic introduction, we were all riled up and ready to tackle these issues. So far, the day seemed pretty organized, but I was still worried about the potential for disorganization that would come with agenda setting.

The reasoning behind the unconference format for the Solutions Labs is that by having participants in the room set the agenda according to their needs, discussions are sure to be appropriate and engaging. Still, I could feel the train wreck lurking. No organization. Chaos. But I was so very wrong.

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Odin Zackman organizing the agenda

Odin Zackman, our conference facilitator, patiently guided the more than 100 attendees through the process with his superb mediating skills. We split ourselves up into groups of five or so to discuss our burning questions, what we wanted to learn and how we could help each other find solutions. Then, using proposals from participants, Odin allocated topics to rooms and times, crafting the agenda for the rest of the day. The great thing was, we didn’t have to choose just one session per set.  In fact, we were encouraged to float around until we became engaged in a particular discussion. It was certainly not an ordinary conference where people are talked at for hours; instead people talked to each other. Participants were constantly engaged in stimulating conversation and left inspired.

At the end of the day there had been 25 sessions on topics ranging from "Calories & Carbon" where people talked about what we can learn from the food industry about sustainable product information, to matters of economics with "Show me the money!" and a discussion about making sustainability affordable. One common theme was the difficulty in effectively demonstrating and communicating the value of sustainability efforts and translating that into behavior change (more to come on that in a later post).  The full agenda for the day and notes from most of the sessions are available on the Green Innovation in Business wiki.

The day closed with a round of feedback and planning for next steps. Two concrete next steps agreed to were:

  1. to convene a "roundtable" of non-profit and business representatives to discuss policy opportunities and how to partner.
  2. explore the idea of creating a vision of the Research Triangle area becoming the "Green Silicon Valley"

Once again, we would like to extend a big thank you to all the supporters that made this event possible! Special acknowledgments go out to RTI, SAS, and Dan Vermeer at Duke’s Corporate Sustainability Initiative. And thanks again to Jill Newbold who herded space, food and people.

Stay tuned for more posts and updates on these predictably unpredictable Solutions Labs.

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