On being authentic and inspiring change

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Too often I come across people who try too hard to be what they’re not. We all do it sometimes – put an exceptional person or idea up on a pedestal and aspire to be more like them.

One thing to remember though is that every person has that unique spark that makes them an inspiration to others. Some might call it your “talent”, or in the corporate world, your “USP” (unique selling point). I like to think of it as the best version of yourself.

We all have a set of values and guiding principles that we live by. We all have something that excites us and sparks joy. We all want to do well in our everyday lives, recognising that every person has their own paramateres for defining this, and to feel proud of what we do.

I say bring that spark to the forefront – wear it like a badge of honour, and cast off the carefully crafted and cultivated outer layer of organisational culture – you know the one, it makes you say things like “we need to do more with less”, and “do I have your buy-in on this?”, or “We need to empower our staff to make better decisions”…. No. Just don’t.

Be your authentic self and you will not only be respected as an authentic and trusted member of your team, but believe it or not, you will also sound smarter and be a more pleasant person to work with. You will then be the one who others look to for leadership, even if you’re not in a leadership position.

Then you can crack on with changing the world!

5 things I learned as an engineer when I studied Integrated Water Management

A professional engineer discovers Integrated Water Management (but I had no idea what it was really).

I had spent nearly 8 years working as an engineer (mechanical if you must know) in the water sector – in construction, consulting, and for a water utility company by the time I decided that I needed to further my education and learn something new. By 2009 I’d gained enough experience to get my Engineering Chartership – an important feather in your cap if you want to approve engineering designs and mentor younger engineers.

I knew I wanted to pursue a career in water. I was also at that stage in my career where I could see a vast field of opportunities ahead of me and wanted to put myself ahead of the competition, even though I wasn’t entirely sure at that point whether I wanted to pursue promotion in a technical role, or move into management.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Like anyone else who grew up in the age of discount air fares and easy travel, the world was my oyster, so I started looking up courses in water management that I could do – from the United Kingdom, to the Netherlands, to North America, and Asia. I finally landed on the Master of Integrated Water Management, delivered of course, in Australia where I grew up. By this point I was living in London, with no immediate plans to move back to Australia. Luckily I was able to study by distance education. Online teaching technology was still relatively new and not without hiccups, but it worked. I tied the compulsory field trips in with visits to family, and worked full time, whilst studying part time over the next 3 years. It wasn’t easy.

What I learned during my studies in Integrated Water Resource Management

Coming from a background of hard-nosed contract managers and gruff construction engineers, the world of IWRM was totally different. In my cohort of students there were professionals from all sorts of backgrounds – educators, environmentalists, engineers, hydrogeologists, ecologists, lawyers, economists and more. It was truly humbling and educational just being around them. They came from all over the globe – Kenya, Zambia, USA, Canada, Chile, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, Vanuatu and Australia to name just a few countries. This course wasn’t going to just be about the best methods for excavating rocky soil, the best process for treating sewage, the safest way to construct a building, or most cost effective way to deliver a project. No it was so much more, which I’ll cover in other posts going forward.

For me, the 5 stand-out lessons were:

1. Rivers truly are the lifeblood of a city.

Rivers have throughout history provided societies with the means to grow food, live comfortably, transport goods, and stay hygienic. Amazing cities have grown up around rivers over the centuries, and slowly we’ve cleared away the trees and vegetation lining the river banks that protect them from erosion, flooding and pollution. Now that we know the importance of rivers in creating livable cities, governments worldwide are undertaking riparian restoration projects to return rivers a more natural state.

I learned how this can be done.

2. There are economic and social costs of not managing our natural resources carefully or engaging with local stakeholders

In the short term, fighting over who has the right to build on a particular piece of land or extract from a particular part of the river costs projects time and money. In the long term, if a project hasn’t considered the impacts to the environment or to local communities of a new scheme, the costs to the environment or community in terms of economic productivity, ecological impact or collective happiness may outweigh the benefits provided by the scheme. This is neither good for the Client, community, nor the company delivering the scheme – potentially costing $20 million per week. It is easy for a company that is just following instructions of a Client to pass environmental assessment and community engagement off as the Client’s responsibility, when in reality everybody holds responsibility in a project’s decision-making processes.

We have a duty to identify both short and long term scheme costs and benefits, and properly risk assess with communities in mind.

3. Everyone has competing values – they’re not necessarily right or wrong, just different

I once asked a respected professor how we decide what the “right” decision is on a project. Take for example a mine that excavates a mineral that is used in everyday products that we can’t live without – the mine provides a service that people need, and contributes to the economy. It provides jobs for the employees of the mine and for the local community. Yet it leaves an irreversible impact on the environment, often quite detrimental, which can’t simply be offset by planting some trees elsewhere. This impact on the environment may also have its own economic impacts in the longer term, or perhaps impact the cultural traditions of indigenous communities.

Know that our actions have consequences, no matter how good the intention.

4. We are faced with Wicked Problems

The previous point brings us to Wicked Problems. The fact that the world’s natural resources are finite and our population is ever growing means that we are faced with complex social problems that often have no solution. A wicked problem may by dealt with using approaches to improve the situation for those affected, but since each problem is unique and dependent on context and perspective, there is no template for how one should approach them.

Learn to listen to Wicked Problems and don’t assume there is an easy answer.

5. We need to rethink how we define the success of a project

I’ve spent my career delivering and managing projects. A successful project is often defined by whether or not the Client’s Brief is met on time and under budget. In recent years another key metric used is Client feedback – is your Client happy with the way you delivered the project as well as the end result? Yet it’s not often that projects are monitored and evaluated over a longer time-frame – over the life of the installed asset, or over a generation of the affected communities.

We don’t budget for ongoing monitoring and evaluation. We tend not to measure less tangible benefits such as social impact, goodwill, compliance or customer satisfaction. That doesn’t mean they are any less important.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project 01 on Unsplash

Actually there’s a sixth lesson

I’m forgetting one last important thing that funnily enough I hadn’t appreciated until I was more deeply immersed in my coursework. It’s women. Women are a catalyst for social change in ways that have been invisible throughout history, and women will continue to be the driving force for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and for effecting social change going into the future.

As a mother to a young boy I wonder what the world will be like when my son is a grown man. I will teach him that he is important. I will teach him that there are still places in the world where he will still be told he is more important than his female counterparts, and that this is unlikely to be true. I will teach him that there are also adversities facing young men that we have yet to address properly. Yet he will know that women in the community undertake many invisible jobs – jobs that have not yet received the proper recognition in our society. Women also wield influence, and have some great ideas and inspiring energy for making their societies a better place to live.

We need to let women do what they do best, but also recognize and celebrate their achievements.

Sorry for the long post. I’m not quite sure how to end this, so I’m just going to leave this here:

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Your career does not define you but your actions do

I started this website when I was at a cross-road in my life. Some of you might know the one. You realize that you’ve done reasonably well so far in your career, but you’ve spent the last 15 years of your career chasing one opportunity after the other, balancing someone else’s P&Ls, and helping someone else to manage their business. Running on the hamster wheel. You have more or less enjoyed your work (or not!), and have met some great people along the way, but now there’s this gnawing feeling of “what else is there?”. You may even have an existential crisis or two. If you’re a millennial, you probably already know that this is not an uncommon phenomenon for your generation. If you’re a Xennial like me, you’ve probably still got a handful of friends who’ve been at the same company for the last 15 years, but also friends who keep jumping at the next big opportunity. I don’t know the secret formula to a long, successful and fulfilling career.

What I do know is that there’s no right or wrong way of doing things. You are not defined by your career.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

This one cup can save the world

The quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is often wrongly attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, but this convenient bumper sticker slogan holds a certain amount of truth. It is aspirational and excitingly laden with hope.

There are some great TED talks out there on making a difference while making a living. I’m going to leave you with one that I listened to today by Audrey Choi – I’m totally that person who hopes that my one reusable cup may inspire others to use one too, and that this one cup may just cause some kind of ripple effect to save the world.

Today, we’ll do better

If you’re an individual, you can choose any time to find your true north in your career. Do it today. Do it now.

If you’re a business executive, now is the time to build your business case for better environmental stewardship in your organisation. Business heavyweights like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Bill Gates are investing in sustainable innovation, greener supply chains and clean technology. Not to mention other household names like Ikea , Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Marks and Spencer and other companies on the Forbes World’s Most Sustainable Companies List – and it’s not just greenwashing, it’s an investment in the future.

 

Christmas is coming! Reach out more, waste less.

Don’t judge me – I LOVE CHRISTMAS. Love it. As much as I did as a child – possibly even more, because I now have my own child to share the joy with (my partner’s family never got into Christmas festivities much so he suffers through my excitement as any dutiful husband would!).

However, I’m not a fan of all the crap. All the plastic. The foam. The glitter. The waste.

What I like about Christmas is that it gives us all an excuse to reach out to people who we ordinarily might not make the effort to reach out to. Because we’re busy. Because they’re busy, and little Susan has swimming on this day, or little Mike has a birthday party to go to. Or the singletons – too cool for family activities, or too busy with work or hobbies. That’s ok, it’s modern life.

I enjoy having people over. My house is humble. It will never win any awards or be in any magazines. It can barely fit my family and all our belongings, especially now that we both do a lot of work from home. But our doors are always open to friends and acquaintances, for a chat, or just to hang out. At Christmas time I actually have an excuse to ask people over to our tiny abode and not just ask to “Meet up for coffee?”.

I also think that somewhere along the way, we forgot how to give and receive gifts in a way that is pleasant and genuinely brings joy. We receive gifts and automatically think of our reciprocal obligations. We give gifts because we feel we have to, or stoutly refuse to do so because we don’t want to conform to what we perceive to be a commercialization of an outdated tradition. It means there’s a whole seasonal economy being supported by the buying and selling of things people didn’t necessarily need in the first place.

Let’s also not forget that Christmas isn’t a happy time for everyone. It is a stressful time for many reasons and can be quite unpleasant for some. The Wayside Chapel in Sydney serves over 3,500 meals on Christmas morning to those who are lonely or homeless, and many other charity organisations have similar Christmas drives.

Christmas can bring people together and actually be a lovely time of year for joyously giving and graciously receiving, or it can be a lonely and anxiety-ridden event.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on how we can make Christmas a more pleasant, more sustainable, and less wasteful time for those around us, and ways that you can think of to reach out to others.

So however you celebrate (or not) this Christmas season, I hope that you’ll be happy and safe. Pass it on.

The beginning: smart phones, food production, sanitation. Let’s start the change and save ourselves.

We live in an age of technological advancement that the world has never seen. According to a Deloitte study of global mobile consumer trends, 78% of global consumers own smart phones. The number of connected mobile phones worldwide in 2014 exceeded the actual global population, and this isn’t confined to just the cities. A study of rural connectivity in Indonesia showed similar adoption and usage of smartphones in rural communities compared to the rest of the country.

This is no surprise to anyone. A smart phone gives us the power to do business and be connected to the global community in ways that have never before been imaginable.

However, we also still live in a world where 1 in 3 people don’t have access to a decent toilet, and 844 million people don’t have access to clean drinking water (this figure is arguable depending on your definition of clean, and a whole bunch of other factors we can go into in another post). It is a world where we are more connected than ever before, and yet a child under 5 dies every 2 minutes due to lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Cholera is totally preventable.

By the end of this century, the world’s population is expected to exceed 11 billion people, with over 60% living in urban centres. Although this means that more people will be located closer to modern amenities and jobs, it also brings a number of other social issues associated with urban poverty.

Water, Food, Energy and the world we live in

I’m not the first, nor the most vocal in saying that we have to think about the future. I know you’re already thinking about what we can do to make a difference. You already know that we need to do more than just update our Facebook statuses and switch our lights off once a year on Earth Day or feel good about sorting our recycling (and I’m not suggesting for a minute that any of these things are not worthwhile).

By 2050, the world will need to:

  • Feed an extra 2.4 billion people by increasing food production by 60% (and they’ll want meat – lots of it!)
  • Cater for an increase in 50% demand for fresh water
  • Produce 40% more energy than we do today
  • Adjust to a loss in 10% biodiversity, and prevent further loss

We’re talking about a mere 3 decades from now (2017 at the time of writing). From my years working in water infrastructure in London – a city of 7 million residents, I think about how challenging it is to upscale drinking water production by even 5%, and I have a good idea of what we’re up against.

People have a social conscience but are time poor

Take this conversation I had with a friend (a full-time doctor in a public hospital and mother of 2 young children) earlier this year, that was prompted by a question I posed to my readers about #plasticfreejuly. She’s the no nonsense, get-it-done type:

“Everyone has a too hard basket. I barely have time to sleep – so my efforts stop at anything that requires extra time out of my chaos. Choosing wisely at shops is OK, going to 5 different shops to do shopping unfortunately belongs with making bread and beewax [wraps] – which is not [a good use of time] for me. People can go several weeks without food, but die after 11 days without sleep”.

The world is full of sleep-deprived workers, parents, and students – all contributing to the global economy in some way (yes, even that college student spending money down at the bar is a contributor), and all contributing to, yet potentially part of the solution to, this wicked problem of ours – how do we make all our resources go around, and how do we make it as fair as possible for everyone?

Our core beliefs – what unites and divides us

All over the world, we are becoming more polarized in our ideologies, and yet more than ever we need to work together, across boundaries of all kinds if we’re to overcome all the threats from social, political, economic and climate uncertainty that we are faced with.

Tackling the issues of sustainable development isn’t confined only to those with the education or status to make a difference. It can’t be. Each of us has the ability to reach across a widening gap in everything we do. By opening our minds to others and by taking the effort to understand and not judge, no matter how strange, hostile or unpleasant another person’s views seem. This is how we take the first steps to being agents of change.

Let’s start the change

Let’s have a dialogue. Let’s share ideas. Whether you’re a professional who works in sustainability, a parent who wants a more certain future for their children, a student who dreams of changing the world for the better, a skeptical bystander, or anything in between, I’d love for you to tune in here and share your thoughts with us.

I’ll be sharing thoughts, success stories, useful links, and resources. I’d love for you to do the same, right here with me. If you’re a company that sells sustainable, ethical, and useful products, we’d love to hear about it (But please see my Policy on unsolicited advertising).

I’m going to end here by quoting one of the people I admire, Dr. Jane Goodall, who inspires me with her belief that every individual matters. She believes that every individual can make small differences in the world, and that it’s though all these small differences can we make the world a better place:

“Only if we understand, will we are. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” 

Other things I want to write about but haven’t gotten around to doing so yet:

  • Food safety
  • Security of water and electricity supplies
  • Economic growth

Please stay tuned!