Revolution is Where You Find It
by Tony Lamport
As we drive, the full generous sun of late morning lights the mass of golden leaves of autumn in
Nova Scotia from the inside, in a way that uplifts and overwhelms the eye. Beside me is my son
– rock drummer, video gamer, lifeguard, ecological trainer and generally funny guy – who, for
every one of his four years at university has placed near the top of the Dean’s list in spite of
reading virtually nothing, much to my frustration, but course-assigned texts.
As we drive happily and silently together into the richly textured day, I am struggling for a way
to begin my promised review of Peter Senge’s new book The Necessary Revolution. My son
turns to me, out of the blue, and says with uncanny timing, “I’m reading a new book by Peter
Senge and enjoying it a lot.” He pauses for awhile and then goes on, “I like the way he thinks
and writes, in a way that allows things to connect across disciplines.”
I pop a double eyebrow lift, and he pauses again.
“He seems to use exactly the right words in the right amount to explain what I need to know,” he
goes on to describe.
He’s got my full attention now.
“And he doesn’t seem to invest a lot of effort trying to impress or bore me with what’s left over.”
(Unlike presumably some others who figure prominently in his life).
I’m smiling inwardly at this synchronicity. I have my beginning in these few essential
observations about an important book that covers a great deal of ground, bringing the lessons of
environmental and organizational learning together in a readable, page-turning call to action.
Now I can dig a little deeper.
Peter Senge has a distinguished career as a writer of landmark books and as a senior lecturer at
MIT’s Sloan School of Management. His voice has clarity and patience as it harvests the
learning about working effectively together at the often muddy edge of organizational learning,
making it not just understandable but useful for the rest of us. In fact, he invented the term
organizational learning and was one of the founders of the Society for Organizational Learning
(SoL), a hugely powerful presence in thought leadership and business and management thinking
in the last decade or so. The Fifth Discipline and its accompanying Fieldbook are standard texts.
Presencing, his third book, co-authored with Otto Scharmer and others, is a powerful exploration
of complex problems and creativity – possibly just a few units ahead of its time but still with a
clear voice that makes it both understandable and readable.
In this new book, The Necessary Revolution, along with his collaborators Bryan Smith, Nina
Krushwitz, Joe Laur, and Sara Schley, Senge continues to avoid wasting his and our time trying
to impress or bore us. With a thorough, detailed approach, he guides us along the journey into
our necessary future, constrained as it is by great social and environmental upheaval but rich
with possibilities for those who can adapt and create. Like this one, his books are underpinned by
theory, but they are also thick with good examples and lots of opportunities for experiential
Karl Marx became one of the most influential thinkers of the modern world, predicting the
necessary downfall of capitalism at the hands of its workers. Senge and his colleagues celebrate
capitalism not for the harsh exploitation of working people and the natural world it sometimes
has been, but for all it promises to be – an expression of the best intentions and wholesome
livelihood of those who want to make good and make sense in their lives. This is an invitation to
a capitalist uprising for those who see as possible a new kind of natural or regenerative
capitalism that can achieve environmental well-being, equity and abundance for all.
These are high-flying ideas but they are also rooted in a growing reality in many parts of the
world, and Senge and his colleagues provide lots of examples of companies and organizations at
its leading edge, from famous brands such as Alcoa, BMW and Xerox to many smaller and lesser
known such as Seventh Generation. Through a careful exploration that links the eco in ecology
and the eco in economy, and serves as a program of action for individuals and teams, The
Necessary Revolution takes us into an uncertain but certainly possible future, where local
initiatives can add up to global change. By aligning a drive for competitiveness and profit with
an end to costly waste and pollution – waste and pollution can be seen as manufactured products
for which there are no customers and no profit – and bringing good intentions into our industrial
culture through a systems approach, The Necessary Revolution describes an economic culture
where participants find fulfillment in material and spiritual ways and in the end do no harm.
However, with the book’s focus being a practical workbook for change, it treats too casually two
powerful broad ideas that if widely understood could guide action in the larger field and as a
result, were underplayed. The first is the importance of investing in new systems that do good
rather than tinkering with bad systems to make them less damaging, and second, the role of
design in accomplishing this.
By championing design as a tool for creating a better more sustainable world, Senge echoes the
wisdom of Buckminster Fuller, the engineering genius who brought us among other things the
geodesic dome. Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change
something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Those who own iPods or
iPhones, have driven a Smart Car or spent time in a solar house can understand directly the
power of design to change things.
Everything made by humans is designed, but not necessarily designed well. Good design is an
expression of human aspiration and intentions, and when it’s practiced in a thoughtful way that
includes sustainability and context and the users point of view, it can solve problems upstream
before they ever occur. It can bring the actual outcomes closer to the intended ones. We in the
developed world are an industrial culture of so many unfortunate and deadly unintended
Business schools such as Rotman and others are beginning to focus not just on design, but also
design thinking. This approach takes the wisdom and creativity of design as a specialized field of
professional practice and applies it to the work the rest of us do. As a result, we learn to research
and nurture new kinds of insight, to think and work together in the round, and incorporate
sustainability principles into our innovation process. As visionary architect William McDonough
put it, “Designers must become leaders and leaders must become designers.”
Biomimetics is the discipline of applying design innovations from the natural world. Lotus
leaves are so smooth nothing will stick to their surface – a perfect design for waterless toilets.
Underwater shark skins accomplish the same result – a wholesome design replacement for highly
toxic underwater antifouling paint. Mollusks create the strongest and most versatile adhesive on
the planet – perfect for any number of industrial uses. Gekkos hang upside down effortlessly
through microscopic fibres – just the thing for cat burglars and climbers of all kinds. Naturally
occurring nanospikes destroy bacteria by rupturing their protective surfaces – a huge step
forward for hospitals when added to paints. Trees, plants and animals use the most sophisticated
antibiotics anywhere – in fact most antibiotics come from this source. Termite hives maintain
cool temperatures in the extreme African heat by the way they are designed – a natural
inspiration for high rise buildings in hot climates. A spider’s web is three times stronger than
steel by weight – with any number of industrial safety and military uses. Animals draw with
great success on solar and geothermal heat in wintertime to stay warm.
Nature has had eight billion years or more of lab research and real-world testing to solve most of
the problems we currently face in ways that are sustainable, by their very nature - no regulations
required. Our arrogant approach to science is a brief and unfortunate experiment compared to
this. Some scientists and designers are beginning to now take a more humble approach to
innovation and discovery and, inspired by the abundance of natural technology that surrounds us
in the form of endless variations and combinations of molecules and structures, create great new
sustainable things. To adopt a biomimetic approach to technological development is to reestablish a natural and self-regulating relationship with the natural world and ourselves that
doesn’t require vast, expensive, and unproductive regulatory bureaucracies to police them.
No one in their right mind would deny that climate change is a problem. But climate change is a
symptom of more complex, interrelated problems that will not end with the disappearance of the
toxic bloom of CO₂ that plagues our upper atmosphere. How will we know how much carbon
dioxide is the right amount? At what speed can we safely reduce emissions? Will the War On
Carbon, like the War on Drugs and the War On Poverty create unintended consequences equally
Failing to act to save ourselves and other forms of life would be tragic beyond imagining, but
just setting targets for the control of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a reproduction of the
simplistic thinking-in-isolation that led to the creation of the problem in the first place. If we are
to avoid the constant plague of unintended consequences our best intentions give rise to, we need
a convergence of mutually supportive solutions.
The Necessary Revolution is a thorough piece of work but could be stronger if it were to more
comprehensively explore the complexity of the problems we face together. This complexity has
changed how we must engage the world and work together. The methods of the previous
Industrial Revolution will not help us in an era of technological and socio-political diversity,
where the fragmentation of interests and power wreak havoc on our customary command and
control methods. Rather, we must understand that solutions will only grow slowly out of coemergence, reciprocity and collaborative learning on a manageable scale.
As Alex Steffen of the now famous Worldchanging book and website put it:
To have any hope of staving off collapse, we need to move forward with measures that address
many interrelated problems at once. We don’t need a War on Carbon. We need a new prosperity
that can be shared by all while still respecting a multitude of real ecological limits — not just
atmospheric gas concentrations, but topsoil depth, water supplies, toxic chemical concentrations,
and the health of ecosystems, including the diversity of life they depend upon. We can build a
future in which technology, design, smart incentives, and wise policies make it possible to
deliver a high quality of life at lower ecological cost. But that brighter, greener future is
attainable only if we embrace the problems we face in all their complexity. To do otherwise is
tantamount to clear-cutting the very future we’re trying to secure.
Can we transform capitalism’s restless need for growth into something spiritual and sustainable
where a sense of compassionate reciprocity replaces hand-outs from the wealthy, where nature is
welcome as an ally and a teacher, and where the value of money is grounded in genuine wealth?
Within its 400-odd pages, The Necessary Revolution provides an uplifting glimpse of what this
might look like and identifies a starting point close enough that there really is no reason for us all
not to begin. This is not just a matter of we can – we must.
One day, I asked my six-year-old daughter whether she thought it would be possible for us to
make things in a way that would end this great avalanche of garbage, pollution and wasted
resources we hurt ourselves with every day, and allow things to be recycled or returned to the
natural world as food.
”You mean they don’t do it that way now?” she said. “I don’t understand.”
And then, because the wonderful thing about six-year-olds is they have no mercy for adults, she
said, “Dad, please ask them to stop.”
Tony Lamport is a sociologist, environmental designer, applied economist and sustainability
strategist who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His preoccupation is with understanding natural
intelligence, in time.
To read a Business Week interview with Peter Senge about The Necessary Revolution, click
Innovation & Design
Peter Senge's Necessary Revolution
June 11, 2008
In a new book, the management guru discusses the environmental woes facing business and
some steps that may lead to a more sustainable world
Peter Senge, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management
and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, is perhaps best known for his 1990 bestselling book, The Fifth Discipline, which introduced the idea of the "learning organization."
Now, Senge has a new work that promises to be as influential as the first. In The Necessary
Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable
World (Doubleday, 2008), Senge and his co-authors grapple with the daunting environmental
problems we face, and highlight innovative steps taken by individuals and corporations, often in
partnership with global organizations such as Oxfam, toward a more sustainable world.
It may seem surprising that an expert in management and organizational change is focusing on
sustainability, but there is a strong connection to Senge's work. In his earlier book, he laid out an
approach to management that combines systems thinking, collaboration, and team learning. As
he describes it, a learning organization is one in which "people continually expand their capacity
to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured,
where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole
together." Such organizations tend to be more flexible, adaptive, and productive—critical
qualities in a time of rapid change.
In The Necessary Revolution, Senge applies the same thinking to a system bigger and more
complex than the organization: global society. The book is a call to arms, an argument to
business leaders that they must rethink their approach to the environment or, as one executive
told Senge, "we won't have businesses worth being in in 20 years." But the authors don't linger
on the problems, focusing instead on the stories and insights of successful innovators, on creative
solutions, and on practical approaches to meeting these challenges. Jessie Scanlon recently met
Peter Senge at his Cambridge (Mass.) office to talk about the critical role that business will play
in the coming revolution, the visionary leaders at companies such as Nike (NKE) and Costco
(COST), and the future of the corporation. An edited version of their conversation follows.
Why did you title the book The Necessary Revolution?
I don't really like the word "necessary" because it makes it seem we have no choice. On the one
hand, we don't. There's only so much water in the world. There's only so much topsoil. There's
only one atmosphere, so there's only so much CO2 that can be stuffed into the atmosphere. But
real change occurs when people make choices. We're not going to get out of the predicament that
we're in by a lot of teeny incremental things. It's going to take bold ideas.
The word "revolution" was meant to be in the spirit of the Industrial Revolution. Not a political
revolution because this absolutely has to be a nonpartisan issue. The future doesn't belong to one
party or another.
In the book, you argue that we must shed "industrial age beliefs." Can you elaborate?
One industrial age belief is that GDP or GNP is a measure of progress. I don't care if you're the
President of China or the U.S., if your country doesn't grow, you're in trouble. But we all know
that beyond a certain level of material need, further material acquisition doesn't make people
happier. So you have a society predicated on the idea that you have to keep growing materially,
and yet nobody actually believes it.
How dominant is the price-value model in business today? Has the success of products like the
Toyota Prius convinced companies that consumers care about more than narrowly defined selfinterest?
It's still dominant. Now, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with price-value. [The
problem is] the unquestioned assumptions about how we define it. At some point it becomes
tautological. How do you know what people value? Well you watch what they buy. How do we
know what products to create? Well, it's based on what they value.
We've done a lot of work with companies in Detroit, and when the Prius came out, I asked them
what they thought of it. Everyone said the same thing: "It's a niche product." They said: "In focus
groups, we ask people how much they would pay for a 10% improvement in fuel efficiency, and
it's always a small number." But you're never going to learn latent demands from focus groups.
Toyota (TM) didn't introduce the Prius because of a focus group. They were convinced that cars
needed to change.
In The Necessary Revolution, you profile people, working independently or within companies or
organizations, who are trying to bring about a more sustainable world. As you learned their
stories, what patterns emerged?
The first is obvious: People have to be passionate. These are innovators in a fundamental sense,
and innovators innovate because there is something that they are passionate about. Second, they
all in different ways were able to step back and see a bigger picture. This is a huge challenge for
people in companies, because so many companies are dominated by short-term perspective and
because lots of people in key positions simply aren't very good or don't care very much about the
bigger picture. Watch how the decisions are made. Are they thinking of the value of the company
10 years after they retire, or are they thinking about the value of their stock options this year?
The other two things we focused on are the ability to connect with lots of people and collaborate
across boundaries—you could call it high levels of relational intelligence. The final element that
we saw again and again is a shift [in strategy] away from "we've got to stop doing x, y, or z" and
all the negativism that tends to pervade these issues.
Can you give some specific examples?
Nike is a great example of these last two qualities. The company's [eco-friendly Considered
system] came into being because of two women who were consummate networkers and who
realized that "we're never going to change this culture by convincing people that toxins are bad
and that we should be less bad. What's going to make people really passionate is the idea that we
can do something that no one has done before and that it will be a great thing for athletes." So
they started talking to designers and getting them excited about different kinds of shoes. They
created the Organic Exchange for cotton because there wasn't enough on the market. They
wanted to design running singlets that were compostable. Within five years they had a network
of their best designers really passionate about these design challenges. These are all tough, tough
problems; the only way to solve them is to get people excited.
How can companies shift their focus away from quarterly earnings to take a longer view?
That's an issue that has come up periodically during the development of the Society for
Organizational Learning network. Usually it comes from an elder, a retired CEO who says: "If I
really look back, a bi ...
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