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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Backpacker Mentality and The Next Big Thing

The best learning experience of my life was time spent as a backpacker.  Over a period of several years I spent time touring around South America, Europe, a bit of North Africa and Korea.  I visited some 30 countries, had countless adventures, met a ton of new people and new situations and environments that tested me as a person.

- bullfighting is not a good idea

- imagine arriving in Bolivia with only basic Spanish, a raging fever and no voice - how do you navigate?  How do you get the basic necessities when you can't even speak?

- that time I got swept up in an anti-Fujimori protest in Lima, Peru that quickly got ugly as tens of thousands of protesters met tanks, police and tear gas.

- word to the wise - it's great to be a champion of justice and all, but when you take on a team of pickpockets on the Milan subway system, make sure you have backup.

- when you get pulled off a bus at gunpoint crossing the border between Croatia and Bosnia, remember to stay calm and put on your best Canadian manners.  

- I was honoured to provide shelter to an abused colleague from a school I taught at in Korea, but there were consequences for that in a society that places face and the appearance of normalcy higher than personal well being.  But I realized that was a price I was willing to pay.

At some point during a break in my travels, but before I'd settled down into my current existence, I was interviewed by Kathleen Hay, then of the Cornwall Standard Freeholder, about my travels.  

"What was the most important thing to bring with you?" she asked.

By that point I had become a pretty efficient traveller - knew just the right clothes and supplies to bring, had mastered the art of layering, and knew how find the resources I didn't have to adapt to the environments I was in.  I realized, though, that the stuff wasn't the most important thing in my bag of tricks.
"Good humour," answered.  "A flexible mindset, a smile and a willingness to make the post of whatever situation you're in."

Backpacking forced me to learn how to be prepared - how to have the right basic gear to handle extremes of weather and to be tucked up on a bus station bench one night while wearing a shirt and tie at a formal function the next. 

 More than that, it taught me to be mindful, diplomatic with a bit of hustle and above all, ready to adapt to changing circumstances.

Fast-forward to the Ontario Liberal Leadership campaign, 2013.  I was part of Team GK, working to get Gerard Kennedy's ideas for structural reform out to the people.  I kept harping on the idea of "maximizing personal potential" for empowered societies as key to any structural change.  The line ended up being included in some of Kennedy's speaking points.  I was thrilled to hear eventual winner Kathleen Wynne utter those words during her victory speech.  It matters not to me whether it was a borrowed phrase or a matter of a good idea finding it's time - I was just glad it was there.

Over the course of the campaign, as is the case with many of the initiatives I do, I became known as the guy to go to when you can't find a pen, when you need a turn of phrase or idea, or simply someone quickly able to tackle an emergent concern.

The team liked to tease me about always having pens tucked behind my ear - but they knew they could always count on me when they needed one.  As ongoing needs were identified through the months of the campaign, my pack ended up carrying bandaids, advil, pens and highlighters, note pads, flash drives, kleenex - everything and anything that might be needed on the fly.

I rarely worry about getting caught flat-footed without the tools I need; experience has taught me what basics you should always have with you, with the rest being about the right attitude to adapt to the time and environment - and know how to adapt that environment to your needs.

Naturally I wasn't alone in this campaign endeavour - I was part of team that worked closely together over crazy hours under the kind of conditions most HR folk can only dream about when saying "fast-paced environment" or "stressful conditions."  Pressure is addictive, though, and campaigns come with their own variant of Stockholm Syndrome which leaves people feeling a sense of loss when they're over.

Our team was fantastic, with some truly inspirational folk on the ground.  It doesn't surprise me at all that some of these folk (Tamer Abdalla especially) have found themselves recruited into Team Trudeau's efforts.  While we all had our assignments and areas of speciality, we were all challenged to collaboratively think through challenges and opportunities to come up with best possible scenarios.

One of the things I liked to think I contributed to the overall effort was structure.  Where there was no database, I would make one; where a template could be improved, I did it.  On occasion I was told "that's great, but a bit more than we need" - but pretty much every time it became clear down the road that the need was emerging and that I was simply getting in front of it.

This isn't meant as a self-serving pat on the back, but recognition of the value my previous experience in terms of being prepared for what may be coming down the road.

At the end of the day, our team didn't win, but we all won because some of our ideas were carried forward and the person who did win - Kathleen Wynne - was a leader we could all get behind.  We were all part of the same community and all had the same vision - that, above all else, above our individual candidate and pet-projects - that was what mattered.

There were some significant changes to the way the Liberal Party functioned after Wynne won, as happens after any leadership campaign.  I'm much reminded, in hindsight, of how Disney has managed the Star Wars franchise as I consider those changes; there were disgruntled folk who found themselves outside the inner circle and there are still communities that feel disengaged (with good reason) but, overall, the door was left open for rivals and stalwarts to be part of the team and the core purpose of what brings people to the red tent has not changed.

Under Dalton McGuinty, David Caplan was tasked, as Minister for Infrastructure Renewal, with "playing the long game" - look at Ontario's infrastructure, look at emerging needs and make sure that long-term we have what we need when we need it.  It's a process that's still ongoing, certainly, but having the idea of looking and planning ahead was critical.

I like to think that the Wynne-added component to this mandate is about ensuring the institutions of government itself are adapted for the times.  A big part of this is Open Gov and Open Data, which both come with a need to engage, inform and empower regular Ontarians to be active parts of the policy and implementation process.  
Consciously or not, what Wynne and the province of Ontario are doing is expanding the cognitive capacity of government to gain insight from a wider array of voices and experiences.  It's a sticky process that many are resistant to, but it's coming at the right time (rather than too late).

Open Data is critical.  It's a valuable tool in our collective backpack that helps us understand what's going on around us, but also provides the building blocks for solutions - some of which can be monetized by private individuals or companies.  Open Data is the first public resource that actually expands as it is used.

Demographics are changing.  The weather is changing.  Infrastructure is ageing, as are people, and we are frankly not prepared to handle the scope of what's changing.  Then, there's the mechanization of labour, the way social media continues to change public conversations in ways the #elxn42 campaign clearly show people and parties aren't yet prepared for.

Yet unprecedented opportunities are emerging as well.  If you've been to Regent Park recently, you'll see a community once written off gaining new life, purpose and the ability to offer value to the rest of society.  For all its pitfalls, social media has opened up new channels of engagement, helped every day folk connect with their politicians and allowed for the spread of ideas in ways never before possible.

It's a lot harder to spin Canadians these days, simply because the nature of the spin is determined, dissected and ridiculed in real-time.  There are pitfalls to this rapidity, though - we have an easier time (and are more inclined to) stick to arguments that resonate with us already out of the endless barrage of chatter.  We can act quickly, ADHD-style in response to situations like the Nepal earthquakes or Syrian refugees, but our attention span is reduced and our contributions increasingly short-term.

Think about that for a second.

Our infrastructure is not up to emergent demands.  The recession adds to years of economic instability which has left more and more Canadians barely holding on, if they're holding on. Governments and businesses and even Not For Profits have been relentlessly focused on Low Hanging Fruit to justify funding/provide validation, which means the long game, though discussed, is not really being planned for.

Our current federal government is all about individual strength and resiliency and economic dependence, which is fine if you're looking for a survival-of-the-fittest model of society.  Problem is, we live in a hyper-integrated, densely-populated society where every individual, no matter how wealthy they are or successful they are can be directly impacted by what happens to everyone else.

Let's say, for instance, that the recession leads into a depression.  We have Bay Street lawyers doing swan dives in the style of their 1929 predecessors.  Masses of people become unemployed, unable to pay their bills, unable to sustain their homes or feed their children.  Where do they go?  They can't go anywhere, because they don't have the means.
In a city like Toronto, it is all kinds of dangerous to have an impoverished majority existing in the same space as a well-to-do minority.  Security risks increase, the potential for civic violence increases.  Crime grows, as does the need of the wealthy (and the state) to focus on protection and containment.  Apart from crime, there's the risk of disease.

Let's say there are severe weather events even worse than our recent floods and ice storms.  Hospitals have no power for weeks on end, public services are scarce and hard to reach/deliver.  Who do you call when even the army isn't enough?

Displaying Toronto-20140206-01724.jpgThe pyramid is only as strong as its base - and the base of our social pyramid is eroding. The powers that be aren't all trying to adapt, nor are the people on the ground.  It's not our culture to be dynamic, to self-empower or to empower others to reach their maximum personal potential.  But it needs to be.

And it needs to be that soon.

Me, I'm not too flustered about the frightening potential realities that are emerging.  I've got my Armageddon Poncho and kit ready, and have made preparations for my family as well.  We've all been through some hardships and have confidence in our ability to weather storms together, and to adapt.  Heck, we've got plenty of experience helping others to do the same, too.

What makes the difference is mindset.  One can be a victim of circumstance without necessarily becoming a victim themselves.  To be a victim is to have no power.  In our society, power is largely determined by ability to purchase and the confidence to talk tough; if you don't have those things, it's pretty easy to feel un-impowered.  We have a lot of that today.

It's not enough to get mad at those who feel (and often truly are) marginalized by society to "grow up" or what not - it's like telling the scrawny kid on the playground to get back up and fight when every time he does, the massive bully who's victimizing him keeps smacking him back down.  #HowMightWe empower people to have the skills, tools and resources they need to succeed?  How might we create a cultural mindset that recognizes the value individual experiences bring and helps people develop personal confidence in what they have to offer?

How do we adapt a culture that is refuses to accept that structural change from everything to our economic foundation (cough cough, manufacturing) to the way government works is going through tectonic change?

The answer is as easy as it is difficult to implement.

The future - the near future, not some distant epoch of time - is an Undiscovered Country, a brave new world none of us have discovered.  The institutions and services and structures we are used to may not be able to serve us in this new landscape.  When a storm hits, we may not be able to wait for someone to come - we might just have to organize, to figure things out on our own.

Displaying Toronto-20140208-01760.jpg
On our own, mind you, is still pretty impressive.  There are locals who know their communities inside and out and could tell you where to find a gas stove in a power outage.  Corporate partners looking to give more to their community can share best practices in organizing, in emergengy response.  People with money to spend and social impact on their mind can invest in emergency preparedness training and resource provision for all communities, starting with the ones who need it the most.

Can energy-efficient and energy-producing Smart Buildings play a role in empowering community housing residents, plus give them an extra bulwark against climate change?  I think so.  CISCO seems to agree.

Do people engaged in the policy-making process feel more empowered, less frightened of change and develop the flexibility to adapt to new realities, be it changing demographics or changing work opportunities or changing education curriculum?

They do indeed.

Can we, collectively, be prepared for the Next Big Thing - a storm, a stock-market crash, a wave or refugees - and turn change into an opportunity to thrive?

That's how we've gotten this far as a species.  There's no reason to stop now.

There's no limit, really, to what we can prepare for, how we can adapt ourselves and our circumstances in changing environments.  We can even solve structural problems that have been with us for ages.  It's the gift our humanity provides us with.

It is within our power to understand our changing landscape and to build up the collective resiliency necessary to go boldly into the Undiscovered Country that is unfolding before us.

And it all starts with a point of view.

It doesn't matter who plants the seed - what matters is how and what we can grow together.

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