Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Regional Innovation Forum

Sarah Bobertz and I attended the Regional Innovation Forum at the end of March in Portland, Oregon, which sought to bring together “engaged citizens and community leaders from every sector to explore the systemic challenges facing our region that require coordinated effort between individuals, communities, organizations, and local, regional and national policymakers” (Blue Ocean Event Inc., 2009).

We both chose to follow the Social Innovation track, which emphasized the importance of communities working together on similar interests, enabling its members to solve challenges collectively through hard work, collaboration and taking risks. A social entrepreneur is someone who assumes the risk, recognizing injustice and its embedded support structure and sees it as malleable. This entrepreneur then takes the opportunity to disrupt the equilibrium at a deep level and stabilize a new and more just equilibrium. Current social entrepreneurs are already busy at confronting these challenges and are creating models.

What this forum really stressed was the need for social change within the community and a need to change our methods of communication. To emphasize this point, the social innovation track was designed to allow for more engagement between the individuals sitting in the audience and to lessen the impersonal speaker vs. audience relationship. To mimic a community model and better our communication, we were asked by Jolene Estimos from the Warm Springs Reservation to introduce ourselves through a story telling method. We were then asked to define our place, our role, our gift, what we were concerned with and what questions we had. This method of introduction helped us understand our physical, social, relational obligations to our community and recognize that we each bring something unique to the table, which we should use to benefit the community. We need to learn how to use our gifts to bring about real change and become entrepreneurs.

Amy Pearl, founder of Springboard, a social innovation organization in Portland, facilitated the discussion on social innovation. One thing she said that really resonated with me was, “The answer to hunger is not food.” We need to bring about real substantial social change that addresses the root causes of social and environmental challenges, not just shallow solutions.

This forum was inspirational as well as confronting. I realize that there are a lot of changes that need to be made, most of which are not easy to establish because they are unpalatible. Social change is going to be necessary although difficult to spread. Through the improvement of communication and community models as well as the daring initiative of individuals and groups in the community, change will slowly occur across local and global scales.

Written by Rosanne Wielemaker

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sharing Information in a Socially Networked World: ENVS is Delicious!

With the cross-disciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies (ENVS) Program and the nature of the Web, students are at risk of drowning in a sea of resources: scholarly articles, NGO websites, government documents, spatial data, archival images. The average Google search will return a vast amount of information; how can our students successfully navigate this ocean? How can they build and comment on a common database of useful resources?

Since ENVS tries to stay on the bleeding edge of instructional technology, we sought to adopt a more distributed, “Web 2.0” approach to situated research that would allow students to a) pool resources together into an easily accessible repository and b) decentralize the process of adding, browsing, and commenting. After experimenting with a number of different frameworks, ENVS eventually settled on Delicious: a free application that employs tagged bookmarks to organize information.

A Delicious bookmark is much like the ones you’d find on your own browser: a web address (URL) that points to some resource found on the Web. The key advantage of Delicious is that the bookmarks reside outside any one particular computer (i.e., they’re stored on Delicious’ server); essentially, ENVS has created its own “virtual database” of resources viewable by anybody, anytime. A tag is merely a keyword assigned to and associated with a specific bookmark that describes some of its attributes. When a student finds an interesting resource on the Web, she can add it into the ENVS pool of common information by bookmarking and tagging it in our Delicious account, making it available to other students who might be interested in the same topic. She can also add brief notes about the resource as a help to others.

Let’s say that while performing some research on Ecuador – one of ENVS’ situated research sites – I come across a really cool website examining the phenomenon of ecotourism in the city of Cuenca that I’d like share with others as a resource. By bookmarking its URL in the ENVS Delicious account, adding the tags “Ecuador,” “economy,” “landuse,” and “policy,” and creating a short note describing the resource, I can add this website into ENVS’ common pool of information. Later, a subsequent student doing research on same topic can go to the ENVS Delicious account and run a query using the keywords “Ecuador” and “policy.” My website will come up as a relevant resource; knowledge has been shared!

After checking out this particular website, let's then say that our hypothetical student decides it’s not as germane to her own research project as she originally thought; she could then choose to enter a short comment into the Delicious record noting that the resource focuses exclusively on, say, theoretical arguments and lacks any discussion on indigenous responses to ecotourism, her specific topic of interest. Now let's say that the following semester, a third student finds this particular resource on Delicious and notes the comments others have left. VoilĂ : information has been shared and annotated by numerous students over multiple semesters. Students no longer need to individually “reinvent the wheel” and start from scratch when doing research, but rather are able to stand on the shoulders of their peers. Knowledge has become social!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rethinking environmentalism...

Last weekend I attended the Regional Innovation Forum, a two-day conference on environmental issues in Portland sponsored in part by Focus the Nation, Lewis & Clark, and several regional environmental organizations. The Forum focused specifically on addressing smart energy solutions, social innovation, sustainability in schools and climate change. The Forum’s primary objective, and primary accomplishment in my view, was to bring together leaders and advocates in the environmental community who would not otherwise cross paths to coordinate and share ideas for increasing sustainability in the region.

The conference was broken down into three groups, or “tracks,” to focus on energy solutions, social innovation, or sustainability in schools.  I chose the social innovation track, which focused on innovative projects and examples of “social entrepreneurship” in the region. A presentation about the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus resonated with me because – as phrased by a documentary on his work on microcredit in Bangladesh – he was not “turning things upside down; he was turning them rightside up.”  This is a perfect turn of phrase for what so many environmentalists perceive their role in the world to be, myself included.  We have radical ideas about how to change the world, but we aren’t trying to turn the world on its head.

By now, nearly everyone is familiar with an environmental footprint: the negative impact that our everyday actions have on the planet. In contrast, the Forum introduced to me the idea of an environmental handprint: the positive impact one makes on the environment, and the good one does to reverse environmental inequality. In a field that has a tragic tendency to wax negatively about global crises, destruction, and our imminent demise, the environmental handprint is refreshingly inspiring.  We should be thinking about what we can do, not what we can’t do.  Sitting in the Expo Center surrounded by environmental advocates, I was touched by how many people were focusing not only on reducing their footprint, but increasing their handprint. Instead of collapsing under the weight of our environmental problems (as I am often tempted to do), there are people all across the country and the world who have taken a tiny piece of the environmental puzzle and embraced the challenge of trying to put it back together.

In fact, there was no mention of the buzzwords that usually follow environmentalists; no one talked about limits, destruction, regulation, or crisis.  The social entrepreneurs who presented projects were overwhelmingly optimistic about solving our environmental problems.  They are working on increasing their environmental handprints, rather than panicking about our ecological footprint.  I think there is a terrible shortage of optimism in current environmental thinking.  Everyone has something to contribute to the world.  Things so simple as pet rescue projects, community gardens, and projects like The ReBuilding Center ( have positive impacts on the world, and contribute to the kind of positive, innovative environmental change we need.