Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 1: What do you do when the revolution is over?

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat.

Renew, which evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. Paul, following a storied career in the Australian museums & galleries sector, joined Renew as CEO in March.

In our conversation, we talked about Paul’s journey across sectors, the nature of creativity, the challenges of a sustainability organisation’s evolving mission, and the opportunities which await.

Matt:

You joined Renew in March. What’s it like taking up a CEO role in the midst of a crisis like this?

Paul:

For me, the idea of being in charge of an organization while not being in lockdown feels strange! Because I knew nothing else, it became normal so quickly.  On the third or fourth day of my role, I had to shut the office and put in place rules and procedures for working from home.

We’ve been doing that for seven months, over two lockdowns. We’re only just starting to go back to the office now.

It’s much easier to apply the technical and functional requirements of management and leadership at a distance. What’s hard is putting the emotional aspect back in, especially when that’s a relationship of one to many. I’m very happy and open when it comes to one-to-one emotional relationships, but having to hold that relationship to an entire community – and on an unfamiliar medium too – was hard.

In addition, I walked into an organization that had some financial vulnerability. We weren’t in the strongest place financially and as the pandemic hit, we faced a great deal of degree of uncertainty, with the long term economic impacts all being unknown. We had to take action to stabilize the organization financially, so the board and I very rapidly became “bad people” in some eyes for doing “bad things”.

You start to feel like the guy who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and triggered the First World War! You appear to be the agent of significant change, but in fact it’s years of practice and culture which have brought you to this tipping point; you’re eliding a lot of context.

The big shift has been moving towards doing something that is objectively, measurably purposeful. I’ve been working for a long time in museums, where my roles have included a lot of functional management underpinned by an almost abstract sense that “this institution exists for the public good”. I feel about museums the same way I feel about a good primary school system – it doesn’t necessarily yield tangible benefits at the moment of contact, the payoff might come a decade later, but you clearly still want it to be there doing its thing.

At Renew, the impact is much more immediate. We run events, we publish magazines, we immediately get letters back from our members: “Your work has helped me do this. I have switched over to an electric vehicle because of your recent advice.” And yet it’s not just about the impact of our expertise or insight, it’s about the degree to which the organization has built, and continues to build, communities of practice and communities of support.

Such work faced challenges from both COVID-19 and the lockdown response. Our annual event, Sustainable House Day, experienced one of the biggest shifts. Normally hundreds of houses are opened by their homeowners, and we guide people to them – anyone who shows up can come and have a look at sustainable living up close. And people love it! They love opening up their houses and poking around other people’s. Builders and engineers drop by, and share how they’ve collaborated with a homeowner, say, to retrofit their house. It’s a beautiful event.

But six months ago, we couldn’t have planned to have that event in-person with any certainty. So we decided to put it all online. We put an event online with three concurrent Zoom rooms running through an entire Sunday, dropping prerecorded videos in, no registration, just an open house event that was entirely virtual.

This was about maintaining that sense of community and that ritual of Sustainable House Day through the lockdown. It builds, in turn, on an online community of thousands we have been nurturing for many years. The open house day was 20th September and two months later we have an active online community still asking questions — something like one question asked and answered for every three attendees. That’s a great ratio for community engagement.

This experience has challenged a lot of my old certainties about what creativity really is. Does it solely live in the world of artists and designers? That’s a strong trope which I myself was part of for 20 years: “If you want to have ideas, you go to the creative types.” 

Design thinking is a bit of an evolution of that – “we can facilitate creativity from crowds” – but you’re still relying on an expert who is now running the methodologies and the processes to elicit the ideas, rather than being the fount of the ideas themselves. But with the online open house day, we had no one with formal design training, no one who would identify as coming from that kind of “creative” professional background. Yet they were still the most creative bunch of people I’ve ever worked with, coming up with solutions to unprecedented challenges for our organisation and our community.

Now I’m looking back on twenty years in museums wondering, how much potential did we miss or overlook? Coming into a new organisation at this challenging time has really opened my eyes to potential that I wouldn’t have seen if I’d just stayed in one sector, kept my head down, and never gone through all that 2020 sent our way.

That said, a significant proportion of our community are essentially engineers and planners – not professions that are typically okay with uncertainty! They’re people who want to know how things are done, who work with electricity and can’t afford to make mistakes. The rules and procedures they work by exist for a reason, and encourage a mentality that depends on certainties.

Putting them in an online whiteboard, bringing in people from all over Australia for a workshop, putting ideas on a sticky note and then dragging and dropping it in virtual space – “We’re looking ahead to our 2021 calendar, we think this will happen sometime around March” – can be challenging, because there isn’t that certainty, that authority. 

I see this as an opening-up, the first stage of the classic design double diamond; what I hadn’t been prepared for was the possibility was that some people would think, “You don’t know what you’re doing, because you’re not just telling us how it would be.”

I’ve had this experience doing scenario planning with engineers working in the energy sector. They couldn’t cope with this level of speculation, the need to stretch plausibility. Eventually one of them hit on a nice metaphor – “My job is to build systems that keep a certain factor within a safe range of numbers. You help me find a goal to hit, like an unusual challenging future, and I’ll treat that as the target range – then I can devise the system that makes sense within that target, however much it tests my beliefs about what the future holds.” But it’s a hard discussion!

Helping people to develop this sense of ignorance being a positive thing, of curiosity and openness of potential, is difficult. Sustainability never starts from a blank sheet of paper. There’s already an energy grid, housing, transport. If you’re going to do something sustainable you almost always start with what you’ve actually got, not an empty field, a blank page, on which you conjure your magical utopia. So if that notion of the blank piece of paper just isn’t in your community’s repertoire, it’s a challenge. That’s something else which has been challenging, but also fruitful, about crossing to a new sector.

In your old sector, you develop networks, contacts, things you can understand, people who can introduce you to more people. You don’t necessarily have that when moving to a new sector. 

However, there’s an enormous benefit to seeing things with a fresh eye, too. It’s just a question of how you penetrate this new network of really close, tight-knit people who all know each other, especially when you can’t just shake hands at a conference. I’ve had great support, really lovely people making the effort to create those connections, make those introductions. But it’s still quite an unnatural feeling, doing this all via the computer screen.

Do you find there’s much that you can bring over from your previous work with museums?

For every sector, there are rules and you have to learn them. It’s about how you write, how you represent things visually, the language you use, the rituals and the ways of thinking. You have to be of the culture before you can change the culture. 

I have to look at change with a longer timeframe. A CEO’s ability to achieve anything is really measured in a timescale of six months to a year. Back in museums, you might make a change to front-of-house work which had an impact in just ten minutes. Each time you move up the hierarchy, your ability to effect change moves to a longer timescale.

That’s really similar to the sustainability sector. What we’re actually talking about is things that you can do today, like switching to a green energy supplier. Then if you’re a homeowner, you might take a longer term perspective and move towards installing your own solar.

Capitalism has outsourced everything to the level of individual choice – going to an electric appliance instead of gas, for example – but you can’t deal with sustainability just on an individual level. Decisions are being made by energy networks, large state owned bodies, the regulators. The way to affect change is through long-term systemic advocacy and lobbying. 

That’s akin to the notion of deep time you find in museums. The careful cataloguing and study of a given collection over the course of a decade might be necessary just to move things into a position where it’s possible to research them, let alone discover something and cause the knowledge to flow. From acquiring the collection to getting that new discovery out there might be a twenty year journey, but that’s also true for sustainability; one element of our work is patient advocacy towards changing things that will yield benefits in twenty years’ time.

The challenge then becomes: how do you hurry that up? Back in 1980, we started off as the Alternative Technology Association. We’re now one of the longest serving membership organisations in sustainability, with 11000 members and expertise that sits on federal government tech committees, that shapes the building code. Our power comes from those two things together, the membership and the expertise giving us legitimacy. It’s rather like a political party. You have clout because you have a constituency, but when you’re at the negotiating table, it’s the skills of that specific person sitting there which actually make the difference.

We came into being at the start of the 80s and were there for the arrival of the “greed is good” Reaganite vibe, which came to Australia a little late in the form of the Howard government. Some of our early members, still involved with us today, were the equivalent of hackers for the sustainability movement of thirty, forty years ago. There were coming up with quasi-legal ways of setting up dodgy devices on the roofs of their houses in order just to get enough energy to run a toaster! That was where we began, the scale at which we were working. A lot of today’s building code, the engineering expertise, the training of today’s sustainability engineers comes out of that pioneering work. It shaped current Australian codes and practices.

The question is, what do you do when the revolution is over? Solar is now mainstream; I can pick up a phone and get a couple of quotes for solar installation by this afternoon by dedicated professionals. So what does “alternative technology” now mean? When you were once young and radical, and you succeed in your radicalism, what’s next? How do you expand that to others, what’s the next quest?

There’s a whole load still going on in the energy space for us to address; there’s no question of that. But sustainability can’t just about about homeowners, as it largely has been for the last thirty years. When it comes to renters and landlords, to disenfranchised groups, what does sustainable living mean for them? Once Dylan goes electric, what do you do with the rest of the acousticians?

Our organization has this very broad culture which presents tensions for us to reconcile – productive, but they need to be managed nonetheless. Some people have done all this amazing work over forty years which they see as being quite settled, but for others there’s a lot more to do. We need to do the sustainability equivalent of connecting the grizzled old union activist down the pub with the teenage radicals marching for climate action. If you can do that, the power there is huge politically.

Our challenge is building the bridge between implementation and advocacy; getting idealists and realists to sit down at the same table. Show the realists there’s more to do, another horizon to strive for; connect the idealists with ways to make things happen in the here and now. That’s not unique to us and it’s not even something new, necessarily; it’s always been a cultural problem.

Join us for more from Paul next time, including his thoughts on “bureaucratic radicalism”, creating change, and the ethics of nudging: you can read part 2 of this interview here.

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