Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 3: Chemist and Conductor

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here and you can read the second part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the final part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about interdisciplinary thinking, new forms of leadership, and the next steps Paul will be taking as CEO.

What does it mean for Renew to get through this big transition, to negotiate the actual pivot point, especially when, as you said, your prior success was built on hackers and homeowners, and now you need to think about engaging tenants, landlords, a wider community?

It’s really hard! That’s a really live question for us right now, in this highly febrile moment of post-pandemic and looming recession. There are all these binary oppositions: the homeowner-hacker versus a different community in the future; a small, scrappy, financially precarious member organization versus some kind of super-slick consulting lobby group. Fast urgent change versus slow sustained change. And there are a multitude of other axes besides! For me it’s about a kind of dialectic: How does the value come from the tension between the two poles of each issue?

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Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 2: Bureaucratic Radicalism

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the second part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about systemic change, revolution and reform, and encouraging the choice to live sustainably.

Parliament House, Canberra, by Wikimedia user JJ Harrison – CC BY-SA 3.0

You’ve written on “bureaucratic radicalism“, which seems to speak to this issue of what happens when the green hackers of the 80s find themselves represented on federal committees and contributing to the building code.

Bureaucratic radicalism was my attempt to think through how you systematize good practice, and using existing power structures in order to do that. My first thought is to consider what we need to learn from First Nations peoples, from communities where environmental sustainability and good practice is part of what you learn from childhood.

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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.

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Was there ever really one normal? Discussion with Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald

Today’s blog features a discussion between two colleagues, Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald.

Murray helps organisations and leaders in the use of scenario planning to explore the future and its impacts upon current strategy.  He works on understanding disruption, detecting early signals of the emerging future, and developing responses to the changing environment.  Alongside his consulting work, Murray also works in executive education, most recently at Saïd Business School, and has previously led large, complex transformation programmes.

Brendan, director of 641 DI, works to build capacity for the library, government, and not-for-profit sectors in Australia and New Zealand. Formerly Manager of Digital Inclusion at Infoxchange, his focus is digital & social inclusion, its ability to reduce social isolation and loneliness in community. Working with clients across Australia and New Zealand including Hitnet, Grow Hope Foundation, State Library of New South Wales, LIANZA, City of Newcastle Libraries, and the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, 641 DI delivers research and project evaluation services, digital inclusion planning and practice, as well as strategic consultation.

Last month, Murray & Brendan got together for a wide ranging discussion covering foresight, localism, their experiences in different sectors on opposite sides of the world, and even the nature of change itself.

Murray: 

Some topics we might discuss: How things are changing, how change itself has changed, and how we might use scenarios to attend to things we haven’t looked at before. There are never any facts in the future – but that’s more apparent than ever now, isn’t it?

Brendan:

I think it’s also important to look back; to consider those things in the past that you bring with you into the present – or leave behind. One of the things I know we’ve both been pondering: was there actually a “normal” in the first place?

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Learning from Acknowledgments of Country

“I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land that we’re on, and paying my respects to elders past, present, and emerging.”

That’s the form of words as I say them now; the current evolution. I learned to say them on the lands of the Turrbal and Jagera people in what is now Brisbane, and the lands of the Jarowair and Giabal people in what is now Toowoomba. “Custodians” has recently replaced “owners”, at the suggestion of Chris Lee; “emerging” replaced “future” a while back, although I’m not sure entirely why, I just noticed that some people I respected used that word rather than the other.

The saying, as a whole, is an Acknowledgement of Country; a form of recognition and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their relationship to the land which is often spoken at the beginning of a gathering in Australia. These days, I say it when hosting online meetings and workshops on Zoom or other platforms. Although I’m currently in London, and might be speaking with people anywhere in the world, I usually choose the Australian form of words if I’m working in a multinational space, because Australia was where I first became aware of the need to acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ custodianship of the land, and of a formalised protocol which could guide us in doing so.

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“Just Waiting for the Locusts, Really”: OECD Government After Shock Interviews with Innovation Norway & National Library of Australia

“Smoke, fire, hail, and pestilence…we’re just waiting for the locusts, really” – the wry and insightful Marie-Louise Ayres, who heads the National Library of Australia in Canberra, talked to me about guiding her unique federal institution through the many challenges faced by the Australian capital in 2020.

You can hear what Marie-Louise had to say on the OECD’s Government After Shock podcast.

I also spoke with Håkon Haugli, CEO of Innovation Norway, a state body which promotes sustainable growth and exports for Norwegian businesses through capital and expertise. Håkon talks about moving to a digital workplace, the struggle to preserve multilateralism, and embracing the messy nature of innovation. His episode of the podcast can be found here.

OECD Government After Shock Podcast with Robert Hoge, Queensland Health

As part of the OECD’s Government After Shock project, I’m working with a team from their Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, interviewing public sector leaders & practitioners for a podcast series exploring their perspective on the crises of 2020, and implications for the future of government worldwide.

First up, Robert Hoge of Queensland Health talks about strategic health communications in a time of pandemic, coping with misinformation & disinformation, and lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience in Australia’s Sunshine State.

New strategic plan for National & State Libraries Australia

National and State Libraries Australia (NSLA), the peak body for Australia’s national, state, and territory libraries, has just published its new strategic plan.

I was pleased to work with the NSLA team on diagnosing the challenges and opportunities they face, then devising a guiding policy and coordinated actions to lead NSLA and its members into the future.

You can watch NSLA Chair Marie-Louise Ayres and Deputy Chair Vicki McDonald introduce the new plan in this video, and download the new plan here.

“NSLA represents the national, state and territory libraries of Australia – we’ve been running as a collaboration since the 1970s, but it’s always a challenge to strategise for nine different institutions.

We approached Matt to help us shape up a new strategic plan just as the outbreak of COVID-19 was reaching its crescendo around the world. Matt already has a strong reputation and following among our libraries, with deep knowledge of the Australian landscape. With face to face workshops no longer an option, we decided that he was the right person to help us clarify our thinking at a distance, in a context that was changing as quickly as we could verbalise it.

Matt worked one-on-one via Zoom with the NSLA Executive Officer in Melbourne, and facilitated online workshops with the NSLA Chair and Deputy Chair in Canberra and Brisbane. Despite the unfriendly time zone for London, he cheerfully and skilfully shepherded us to find consensus on a series of priorities that could resonate with nine libraries around Australia – all the while asking us why, how, and what if. Matt’s approach was refreshingly accessible and jargon-free. We were reminded through this process that a strategy is much more than a collection of unconnected aspirations, and that the whole is only as strong as its parts.

Matt has been delightful to work with. In a relatively short time, he left us well placed with a strong draft plan to present to our full committee of nine library CEOs, as well as a series of resources and ideas for measuring impact in libraries – all managed from the opposite side of the globe.”

– Dr. Barbara Lemon, Executive Officer, NSLA

Public Libraries, Police Abolition, and Serving Your Community in a Time of Change

If we abolish the police and reimagine the ways in which our societies cope with disorder, violence, and transgression, what else will have to shift? How radically could public libraries change, if we reimagined the institutions of information as profoundly as we might reimagine the institutions of justice?

I led strategy workshops last month with some very senior librarians in Australia, and at the beginning of these sessions, we gave an Acknowledgment of Country, acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land we were on and paying our respects to Elders past, present, and emerging.

We didn’t just speak these words as a formula and then move on. We talked about what it meant to acknowledge country in digital space, when each of us was in a different location, from Australia to the UK. We talked about acknowledging the histories which have led us to a world in which I could speak the traditional language used for generations in the place where I was born, and not make any effort to adapt the way I speak for audiences in Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, the US, Canada, or many other nations.

We talked about what it would mean for the institutions represented in the workshop not just to acknowledge these histories, or to carry out the work of recognising and remedying them through diversity and inclusion efforts, acts of reconciliation and decolonisation, and so on. We talked about what it would mean for these institutions to become explicitly antiracist.

It was important to talk about this, because for some public institutions, it proves hard to take a stand against injustice. The political environment in which public library services and other organisations operate is shaped by the elected governments which determine their funding and policies, and this can make it challenging for institutions to do the right thing. Read more

Strategy and Impact Workshops at State Library of New South Wales

Following a successful engagement last year at the State Library of New South Wales, I’ll be returning to Sydney with colleague Brendan Fitzgerald for two workshops in early May.

In our “Library Leaders Workshop Day” on May 4, Brendan & I will help senior library staff to explore a range of strategic tools and techniques. These will help teams think about changing wants and needs in their communities, building the capability to respond with creative local strategies.

Then, on May 5, we will explore ways of defining, measuring, and sharing the difference that public libraries make to their communities, in “Next-generation Measures and Metrics for Public Libraries“.

Join us for one or both of these sessions in May – we’re looking forward to seeing you.