Think Big. Start Small. Seek Impact.

Children take baby steps, then learn to walk.  How do we take our small environmental actions and turn them into great strides toward change?
How quickly can we turn our first steps into real change?
Credit: Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

Think Big. Start Small. Seek Impact.

Ann Mei Chang delivered that message at the talk I attended Wednesday.  Chang is an advocate for social innovation and author of “LEAN IMPACT: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good.”

How do we Innovate for Social Change?

Chang spoke from her experience as an innovator in government and the tech sector. Her ideas included:

  • Start with an audacious goal. 
  • Focus on the problem, rather than being stuck on a particular solution. 
  • Be willing to fail, but realize that failure is easier if you break the risk into smaller pieces. 
  • If you start small you can learn quickly, and turn that learning into additional innovations, leading to change. 
  • Measure your results relative to your true intent, rather than just tracking your effort.

One example of these ideas is Summit Public Schools, founded in 2003 with the vision “that every student should be equipped to lead a fulfilled life.”  Summit has been able to prepare a diverse population of kids for college, with great results:  98% of the students are accepted at a four-year college.

Social Change and Climate Change: What if We are Running out of Time?

Although I found the talk inspiring, I was struck by how daunting these ideas are when applied to climate change.  I asked Ann Mei: How do you think about this process when you know you are running out of time?  Her answer focused on the rapidity of the risk/learn/do cycle.  Start somewhere, take small risks, learn quickly, and keep at it, I heard.

How Can We Apply These Ideas?

That’s the big question for each of us as individuals, and for our society. Here are a few thoughts:

Thinking Big Enough.  As I noted in a recent blog post, we need to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint within the next 10 to 12 years. That kind of change means goals like little or no net fossil fuel use at your house, getting around by using transit, electric cars, and walking/cycling, and scaling back our consumption.  It’s tough to commit to such ambitious goals.

Starting small enough. Many of us have taken small steps to move toward change, where we can experiment and fail with little consequence.  Maybe you recycle, or take your own bags to the store. Perhaps you combine errands to save gas, or turn down the thermostat a few degrees.  Or you might eat meat only a day or two each week, or take the bus occasionally. That’s great. Keep at it!

Learning fast enough.  How can we turn those small changes into bigger ones?  Can we move from two or three meat dinners a week to a vegetarian diet?  What about evolving from recycling to more re-use, up-cycling, and ultimately, less consumption and waste?  How do we go from adjusting the thermostat to performing an energy audit, buying a more efficient boiler, or installing a solar system?  What about moving from use of a hybrid car to living in a transit-friendly location?  And what about advocating for cleaner energy, knowing that we might have to pay more as a result?

Seeking Impact

Do we make our small changes to be able to “check the box” and tell ourselves we’re making the effort, or are we really seeking impact? More thoughts to come on that topic.

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