5 months ago, when I was selected as one of the #proptech start-up founders for the Stockland Accelerator program, I said I was taking a leap into what looked like a black hole (yes, I said I ‘visualised’ it, which I can only describe as precognition). With our Product Showcase taking place in Sydney this Wed, I reflect on how Paper Plain’s purpose helped me navigate the black hole.
I was discussing with someone working as a sustainability consultant in a large international company about the potential application of Paper Plain in the corporate sector to foster employees’ wellbeing and environmental sustainability. We had never met -- only connected randomly through LinkedIn when I reached out to ask for some insights. As is often the case with colleagues in this space, five minutes into the call we were having a great, stimulating conversation. I left the call feeling inspired, encouraged and supported because we both understood that regardless of our current roles or companies we were in, we served a much bigger common goal and our paths would cross again.
And that is what has made it so easy for the Paper Plain team to do our validation research. We are not here to just sell a product. We plan to completely change the way people see themselves as part of a community and the planet. We are creating a movement that embraces community collaboration and diverse identities. Anything less than that won’t be good enough. When we take the process of collaboration seriously, leadership follows.
Consider these two scenarios.
1. Residents are notified by the management (strata, developer, local council etc.) to start reducing waste as the current bins are being replaced by smaller smart bins.
2. A family starts a 2-week red bin challenge, encouraging and educating their neighbours to reduce waste and why it is important.
Scenario 1 is my story – my LGA is going through this transition and many people are angry (yes, angry!) about the new system and having to reduce waste. I feel for the Council staff who are taking their calls.
Scenario 2 is the story of a community champion I interviewed recently. She hadn’t really volunteered her time and energy on a community initiative like this before. But she was inspired by her children who would ask ‘what are we doing to save the world’ and watching War on Waste with them. Their 2-week challenge has now expanded into an everyday challenge, being promoted widely via social media and local organisations. Their pain point is not having a big enough reach through the digital networks and having to spend a lot of time doing things manually. Their incentive is seeing the impact and receiving ‘thank you’s as online/face-to-face comments and little gifts left for them in the neighbours’ letterboxes.
We are often inspired by people who volunteer their time and energy for the greater good. When Council (or an organisation) mandates waste reduction, it is seen as their job and attracts complaints from naysayers who don’t like change. When a neighbour -- an individual, a member of the community -- starts an initiative like the red bin challenge, it is an inspiration and leads to support.
Both top-down and bottom-up actions are necessary and they need to work together to create leadership roles at all levels. The problem is, rolling out top-down notices is often easier, quicker and dominating the space; and community champions lack access to and engagement with their community network.
Community members who put their hands up to lead components of Small Shift’s projects are also thinking about the big picture -- their voluntary contribution to the community and the environment. They are retirees, working mums with small children, grandmas with care duties, young professionals living in new suburbs and school children passionate about saving the planet. They come in different shapes and sizes, with one thing in common: Purpose. Beyond painting a mural, planting a tree or hosting dinners for their neighbours, they harness the collective power of their neighbours by leading by example. I have never come across a community champion, whose sole goal is money or ego.
Small Shift requires the constant engagement of people – asking for their time, insights, support and leadership. One method I have found to work well every time is balancing face-to-face and online engagement.
Workshops are great for some face-to-face group discussions and to structure the project framework, but it is time and resource consuming and hard to coordinate to suit everyone’s availability. Online discussions can help people make quick small decisions. These aren’t formal submission of ideas, just comments and polls that validate and obtain small consensuses along the way. We use email or social media for these ongoing interactive conversations to help community members define the project tasks and their roles, inspire each other and plan ahead.
There are limitations to the currently available digital platforms for serving this purpose. And that’s why we have been developing Paper Plain. We believe a tool that helps neighbours to self-organise and build on small, regular, positive interactions can eradicate a loneliness epidemic, create a pathway to food security and foster community safety among other SDGs. These are big goals and I would love to connect with people who want to achieve them with us.
Our cohort was in Melbourne touring Stockland's various developments last month. At Highlands Retirement Village, the residents' beautiful handmade arts and crafts are sold. I bought the elephant in the background.
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