New Assessments for an Experience Economy. Action Dialogue with Glenn Page.

Glenn Page has over 25 years experience in ecosystem approaches and adaptive management, working primarily on coastal/ocean/watershed issues.   In 2001 he was awarded the title of “Environmental Hero” by U.S. Vice President Al Gore. At SustainaMetrix Glenn leads an interdisciplinary team in ongoing consultancies in ecosystem science and research, policy, education, economics and multi-media communications. They describe their work as action research.

Glenn Page. © Ellen Harasimowicz Photography 2014.

Hilary It’s not everyday I meet a certified Environmental Hero. What’s holding your attention?

Glenn: I cut my teeth as a restoration ecologist. Learning deeply what it means to restore natural systems. And it did a lot of that on the coast of the Atlantic. I learned how to restore streams, watersheds, seagrass beds. I became incredibly creative with both the design and engineering process. But the key missing element became clear. That was stewardship, the critical need of engaging people and learning more about the connective tissue of the social system.

Hilary At a minimum I’d say all good action research is people-centered.  That’s often missing in conventional scientific designs.  We’re an odd species I think. We’re so self obsessed, but we don’t actually turning the inquiry to include ourselves. How did you get sensitized to doing things differently?

Glenn We learned that it’s a necessary component to ensure the health of natural systems. I also learned through engagement of people in that process that healing the earth helps to heal the self. There is now emerging evidence of this connection. I greatly expanded on this over 10 years working at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. We took on the challenge of transforming the very nature of what aquariums meant to the people who come to visit Zoos and aquariums. Instead of just a place you go pay money to look at biodiversity behind the glass, we reimagined it as a transformative gateway to intelligent and meaningful action.

Hilary Wonderful. From observation to participation.  Also a big move for good action research. I see you creating more sensitive beings among the school kids who had just wanted to throw their popcorn at the large fish.

Glenn: We created a sort of stepping stone concept, or “rungs on a ladder,” so that all people can take the next easy step up to climb their own stewardship pathway. We did this through action research, in that we measured what it meant to come into the aquarium – did it change attitudes and behavior. We measured the change of behavior, the willingness to do something from an average three-hour visit. And we learned people felt a clear signal to act. But if it wasn’t acted upon after about six weeks of their visit, life went back the baseline way it was before the aquarium visit. That spark of excitement and willingness in participation was fleeting. That signal gave us the evidence we needed to connect people to do something that had meaning, that kept them in the mode of stewardship and beginning to learn what that meant for their culture, their age, their economic status, their worldview.

Hilary Rich questions.  I’d say you were asking people what it meant to give back be it in as socio cultural, even spiritual type inquiries of participation. You mad radical ecologist you!

Glenn:  We even went so far as to design a radical shift in the business model of the value proposition of a zoo and aquarium. Long story short, that didn’t work. [laughter]. The powers that be, namely the largely older, male, bankers on the board just couldn’t stand the idea of a transformed business model.

Hilary And I know you continue to carry the worthy inquiry forward.

Glenn: It’s been 10 years now. And through SustainaMetrix, the business that I founded, we’ve done remarkable work all over the world. Among other things, we have pioneered a way to develop a baseline for a place, region, area to measure their progress towards transformation. We are interested in learning what are the transformations systems in a place, what are the experiences of the people of the place and leveraging all that experience into adaptive learning.

Hilary You’re taking experience of those involved very seriously.

Glenn One of my first jobs after college many years ago was with Earthwatch. In that business model, people pay to go on research expeditions around the world. I was intrigued by this willingness to pay to have a research experience. I see my work as leading learning  experiential journeys. Bringing people together who normally would not collaborate, different sectors, different walks of life from decision-makers and funders those who fish and farm for their livelihood. This is private sector, public sector and civil society coming together as different expressions of governance to see together and consider what needs to change.

Hilary Do you see more openness now than with the gentlemanly banker board members of Baltimore?

Glenn I feel this is a critical moment in time. As there are many polarizing forces we need ways to come together and see together the systems around us, point out what may be transformational as potentially the focus for radical learning. We are now incorporating this into a business model that is based on experiences. Experiences that transform the relationship with the natural world. That you will remember for a lifetime. How do we re-think investment? How can we better see and perceive radical large scale systems change? And how do we engage the action research component to better connect and accelerate equitable, just and creative systems change? And measure the progress and analysis along the way.

Hilary: I hear, lurking in there, a larger inquiry about what’s the purpose of knowledge and its assessment? I hear you’re asking what’s the purpose of measurement. How do we construct that in such a way that it’s actually transformative and give that wings. And for that there has to have some kind of business model connecting institutions, such as a zoo, through new measurements, to a potential impact on transformation in people’s lives.  Where people learn to be stewards because they have feedback loops.

Glenn: There’s a metaphor on my mind now – the Sherpa. When we hear Sherpa, we think of the the people that climb with the best climbers and they carry stuff up to the mountains. Well that’s actually not at all what they do. They’re first and foremost an indigenous community who are deeply spiritual and for them, the journey up the mountain is the transcendence, it’s the act of becoming closer to God. Therefore when other people with other motives came to them and ask them, hey, how about if we pay you to carry our stuff up the mountain? They say, sure. And so it also looks like a business model.

Hilary Great metaphor! Assessment as a sherpa service.  Perhaps like so much of action research, in my view, it’s a rather feminine role. We’re about caring and nurturing others efforts. It’s interesting to me that many action researchers are, in fact, women. So welcome to the club!

Glenn: Yes, beautiful reference and it is indeed a more feminine approach to consider how we collectively create large scale systems change. Here in the gulf of Maine, the once abundant fishery is largely collapsed as a result of overfishing and ecosystem damage. Today, we are learning that the gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly warming bodies of water in the world that could be foreshadowing a far deeper collapse. We have a $1.5 billion lobster industry that provides critical livelihoods to people of Maine and eastern Canada. We see a very tightly coupled social-ecological system in the Gulf of Maine. That will change dramatically with warming temperatures. There are some who are just fishing harder and buying more and more boats to catch everything possible, thinking that the fishery is inexhaustible.

Hilary It’s hard to hear that.  People are afraid of losing the little they can take.  Do you also see more positive signals  in all this? It’s tough to even ask as we must acknowledge the almost unbearable politics of denial at the highest levels in the USA.

Glenn:  There are some remarkable people working on restoring salmon to the rivers, transforming rural education and rethinking how to turn this area into a Mecca for sustainable tourism. There is some outstanding work to engage fishers on the challenge and transform the way they fish based on their knowledge and experiences. It’s not as simple as it may sound. Connectivity among community and the spiritual linkages that have formed, are all being frayed, but there is also remarkable hope.  those systems are not necessarily connected with each other. We often call brand new initiatives “day-old chicks in the rain” who need a little shelter from the storm and some nutrition to grow and be able to deal with the storm.

Hilary: Helping people see new possibilities. The Sherpa Optician! What does your action research bring to the local area?

Glenn:  We are developing a collaborative for action learning and transformation in the Gulf of Maine called COBALT. One dimension of this work is to guide learning journeys. There is similar work going on around the world where people are working on the seeds of a good Anthropocene, real world labs, regenerative communities or what I like to call them: Gardens of Hope. We are asking how, how can we both work at a local scale, but also know what’s going on around where transformation is blossoming at a global scale. I find we can be hyper-local and have deep meaning in a defined geographic area when piloting things, but then we’re also at the same time we must share lessons learned with practitioners from around the world to be more global.

Hilary That’s where an organization like AR+ wants to help. Context matters deeply. I believe we can and must also scale deep and take those local lessons learned and offer them for other contexts to make their own. A world of sharing the learning, so to speak.

Glenn:  Yes, exactly, AR+ is an ideal partner, because action research is critical to all of this. You’ve done an amazing job to further evolve the action research field to a point where it delivers on that promise.

Hilary:  And a long way to go before we sleep.  My current feeling is what’s happening in say Swedish healthcare allows us to see connections with what you’re doing around sea and food. In other words we can learn across apparently different contexts.  You even share the Nordic Arc.

Glenn:  I love that connection. It gets the synapses firing. What a great example. Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Finland these are areas that have some of the world’s highest happiness indexes yet still battle with suicide and addiction. The cultures have a remarkably interesting development and are models for us. We are learning a great deal about the importance of indigenous communities in these areas and how much can be learned from traditional ecological knowledge.

Hilary: Maybe we can learn to truly collaborate. I was just reading a piece in the Action Research journal about indigenous learning in Greenland, with Danish action researchers.  I see that as part teaching about Nordic cultural competence too.

Glenn:  I had a wonderful experience recently in Sweden specifically, but also Iceland and Norway and Scotland. We were looking at ocean food systems and working in partnership with a local University here in Maine called University of New England and with the University of Gothenburg and their two marine centers. It was a week-long PhD course, really an interdisciplinary learning journey looking at ocean food systems and what it meant for them to be interdisciplinary researchers and how they would sort of rediscover themselves. And we actually had a meal on day-four that all the students prepared that included recipes from four continents and over 20 different cultures. They had to get to know each other and the students had to cook us a meal that told their story and the learning that they had over the course of the week.

Hilary: You created a very different type of pedagogy.

Glenn So it’s a beginning to rethink how we look at these transformation systems as interrelated, who’s perspectives are we bringing into the dialogue, what boundaries are we using and how are we learning about our assumptions and privilege in different ways. For example, regarding food systems – get ready for the explosion of sea vegetables – eating a lot more seaweed.

Hilary Seaweed is becoming the new Kale.  You’ll be rich.  I see your intervention with the cooking as a nice complement to the usual work of teaching that is too conceptual.  Your experiment helps in transforming learning experiences.

Glenn:  Yes exactly and well said. So we need to think about what are our “action arenas”? Your work at Chalmers and the workshop in March 2019 is a great example of this.

Hilary Thanks, yea. The point of that meeting is to create a global community. We are small when diluted in normal education populations, but together we are mighty! We can tell each other our stories, share leading practices, and see what’s to be accomplished together. I’d love to see a  virtual university.  You could be part of the mad radical faculty!

Glenn:  Beautiful. Yeah, I love it. We’ve got to make it intentional. And include millennials, young, aspiring early career researchers.  Also, I’m impressed with the potentiality of the mayor’s role in a community. And we need to have access to more types of transformational experiences.

Hilary: In a thriving experience economy. Exactly. I love it. As I reflect on our conversation, I get particularly excited about pulling in the political angle Glenn. Maybe I need to think more like a mayor.  I was somewhat successful in politics in LA you know.  Green Party. I loved it,  but somehow ended up back in academia.  Well kind of.  So you help me see the connection. All politics is local…and I appreciate how you signal a human centeredness in your ecological work.  That’s really the heart of the matter if learning and education is to liberate our human creativity. I hope there is still time for the lobsters.

Glenn:  These ideas you’re working with resonate.I just felt connected. You have a lovely weekend, Hilary.

Hilary: It’s been an honor and a pleasure. I think I mean it was fun.  Thanks.  Bye. Bye.