By Maura Dilley
Future of Fish is an accelerator introducing social enterprise to the world’s oceans. If you don’t know why that’s a genius idea, you’re not alone, humanity as a whole knows more about the surface of the moon than we do about the floor of the ocean. In a nutshell, the world’s oceans are legally and illegally overfished, biodiversity is disappearing, and they are downright dirty.
Future of Fish founder Cheryl Dahle doesn’t have a PhD in oceanography and the Future of Fish incubates companies with and without sea legs; some are in tech, some are in materials. Dahle spent 13 years writing for Fast Company and 6 years Innovating for the Public at Ashoka, where she began her research on systemically reinforcing world problems and how we might be able to solve them. The answer: systemically.
I caught up with Dahle before her panel at Bioneers to hear more about her story and her innovative theory of systems-based change.
The Future of Fish that exists today took four years of meticulous design research by Dahle and her team of ethnographers to create. The founders used a design thinking approach to build the organization’s foundations, an approach that Dahle and her supporters proudly claim as a key success strategy. They also made some modifications: the design thinking framework considers one discrete user at a time. Future of Fish asked: who are the users of the system of fish? That question finds system-user typologies, thereby shifting their incentives and needs into a proportional scale.
Future of Fish is not an end on to itself; it is an impressive prototype. Dahle is building proof of possibility that design research into systems will uncover leverage points for change and that applying need-appropriate tools to those leverage points is a heavy hitting way to effect exponential change towards a better society and healthier planet. She says, “With the Future of Fish, we have early indication that there is traction in the system. It’s not done yet, but enough of the vision has been tested for people to see the merit.”
Experience while building The Future of Fish indicated that system’s change is counter-cultural, draws on a uncommon, trans-disciplinary skill set and that systems actors need support platforms, ones that include people who may or may not even self-identify as systems actors.
“It’s hard to talk about systems change without blowing jargon at people – that’s a problem with our mental models as well as a limitation of language which leaves you with rarified conversations amongst specialized people. Systems change should be democratized, available for everyone to teach and learn together.”
Enter FLIP Labs, the hopeful evolution of the Future of Fish process platform.
If funded, FLIP Labs aims to formulize a process for systems-based action and to cultivate a new professional class of systems actors who are trained in design thinking, systems thinking and leadership using systemic inertia. By professionalizing the process Dahle co-created with Future of Fish, you retain talent and create a resilient and repeatable process. The keystone to success here is people.
Changemakers in FLIP Labs would be trained to do primary design research with users because on-the-ground information is mission critical to success. Empathetic and ethnographic research allows social entrepreneurs to build their business community by setting up clear choices for users about how to achieve self-interest as a system actor. For example, fishers and fish processers are historical adversaries but the declining fish supplies hurts them both; empathetic research around these needs provides a point of connection where collaboration can take hold.
FLIP is about scaling-up and replicating these professional skills and the systemic change model by creating a platform for many more social enterprises to replicate the process that Future of Fish devised. Dahle explains that no one is altruistic – that’s not a fish processer’s job, his or her job to run a profitable company based on fish. Understanding that need is absolutely key to devising appropriate incentives. Building partnerships between supply chain actors by literally walking in the shoes of a fish processer hugely informs choices about where and how to effect change. When it comes to execution, we must learn and teach how to titrate between self interest and interest in the system.
Future of Fish is proof of possibility that leadership aligned with systems thinking works. Buckminster Fuller said, "Don't oppose forces, use them." We can use systems kinetics to create companies that perpetuate positive change towards resilient societies and a healthy planet. And we can tailor our leadership skills and tools to match this modality of thinking.
image: Tim Pearce via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)