Where Good Ideas and Solutions Come From

Many aspects of addressing the sustainability challenge are what Ronald Heifetz, who teaches leadership at Harvard, calls “adaptive problems” as contrasted to technical problems:

“There are problems that are just technical. I’m delighted when a car mechanic fixes my car, an orthopedic surgeon gives me back a healed bone, or an internist gives me penicillin and cures my pneumonia. That’s a key question: is this a problem that an expert can fix, or is this a problem that is going to require people in the community to change their values, their behavior, or their attitudes?”

For example, getting residents to adopt energy efficiency improvements in their homes is a challenge where the solutions are complex and vary by the context. In these situations, the leaders advocating for change and the communities themselves need to discover and share what works in their context. “Experts” can inform and guide but what is really needed is ways to convene and connect people that surface and synthesize the wisdom of their experiences on the ground.

How do we create contexts where people can share what is working and where the barriers are, to discover the ideas and solutions that work? Steven Johnson’s video about Where Good Ideas Come From explores the qualities of spaces that have historically led to greater creativity and innovation:


He found that good ideas arise from the combination of individual’s “slow hunches,” i.e., emerging half-baked ideas that collide with others’ half-baked ideas to create a new insight or innovation.

We have found the World Café dialogue process to be a great way to create this type of creative cross-fertilizing space. Recently, at the New Entry Farmers’ Project Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, we co-facilitated a World Café where about 140 small-scale farmers talked with their peers in small groups of four people about best practices for growing a successful farming business. After one round of conversation, the groups of four mixed and began a new conversation with another small group, sharing the insights from the previous one. Old farmers and young farmers traded stories in dozens of conversations. One of the quotes from a participant said “The World Cafe is an absolute and necessary part of creating a movement. Sustainable dialogue = social change!!”

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