We can all agree we want to transition to a survivable social, environmental, and political climate.
Despite the obstacles we all know exist, the real problem is we have a multi-trillion dollar global funding gap, but we do not all share a clear investment map.
We cannot agree on the measures: ESG, SDGs, Net Zero aims, decouple strategies, degrowth theories, or other ideas for how we should decide who gets funding and what we should divest. Even with the passing of the recent Inflation Reduction Act by the US Senate, we can’t agree if the bill will increase or decrease inflation, increase or decrease GDP, increase or decrease jobs, help the environment, or do nothing to stop us from climate catastrophe.1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The measures, in the end, do not matter if they are only used and understood by investors. Narratives eat measures, numbers, and models for breakfast.6
Yet when you listen to the narratives of people who oppose infrastructure and technology investments, you can see that stakeholders living in affected communities take time to read the numbers and listen to the experts as they explain their models. Because it matters to their lives and livelihoods, they take the time to understand the value of an investment, what it will contribute, or what it will destroy. Opposition forms when frontline and affected communities feel ignored and cannot see themselves fairing any better in these great transitions that we are planning.
That’s why, to navigate these transitions, we need to move beyond the reductive mindset of financial risk mitigation and goal logic to understand the value of contribution.
Contribution value design: begins with multiple stakeholders to describe the risk and opportunity of investments told through multiple perspective modeling and narrative making. The contribution value design process recognizes that all stakeholders need to see themselves benefiting from these great transitions, not just those with the capital and access to resources.
Contribution value modeling: a recognition that everyone has the ability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. We have a 99% level consensus that climate change is real and person-made. But we do not have a consensus in our models that describe what to do, next.
As a financial modeler, a scientist, an engineer, or a policy maker, we really do not understand all of the science, technology, history, and perspectives that we need to make decisions. Not everyone is an expert in statistics, epidemiology curves, or climate scenarios. Not everyone knows all of the histories of indigenous tribes, rural families, or front-line communities that have already experienced the consequences of prior investments.
But humans are wise observers of our words and our commitments to each other in our lived experiences. We all make decisions from this context. Contribution value modeling asks key participants in new investments to share their perspectives about what they see in the future, and invites them not just to learn, vote, or decide, but to commit their own contribution, and design that future.
As an expert, this will mean stepping down from the gods-eye view.
I see you up there. I’ve been there myself, and still, frequently find myself in rooms and Zooms with others who are intellectually perched up above looking down from a cloud or a satellite.
We think in terms of portfolios and risk. We evaluate based on pragmatic and discounted appraisals about how much return we will get. We move matter based on how much the climate model tells us we need to move. We propose how humans and the earth need to be optimally rearranged, and behavior changed.
To be sure, this approach sounds like it might slow down critical investments in energy and social infrastructure and reduce our chances of getting to our goals. Don’t we have to act fast and move quickly, bending policy and local resistance and incentivizing behavior change to save us from our catastrophic path? This is, after all, the decade of action.
But if you look at the push-back by activists and local communities mobilizing against tech and infrastructure investments, you can see that speeding forward might accelerate your project into a brick wall with no project to finance. Because critical stakeholders feel unheard and incumbents have so much to lose, different sides tend to weaponize their narratives, trying to dominate social feeds and press cycles with adversarial stances.
Bring back coal!
Mothers for Nuclear!
Silver bullets won’t save us!
Calling all kids into STEM careers to save us!
Socialize the infrastructure!
Save the trees!
Save the sea creatures!
Save the polar bears!
Save the humans!
It will get more intense.
The old tricks of climate denialism will still continue to hijack fake news feeds, trying to divide us through disagreement, make us cynical, and anesthetize our political will. Claiming your gods-eye view gives you a premium on the truth will only entrench those on the ground to mobilize resistance. The flood of capital coming from billionaires and governments is only going to increase the #ALLCAPSVIBE as founders and non-profits vie for time, attention, and cash.
The Inflation Reduction Act will increase billions of investment in clean tech, electric vehicles, and charging stations, but also community-based non-profits, universities, and training organizations. It’s a significant policy shift for the US: from laissez-faire market involvement to proactive industrial development. The US did not pick winners, the story was so often told. Indeed, we’re good at starting new technology waves that emerge in the lab and then arrive within a welcome niche of early-adopter society in order to creatively destroy incumbents.
The US is also productive in war-time and moonshot missions that inadvertently create commercializable technology as a happy accident side-effect. We’re not so great at changing legacy sectors in established communities in a way that benefits all of society and not just the high-income end of the bell curve.
The Inflation Reduction Act attempts to resolve this inequality with minimum wage requirements and an emphasis on apprenticeship roles as we attempt to turn the US into a clean tech industrial powerhouse. But we can also expect an increase in the ire and antagonism as neighbors of infrastructure projects resist the noise and disrupted vistas of power line upgrades and massive solar and wind investments. We also need to honor the voices of frontline communities when they fear that these changes will disturb their lives and livelihoods.
We can already see increasing polarization for every investment in environmental and social progress, as one person’s vision for human betterment is another person’s hell.
So how do we make sense of what makes for a good investment?
We start by exploring the multiple perspectives of people involved in our human endeavors, now, in the past, and in the future. Recognize that it’s not just your narrative to know. Create ways of making numerical scenario models legible through narrative scenarios. Invest time to understand local community interests and observations to address their concerns through numerical scenarios and scientific models. You’ll find that they will reference your models and scenarios when local community members can see where they stand, and their interests are being heard.
Acknowledge that it’s not just your investment decision. Elevate the knowledge and wisdom of people who have stewarded the land, worked the mines, maintained the power plants, scrubbed the hospital floors, and who have been already hit with the first and the worst of climate change effects.
The following series is an exercise on what the artifacts and practice of investment might look like: moving away from the remote abstract analysis of the god’s eye view to evaluate contribution through multiple perspectives.
To map out a practice and method for contribution value design, I will explore current and past investments in energy, health, and any project or human organizing activity that promises to make our world better.
In the spirit of community-engaged design, I’ll start with projects in my own backyard. I will then expand beyond to project finance, community-owned energy, and other ways of organizing our human capabilities to thrive, adapt, or collapse. If you have a story to tell about these cases that I should highlight or add, please let me know.