Sandy Wiggins is co-founder and principal of Consilience, LLC, Chair of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), and Senior Advisor for RSF Social Finance. As part of PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project, a series of interviews and group conversations with leaders in the new economy and community resilience movements, we spoke with Sandy about localism, emergence, a new type of financial system, and more:
Interview with Sandy Wiggins (edited transcript).
Tell a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
I’ll talk about right now because I feel incredibly alive and engaged in the work currently. I’m operating in a number of different worlds now. So, a little bit of quick background, and then I’ll talk about where I am and what I’m doing.
Most of my professional life was spent in the real estate industry. Through a series of very synchronistic events, I had a personal epiphany about 20 years ago, and woke up to the mess that we’re in, and began understand the part I was playing in that, and began to redirect my efforts to try to change that.
And to make a very long story short, that became both my vocation and my avocation.
I ultimately ended up as chairman of US Green Building Council and was very involved in helping to move LEED out into the marketplace. And my professional life evolved so that I was able to work on projects that I felt were really setting the bar for the rest of the world. And I continue to do that to this day.
So that’s one of the worlds that I operate in. During that journey, while chairing US Green Building Council and spending the majority of my time meeting with and speaking to business communities in this country and the rest of the world, I kept hearing the same refrain everywhere that I went from people who were trying to do the right thing, or trying to figure out how the do the right thing: "We really want to do this, but we can’t find the capital, we can’t figure out how make the finances work."
I began to think about the way the capital moves in the current financial system, what I’ll call "the pig in the pipe." It was really stopping so much that needed to happen from happening. Eventually, that became another avocation and I set out to see what I could do about that.
I spent a number of years trying to launch a "green bank," a triple bottom line, regulated, commercial bank whose focus was to redirect the flow of capital toward a sustainable world. We weren’t able to get that enterprise off the ground; it was just bad timing. But through that process, I was able to connect with a whole other amazing emergent network of people in the financial industry and what many call the New Economy. So that’s another world I began to operate in. And I continue to operate in that space today as Senior Adviser to RSF Social Finance as part of what they call their field-building collaborative, where our job is to see what we can do to catalyze the emergence of a different kind of financial system.
I left the green building world, in terms of my volunteer time, and joined the board of BALLE, the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies, six years ago. BALLE had been founded by a dear friend, Judy Wicks. As my own awareness grew, and through my conversations with Judy over a number of years, I became convinced that building vibrant, living local economies that were operating very differently from the way our current global economy works were critical to creating a sustainable future.
I continue to have a foot in all these different worlds, and one of the things I find incredibly exciting and energizing and a place where I see incredible effectiveness emerging is at the intersection of those worlds.
The common element that I’ve kind of divined in what appears to be different domains is a process of what I can only call awakening. The individuals who are engaged in all these activities–whether they’re at the bleeding edge of sustainable communities and green building, whether they’re leading the charge for the new economy or building vibrant living local economies…all of these individuals are on a journey of awakening, and I mean that in the deepest sense of the word.
What really excites me and energizes me is being able to make the connections among these incredible emergent networks of individuals and watch the magic happen as new networks begin to self-organize out of these processes. From the 30,000-foot view, the most remarkable thing to observe is this burgeoning of awakening, which gives me incredible hope.
Early in my journey of discovery around the incredible mess that we’re in, and the problems that face the human family, it was really easy to look into the abyss, and say there’s no hope, no way out. That didn’t stop me from trying to do things about it. But now I really do have hope. And I have hope because of this process of awakening that I see in all these individuals, and the incredible creativity that emerges from that awakening, particularly as these groups of people coalesce into new networks.
That’s what gets me going.
What’s coalescing, and what is the hope?
It’s not around one thing, it’s around many things, many alternatives that are being created to the current systems that we know don’t work and that are dragging the human family and planet down with them. The hope is that there is an emergent future that’s very different from the world we have now.
This comes from my own developmental work and my personal, ever-evolving worldview. When you look at the arc of evolution, I believe you can’t see anything other than a pattern of increasing self-organization and higher states of consciousness and even beauty coming out of it. And I’m talking about evolution since the Big Bang, as the Universe has organized itself into increasing states of complexity, beauty, and consciousness. Human beings are the foam on that advancing wave in our little corner of the universe.
I see this all as part of a deep, abiding principle in existence as we know it. We’re used to calling it evolution, and we often think of that as simply as a biological process, which it was for a very long time. But that same evolutionary process has given rise to and is now being carried out through the development of culture and technology. Technology, the way I’ve come to understand it, is no different than the kind of adaptive response that we’re used to thinking of biologically.
Species evolve as opportunities present themselves through a process of adaption in order to survive and thrive. Technology, with the advent of our large forebrains and opposable digits, has become the means to continue that process. We respond to the challenges and opportunities in our environment by creating things that enable us to adapt, and survive and thrive.
If you see all of this as a holistic process, and then you realize that the emergence of higher orders of consciousness or awakening, as I was calling it earlier, are a part of that process, then, it’s a very hopeful picture of the future. We are actually on the cusp of something really amazing happening.
We wouldn’t be here without all of the cultural and technological advances that have preceded us. For many years, like most people in environmental movement, I looked at things like fossil fuels as the scourge of humanity. But I now realize that they are gift from life in the deep past to life in the present: hundreds of millions of years of stored solar energy that have enabled us a society to advance to where we are now. Now we’re getting smart enough to realize what we have, that we haven’t been using those resources wisely, and it’s time for us to grow up, but we wouldn’t have gotten here without them.
I see all of these movements—thriving resilient communities, new economies, green building—as logical extensions of this awakening. The engine that’s driving all of this change is individual awakening and the sense of meaning that comes with that to the people involved.
I have no idea where it’s going to take us, and it really is a bit of a horse race, and not one that we have won by any stretch of the imagination. But because I have touched so many of those networks, I feel that energy building and accelerating, and I really feel like we have a chance of moving beyond the place we’re in now.
Ken: I share that vision, particularly around not being angry with our parents and grandparents for having misused this fossil fuel bonanza, but being grateful to them for the opportunity to continue to evolve ourselves and get away from fossil fuels, while hanging onto all the advances in human freedom that have come with that. It’s a powerful message.
So let’s imagine that future. Place yourself in 2019, and all those groups and networks you mention have succeeded wildly. Speaking from that future point in time, what is it that has been catalyzed in the world?
It’s wonderful to think about, and I would say that it is possible. We’re living in a world where localism is thriving and communities are thriving and resilient. They’re drawing their critical resources from the locality or region: food, energy, water, fiber, in particular. People have en masse recognized that not only is this a more sustainable way to live, it’s a happier way to live. By engaging in local commerce and local economic activity, they’re building relationships and building community, and those are the things that are most satisfying to human beings.
The global economy has shifted dramatically. Large, publicly traded corporations have transformed into whole new kinds of institutions with different ownership structures. Any industry that operates at a global level–because were never going to produce jet engines or computers in every community in the world–are doing it in a way that capitalizes on the ability to draw from these local economies, and they have ownership structures that create deep accountability for everything that they do, not just in terms of the natural environment, but in terms of their employees and the people they impact through their value chain, as well as their customers.
Through this process, essentially the whole world is being lifted out of poverty. And people in their places are being celebrated for their diversity and for the cultural and artistic institutions that are unique to their place.
In this world, everybody is recognizing what really matters: place matters, nature matters – that we are part of nature and have to be conscious of our relationship with it – and that our relationships with each other matter most of all.
And that’s my Utopian dream.
What did these movements contribute that helped make this possible?
I would say that in every case, what these movements contribute are the most powerful motivators for any human being: an awareness of what really makes people really happy, and what really gives meaning to their lives. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re on left or the right or in the middle. When you peel back layers of your belief system, you’re going to get to the same essential things.
The systems that we have now–the current global economy, that’s driven by large publicly traded corporations and our gluttonous consumption–are not making people happy or making for meaningful lives. The engine that’s driving all this change [away from the current economy] is that as people plug in to these new systems, as their awareness begins to grow, the light bulb goes off and it gives them a sense of meaning and connection to each other and the natural world and ultimately makes them happier. That’s what I think these different pieces are contributing at the highest level.
[Closer to the ground,] the work that’s been going on is the development of new kinds of business forms, for one, like ownership structures that actually build community wealth and create deeper relationships between people. We’re seeing those emerge even now: the resurgence of different kinds of cooperatives, and DPOs, and different sorts of business structures. That’s one part of the work.
There’s also the growth in what most people refer to as impact investing, which I prefer to talk about as mission-aligned investing, because every investment has impact, good or bad. The growth of the concepts, the opportunities, and the structures that allow people to align whatever capital they have–whether they’re a typical Mom and Pop, or a high wealth individual–around their own growing sense of mission is a huge piece of this. Changing the way capital flows is fundamental to realizing the kind of shift that we’re talking about.
That involves a lot of education and innovation in terms of creating the opportunities to change the way that people invest. It involves a complete tear-down and rebuild of the financial services sector and financial advisories, and it means giving people alternatives to public equities, for example, as the only investments they can make.
Dipping into another domain, part of the work is creating communities that really are moving toward states of regeneration. Built environments that are actually working cooperatively with the natural environment around them and that are working in a way that promotes the kind of interaction among human beings that I’ve been describing.
There will be more and more innovation around "living buildings" and "living communities," that are going to facilitate this kind of change because the built environment frames so much of the way we interact with each other and also has a direct influence on our levels of consumption. But, more profoundly, as it begins to change, people begin to change with it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I really appreciate that you’re doing this. This is exactly where the work is: connecting these different networks in ways that are going to create whole new networks, and spawn innovation at every level–in thinking, in terms of developing technologies and financial flows– and all of that happens when you do this.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze. The distillation of their work around the whole process of emergence, and how networks occur, and what you can do to support the emergence of social phenomenon that you really want to see succeed. These four things: Name, Connect, Nourish, and Illuminate.
That’s the work. None of this can be forced. It’s happening on its own. It’s emergent activity. It’s part of that evolutionary trajectory.
But what we can do to support it, is to be constantly scanning for it. Name it when it’s occurring. Name where the leadership is occurring. Connect those people, and those movements to each other, so that they begin to self-organize into a network or new networks. Figure out what any of these networks need, in terms of nourishment–often it’s just the process of connection–sometimes there are other things needed, and provide those. And then illuminate it all by telling the stories, because that’s what really accelerates the whole process.