Creative Collaboration Will Restore Washington's Floodplains

Hal Hamilton, the plenary speaker at a recent Floodplains by Design workshop, is a senior lecturer at MIT, the founder and co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab and a founder of the Academy for Systems Change. One of the foremost experts in facilitating social change, Hal was invited to share his expertise with 150 leaders from across the state who are all working to build community and environmental resilience into our floodplains.

Hal Hamilton, co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab, urged attendees to consider viewpoints different from their own in seeking lasting solutions to complex challenges. Photo by Michael Maine. 

Hal Hamilton, co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab, urged attendees to consider viewpoints different from their own in seeking lasting solutions to complex challenges. Photo by Michael Maine. 

Hamilton, who started his working life as a Kentucky dairy farmer, began by defining the differences between simple, complicated and complex problems. Simple problems, like building a shed, are solvable with little besides some elbow grease, while complicated problems, like sending people to the moon, are largely solvable by defining who must do what. Complex problems — like raising a child or in this case adapting to climate change — wherein challenges are largely unforeseeable, take a spirit of co-creation. Hamilton implores us all to step out of our “likeness bubbles” and value diverse viewpoints to find lasting solutions for complex problems.

Often, despite our best intentions, different schemes for conservation end up becoming competitive rather than mutually reinforcing. But this does not have to be the case. By listening, really listening, to each other, especially in one-on-one conversations, we can see the other party’s desires and values. That is invaluable in terms of expanding our perception of the situation and can help to reshape our mental frame, which, in turn, will illuminate creative solutions.

Terry Williams, elder of the Tulalip Tribes, added, “You must also feel the frustration; seeing is only the first step.” Understanding others’ points of view is key to understanding the overarching situation at hand. Terry is commisioner of Fisheries and Natural Resources for the Tulalips and a leader of the Sustainable Lands Strategy — a coalition of farm, fish and flood control representatives working to benefit all three interests in the Snohomish and Stillaguamish river basins.

Complex and varied land uses in the Snohomish River basin call for collaborative partnerships that bring many voices to the table. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown. 

Complex and varied land uses in the Snohomish River basin call for collaborative partnerships that bring many voices to the table. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown. 

Through a series of stories of his experiences in the U.S. and abroad, Hal brought to life this underlying theme: the need to bring diverse actors together to “co-create” effective solutions. Solving complex problems such as how we manage rivers and how we adapt to climate change require shifting our conversation from one in which people get together to advocate for their position to one in which we are working together with an innovative, co-creative spirit to determining how nature and people can thrive.

Hal has worked to get small farmers in places like Mexico and Brazil together with multi-national food and beverage companies to develop more sustainable food systems. In Washington, we are working to bring farmers and tribes together with state and federal agencies to co-create more sustainable river management systems.

The Conservancy and its many partners at the workshop are part of a growing field of people who hold the responsibility to find collaborative solutions to complex problems. There are numerous ways to work together, but it’s imperative that we enter conversations open to shifting gears and being flexible. Through the Floodplains by Design partnership, this has led to the development of a new generation of river management projects across the state — projects that provide multiple benefits to local communities: reducing flood risks, restoring the environment, protecting agriculture and improving recreational opportunities.