The European Climate Change Adaptation Conference 2019 in Lisbon this week brought together 1200 individuals who are all working on different aspects of climate adaptation in Europe and internationally.

Attending the conference and listening to the conversations taking place made me reflect again how we organise gatherings and how we design spaces, moments and times that can extract the best thoughts at the right time.

In her book Dare to Lead, Professor Brené Brown also discusses how vulnerability and innovation are closely link and related and that has further inspired me over the last few weeks to think how some of these ideas can be helpful.


We should and can lead and meet through vulnerability

For most of us working on adaptation and climate change, vulnerability has a very negative connotation: it is something that is harmful and needs to be reduced.

When we say “vulnerability” in climate change lexicon (or jargon) this means something that undermines people’s and ecosystems’ ability to thrive. 

We seek to reduce vulnerability, minimise risks, and assist people to do so through adaptation to the current and projected impacts of  climate  change.

But as I have been reading Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead, I am starting to question whether we are missing an actual opportunity in how we currently frame vulnerability and whether her work can offer us some fundamental lessons.

Here with vulnerability I mean transparency in thought and behaviour; a way to lead with courage under uncertainty.

Vulnerability is uncomfortable because it is about accepting weakness, accepting defeat, and accepting potential failure.

Vulnerability is when you do not know the outcome of what you are going into, yet you make the brave decision to put yourself out there; to say what you really think and feel without knowing how others react or perceive you.

Vulnerability is also very closely tied to innovation and trust, which is why understanding these linkages is also crucial especially in science.


Vulnerability as transparency: new opportunities

Being vulnerable is about transparency: not about hiding the potential mistakes and failures that exist in every single research project but being real about them.

Most of us working on adaptation know how hard it is to get even agreement amongst the stakeholders we work with what adaptation is, how political priorities often win the day, how many of the adaptation processes are inherently messy and difficult to govern, how some of our methods are not working.

There are a range of assumptions that circulate about concepts like “effective adaptation” that are misconceptions, yet they keep dominating the discussions as we don’t challenge these.

Being real about the very experiences each of us has about either researching or implementing adaptation, and collectively these kinds of conversations can open up a new dimension.

These open up a new space of vulnerability: a chance to trial something new,  take on new risks in how we communicate and new formats and making sure we create the space for people to really  talk.

Having debate rooms and sessions, doing shorter but more precise presentations, asking novel questions, and dedicating time for joint brainstorming; all of this can lead to better connections between people and ideas.

But most importantly, connecting with people as people who each have a story: we all have very different experiences because “perspective is a function of experience” (p. 243).


Conferencing through vulnerability 

The number one complaint that I hear from scientists attending conferences is that the formats that we use do not enable these real and deep encounters.

Often the opening and closing sessions have keynote speeches and very little time to debate or open up further some of the critical questions that we need to be asking.

Keynote speeches in particular should be about posing the hard questions and at the same time inspiring the scientific community so that each person in that audience will walk away from the conference with a renewed sense of empowerment.

Our conference sessions are very quick (a presentation runs usually 12 minutes) and there is often little opportunity to reflect on the content and emerging insights.

Yet, new conference formats and inspirational speeches are not going to change the way we interact if we as a community and individuals have not developed trust.

Trust is a fundamental factor in how people relate to each other and whether they feel they even want or can be vulnerable.

Trust is built and lost in mundane interactions over time:

“Trust is the stacking of small moments over time, something that cannot be summoned with a command- there are either marbles in the jar or there are not” (p. 232).

Each time we choose to show up and help and assist others, notice where they are at and assist them in whatever they need, we put basically a marble in a jar: we develop trust.

Each time we don’t, it’s like we take those marbles out of the jar and don’t replace them.

This is as applicable for all of our relationships, our workplace and also the way that we treat and interact with each other at conferences.


Vulnerability as empowerment

What Brené Brown is saying that we need to move from the mindset of being perfect in front of others to one where we are brave to be imperfect.

Innovation is fuelled by people making braver decisions and not being constrained by the current thinking or traditions; they are ready to ask the “what if” questions that challenge the norms.

Bringing our real selves to the arena (as Brené calls it) means that we can ditch some of the competition and our fears about being wrong and being judged by others, and develop more connections and trust in the circles that we move.

Understanding and recognising each other’s vulnerabilities will draw us closer together but also enable deeper conversations about where we need to go collectively as the global adaptation science community.

I was extremely lucky to have some of these conversations during the conference although these happened during dinners and coffee breaks, when people did not have to perform but could connect with time and focus.

More, now than ever, we need to have these conversations and also start thinking about our role in simply changing the world;  changing the very institutions where we reside, taking steps for being real and vulnerable by saying what we actually think, and learning to also deal with feedback as building blocks towards a better you.

But the bottom line is that we cannot and should not remain silent, especially when we see opportunities for new ways of doing things; an opportunity that we can help to create if we dare.

You never know, you might just succeed.