Interview with Dr Youssef Nassef, Director of Adaptation Division at UNFCCC and Founder of Resilience Frontiers.
Ahead of COP28, we managed to sit down with Youssef Nassef, Director of Adaptation Division for UNFCCC and Founder of Resilience Frontiers. Resilience Frontiers (RF) is a UN-catalysed initiative to shake off the limits of today's systems and create a more desirable future. We talk about the power of collective imagination, Gen-Z accelerating social change and Blue Swans 🦢 🇺🇳
Can you tell us about your background?
In my PhD I got acquainted with paradigm shifts, techno-economic paradigm shifts, and how they can creep up on you, and how they've never been managed in history. They just happen to you. Big leaps are either instigated by black swan events, or by technological innovation, much of which seems to be random, but in reality, it is guided by market forces.
So armed with an understanding of changes in history, and how some singular events have led to massive changes, including in mindset, all the way from Rosa Parks sitting in the white-only section of the bus that then triggered mass protests, or someone killing the Archduke of Austria, which results in a whole new world order. People would never assume that a single person can do all that. So I'm saying, what if we managed 100 different projects or starting points, not just 1? And we find ways of getting them to align together, to start that process of transformation.
From my work in climate change, we got an alarm bell from the science that we have 10 years to transform. And if we don't do that, we are facing doom. And I'm glad that you're operating within the Gen-Z space because I think the youth generally can see a lot more clearly sort of the farcical nature of today's world. There's a childish narrative of why things can't be done, or why things are what they are. We've agreed to a lot of things that do not have action following them. Because there's one core principle that has been the religion of the whole world since the Industrial Revolution, which is maximising the bottom line. If it doesn't make financial sense, then it doesn't make political sense, then it shall not be done, no matter how much you say that it shall be done.
I usually start my presentations, with agreed provisions from 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which said a lot of things that are paraphrased in the SDGs, and that was over 50 years ago. And instead of moving in the direction that reflects the international consensus that existed, we've moved in the opposite direction. The future doesn't happen to us, we happen to the future. We have to realise that tomorrow is a function of today, nothing comes from outer space to determine our future. We have seen successful attempts when whole countries rally towards a certain goal like South Korea transformed massively from 1960 until today. What if the whole world can do that?
Once you move from an extractive mode of life to a regenerative mode of life, you can look at a world of abundance and sustainability at the same time. They're not necessarily mutually exclusive. And that's one of the assumptions we have to break.
How important is the role of imagination and mindset shift when it comes to transformation?
In our first meeting in Songdo, South Korea in 2019, the Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO said we are plagued by a poverty of imagination. If we go back to Einstein, much of what he offered the world came more from imagination than from science. The idea of imagination here is about allowing the mind to flow freely towards an uninhibited exploration of what is possible, what is desirable or what is essential. But without always having those barriers that say: "Oh, but no, we probably won't be able to do this and we probably won't be able to do that". This comes together with visioning.
Most businesses look at this the wrong way. They say let's have a vision statement and a mission statement. A few buzzwords are strung together into a paragraph that gets forgotten the next day. But the actual act of envisioning where your successful landing zone will be and living through it works. What has ever happened before is an alignment across the minds of 8 billion people or the critical mass that would be necessary to make that change happen. So that every action we take, would move society a bit closer to that vision.
We’re at the point now, where you have two things, you have ecological collapse looming. And the wrong way to look at that is to try to just undo the harm. The right way to look at it is that there's an opportunity for all the screws that bind our current system to be loosened. And then you can rebuild things in ways that not just undo the harm but take you to where the world should be the best version of itself, which is then where paradigm shifts come in.
People are viewing the future within a linear extrapolation from the present, which can be the case if you want it to be but if you don't want it to be, you can recreate that future and very easily.
Another mistake people make in their thinking is feeling that the only way to create a new system is from within current systems. Hence that quote from Henry Ford: “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” because the current system was the horse-driven carriage. The car did not emerge from the horse-driven carriage. There’s nothing that we need to destroy in the current system, we just need to create a new one on the side, because there's too much effort that will go into undoing the power structures and fighting those who are benefiting. But if you have something more attractive, it will grow and it will gain ground and then will eventually render the existing system, defunct. And that can apply to economics, politics, companies and values. So things that were considered immutable things that would never change in terms of right and wrong 50 years ago, have been thrown out of the window today.
What's your advice for young people trying to create change?
I will answer using a proxy first. We had this wave of diversity in corporations. Diversity for many Western corporations meant bringing minorities in and making them conform to the majority. And that's unfortunately, what's happening with the youth because they come into an entry-level position with very good values. Eventually, they try to conform, they become the people, they were afraid to become in the first place because that's the way to earn a living.
They are the minority; they are also the most junior people and they have to rise within a system by adapting to the opposite values. And so, the question is, how can we amplify the values of the youth by first allowing them to describe that vision that they want in a much more concrete way?
So having all kinds of workshops and engagements and conferences, where the core values of what young people see and the world they want to live in. Whether it's one with equity, it's one with not leaving anyone behind. Where we don't have this extractive relationship with nature. And to keep repeating it and perpetuating it that this is the correct thing. It's our world because you will all be gone. And we'll have to deal with this. So, from now on, we want you to make sure that this is prioritised. And not to be afraid of retaining these values in whichever work environment they get in.
Fortunately, some companies are getting the message but we don't have a critical mass yet. The best thing that can ever happen to this world is the top billionaires aligning themselves with this. So, if the youth could get Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and the whole 100 billion club to come on board with this, that's the easiest way to ensure that the rest of the world will follow. But I see the core agent of change here is the youth before they get contaminated by the existing post-industrial revolution values.
Can you tell us about the vision for Resilience Frontiers?
Resilience Frontiers is sort of a virtual think tank which operates under the U.N. but is totally unpoliticised which is a very rare combination. It has the convening power but doesn't have any biases, contamination or agendas, and tries to find those first-mover actions that can undo the snowball effect towards these desirable visions of the future that were created. There were eight pathways created through a rigorous process following a foresight methodology. And so, many people working on different parts of this puzzle. And in addition to that, a core methodological pathway where we are trying to find those first-mover actions.
We have all kinds of activities going around. One of them happens in each COP session, where we have a pavilion that has a theme every year so this year, we're trying to focus on the creative arts. The creative arts have been used to simplify very complex visions about the future so people don't have to read the whole book to get a message but they can just see an image. How they can continue to do that, whether it's photography, acting, poetry, painting or sculpture. And how the art community can be a main player in this story as well.
But the idea is that eventually, we will have those what we call blue swans, so they're like black swans, but what differentiates them from Black Swans is that they are predictable and planned. So blue, because blue is the U.N. colour. Once we identify these, these will be the equivalent of those unplanned activities in the past that have led to change. But now we'll have many of them operating in sync with each other to make that transformation to a better world likely.
If you want to learn more about the work of Resilience Frontiers and activities at COP28 and beyond you can visit their website or follow them on social media.
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