Working towards systemic change is hard and can be seen as slow. But in reality, might we need to slow down to go faster? As 2023 draws to a close, Samantha Veide, Forum’s Managing Director – Americas, shares her reflections on the power of pausing in driving systemic change, and explores how we can each take a new approach for the new year. Noting the dangers in our constant push for speed, Samantha flips the script and invites you to instead prioritize thinking time, relationships and rest. 

“The times are urgent; let’s slow down.” 

- Bayo Akomolafe, writer, activist, philosopher, executive director of the Emergence Network 

One of the challenges we face at Forum for the Future is making the case for taking the time needed to do the deep systemic work of transformation. While it is easy to understand where the pressure to move expeditiously comes from, there are dangers in this constant push for speed.  

Many of us, especially those of Western cultures, work from a place where we assume efficiency is inherently good, measuring success by actions taken, deliverables delivered, and timelines met. But I would argue that our obsession with productivity prioritizes the wrong measure 

These assumptions remind me of a story told in Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She recounts a new employee at Deloitte who begins her work by sitting at her desk staring into space. When not at her desk, she would wander around the office telling anyone who wondered that she was ‘thinking again’ or ‘doing thought work.’ Odell recounts how “the employees became uneasy. Urgent inter-office emails were sent.” It turns out that this recruit was the performance artist, Pilvi Takala, known for doing creative work that challenges societal norms.  

This story makes me grin, as I can imagine the closed-door conversations about this confounding new hire. But it also gives me pause and makes me a bit uncomfortable: what does it say when “doing nothing but thinking” is so deeply unsettling? If she had sat at her desk typing on her computer all day, no matter what she did (or didn’t!) accomplish, others would have felt more comfortable and there would have been fewer urgent conversations about how to address “the situation.”  

The Deloitte example is extreme, but I would argue that many of us are more comfortable with performative productivity than stillness, even when stillness might be exactly what is needed. What might we accomplish if we all had more spaciousness to ask the tough questions and then question the questions themselves? If we took more time to “just sit at our desks and think,” might our work of social justice and environmental restoration be more meaningful? More impactful? More inclusive? And ultimately more systemic?   

If we took more time to “just sit at our desks and think,” might our work of social justice and environmental restoration be more meaningful? More impactful? More inclusive? And ultimately more systemic? 

Systems change work is hard and can be seen as slow. But in reality, it is essential that we slow down to go faster, and question our bias towards speed when confronting the urgent systemic challenges that face our world today. At Forum, we are working to catalyze deep and urgent transitions but urgency isn’t just about haste. The recent UNDP publication on Indigenous Futures asks us, What if the urgency is not in how quick we respond, but how deep? What if the slow, deep work of collective unlearning, or making space for different ways of being and thinking together, or taking the time to value different cultures through practice rather than words, is how we address the source of our interconnected crises, not just their symptoms?” 

As we head into the new year, why not consider the following when thinking about speed in change-making work?  

Challenge your bias to action

In meetings, in social activism, in our own lives - we are told that we need to act and do. I have often been involved in change-making efforts when someone would say “we don’t want to be a talk shop” or “just a think tank, but a ‘do tank’ as well.”  Both comments are almost always met with assenting nods as if we all agree to some unspoken “code” that having conversations and thinking are inherently less valuable work. 

But I would posit that too often in our bias to action, we rush into work. If we are lucky - and we sometimes are - this work has a positive impact. Just as often, however, I fear this work wastes resources, time and good will, without delivering the change that's truly desired. And at worst, these headlong actions contribute to harm and result in unintended consequences that can echo across generations. Action, of course, is arguably the most important part of change-making work, but the right action is critical. Action for action’s sake is simply a waste of time. I believe this bias to action exists because we—the ambitious change-makers—feel better busy, regardless of whether it drives more change.  

Action, of course, is arguably the most important part of change-making work, but the right action is critical.

Instead, l urge you to take a pause—or several—before rushing into action and ask: Have we looked at the history in this work? What great work is already happening in this space? Whose voices need to be involved for true long- term change? Am I confident this action is going to contribute to true change? Are there potential unintended consequences that I have not considered? Might these resources—money, time, effort—be better off deployed to support someone else’s ‘doing’ versus mine? Am I acting because it makes me feel better or because the acting is actually contributing to progress? 

Practice thinking in forest time versus human time

Recently, I was listening to a compelling episode of For the Wild, with guest Maya Khosla, wildlife biologist and writer. Khosla talks about how wildfires are often interpreted as destruction, even though fires are often part of the natural cycle of forests; fires can lead to creation. Because we think of everything in human time, however, we aren’t able to see this. After a fire, we see forests as dead, and will interpret them as dead five years or even 10 years after the occurrence.   

Khosla challenges us to decenter ourselves and begin to see forests in “forest time,” which is one of “... eons, it’s one of centuries. It’s a gradual comeback.” The discussion posits the human desire to see “everything popping up automatically right now” as a reflection of our inability to really consider deep time against our human impatience and that “our desire for instant gratification, whether it's from forests after a burn or Amazon Prime, [is] coming from the same place of... [understanding that our] lives are actually quite short.” 

This does not mean that we can sit back complacently. We must do what we can within our lives to make a difference. Forum consciously considers our “contribution” to impact— it is hubris to think that within one human lifetime any one of us will witness complete systemic change towards a just and regenerative future. We must contribute meaningfully to that work, but social justice movements and deep environmental change might need to happen on “forest time” versus “human time.”  We need patience.   

We've heard it before, but it is worth saying again we need to move at the speed of trust

At Forum, we firmly believe that change is relational and experiential. Looking at the iceberg model’s representation of how change happens, the deepest level of change happens when mental models and worldviews change.  

In a course I participated in about change-making, the facilitator asked everyone to think of an example when we had truly changed our minds about something significant, and consider the conditions that made that change possible. Every example shared involved one of two similarities: the person had either experienced something personally that shifted their belief system, or their mind changed through a relationship with someone else.  

This demonstrates that we must take time for relationship building; relationship building is the work. One of the most common requests I get when planning a workshop or meeting is to “cut down” on the introduction time so we can get “to the work” because of a packed agenda. One of the most striking examples of this was when I was working on a strategy project with a large multi-national business. We were running a virtual workshop to support the organization to think differently about their approach to sustainability. At this point, we had only met our key point person over Zoom and in some instances the participants had also not yet met each other either. As the workshop began, we were asked—on the fly—to eliminate all introductions and jump to setting the strategy. I couldn’t help thinking: how is this team supposed to work together meaningfully without knowing each other? How am I supposed to lead this group through conflict and disagreement and deep creative thinking if I don’t know their names?  This moment of time-saving didn’t do anything of the sort in the end. 

Rest. Rest again. And again. Rest is resistance

“Rest isn’t a reward for the work; it’s part of the work.” 

- Leesa Renee, Author, Artist and Advocate

Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry and author of Rest is Resistance, reminds us that for many populations rest is downright revolutionary when she says, “rest as a Black woman in America suffering from generational exhaustion and racial trauma always was a political refusal and social justice uprising within my body.”   

For all of us, rest is needed. We are humans and humans need rest. Rest is necessary for us to do this work of moving towards a just and regenerative world. As Jenny Odell says, “I consider ‘doing nothing’ both as a kind of deprogramming and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to do the meaningful work.” Rest prepares us for the work. Rest IS the work. How might all of us work to incorporate rest into the very fabric of our lives and how we show up in change-making spaces? What are some ways that we can model this rest for others around us? How might you incorporate the ethos of rest into your sustainability and social justice work going forward? 

As we say goodbye to 2023 and many move into an end of year break, I hope you are able to rest and slow down and see this as a trial for how you might approach 2024 with more understanding of the “urgency” that is all around us. We have much work to do together to continue the shift to a just and regenerative future in which both people and the planet thrive. Rest well; you’ll need it!