Category Archives: Rural development

Sustainability: Rear View Mirror and Crystal Ball

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the 5th Building Sustainable Communities conference that reflected back on Rio (1992) and looked ahead to Rio+20 in terms of sustainability.  Given I am usually making presentations for others or coaching clients on messages for their presentations, I was excited to write my own talk.

Sustainability is at the core of my work in terms of the ultimate impact I hope to achieve.  However, my day to day reality often manifests as bringing people and their institutions together. The main message of my 10 minutes was that collaboration (the power with) is a key ingredient to address the sustainability challenges ahead. The slides are posted on slideshare.

I decided to use a mix of hand-drawn images (via my iPad) and photos from real places where I shared field experiences from Guyana, Senegal and British Columbia.  I received great feedback after the session on the visuals and the stories I shared (thanks to those who shared your thoughts, always appreciated!).

Some of the tactics I used included starting with a personal story, asking compelling questions, simplified design with hand-drawn images, and aiming to inspire others to make the changes I believe are necessary.

My final questions for participants to ponder included:

What are you currently working on that could be enhanced by collaborating with others?  Where could you achieve more if the scale at which you work was enlarged?  Where can you achieve more together than alone?

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Dining for Women in Rossland


Dining for Women in Rossland Visual Brainstorm by Michelle Laurie


This post is to share two great things:

1. Dining for Women is a group that originated in the US to support and empower women in developing countries.  Instead of going out for dinner to a restaurant, women get together for a potluck and donate the money they would have spent otherwise to a common charity.  Chapters have popped up across the US and one night of small dinner potlucks in many locations can raise over $20,000.00/month.  Groups are researched by the organization and a different cause is supported each month.  The organizers also provide background material to the local chapters, including a short video and country facts to help provide context for the dinner discussion.  Dining for Women speaks to me for many reasons.  Here are a few things it illustrates:

  • The power of the collective.
  • Every person can contribute.
  • Scaling up can have real impact and is worth the effort.
  • Great ideas are easy to spread.
  • Planning support (through materials, discussion ideas) is helpful to stimulate meaningful conversations.

2. Visual Thinking and Visual Recording. I have been engaging in graphic facilitation slowly over the past few years however after hosting a 2 day workshop on the topic with Nancy White as the facilitator, I am keen to really practice and use visual methods in my work.  Nancy’s advice during the workshop was to take visual notes during regular meetings, look for icons and when given the opportunity simply get up and try.  I had hoped at the Dining for Women gathering in Rossland, we could use a blank wall to help people share their thoughts.  Given the busy evening with many activities taking place, the wall was still blank when everyone left.  Days later I decided to record my impression of Dining for Women in Rossland.  The visual is above and this is what I was hoping to express:

  • Four themes of Dining for Women that took place during the past year.
  • Rossland is the first Canadian chapter of Dining for Women.
  • Dining for Women is rooted in supporting the Millennium Development Goals.
  • Reasons why women in Rossland are excited about participating.
  • Some of the topics and themes we discuss at our potluck dinners.

Hosting meaningful conversations supported by meaningful visuals is something I am striving for in my work.  For now, I will keep practicing at the wall and in my notebook and the next Dining for Women is at the end of the month…


Filed under Effective meetings, knowledge management, Kootenay Life, Rural development

Technology, Speed and Fireplaces

After spending a month off-line, I was convinced it is essential for one’s health.  The neck and shoulder aches were gone, I read more in the papers and had conversations over breakfasts rather than over emails.  In East Africa, I appreciated the big landscapes, time that stood still and poli poli (slowly slowly in Swahili) way of life.

Once back to my ‘real’ world, I found out from a friend on Facebook how to fold bottom sheets (with the help of a You Tube video).  This has always been a mystery for me so indeed I appreciated the quick and very interesting information.  For me, the simple discovery epitomized the wonderfully bizarre information era we live in.

This morning I am reading in Wired Magazine about a company that specializes in creating in demand online videos.  It’s about making the cheapest, fastest content for Internet users that are searching through their 4000 videos and articles published every single day.    Likely they are the ones who solicited the bed sheet folding video.  Pretty amazing.  I wonder what else I might learn about if I type my questions into google?

My work takes me into the world of technology as well as the world of people.  I enjoy the slowness off-line but I also depend on the Internet, media and globalization for my livelihood.  How else could I live in the woods and continue to connect, share and collaborate on projects all over the world?

This morning I am reflecting on the irony of all these different realities.  I may stay at this computer and catch up on emails and work.  Or I may head back to the fireplace and watch the flicker from the couch with hot tea in hand.  Both are good…but…the fireplace wins this morning.

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Community Knowledge Sharing and Home Heating


Last night I learned about different home heating options such as biomass, fossil fuels and geoexhange (moving heat from the ground into buildings).  It was a great evening of learning from an expert as well as my neighbours.  It was part of a monthly series of discussion nights I organize called Green Drinks.

Green Drinks in my small town is about getting together over drinks, learning more about an environmental or social topic and stimulating conversation.  I try and find a resource person to kick off the discussion and provoke us to think beyond what we might know.  The fun is really in meeting new people and hearing their thoughts. 

Last night we held the evening as a conversation café where we had three rounds of conversation after a fifteen minute introduction by our speaker.  People rotated through tables with one person remaining at each table throughout to act as a host and share what the people in the earlier rounds had to say.  After thirty minutes everyone gathered together in a bigger conversation to ask other questions and share a bit about what their tables spoke about.

I use Conversation Café techniques in my work but was hesitant to try it in an informal, casual setting.  It was certainly a more structured green drinks than normal but when asked if they liked the format, there was an overwhelming amount of support to keep it up.  I am coming to the conclusion that forced networking techniques from the KM world are great tools for both inside and outside the workplace….even in small rural communities where you think everyone already knows each other!


Filed under knowledge management, Kootenay Life, Rural development, Uncategorized

Work nostalgia

The photo above is of edible berries found in the forests’ of Guyana.  I took the photo on a field trip in 2006 where we were looking at restoring degraded forests for improving poor people’s access to resources as well as improving biodiversity.

It’s a rainy morning in my small mountain town and I am having a bit of work nostalgia.   Since moving from Switzerland (and my job at IUCN), I have been finding a variety of work that I find challenging and interesting.  Despite loving my  life in BC, Canada, there are some differences that I miss, including:

  • The multicultural workplace and colleagues
  • Respect (and desire) for different viewpoints and ideas
  • Working across geographical scales and continents
  • Ongoing collaboration and contact with folks across numerous countries and languages
  • Working and linking across scales such as community, policy and science
  • Always a million things that urgently need to be done
  • Meaningful work contributing to poverty reduction in rural areas of developing countries
  • Communicating the links between people and natural resource dependencies and security
  • A highly driven and motivated group of people working toward shared goals

There were definitely things I didn’t like about my work…some of which are also above.  Spending one’s life on planes, away from ‘home’, living as an ex-pat, and the list goes on….is not what I wanted.

Still, I am nostalgically thoughtful on this rainy morning as I sip coffee in front of the computer in my comfortable house nestled in the mountains.


Filed under Kootenay Life, Rural development

Engagement vs PR


The ski hill in my town is a local amenity as well as a tourist attraction. While the locals love skiing they also love to complain. When riding the chairlift or in the bar, I often hear about how the mountain could improve things and how they should appreciate local pass holders more. I can’t say who is right or wrong, however I see an opportunity for community engagement by the company who owns the resort.

Coincidentally, I was drinking a beer next to the owner last week. The topic of engaging the community came up and he invited me to a public meeting where I would see exactly how they are doing this. The subject was a proposed golf course at the base of the ski resort. Several people in town are concerned, mostly due to it’s location in the town’s watershed. While the situation is quite interesting, this blog entry is about process.

Several things last night led me to believe that the company could do well to expand its learning on the subject of engagement. Here are a few:

  • meeting time was 6:30pm – exactly when you should be dining with your family.
  • 2.5 hours of non-stop talking (8 speakers) from the podium
  • expert vs layperson set-up
  • no break, no coffee, no Q&A between speakers
  • no microphones provided to the floor during the question period
  • people cut off from sharing information that was not in the form of a question

Engagement to me requires listening, reflecting, and empowering everyone to participate. This can take many forms including the following examples:

  • structuring sessions that allow for dialogue
  • fostering peer to peer information sharing
  • discussions between sets of speakers
  • time for re-energizing
  • providing day care to encourage more participation

From my experience last night, I would argue the design of the meeting was more of a PR approach. I teach a workshop on how to run more participatory, knowledge sharing events (such as public meetings), perhaps I will put them on my contact list for the spring 🙂


Filed under knowledge management, Kootenay Life, Rural development, Uncategorized

KM learnings from Vietnam?

What can one really learn about a country after only 3 days of exploration? I would certainly feel comfortable saying that it is a country of extremes. From the peaceful tranquility of Ha Long Bay, where islands of towering cliffs with luscious greens dot a calm of sea blue.


To the streets of Hanoi where chaos seems to reign. Still people are calmly moving within it and I found the rhythm penetrates. Indeed, after wondering if crossing the road was actually taking life into my hands, I eventually found the spaces to meander through amongst the non-stop sea of motos, cars, cyclos, and other moving objects. The photo below is moving traffic!


Amongst the extremes, one can see and sense the history rooted in a people who have fought for their country’s independence and ideologies over centuries. From a knowledge management perspective, I found the words of Confuscius, whose teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced Vietnam, very relevant in todays world. He wrote, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”.


In my short three days, Vietnam has shared with me a few of its faces, its history and its teachings. It has reinforced my own beliefs in the need to learn from experience. For example, chaos isn’t always what it appears. Moreover, learning by doing is often necessary to truly understand. That extends to understanding chaos as well as more generally.

Last thoughts before catching my plane back to British Columbia: I recommend the movie Indochine if you are interested in the recent history of Vietnam and seeing more of the magnificant Ha Long Bay.

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Rural transportation: an undervalued issue?


A poor rural farmer grows grains and vegetables. This farmer uses appropriate technology to ensure a good crop and enough to feed his family. He hopes to sell his excess produce to gain additional income to pay the school fees for his children. How does the farmer access the market to sell his products?

Transportation is critical to linking people, improving communication as well as incomes. Rural transportation goes beyond building roads. It includes safety, inland waterways, women’s transport needs, ongoing maintenance and combating corruption in the sector. In rural poverty reduction, the role of transportation is often overlooked.

For example, in Sri Lanka, out of 4.4 million vehicles almost 50% are bicycles and they are used mainly in rural areas. Still, pedestrians and cyclists have been left out of the planning and development process. In India, these are the main people being killed as there is a lack of awareness as to the implications of new roads/traffic on communities. In Bangladesh, school children are dying en route to school highlighting the need to further communicate the link between education, transportation and road safety. In Amazonian regions (as shown in the photo above) or the islands of the south Pacific, waterways are the main transportation routes and should not be forgotten.

In a nutshell, what I am learning from my interaction with the International Forum on Rural Transportation and Development? We need to go beyond building roads and account for the wider role of transportation in rural development and poverty reduction efforts.

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