Competition, Collaboration and the Games We Must Learn to Play

In a previous blog about personal leadership I shared thoughts about the role of competition as a driver for sustainability. To put these thoughts to action I started a University of Cambridge team to compete in the EcoChallenge competition. During the course of the EcoChallenge the University of Cambridge team grew, our number of competitors grew, and their team members and achievements grew, but we still prevailed as the highest ranked team in the UK, even beating Cambridge’s traditional rival, Oxford University. I was humbled by the CISL MSt cohort 7 and 8 members that joined the team, took actions such as writing letters to local leaders back in their home countries, used public transportation, reduced their meat consumption/adapted a more plant-based diet, and so much more. Despite my role as team captain, as is default for those that create the teams, I was not the highest scoring member of the team, perhaps not even the most active member, and many of the challenges I picked for myself were less challenging than those of my teammates. Instead, I challenged myself in different ways, such as, taking the role of cheerleader, advocate, organizer, strategist. I made public announcements, virtual and in-person, to encourage membership; familiarized myself with all of the challenges, how they related to climate-change, and engaged with people on these subjects, encouraging action; I chose our opponents strategically, and at different times, for instance, when an opponent would be surpassed, another more advanced opponent (in members and/or points) would be challenged; opposing teams were also chosen from similar areas (i.e. university, course program, etc.).

There was certainly a desire from the team to win by overcoming opponents in points and members, but the game was essentially about acting on climate change. In the “game” of climate change we are all potentially losers, so it’s not about beating your opponent in the traditional sense. Addressing climate change is more about collaboration, even with opponents.

I was recently introduced to an Israeli game called Matkot, a type of Paddle Ball. The game is played by hitting a small rubber ball to the other player using a wooden racquet. In the version that I played, the point was not to get the ball by the other player, as in tennis, Ping-Pong, or any other racquet sport I know. Rather, the point of the game is to encourage a good volley. If you serve a bad pass to your partner and they miss the ball the game is less exciting, less fun. Interestingly, there are not winners or losers in this game—at least in the version I was playing. Considering the sustainability challenges facing humanity, I think there should be more games like Matkot where people can interact with each other in fun and exciting ways and, in doing so, learn to become better collaborators.

There is a noticeable difference between many of the organic and conventional farmers that I’ve interacted with over the years. The organic farmers tend to be more open to sharing ideas and techniques with other organic farmers. They might say—what cover crops did you use; what can you tell me about managing bee colonies; try this dibbling technique, etc. While no members of my cohort are farmers, I do know they are all passionate about sustainability. In the spirit of collaboration, Matkot and organic-farmer knowledge-sharing, I want to take this opportunity to describe a hypothetical game about sustainable food systems, collaborative in nature, without the traditional winners and losers, while also educational, and hopefully fun all at the same time.

In this game, unlike lessons learned from Monopoly, the goal is not to own everything and bankrupt your opponents. Humanity is faced with sustainably providing food and fiber to an estimated global population of 10 billion people by 2050. So, think of that as a farmer in the number of seasons to get things right, or as a player as the number of turns in the game. In this game, players are different types of farmers—urban, rural, back-yard, hydroponic, soil-based, organic, etc. Certain “event” cards are played, such as, hurricanes, flooding, pest infestations, etc. and the different types of farmers are affected to different degrees, unless they have played cards to make them more resilient. Perhaps the urban, warehouse hydroponic farmer dependent on LEDs for plant photosynthesis is affected by power outages more than the rural farmer, but perhaps the rural farmer is more affected by flooding—unless they have the compost card, for instance (i.e. increased soil organic matter (SOM) helps with water infiltration and topsoil runoff).

I don’t yet have a detailed plan to take this game forward, but I think planting the seed here, with a group of smart, passionate, colleagues committed to sustainability, is a good place to start.