The Age of SMART Posted by Sue Lebeck

SueLebeck(Originally posted at Sue Lebecks’s blog on, March 15, 2011)

Yeah, this use of the acronym “SMART” is our own invention.  You won’t yet find it in the mainstream (though we’d love to change that over time.) We came up with it to try to articulate specifically what we were learning about sustainable systems, and what it really meant to be “sustainable”.

The word “sustainable” itself is not terribly inspiring.   Intuitively, it means something on the order of “continuing to exist”.  In recent years this has become a central and often elusive goal for many living systems, social contracts, and businesses (but that is a blog post for another day).   Still — “sustainable” is hardly a juicy word to the average innovator (is there such a thing as an average innovator?  also a blog post for another day).

So why “SMART”?   We began with the word “SMART” because increasingly the ways we manage infrastructures, treat social systems and conduct business have begun to appear to the forward-thinking observer to be (now don’t hate me) — STUPID.  Yes — stupid.  In fact, the long-term effects of the status quo were dramatized in the popularly and critically acclaimed and innovatively distributed 2009 British film The Age of Stupid.  Set in 2055, it tells the story of what happens when the world refuses to change its systems and infrastructures, revealing the “reasons” for this lack of action as, well, lame and stupid.

 Now, not everyone is moved by alarmist movies.  But even the CEOs and EVPs of the largest corporations in the world, upon coming together to contemplate the future circa 2050, came away saying this about everything from energy and materials to people and values:

Business-as-usual cannot get us to sustainability or secure economic and social prosperity. These can be achieved only through radical change, starting now.”  

Translation:  the way we have been doing business, though once thought to be smart, is no longer so.   If we continue in the same way going forward — we are stupid.  This, however para-phrased, comes directly from the horse’s mouth. A very SMART beginning.

 OK, so remind me — what is “SMART” again?  SMART is:

Systems-savvy –
designed with sensitivity to the context of the specific systems and environs involved; also, optimizing the interplay between systems.
Managed intelligently –
managed thoughtfully for best result; also, using sensors/data/analysis/control to manage systems operationally in dynamic circumstances.
Adaptive –
designed to work well in a changing world, in a manner that works with the environment and not against it.
Regenerative – applying creative system interplays, where the waste of one system becomes food to another; closed-loop cooperative systems.
Trusted – reliable, exercising good judgment; honest, authentic, transparent; without this quality, the other qualities can be applied in a misguided or misleading fashion.

These are our design principles for a sustainable world.  If you ever forget, just check our SMART Design webpage.   One day (and it best be soon), the ideas behind “SMART” will become mainstream, and we will have advanced to “The Age of SMART”.

Leaders Make the Future by Sue Lebeck

images (2)(Originally posted at Sue Lebecks’s blog on, May 24, 2011)

Great title, yes?  It’s not mine!  This title and the inspiring book behind it belong to Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future.  The full title, published in 2009, is Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World Thought you’d read all the leadership books you’ll ever need?   Think again.

As Bob expresses in his opening lines:

We are entering a threshold decade…  [a VUCA world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.] Self-interest will not be enough: leaders will need to broaden their concept of self to include the larger systems of which they are a part… Traditional business leadership mandates won’t be enough.  Leaders must… embrace the shared assets and opportunities around them… This will be a very tough decade to be a leader, but it will also be a very exciting and meaningful time to lead, with the right set of skills and appropriate expectations.”

So, what are those new leadership skills for an uncertain world?

Today’s SMART innovation story, which is a visual revisit of the inspiring tale of Serious Materials (check out the just-completed video) includes evidence of several of these new essential leadership skills.  For example, the maker instinct is alive and well in Kevin Surace’s story.  Redirecting his Silicon Valley high tech experience and skills in the direction of clean tech, Kevin has gotten serious about becoming a Maker, developing products to help re-create the built environment.  The skill of clarity enabled him to see beyond the common and critical problems of fuels and transportation to focus on this much larger problem of buildings and materials.  An immersive learning ability has made him a quick study for the possibilities present, and an apparent adeptness for rapid prototyping and experimentation has enabled him and his team to realize many of those possibilities already.

In addition to these four potent skills, Bob’s book identifies the need for six other critical skills, and articulates them in fresh and clear language.   Key among these is dilemma flipping, the “ability to turn dilemmas — which, unlike problems, cannot be solved — into advantages and opportunities”.  The Institute for the Future’s Ten-Year Forecast (found on the inside cover of the book) reveals dilemmas everywhere.  Dilemmas lurk amidst competing social diasporas,  terrorism-redefined warfare, and the uber-expectations of baby-boomers (especially when juxtasuposed with the challenges posed by sustainability goals).   Dealing with these dilemmas will require the ability to “remake” a situation — “reimagining and making again.”

Close behind dilemma flipping, also fresh and important is the skill of bio-empathy —  the “ability to see things from nature’s point of view”.   “Bio-empathy is about seeing human activity as nested within envrionmental stability and vice versa.”  This necessary modern skill is applied, nurtured and propagated as a design and engineering lens through the further leadership of Janine Benyus and the Biomimicry Guild and Institute she has built.

Constructive depolarizing and quiet transparency round out a 21st century leader’s artfulness kit — moving minds and building trust along the way.  Finally, smart mob organizing and commons creating are among today’s power tools, helping leaders to engender their leadership principles at scale.

Leaders make the future indeed.  How are you a leader?  What is the future you are making?  We would love to hear your story.


Sue Lebeck is an innovation management specialist working to advance smart, sustainability-driven systems. A researcher, product management and development specialist and innovation manager, Sue brings her diverse background in software, psychology, media and collaboration to the work of sustainability innovation.

Through the GotSMART? suite of services, Sue offers internal research and communications services to her clients’ leadership and marketing functions; assists initiative leaders in mapping their sustainability-driven stakeholder needs to technology requirements; and facilitates the implementation process.  With GotSMART? smart leaders get the extra support they need.

Going the Distance by Sue Lebeck

SueLebeck(Originally posted at Sue Lebeck’s blog on, August 1, 2011)

This past weekend, my husband and I had the pleasure of hosting guests from London who came to town to participate in the annual San Francisco Marathon.  As a former three-miler (make that two) and a current hill-climber (the urban kind), I fell naturally into a state of awe and admiration. Twenty-six-plus mile-markers to be overtaken by foot in the terrain of the cable-car seems extreme, if not unachievable.  How does one even begin?

Sometimes the quest for sustainability feels like that.   According to leaders of the world’s largest businesses, the roadmap to a sustainable future includes forty-plus non-skippable mile-markers. Reaching the mileage requirements for the current decade alone will require us to collectively pass a wide variety of milestones:

  • new measures of success
  • long-term financing models
  • business models that integrate all actors
  • costs of renewable lowered
  • value chain innovation
  • closed loop design
  • integrated urban management, water efficiencies, more agricultural R&D
  • and more

Tired yet?

Whatever your field of play, seasoned players know that success begins by choosing a direction and taking a step at a time.  Capacity and endurance is built consistently and increasingly, always working to a conscious plan.  This year’s seminars-for-marathoners (pp 11-13) offered this further inspired advice that sounds right-on to me:

  • Set high expectations:  “If you put your mind to it, you will surprise yourself by what you can accomplish” (It’s All in Your Head)
  • For best results, attend to what goes into and out of the whole system (Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete and TrainingWell™)
  • A centered frame of mind is key (Running with the Mind of Meditation)
  • What begins as a stretch goal can quickly become a way of life (63 Marathons in 63 Days)
  • Having succeeded over time, you will want to playfully step up your game (Charity Chasers)

Yes, like a marathon, sustainability is a long-term achievement — one which can at once protect and transform our lives.  So let’s get our support systems in place and get ready to go the distance.

Which sustainability mile-markers will you be helping us cruise past in victory?


Sue Lebeck, is the Founder and Director of InnovatingSMART.  You can contact her via

Sue Lebeck is an innovation management specialist working to advance smart, sustainability-driven systems. A researcher, product management and development specialist and innovation manager, Sue brings her diverse background in software, psychology, media and collaboration to the work of sustainability innovation.

Sue is also one of our authors of the Scrappy Women in Business book.