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How impossible ideas make impossible change possible

December 10, 2012 Comments
Beekeeper Michael Thompson, makes his way through the secret garden of wildflowers and native grasses on top of City Hall in Chicago to check on over 100,000 bees (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast).

In recent months, I have had the honor of attending a number of talks by bold and inspirational leaders in the field of sustainable development. Three talks in particular are especially relevant for this blog: Jeb Brugmann on productive cities, Dr. John McArthur on the Millennium Development Goals and global progress, and Dr. Vandana Shiva on ecofeminism and earth democracy.

While the presenters spoke about different issues the core message was thematically homogenous. The theme uniting these three great talks was the message that absurd ideas can and have changed the world. Each of these visionaries shared their story about making the “impossible” happen. They also spoke about the impossible ideas they are tirelessly working on now.

I’ll use the most space speaking to Jeb Brugmann’s talk on the productive city, which I had the pleasure of seeing twice. The topic of the productive city is of particular relevant to this blog’s local focus. Readers might recall that Jeb is a founder of ICLEI and the driving force behind Local Agenda 21. I think it is safe to say that Jeb Brugmann is a dreamer and strategic visionary. His Productive Cities presentation, arguing that 9 billion people can not only live, but also thrive on earth is no less absurd sounding than Local Agenda 21 was at one time.

I first saw Brugmann’s presentation on the Productive City at the ICLEI World Congress in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. In this presentation he inspired the audience to dream about the possibility of a global movement led by cities that could be their own source of food and energy. According to Jeb, productive cities have the capacity to fill the world’s projected food and energy gaps as the global population reaches 9 billion. Absurd right?

At that exact moment as if he was reading my mind, Jeb said this: "If people aren’t saying this is ridiculous then we aren’t setting our sights high enough."

Four months later in Toronto, I watched Jeb speak to a more detailed version of his ICLEI World Congress presentation, at a collaborative workshop about finding connections for city systems. Close to the end of his presentation I was thinking to myself, this is insane. This man is completely overlooking cultural and behavioural patterns of human. How will this ever be possible? How can we get people to change? At that exact moment as if he was reading my mind, Jeb said this: "If people aren’t saying this is ridiculous then we aren’t setting our sights high enough" (Brugmann, 2012).

He then showed the progress we had made over the last 20 years. Cities that were, only 20 years ago, grappling with the challenge open sewage problems are now winning awards for excellence in sustainability. Cities that had once committed to a 20% reduction in green house gas emissions are now setting their sights on reaching reductions of 80%  (i.e., Chicago).  For more information on the details of this talk see

About a month later I watched a keynote by Dr. John McArthur, a senior fellow with the United Nations Foundation and a champion for the Millennium Development Goals. McArthur was speaking at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise, and Development launch of their Masters of Development Practice.

In his talk McArthur told stories of impossible ideas made possible. He shared the story of those who, in the year 2001, insisted that treatment of AIDS in Africa would be impossible, too costly, and a waste of time. In 2001 AIDS treatment was reaching a mere 10,000 people, but by 2008 because of those who ignored naysayers 2 million people were receiving the critical treatment. Then he went on to talk about his struggle with providing malaria nets to children in Africa. He faced harsh criticism and was told that his idea would never work. Despite his critics, McArthur went on to find and give malaria nets to those that needed them. One year after the distribution of bed nets, Rwanda experienced a 66% decrease in deaths caused by malaria and from 2005 to 2007; Ethiopia experienced a decline of 51% (more information can be found at While the jury is still out on foreign aid, the point remains that “no” ideas can turn into “yes” ideas. McArthur ended his talk with this quote: “After the final 'no' there comes a 'yes' and on that 'yes' the future hangs” (McArthur, 2012). 

Finally, I want to speak about a talk by Dr. Vandana Shiva, a great scholar and activist for earth democracy and ecofeminism. Shiva is in the process of making her impossible idea a reality. She is fighting for what she calls earth democracy, a worldview where connectivity, compassion, love, environmental responsibility and justice are the central values. Her talk focused on her fight to save the world’s seeds from being patented by companies such as Monsanto. She refers to this as seed sovereignty and says that every patent on life is piracy. In her talk, she asked her spectators for solidarity in the quest for making the earth democracy model a reality. She says, “we must think and act together to create a concentration of energy” (Shiva, 2012). While Shiva has yet to see her lofty goals come to fruition it is easy to see how her decades of dedication and inspirational leadership could set the stage for major change to occur.

These three inspirational talks made me realize that impossible ideas are what change the world, and that what seems absurd is what might actually work. As the famous quote by Albert Einstein goes, “the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So I challenge my readers, to ask themselves, how they can take the leap to support those with impossible ideas or how they can gather the courage to lead impossible ideas themselves.

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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