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Cool It with Warm Data: A Play with Many Actors (guest blog)

A guest blog by Roger Duck, Heiko Specking, Lewis Akenji, and Mathis Wackernagel


by Mathis Wackernagel, the instrumentalist, goal-oriented part of the cast


These four real life characters, Mathis Wackernagel, Heiko Specking, Roger Duck, and Lewis Akenji, (in order of appearance) shared a joint exploration. Sponsored by Mercator Foundation and Terra21 Stiftung, we ran a digital workshop with social change professionals called Unleashing “skin in the game”.


The premise was that second largest risk countries, cities and companies are facing in the 21st century is overshoot, while the biggest risk is looking away. The latter seems to be the dominant approach of most entities.


Hence, ending overshoot by deliberate design and not by dumped-on disaster requires a shift in engagement practice. It means being invitational, taking others seriously, making obvious the benefit of acknowledging overshoot, and position the sustainability transformation as desirable and directly beneficial, for all stakeholders.


This was the focus of our expert workshops we ran in 2021: to learn together with experienced professionals what it might take to accelerate the sustainability transformation.


Our hypothesis was that rather than reproducing “guilt-inducing sermons”, it would be more effective to generate a clear sense of “skin in the game.” The essence of that is to see oneself in the game, with the desire to succeed, and agency to act.


The intended outcome was to create specific, applicable insights for NGOs and their professionals that allow them to generate among their audiences through their engagement efforts a stronger sense of ‘skin in the game’.


Inviting these great protagonists into the play, the outcome was obviously quite different. We actually learned together, and continue to do so. We formed a community of inquiry that still persists. One of the protagonists, Roger Duck, even turned this experience into a play. Here it is. Sit back and enjoy.




Cool It with Warm Data: A Play with Many Actors


By (in order of appearance): Mathis Wackernagel, Heiko Specking, Roger Duck, Lewis Akenji, and a cast of other players.



(Mathis) This is my story of inviting friends to help me organise a workshop to explore some big issues I’m wrestling with.


(Heiko) This is my story of exploring how people notice change when they are in a slightly different setting, and how to leave expectations aside.


(Roger) This is my story of enabling people, including myself, to glimpse the patterns we are in, and to loosen our edges.


(Lewis) This is my story of what it was like to take part.


This is our story.

Warming the world: a personal puzzle


(Mathis) I am perplexed by a common belief that all of us are trapped in a ‘tragedy of the commons’, or what economists call a ‘free-rider’ dynamic. Many people tell themselves: ‘climate action may be helpful for humanity, but why should I pay for it?’ This idea is perpetuated by UN negotiations and calls for ambitious public commitments. These strengthen the perception that ‘noble’ deeds by the heroic will save the day.


I see the challenge quite differently. We know we will be living in a world with a wilder climate and fewer resources. Those who do not, or cannot, prepare themselves for such a future will have enormous disadvantages. This is a ‘self-interest’ story, which applies as much to cities, companies, and countries as to individuals. It seems so obvious to me. Yet most people I speak to about this just stare at me puzzled or disengaged. There is a love of the ‘noble narrative’ of heroic deeds. It also stimulates many of us to want to turn others into compliant, selfless people taking on the responsibility to protect the common good.


I do not know exactly what an alternative narrative might be. I call it the ‘necessary narrative’. I believe it is hard to rid ourselves of the ‘noble’ because almost everyone loves the fantasy of the good people saving the day and prevailing against evil. The necessary narrative – of what I want and need to do, given the context in which we all live – seems much less attractive, because I need to accept my agency without blaming others, and give up my comfortable resignation.


For over 30 years I have worked specifically on the conundrum of human demand outpacing what Earth can renew, mostly through developing a robust metric known as Ecological Footprint Accounting. After all these years, I still feel as excited about it as I did three decades ago, even though the contexts have shifted. We are in far deeper overshoot, and people all over the world now use the term ‘footprint’, but without appreciating overshoot one iota more than back then. The data are clear: fossil fuel use has increased by 62%, the world population by 50%, the evidence of ecological depletion is far clearer, and the world is more divided in opinion and economic means, with particularly stunning inequities in financial wealth.


There is a part of me that wonders if my interpretation is totally off. But, assuming that my way of thinking about this is helpful, then how can we sidestep the noble narrative which seems to encourage a combination of privilege and resignation? Is it really the case that a different narrative can shift people’s ability to see opportunities to engage? Could that open a path to motivation? I want to know that. I want to experiment with others to wrestle with these ideas. I kept wondering: how can I engage with people more effectively around this topic?


Warming the data


(Heiko) In summer 2019 I trained as a Warm Data Host with Nora Bateson in Italy. It seems like a lifetime has passed since then. Nora gave me a way of expressing ideas that I hadn’t had a language for. I started an intense exploration which has fundamentally changed my way of looking at the world, of perceiving relationships on various levels and, above all, of approaching the deep question of ‘how does change happen?’


Integrating the new insights into my life has become a habit. It continues to change my flow of thinking, my way of designing projects, talking to friends, looking at art, walking in the forest. I started inviting people I know to experience warm data, often online – necessary because of the pandemic – in People Need People (PNP) sessions. Mathis was one.


(Mathis) I was intrigued by Heiko’s invitation to a series of People Need People warm data sessions a year or so ago. I was even more intrigued by its effect within me. I experienced effortless conversations that created a sense of psychological abundance and generosity. There was a refreshing pointlessness to it that cleared the canvass. I found my binary and judgemental yes-no / good-bad / right-wrong inner voices becoming quiet by having conversations in three contexts at once, while exploring deceptively simple yet carefully ambiguous questions.


A key ingredient of ‘People Need People’ seems to be to not have a pre-programmed intent, or guidance. Yet, my activist mind wanted to connect this experience with intent. I tempted Heiko, and then Roger, into trying an experiment. This combined the open-endedness of a warm data process with a topic that could attract Global Footprint Network stakeholders.

(Heiko) Mathis and I had been exchanging various ideas for a couple of months when he suddenly said: let’s make this real! Our starting point was his thinking around ‘noble’ and ‘necessary’ narratives and, more deeply, the question of how a person comes to understand that they have ‘skin in the game’ and are involved in what is happening. My main question was: how can people come together in the surprise of noticing what they usually don’t notice?


We sketched a schedule of three conversational events to involve members of the target group. Mathis then suggested that we needed a third person to take the role of ‘tech host’, and we thought of Roger. Little did we know what a difference it would make to shift from ’twoness’ to ‘threeness’.


Shifting the tone


(Roger) I am ‘zooming’ with Heiko and Mathis. After friendly hellos, there is a sudden sense of focus: we’ve got stuff to do, and we need to get on with it! I’m thinking: we are here to explore the complexity of sustainability transitions. I interrupt to throw something from my recent holiday into the story-shaped hole in our meeting:


I swam in the sea every day for the first week, most memorably one morning with my partner Sophie and our three kids. I am not a strong swimmer, and Scottish seas are chilly, even in summer. But I was catching beautiful moments of childhood, glinting on the surface.


A week in, I got up before the rest of the family and carried all our heavy luggage up the hill to the cars, by myself. My two sons are adults, and stronger than I am, so this heroism was unnecessary, though strangely satisfying. After a drive to a new place, I swam in the sea again, feeling great. Little did I know.


That night, pains developed in my back and chest. By bedtime the following night, lying down left me struggling for breath. I managed to sleep propped up on a chair, and in the morning I was relieved to feel well again. But a short walk quickly became painful, and two more disturbed nights on a chair followed.


Four days after my heroics, I woke up with an excruciating cramp terminating every inbreath. Sophie told me ‘these feel like contractions’. For three hours, she taught me to breathe through the pain, to gradually slow the pace, and to relax my way out of the cramping. Wow, I inflict real pain on myself by attempting to avoid anticipated pain. I can’t escape the realities of my situation, but my choices make a difference. Carrying heavy loads alone, even if done ‘for others’, can stretch me beyond my limits. And although I am hugely grateful for the love and sympathy I’m getting from my family, I have a hunch I am not properly grasping deep lessons about relationship here – between ‘me’ and ‘others’, between ‘my mind’ and ‘my body’, between me and the world.


(Roger) I am feeling happy to have taken the plunge by telling this story. I notice the whole tone of our planning meeting has shifted.


Walking a tightrope that isn’t quite there


(Roger) Heiko, Mathis and I have each experienced how a well-hosted series of online PNP warm data sessions can be ‘so pointless, the point is free to emerge’ as someone once put it. And yet we all have a sense that purposefulness is part of our condition as human beings. And we notice that the prevailing culture in which we are embedded continually demands, and encourages each of us to demand, an answer to the question ‘what is the point of this?’ as a pre-requisite for participation.


And yet again, like Heiko, as a warm data host I am reminded that Life doesn’t demand a justification. I take it that conscious awareness is just the tiniest glimmer of the unimaginably complex vitality of Mind and Nature, and that intentional focus can throttle the life out of emergent possibility. Heiko and I feel we have a tightrope to walk here, between the pull of expectation (from those funding this experiment, from those taking part, from Mathis, and indeed from ourselves) and the need to maintain the integrity of the ‘realm of stochastic possibility’ as Nora Bateson might say.


(Heiko) Suddenly the first session is coming up. I realize that I am extremely nervous. It’s not the healthy stage fright I might naturally have, or deliberately call in, to catch the right vibration for the best performance. Instead, it’s a hindering anxiety which I can’t make sense of. I share my fear with Roger, but it doesn’t go away. I want this to be a successful experiment, knowing that we have deliberately chosen not to define or even expect a concrete outcome. But I somehow unconsciously want everybody to be happy by fulfilling whatever expectations they might be bringing to this.


Session 1. (Roger) The first session coincides with what is, in these days of coronavirus, a rare visit to be with my parents. In front of my laptop, I step out of Mum and Dad’s house and into the company of people expecting to talk about how to encourage others, and indeed themselves, to feel their ‘skin in the game’ of the transition to sustainability. Confusingly, I suspect, we start with personal stories, followed by, in two rounds of small group discussions, an exploration of the question ‘What is essential?’ in multiple contexts.


(Lewis) Researchers and scientists tend to speak to the facts and stick to the science, not to how they feel. So, when I get invited to a series of sessions not to discuss my research specifically, but to be part of a wider ranging exploration, it sounds liberating – at first.


Discussions in the group are mostly tentative at the beginning; the lack of discernible rules is unusual. A few people are speaking more than others. There are periods of silence, which somehow don't feel forced but fittingly accentuate the gravity of the issue of climate change which is under discussion.


Climate change is global, but it is also personal.


(Roger) After the breakout room discussions, the regathering for mutual learning (‘symmathesy’) indicates an interest in the importance of relationship, and suggests to me that a number of people are dwelling on identity issues of ‘me’ versus ‘we’. Of course, much of what is ‘really’ going on for people remains unspoken.


(Mathis) Session 1 then shifts to the more directive question ‘how do you feel your skin in the game?’ in a third round of small group discussions. Key themes which surface here are around feelings of agency, responsibility, and motivation.


(Heiko) I feel a strong expectation in the room to find a specific answer, a brilliant solution, a silver bullet to solve all problems. There are a couple of comments and remarks at the end of the session asking about a concrete outcome: these questions will arise again later, in answers to a questionnaire we send out. I suddenly understand how important it is to hold the space for an undefined end to this, so much ‘bigger’ and more creative than a list of ‘to-dos’.


(Roger) An hour after the first session, I call home from my parent’s house. I cough. Sophie says, ‘that sounds like COVID’. I test positive the next day. I am now self-isolating at my parents’ house, unable to travel. We are eating in separate rooms. I flit between their spare bedroom and the garden, and we all wear masks whenever I move through the house. Mum and Dad are in their late seventies, and I’m living with the uncomfortable need to ‘stay away to keep them safe’.


Session 2. (Roger) We start with stories of personal experiences that have occurred to us while dwelling on the conversations from last time. These set the tone for a PNP session with an expansive question, followed by a group symmathesy. During the symmathesy, I note down a few things that people say they are noticing:


‘Incredible hope and encouragement from human connection.’ ‘The combinations of contexts have moved us to a meta level of thinking. Very free to think about sustainability issues in a very generic way.’ ‘I noticed the regenerative dimension of this experience. One of the most important things is for people to get their own personal regeneration.’ ‘I am awed at the ease of the conversations that we have had with complete strangers. There is a magic that is wonderful that I want to acknowledge.’


(Heiko) The longing for specific concreteness that I felt amongst the group continues, but I sense it is less explicitly expressed as ‘wanting’ by the participants this time. When I start to realise this slight shift, I find myself calming down. People seem to have gone into a more playfully explorative mode, curious to see what else might be hidden in the process. What is there to discover from the unexpected, the void within the spaces of the conversations we had and are having?


(Lewis) More people are joining the discussions, expressing how they feel: uncertain, anxious, hopeful, numb, confused. It hits me that there are not many positive adjectives being used; one participant reminds the group that there is a noticeable trend among climate change scientists or those working with the data to become depressed about prospects for the future.


There is no win-win in the climate change game being played by politicians. There is a real risk of lose-lose-lose, and that risk is getting locked in each month and year that action is not taken. It is not a realisation from this event, but I can feel the clarity flow through the faces on the screen.


I reflect on what it means to have ‘skin in the game’. Whose game is it anyway? Is it the communities being ravaged by floods and drought? Is it the over-consuming class trying to protect their levels of comfort? Does it matter that millions or even billions of people are currently experiencing war, famine, homelessness and can hardly look up from the immediacy of their situations to see that the climate is changing? Whose game is it?


Whether or not the questions and the flow are structured is unclear to me – in fact, I only get to reflect on this after the event. There are deceptively simple sounding questions that come with mood-altering implications. Someone asks me, ‘How do you feel?’


I am uncomfortable with this question: how do you feel? I'm more comfortable sitting behind facts and scientific evidence. Statistically, I am also one of the high consumers that is disproportionately responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. The consequences are also less direct on me than on my brothers in Cambodia or my cousins in Ethiopia. For a period, my mind wanders from the conversation, but not from the subject. How do I feel?


The question of whose skin – my skin? their skin? – is in the game becomes less and less relevant. There is no way of saving my skin without saving theirs – whoever ‘they’ are. My local actions and context, especially for me as an over-consumer, have global implications.


(Mathis) To finish session 2, we shift to a more directive question, linked to the stated purpose of the sessions: ‘How do we recognise a noble narrative versus a necessary narrative?’ Small groups capture their thoughts, which later inform a documented ‘output’ shared with all participants.


Session 3. (Heiko) To my own amazement, when we start the third and final gathering, I am feeling pretty relaxed. It is just an hour long, and is in many ways more focused than the first two. But my relaxation helps me to feel more comfortable to provide and hold the ‘container’ for the relational conversations. I feel released. I sense a shift in the way that noticing is expressed, personal insights are shared and self-reflective questions are asked.


(Roger) Since the first session, Heiko, Mathis and I have found ourselves playing with cartoons to explore some of the emergent themes, and we have shared our ideas with participants in the meantime. To what extent and in what contexts do I, does anyone, feel involved in, or detached from, the ‘rest of the world’? To what extent, and in what contexts, do I, does anyone, feel they have agency to make a difference? After a number of iterations, we came up with this:



(Roger) The three of us have each noticed that we find it particularly hard to admit to seeing ourselves spending any time in the lower right quadrant. We share this realisation with the group, and create some space to allow others to explore their reactions.


I had originally seen the bottom right as maintaining a distance from others and the world in order to be able to ‘control’ people and things ‘out there’. But a friend helps me realise there is an equivalent pattern of withdrawing from others and the world to ‘control myself’. I notice my personal feelings of awkwardness at spotting this pattern in myself.


(Mathis) I am recognising a certain addictive comfort of the ‘othering’ associated with both bottom two quadrants.


(Roger) And I am noticing that I am really interested in the idea of othering as ‘addictive’, while distancing myself from exploring whether this ‘addiction’ might apply to me. That’s interesting.


(Heiko) Finally, the group breaks into small discussions to get personal about current projects. 




(Roger) As I heard someone say once, the thing about a harvest is that it kills the fruit. In anticipating and enjoying a harvest, we have a responsibility to take care that the whole process nurtures the plants, the soil, the water, the air…and the richness of the relationships – human and otherwise – that keep it all alive and make new growth possible.


Commenting in writing afterwards, several participants revealed their ongoing desire for more concreteness: ‘unsure what was achieved’, ‘it would have been great to get more case studies and concrete examples on what works and what has proven to be less impactful in which contexts’, ‘the questions for the small group discussions were quite broad and unspecific, so it was difficult to find a common topic/common ground’. There was also an awareness of a lack of diversity in the group: ‘were we all privileged people working in a professional environment bubble?’


We also invited participants to share anything they had realised or learnt. ‘I loved this experience. Thank you for…a beautiful event.’ ‘This online format worked very well, in particular the small group sessions (including or perhaps especially the very small dialogues, between only 2-3 people).’ ‘I think you are on the right track with the noble/necessary cause, but perhaps there might be more narratives than only a dichotomy’ ‘In general I realized that there is not one and only one right way which works.’ ‘In the conversations about meaning, I realized that we were actually talking about elements that had a deep meaning to us all.’ ‘I have realized on a deeper level that I am on this sustainability journey along with many others…and that the openness to learning and to sharing one's experience with others are vital. I have experienced again the value and power of community, of a non-judgmental space of inquiry, support and care.’


(Mathis) I wanted to find out how engagement can be far more productive, and to explore my personal puzzles. Preparing with Heiko and Roger was stimulating and insightful – sometimes even hilarious; we were able to playfully question each other’s assumptions – in a way that felt expansive; as a side-effect it also massively improved the design of the process, encouraged helpful feedback; we dug deeper, experimented, and marvelled at the effects, whether success or failure.


It allowed me to refine my understanding of the current climate narrative and how I want to shift it. I learned what resonates with others, and what is falling flat. It grew my appetite for more, and gave me a sense of far more possibilities. It also built new friendships.


My judgmental mind asked: did this give me joy, clarity and connection? I concluded it gave me far more.


(Heiko) I got trapped in my own pattern of expecting that people would represent their organisation in a defined role rather than show up as people. But this was exactly the point. We wanted to invite people to show up as people, in the full richness of their humanity. There were shadows showing up in me that I hadn’t released yet, so all I could do was to jump in, trust the flow and, especially, trust Roger and Mathis as co-hosts.


I recently ran a workshop where I was able to cut into the thickness of the output-driven expectations. I stayed calm and could argue very softly to try something different to move out of the solution trap. I felt very content.


(Roger) I became more aware that the point of comfort between ‘opening to possibility’ and ‘closing to certainty’ is different for different people, and also changes with context. There needs to be space in the overall movement of life to dance between loose openings and rigorous closings. I continue to play with the conundrum of how to hold the constructive dialogue between the urgent need to ‘get on and do stuff’ and the equally urgent need to ‘pause and remake everything’.


(Lewis) What became clear to me is that the sustainability challenge is really about finding home. Our home planet, our home on the corner of the street; home as a state of mind, home as a feeling of comfort, of harmony. It is a house, and not a home, if it gets too hot and I have to go out for air. It is a house, not a home if I have to erect fences or buy guns to protect it from others. When my cousins are being flooded in Cambodia or my neighbour is driving that new sleek BMW into the garage, something is not at home. It occurs to me just how large the distance is between where I am, where the planet is, and where my home is. Unless I start walking home, I might never get there – even with a little help from friends.


(Mathis) Heiko, Roger and I found that this journey of mutual learning opened doors to new questions. Our personal questions differed, and that’s a strength. We offered some of our questions in a closing email to all those who took part. How can we produce a sense of emotional abundance in the context of radical physical scarcity? How can we make a narrative of agency and desire media friendly, given that it lacks the heroism of David versus Goliath? Is it the fear of being in the game but not feeling agency that holds people back from feeling their skin in the game? Are theories of change an outgrowth of a mechanical clockwork view of the world, themselves a problem? Othering is a serious showstopper, and yet what place is there for recognising separations and distinctions so that we can be actionable?




(Roger) Mutual learning means learning together, not learning the same thing. People needing people is at the heart of life, it is not a method or a trick. During a conversation today, while finishing this article, I catch a sense that only by playing, together, might we tend the trauma of meeting our deepest assumptions.


A few weeks after the events described here, Heiko and I are part of a group which is ‘reimagining place’. The rich ecology of ideas I have encountered through the Batesons (Nora in person, Gregory in writing) are subtly braiding with Lewis’s thoughts about home, with other impressions and questions from this experience, and with so much more. They coalesce into a poem.


My place is the space that I live in

Distinct from those places apart.

To cut up a space creates places

That tidily cover the chart.


I’ve fallen in love with my models

The territory lost in the maps

Extraordinary places undreamt of

Unseen in the shimmering gaps.


Reality thought of as static

Where images hang in a room

Conceptions of up, down and sideways

Just fingers that hint at the moon.


Our thinking invisibly structures

A pattern that holds us in place

Life disrupts

In tangled touches.


Through purple as deep as the evening

A whisper of yellow gives birth

To losing this love of the models

And plunging in love with the earth.


Togethering softly I settle,

In sanity, into myself

A home where my being feels normal

A place of untameable health.


In rhythms of wildness

We step into awe

For nothing is ever

Just that and no more.





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