Skip to content

Generative Strategies for Increased Value Creation

January 28, 2013

In my previous post, I suggested that the process of reframing is essential to opening the door to new possibilities for the future when addressing the root causes of complex problems.  The ability to reframe is key to creating disruptive innovations that have a lasting and positive impact on society.

Building up on this idea, this new post focuses on generative strategies and the unfolding of solutions for increased value creation.  The adjective ‘generative’ means ‘able to produce,’ as in, ‘the generative power of life force’.  Generative strategies are life giving because they unlock the potential existing in a system.  They emerge out of a learning and creative process in which an organization or group of stakeholders challenge business as usual, disrupt the status quo, and reframe their challenge or situation.  Generative strategies deliver outcomes at the whole system level and create value for all key stakeholders involved and beyond.

To illustrate the power of generative strategies, I present three stories:

1) A community-based stormwater management strategy in Portland, Oregon;

2) The creation of a new community ecosystem by the Brattleboro Coop in New England;

3) The ‘marriage’ of two different library organizations operating collaboratively under a same roof: the Martin Luther King Library in San José, California.


Community-Based Stormwater Management in Portland, Oregon

The City of Portland has gained an international reputation for being a leader in the deployment of creative approaches for sustainable stormwater management [1].  Traditional approaches to stormwater management consist of building sewer infrastructure systems to manage sewage and stormwater and prevent overflows into rivers and streams.  Prompted by an environmental lawsuit in 1991, the State of Oregon and the City of Portland agreed to build a new Combined Sewer Overflow tunnel on the East side of the Willamette River, for a total cost of $1.4 billion.  The new “big pipe” — a tunnel of 22 feet in diameter and six miles long, which was completed in 2011, currently manages more than 94% of the volume of combined sewage and stormwater that used to overflow into the Willamette river [2].  While such infrastructure projects provide an important service to urban communities, they are very costly and cause environmental problems when heavy rainfall exceeds the storage capacity of the pipes and untreated sewage, stormwater and other toxic wastes get discharged into waterways, creating risks for human health and the health of watersheds.  In Portland, I have heard that the new CSO would run at almost capacity while just completed.  Realizing that the on-going focus on building “big pipes” is a financially and ecologically unsustainable strategy in the long-term, the City of Portland actively sought a more creative and more sustainable approach to its stormwater management problem — one that does not consider stormwater as a waste but instead as a precious asset for the community.

In 2006, Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) launched the Clean River Rewards program — an initiative that engages the community in the management of stormwater at the source, on private properties [3].  BES grants stormwater utility discounts and provides financial incentives to property owners who invest in stormwater green infrastructure projects.  The management of stormwater requires property owners to disconnect their downspouts from the sewer system and manage stormwater with green solutions such as rain barrels, cisterns, rain garden, bio-swales, and green roofs.

The program generates a whole range of benefits and positive outcomes for the municipality and the whole community.  First, by leveraging private investments, the City is able to reallocate scarce resources to the projects that need them the most.  Second, onsite stormwater management techniques create many environmental benefits such as cleaner rivers and streams, healthy watersheds, and wildlife closer to the urban environment.  Third, green infrastructures are aesthetically appealing and increase the value of the private properties.  Finally, the program supports the development of a local green economy and, potentially, the creation of new jobs, as property owners seek the service of suppliers and contractors to implement the stormwater management projects.

The program was certainly not easy to implement and required a shift in the way diverse stakeholders saw their respective roles within the community.  For instance, some citizens believed it was not theirs but the responsibility of the City to manage stormwater infrastructure.  The community had to be educated on the needs to improve the quality of the watershed and on the benefits of green infrastructures.  In addition, not any green infrastructure can be implemented on a given property due to soil characteristics and other physical attributes; thus, the involvement of a technical expert is required to guarantee the correct project design.  Despite many apparent barriers, internally within BES and, externally, within the community, the program was nevertheless successfully launched; it included the city’s financial incentives and discounts as well as access to relevant resources and a new online registration process for property owners.


Brattleboro Coop: From Energy Efficiency to Creating a New Community Ecosystem

Bill Reed, Principal Consultant at Regenesis and Integrative Design Collaborative, presented the story of Bratteboro Coop in his Keynote Address for the AIA National Convention in May 2007 on the theme: A Living Systems Approach to Design’ [4]The Brattleboro Coop is a wonderful example of an organization that embarked on a journey of creative thinking to generate high value, not only for itself, but also for the community in which it is embedded.  In the words of Bill Reed:

“The Brattleboro Coop is a Grocery store that wanted to build a high performance LEED building. In particular, they wanted to generate innovative solutions to their energy use. It was observed that the energy expended in shipping food to the store was far higher than the energy used to operate the building (an average of 3,000 miles per bite of food in New England.) Moreover, their high dependence on shipped food made their business highly vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain (e.g. a trucker’s strike, fuel costs). The project became one of engaging them in a process that looked at the energies involved in the system as a whole.

As a result, the coop envisioned an entirely new role for itself. Not only will it work to model low energy use in its building, it has become a sponsor for local agriculture and regenerating the soil that had been significantly compromised after 300 years of poor farming and wood extraction practices. They are discussing the reprogramming of this ‘grocery store’ to potentially grow into an agriculture and soil extension service, a cannery, a place for hunters to dress meat, a day-care center, and a credit union. The overall aim is to catalyze the evolution back to a regenerated system for local agriculture and community sustainability. The aspirations of the people and the patterns of place were aligned and new potential was created in an evolving program. The building process became a catalyst for a long-term and living system perspective. They are now using this work as the basis to develop a 100 year plan for the Coop and the region.”

What strikes me in this story is the particular way the challenge was reframed, beyond the short-term need to reduce energy used in the building, to encompass a broader long-term vision that considered the new role the Coop might play within its community.  By creating new relationships, the Coop was able generate multiple and diverse outcomes: the revival of a community through the creation of local jobs; the respect of the “place” and its ecology through local agriculture; new community services; and overall, a healthier and more resilient community.

I want to emphasize Bill’s last point that “the building process became a catalyst for a long-term and living system perspective.”  Any project, initiative or strategic planning process can become a catalyst for the development of generative strategies.  The process requires a shift in thinking from ‘fixing a problem’ to uncovering the potential already present in the system; a willingness to ask new questions grounded in a whole system perspective and a long-term view; that an on-going focus on delivering outcomes for the whole system as opposed to achieving isolated goals.


Martin Luther King Library: A Miracle on 4th Street, San José, California [5]

San José Martin Luther King Library (King Library) is one-of-a-kind in the United States: never before has the ‘mariage’ of two such different institutions as a university library and a city library been attempted.  Allowing a community of patrons as diverse as young children, teens, senior citizens, university students and faculty to meet under the same roof is a revolutionary experiment that redefines a library’s mission as one of supporting a whole community, with all its diversity.  The idea of a joint library was born in 1996 from the minds of two visionaries – former San José mayor Susan Hammer and former San José State University president Robert Caret – who successfully broke the pattern of indifference and disdain, which had been representative of the relationship between the two entities over decades.  Indeed, on the one hand, the city of San José had been struggling over the years with urban decay downtown; the university, on the other hand, faced internal cultural changes and had become very insular. Very little was shared between the two institutions. However, with Caret and Hammer, things began to change. On her side, Hammer viewed the urban university as a main “player” in restructuring downtown. On his side, Caret considered San José State to be a “metropolitan university” and started to develop partnerships that benefited both the university and the community. Both the city and the university had inadequate libraries and were in need of more space; neither of them, however, had a budget that permitted them to expand on their own. Both Hammer and Caret realized that by bringing their resources together, they could build a landmark building that neither could afford alone. The result was a $177.5 million library jointly funded by the university and the city.

The challenges faced by the King Library project team were daunting at many levels: contextual, operational, organizational, cultural, procedural, technical and architectural.  Because there was no precedent for a joint library, they had to innovate to combine their respective operational needs into a single set of requirements, while maintaining the integrity of two completely different cultures.  The library had to provide “seamless services” to its users.  But the novelty of the concept was such that many believed the experiment would fail.  Opposition to the project quickly developed on both sides: The difference of users’ needs – from a graduate student working on a thesis to a toddler playing near-by – was perceived as a gap that could not be filled.  Yet, despite the complexity of the project and the inherent uncertainties faced by the “two-headed” client and the project team, the King Library project was an overall success and the facility was delivered on time, below budget and without a single claim.

King Library is not the result of a miracle, as some people believed.  The project owes much of its success to an outstanding facilitation process by local architecture firm Anderson-Brulé Architects (ABA) that was hired to facilitate the feasibility study and the development of a joint operation plan and remained an active participant until the completion of the project.  When, at the earliest stages of the project, the question in everyone’s mind was “What if…,” ABA challenged the client team to answer questions such as: “How would you do this?” “What gets in your way?” “What would stop you?” “How could you move past that thing that stops you?”  The focus on “how” provided a structure to librarians’ discussions and ensured that the team members were maintaining their focus on important questions.  ABA encouraged the librarians to work in a creative way, while also providing a structure that allowed the librarians to slowly adapt to their challenge.  The more the librarians interacted with one another, the more positive feedback was created, which reinforced the meaning of their collaborative activities.  The earlier tensions within the project team slowly evolved into “creative battles” for solving problems in a way that benefitted both organizations.

Throughout the process, the client team developed a new “identity” that was formulated around a new operational, functional and cultural personality.  The team’s emerging identity and collaborative attitude became contagious and was re-emphasized at each main project phase, as new participants got involved.  The project collaborative philosophy helped overcome many obstacles and enabled the alignment of the goals of hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved in making King Library a reality.


To conclude, here is a summary of the commonalities between the projects presented:

  • Shift in mindset — from ‘business as usual’ to believing something greater can be achieved.  The vision becomes an attractor and a powerful force that brings life and creative energy to the project.
  • Long-term view — because the sustainability and resilience of living systems operate in the long-term.
  • Potential-driven process — these projects do not focus on solving a given problem but on unlocking the inherent potential that exists in a given organization or system to uncover new possibilities.  Generative strategies emerge out of the context and history of the place and/or system.
  • Relationship-driven process — the value of collaboration and partnerships is recognized as essential to achieving greater outcomes for the whole community and the environment.  By pulling together the necessary skills and resources, new ties are created that are in themselves, generative.
  • Open system — these projects redefine and expand the problem’s boundaries to generate higher value.
  • Reframing — the questions we ask influence our answers.  All generative processes are learning processes that are inherently transformative.
  • Focus on the ‘how’— there is nothing more inspiring than joining our efforts to co-create solutions that are truly innovative for the greater good.
  • Trust — often not present at the outset of a project, trust between stakeholders must be consciously developed to enable a cooperative culture.
  • Transformative — generative projects shift the way participants see themselves and the role they play within the larger ecosystem.
  • Development of new capacity — Generative projects offers a creative learning environment where new skills and capacities are being developed.



[1] Portland Sustainable Stormwater Management:

[2] EPA (2009).  Portland Launches a Stormwater Marketplace.  Nonpoint Source News-Notes.  February 2009.  Issue #86.

[3] Portland Clean Rivers Reward Program:

[4] Reed, Bill (2007).  A Living Systems Approach to Design.  Keynote Address for the AIA National Convention in May 2007.

[5] Benne, Beatrice (2005).  Doctoral Dissertation: Managing AEC Project Organizations at the Edge of Chaos: An Analysis of AEC Projects Adaptive Capacity from a Living Systems Perspective.  University of Berkeley. (Note: for King Library story see Chapter 5).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    January 28, 2013 9:23 pm

    Nice piece here, Beatrice! And very much in the morphic field I am swimming in. Our little group of “EFT tappers” had our weekly meeting yesterday and a big theme is emerging which is intentionally contributing to a “generative” field. Yesterday was the first time “generative” was used to clarify our intentions. So it is delightful that your post fits into this timing and topic. I love it. Your description of generative characteristics is very timely.

    • January 28, 2013 10:11 pm

      Thank you, John, and nice to hear from you. Hope all is well at Room for Peace…I wish you all my best for the success of your generative activities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: