American diplomats get an education by engaging with the people, politics, and panoramas of Sweden.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Blog Om: The Words before the Words.

It’s a giant, geodesic greenhouse that can sit smack in the middle of a city and feed hundreds of thousands. Its name is Plantagon.

Plantagon is owned by Swedish consulting company SWECORP Citizenship AB together with the Native Americans in Onondaga Nation. The idea was developed in Sweden and picked up by the Onondaga who live in upstate New York and were looking for economic development ideas that did not include casinos. They’re now in discussions to deploy their vertical farming technology in three Swedish cities while planning to build a Plantagon in upstate New York. And they are busy showcasing the technology around the world - the representative left our meeting to hop a plane to Shanghai for the World Expo starting there.

“How is your business growing?” I asked to kick off our meeting with the leadership team, but was politely interrupted by its chairman, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation. He explained it was the custom of his tribe to say “words before all the words.” I was, of course, happy to learn his custom.

The words before the words are a grace or blessing. It began with blessing all of us in the room and then expanded to the people connected to us, and then to all people in the world. He blessed all the trees, birds, and bugs, who “work so hard for us” and then moved on to four winds, the moon, stars, and sun. There was nothing perfunctory about it. The native version by Chief Sidney Hill and English translation by Chief Lyons lasted 5 minutes each. The effect is an understanding that the ensuing discussion should be just as thoughtful and deliberate. This was not like any meeting I had been in.

I hesitated at merely diving back into my agenda, and asked how they prefer to run meetings. I learned that the Onondaga take action only with full consensus. I won’t outline the whole process, but it is intricate and, in the case of the tribe’s agreeing to pursue this business strategy, it took four years. The Swedes who are partners with the Onondaga on Plantagon can count consensus building as their own national virtue, but in hearing the story one got the sense that this was consensus with a capital C – a scale impressive even to them.

The case that won Onondaga consensus goes like this: 80% of world’s population will soon live in or near a city. Water and food transportation are no longer sustainable in terms of their cost in carbon and cash. This giant vertical farm can grow food 10 times more efficiently for the amount of land used. But while efficiency is important, it’s not everything. I learned that Plantagon is not necessarily shaped for optimum use because, as CEO Hans Hassle says, “It must be beautiful. No one would want to put something so big in the middle of the city if it were ugly.”

The approach is not small, not incremental. Their solution is big. But just as they didn’t rush a few words of blessing before the meeting, they have not rushed their business model. They are now pushing ahead with passion and a deep sense of the interconnectedness among the hardworking people in the cities and the hardworking trees and plants who sustain them.