Guest post by Jim Mahanna, from Your Tech Writer
The Okanagan Circular Society Encompasses a Vision of Community Restructuring to Benefit All
The discord present in many corners of our global community can be startling. The extent of social inequity, the concentration of wealth, political polarization, racial injustice, environmental degradation, and the specter of dramatic changes brought on by climate change and technology disruption are but the start of a grocery list of challenges our society faces. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that merely tweaking existing structures won’t solve the problems — they demand innovative new approaches.
One such innovation is spearheaded by Shane Lapp, an engineer, entrepreneur and community psychologist in Kelowna, BC. I had a chance to catch up with Shane to discuss his vision and efforts in an interview we had in late January 2022. The following article of that discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Good day, Shane. Thanks for participating in this interview. Would you please provide us some background about yourself that brought you to this time and place?
You bet — and thanks for this interview opportunity with you.
My background starts with mechanical engineering. I graduated from the University of Victoria in 2005 and began working in Kelowna with Stantec, an international engineering consulting firm. I quickly moved into energy efficiency and green buildings and became one of the few geo-exchange designers for the whole company. My specialty was building energy efficiency. I was truly fortunate to work with a mentor there who showed me a brilliant method of energy analysis, and I took that knowledge and ran with it and built those skills.
In 2009, I left Stantec and joined forces with the start-up alternative energy company Genalta Power in Alberta. The work there encapsulated basic concepts of the circular economy before it was even a thing or cool. First, the CEO, a successful venture capitalist, took me under his wing and taught me a lot. Then, with the help of a talented CFO who had taken several companies public, we quickly grew Genalta to a $100-$200 million valuation as a waste-to-energy business in a disruptive market.
My background also includes six months spent working with an economist group in Vancouver for district energy and a “random” year in Lethbridge leading a turnaround on a farm biogas initiative, another circular waste-to-energy process. Then, in 2015, I was back in Kelowna as a VP for a solar company, where I worked remotely in a space known as coLab. There, I met my future business partner and co-founded a software company. At the same time, I returned to grad school to study community psychology. I definitely don’t recommend starting a company and grad school simultaneously! But allow me to clarify why I did.
Through my time in engineering and being involved with green buildings, power development and economics for district energy, I realized we have the technologies to live sustainably, but we’re missing the psychology. Community psychology delves into the political, economic and social systems that directly and strongly influence the wellbeing of the individual, the collective and the environment.
My studies compelled me to mix my engineering and venture capital training background with what I was learning by viewing society through this community psychology lens. I found the experience challenged my beliefs in the efficacy of Western societies. At the same time, I discovered resources and businesses that were implementing remarkably innovative approaches to their organizational, operational and ownership structures.
You have been instrumental in creating the Okanagan Circular Society in Kelowna, BC. What motivated you to undertake this project?
The Okanagan coLab essentially gave life to the idea of the OCS. coLab was already well-established as a strong leader in community economic development here in Kelowna. For over a decade, they’ve been a bedrock organization in the creative entrepreneurial community and the birthplace of many successful companies. Within the coLab guiding philosophy manifesto, I first saw their vision of a new economy and collaboration.
I quickly developed a strong friendship with Shane Austin, a co-founder of coLab. After ongoing discussions with him, we decided to create a community framework that was different and scalable, one with transformative capacity, employing shifting power and ownership structures that would foster the collective wellbeing of the community. This approach deeply resonated because I firmly believe we can trace many of the social and environmental challenges we face back to how we organize our conventional business structures. The traditional approach to business has served a subset of our population quite well while others fare poorly. We have options to do better.
In the fall of 2020, we moved the concept to action by inviting 40-some community leaders together to co-create a holistic community system. Eleven dedicated community members answered the call — after six weeks, we had crafted the foundation of the OCS. We weren’t sure how or even if it would continue. But thankfully, we have a very dedicated group that continues to come and build within this framework.
Briefly, OCS is a not-for-profit that builds or acquires for-profit businesses (and charity status is in progress). The idea is to create a new way, a new possibility of organizing the way we work. All of this has resulted from some strong intuitive calls that have led me down a path I definitely did not expect [laughter].
What is your vision for the future of OCS in Kelowna and beyond?
Here’s an excellent example of what we see. We shared the seeds of our vision for the OCS with the Community Foundations of Canada, an organization representing 191 community foundations across Canada and collectively worth $6.5 billion. They quickly saw the potential to scale and replicate the OCS structure for other communities to develop localized economies that are self-governing, self-organizing and create collective wealth. A vital part of circular societies are community labs, like the Okanagan coLab, that welcome people to come together to discuss and activate such initiatives.
From an economic perspective, a simple way to think of such a structure would be to compare it to BC’s Jimmy Patterson conglomerate of vertically integrated businesses that are self-organizing and self-governing. However, the critical distinction is that the profitable outcome does not include buying one individual or a few top shareholders a yacht. Instead, the profits generated flow back into the community to benefit everyone. Of course, the opportunities for investments remain to ensure investors receive an equitable return, even while funding the larger community’s ability to self-govern and for people to come together in meaningful ways.
The circular concept of social organization sounds intriguing. Have you any examples of this concept in action? If so, what outcomes have been achieved?
Fundamentally, circular organizing is a transition from triangular, top-down hierarchal systems of power and silos into circular systems characterized by distributed power, transparency and autonomy. For clarity, we’re not talking about a flat organization or the absence of organizational structure. Indeed, circular organizations can offer greater transparency of decision-making processes and establish areas of authority with evolving roles.
An example comes from one of the OCS co-creators who worked remotely for a thriving tech start-up. He joined an organization as their fifth employee. In consultation with their team, the owners prepared for rapid growth by organizing the business in a circular fashion known as Holocracy. At the start of the transition, they had seven employees. Over the next two years, they quadrupled in size to 28 without bosses or managers.
Many organizations, such as law firms, non-profits, for-profits, and a multitude of other entities across sectors, employ the circular organizational concept. Consider, for example, cooperatives (co-ops), where customers and employees co-own the organization. A hybrid community enterprise model that is well-proven in action consists of a self-governing non-profit co-op organization with for-profit investments.
At the OCS, we’re saying, here’s a practice, a legal structure, governance and a way to fund it — the key pieces required to activate this system and gather together in building blocks for the community to build from there.
You see sustainable energy technologies converging in a way that dovetails nicely into the value the OCS can offer the Okanagan community. Can you expand and clarify what you foresee as possible?
Part of my training when I got into renewable energy was how to make shareholders a lot of money. I did that quite well, but I also saw the dark side of the business. That was over a decade ago when solar and wind technologies were pricey, and battery storage of electrical energy wasn’t even really on the radar as an option.
We’re now seeing a convergence of technology cost reductions with increases in production capacities, to the degree that sustainable electrical power is competitive with or cheaper than conventional energy production via fossil fuels. For example, within the OCS hybrid community model, we could invest in solar energy installations sized to serve entire districts. Building such projects at scale lowers the per-household cost of power compared to homeowners installing rooftop solar. Moreover, they operate as a business to produce profits and returns for investors and the community.
This concept gets exciting as other circular societies across the nation do the same — deploying the billions of dollars available to create community-owned and operated sustainable energy companies to supply competitive power to communities while circulating the profits to benefit the communities.
RethinkX, a sustainability think tank, strongly champions these ideas. One of their leaders is a Silicon Valley angel investor who has successfully invested in multiple early-stage tech companies representing converging technologies destined to disrupt the status quo. RethinkX states that wealth and power will continue to concentrate at the top of this triangular pattern if we’re not proactively guiding technology for the greater good instead of steadfastly employing outdated ways of organizing society. Consequently, they view the true challenge and opportunity as designing an equitable way of organizing that offers co-ownership and distributed power.
Their perspective is inspiring because the innovative and holistic system the OCS offers provides a pathway to a sustainable future that harnesses advanced technologies to benefit everyone within the community.
Can you mention other examples where the circular society is best suited to manage inevitable technology disruption? For example, TaaS or transportation-as-a-service?
I’ll share two. One is about TaaS, and the other is about food resilience.
TaaS is the possibility that arises with the convergence of electric vehicle technology, artificial intelligence and autonomous computing power. Self-driving, non-polluting vehicles offering transportation on call are expected to disrupt today’s vehicle ownership model quickly and massively. Consider the disruption that occurred over a decade or two in the early 1900s, when the automobile wholly and rapidly transplanted the horse-and-wagon, a standard for thousands of years. We’re talking now of a scale more extensive than that.
Again, these technologies are here or on the cusp, and massive disruption of the status quo is essentially a foregone conclusion. However, we have an opportunity to get out in front of the changes coming and look beyond conventional private ownership and corporation models to hybrid community ownership. The energy issue we discussed earlier and this new transportation model can generate billions of dollars to benefit communities.
The other example I mention may be less disruptive but is becoming a looming need — I’m talking about food resilience. Over the past two years, amongst the pandemic, the floods and heat domes, and now government mandates, we see an increasing need to expand local food production. Recent estimates tell us that $1.4 billion is spent by Okanagan residents annually on food, and most of that money flows outside the Okanagan. We can and should do better.
At the OCS, we are in conversations to create a significant movement with several organizations around this topic. The approach moves beyond status-quo thinking based on start-ups alone to harness the tremendous power of entrepreneurship and finance by consolidating various food resilience services within a self-organizing system to generate community capital. To begin, we are working with a successful entrepreneur who owns a local organics delivery company, from which we are exploring complementary businesses, storefronts, vending machines and kitchens. We believe the hybrid model offered by the OCS can support and accelerate the development of food security and resilience, possibly exponentially.
Shane, before we wrap up, is there anything further you’d like to add to this topic we’ve been discussing?
From a personal and organizational perspective over the past year, I think the foundational pieces — generating the scope, then the first draft — are in place, and we’re now at the stage where the OCS is quickly coming to life. Also, it’s been fun to take my academic hat off and put my engineer/venture capitalist/entrepreneur hat back on. All of it is becoming tangible and truly exciting. We’ve been holding community dialogues — we did several last autumn, and we have more coming up, starting in February. We invite the community to explore meaningful topics with us, and we’re now moving beyond conversation into action, which is this spring’s focus.
So, it’s been an exciting time for us and coLab to champion this movement. And I believe we can say the same for those in the Okanagan and beyond who share our vision.
Thanks for your time, Shane. What is the best way to learn more about the Okanagan Circular Society and the value of circular communities?
I appreciate this opportunity to share my ideas about what we’re up to and the progress we’re making.
Finally, people can also check out the Okanagan coLab and join a thriving entrepreneurial community!