In the beautiful environment of the Oortjeshekken resort, close to Nijmegen, the Netherlands, I facilitated a workshop for provincial coordinators of sustainable development programmes. They have to juggle dual roles as financers and partners to people with good initiatives.

Representing almost all of the Dutch provinces, these coordinators formed a network called Learning for Sustainable Development some years ago. It has become a tradition that they spend two days in Oortjeshekken each year to reflect and consult with each other, under the guidance of Agentschap NL (formerly TNO), the government agency for promoting economic activities in the country. I was invited to provide some inspiration, in the form of a half day workshop.


We started with a role play. Five participants became a team within an imaginary communications company. Under a tight time constraint, they had to brainstorm a publicity campaign. Coincidentally, I was to attend a meeting for a start-up local energy cooperative the next day, so I asked them to use this as the subject of their campaign. Perhaps their ideas could be taken to the co-op.


Through the exercise it became very clear that people must feel safe in their own positions before they have the mental space to listen to others and create something together.


The feeling of partnership emerges from interaction and is not something you can declare or arrange in a contract or a Terms of Reference.

When people feel unsafe, they put up a façade of discussing content, when actually they are testing their hopes and fears in the mutual relationships. Better progress is made if they directly ask the others what they must do to perform the role which they wish to adapt. This happened in the second part of the exercise.

After this, we worked with the Triangle of Change and the advanced version of it, which I now prefer to call the Triangle of Co-Creation (see Network Tools). We mapped it out on the floor, so participants could literally step in and out, feeling which position they took on while carrying out their job. This led to a valuable discussion between participants with different views, revealing the everyday dilemmas they encounter. Often it takes guts to be the free actor at a personal level in the informal network surround an initiative, while at the formal level a coordinator is expected to take the position of a manager.


The big issue here is that all actors should have confidence in what is going on, including the “enabling community” which sets the rules of the game.

So, any useful ideas for the energy cooperative? Yes, and in fact many of the coordinators were familiar with similar initiatives around the country. It is a recent and rapidly growing phenomenon. Perhaps we are witnessing the emergence of a new type of economy, based on social and environmental responsibility, rather than profit and price wars. A nice slogan which emerged was:

The energy cooperative combines solar power with people power.