Guest post — The “UMAns” and Their Movement as a Group (Universidad de Medio Ambiente)

Guest post — Annabel Membrillo, regional steward Vibrancy Mexico

UMA is the University of the Environment in Mexico (http://www.umamexico.com).

When visiting Casa UMA in Valle de Bravo, I had the opportunity of experiencing UMA live and in full detail during the master’s degree graduation ceremony. During this experience, I also had the opportunity of observing a variety of dynamics, as well as interviewing and speaking to a few people, including the founding partners. This collective has a very particular way of living, which I believe demonstrates how inspiration can take a person along unknown yet interesting paths, which are only obvious and visible along the way.

UMA is still a start-up and has been running for just a few years. UMA’s core focus is active research, where questions are more important than answers, and the search for truth becomes relevant because not everything is black or white. The search for an answer to what we want to maintain and what we want to change is always present. This basic difference is the motor that has driven UMA from day one.

Below are several details and evidence of its evolution:

  • The growth of students vs staff – It started with 15 students in the Environmental Entrepreneurship Program (PEA) in 2010, and in 2014 it has over 100 students (70 master’s students, 30 technical certification students and 17 UMA High School students). However, the number of people working within UMA has grown from 6-7 to 18, aside from the network of professors and students that grows every year.
  • The growth of its programs – they began in 2010 with PEA (Environmental Entrepreneurship Program) and in 2014 they now have 6 master’s programs (Environmental Law and Public Policy, Socio-Environmental Business Administration, Architecture, Design and Sustainable Construction), a Technical Certification in Sustainability, 3 UMA High School groups, Consulting, UMA events and Environmental Education UMA A.C.
  • The growth of infrastructure – It began in 2007 with a small office and the first program (PEA) started in 2009. At the time, the space for programs was somewhere else. In 2014 they are in Casa UMA, a cozy space where they have been able to incubate the second part of their evolution. Today they are about to begin a new journey with the construction of the UMA Campus which will be open at the end of 2014.
  • Incubations of economical/social/environmental projects – 89% of alumni projects are in some stage of development and/or implementation.

In the timeline below (Figure 1) we can identify certain important events and moments within this collective’s evolution. These events have been divided into 2 classifications:

  1. The first one is the events related to operations and daily UMA activities. Here we can see the events and activities related with the Academic evolution that involves creating and strengthening the programs offered as a University; and we also see the activities related with Project evolution that refers to environmental service consulting and other consulting services that are accomplished with organizations.
  2. The second classification is related to strengthening the physical basis and infrastructure, as well as strengthening the structure and organization in order to carry out UMA activities.

UMA Timeline

Figure 1. UMA Timeline

 

One of the reasons it was interesting to further explore the agreements that the UMA lives was that the results of the harmonic vibrancy survey showed that it could be a group with different and innovative practices. Several results that stand out are the following:

  • The fifteen people that answered the survey selected “always” for the item, “I understand clearly what we are as a group and why we do what we do.”
  • The average standard deviation of all the survey’s answers is relatively low (0.31), which shows shared agreements between people within the collective. We can observe the general results in the graph in Figure 2.
  • The average of the group’s degree of efficiency was of 4.27, where everyone answered excellent and above average.
  • In the ranking of the group, only one person answered that it was an average group, 6 answered that it was one of the best and 8 the best. The dimension that appears with high agreement is “The Group” and “Group Health.”

UMA Survey Results

Figure 2. UMA Survey Results

These results indicate that this group could have innovative practices of a mid-high level of harmonic vibrancy. After gathering the evidence, what I can share regarding the UMA practices today (there will certainly be others radically different in several years since evolution is the rule with this group), is captured in the agreements evidence map in Figure 3.

UMA Agreements Map

Figure 3. UMA Agreements Map

Next, I will provide an overview of what these agreements look like in UMA’s main practices:

  • An Organizational Philosophy with Zero Dogmas (Levels of Reality) – They are observers, researchers and critical actors of what happens around them, they ask, they seek for each person to live the experience and find their own answers. Questions are a fundamental part of their culture. For example, they develop questions such as the following: what is the middle point between a systemic vision and a reductionist vision because both are valid and necessary, what is the balance between rules and inspiration, what is the proper moment and audience with whom to use horizontal vs. circular organization charts within the same organization at the same time of evolution. Questions such as these may seem strange coming from an Environmental University where they are expected to support new alternative trends, and it may seem to some observers that they are “betraying” evolution. However, seeing it with an open mind, this essence may be perceived as having the capacity to subtly generate spaces for people to find their own answers and develop their full potential.
  • Inspiring and Sharing Global Goal with a Powerful Sense of Group (Group) “To drive a regenerative, sustainable and ethical future by preparing agents of change that are capable of promoting initiatives that will transform social-environmental systems” – Many of these people are there because they know that they are building cathedrals, they know that each part contributes although they cannot see the full picture; they require stability, certain structure and clear guidance on how things work, what they have to do and how to do it. Others are there because deep within them they truly share UMA’s core focus and what it implies regarding uncertainty, risk, patience, tolerance and bravery. They can become part of other types of structures with much more freedom and ability to explore. Both groups are necessary and what is most fascinating is that the initial “strategy” is the same for both groups; as people and groups ask for more or less structure the dialogue begins to take shape around what to do and how to do it.
  • Integrative Co-Design or Sociocracy (Group and Source of Creativity) “None of us knows as much as all of us” – It is clear that co-design is highly important because it allows for various voices and perspectives and imagining something bigger than what one can imagine on one’s own. However, it is also clear that there are situations or decisions that must be done individually but they will be communicated or will guide the team. It means asking oneself constant questions such as: What must be co-designed? Who needs to be there? When must it be done? And so on. It is a live process. In some spaces, it is already clear and in others it emerges as the group grows. Those who study or work in UMA are barely naming this practice as their own; however, having known them for several years, this practice has been consistent. There has always been a thoughtful and conscious invitation for people with different perspectives and voices in designing the UMA that lives in the present.
  • Establishing Dialogue Processes (Group, Relationship with the Other)
    • Within UMA, the U process is carried out in each program, generating profound dialogues between all the participants and those who work with UMA. These spaces still have to be strengthened for the operations and staff areas so they can emerge naturally and organically from within; these are steps that are already being identified for the following years.
    • Outside UMA they are involved in processes that allow for this dialogue to be generated within the community, a very beautiful example is the design and construction of the next UMA building which they describe in the following way: “The construction of a building that shows how architectural intervention becomes a means of regeneration for their community and basin.” The projects surrounding the UMA Campus are Housing with the community, Edible forests, a Path system for non-motorized transportation and a project of Social-based construction in Acatitlan.
  • Permanent Learning Community (Group, Source of Creativity and Levels of Reality)
    • Evaluate in order to grade vs evaluate to redesign; this is a practice that is constantly seeking to create awareness in order to avoid falling into judgment of self or others and instead channeling energy towards growth and evolution.
    • A space that is open to creativity – the objective is set and there is total freedom regarding how to achieve it. This provides a great sense of freedom but also of uncertainty and being overwhelmed by the responsibility; if you “fall” you are 100% responsible for your own fall. However, all this is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow both individually and as an organization.
  • Humanity (Individual, Relationship with the Other) – people are UMA’s most important motor; if people do well, UMA functions well. In evolution, a balance is constantly sought between people’s quality of life and the results. People and their quality of life are taken into account. As with all things, there are ups and downs and matters to resolve as a result of the growth in UMA’s ecosystem.

There are still many things that need to be improved before UMA can evolve into the third circle. It is still a collective that falls into the second circle, where evolution depends on the vision of their leaders. They are still in the process of understanding how to find a balance between efficient and flexible operations and freedom and continuous creativity, there are very distinct differences between the experience in spaces made for design and creativity (academia and consulting) and operation and logistics spaces (staff), it is still in the process of financial stabilization, etc. Leaders and other emerging co-hosts are aware of this, they are observing and seeking more questions and answers; part of this evolution will most likely depend on the increasing awareness of their co-hosts.

I don’t know if the reader will be immensely curious as to the direction this is heading and as to what it will look like in the future; what I do know is that I for one, am very curious. I perceive that UMA has the potential of becoming a point of reference for organizations on how to design and evolve start-up structures with live and free processes that create possibilities in the world (possibility-light), while staying grounded and putting forth all the potential in the earthly world (things-matter). This first attempt to understand the practices and agreements that they have generated throughout time may shed some light for those entrepreneurs who are willing to live this experience through a different lens.

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