Open by nature

Open by nature: What building a platform for activists taught me about playful development

Building a global platform for environmental activists revealed a spirit of openness that's central to human nature—and taught me how to design for it.


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"Open" isn't just a way we can build software. It's an attitude we can adopt toward anything we do.

And when we adopt it, we can move mountains.

Participating in a design sprint with colleagues at Greenpeace reminded me of that. As I explained in the first two parts of this series, learning to think, plan, and work the open way is helping us build something truly great—a new, global platform for engaging activists who want to take action on behalf of our planet.

The sprint experience (part of a collaboration with Red Hat) reinforced several lessons about openness I've learned throughout my career as an advocate for open source, an architect of change, and a community organizer.

It also taught me a few new ones.

An open nature

The design sprint experience reminded me just how central "openness" is to human nature. We all cook, sew, construct, write, play music, tinker, paint, tell stories—engage in the world through the creation of thousands of artifacts that allow others to understand our outlooks and worldviews. We express ourselves through our creations. We always have.

We express ourselves through our creations. We always have.

And throughout all of our expressive making, we reflect on and share what we've created. We ask for feedback: "Do you like my new recipe?" "What do you think of my painting?"

We learn. Through trial and error (and ever-important failure), we learn what to do and what not to do. Learning to make something work involves discovery and wonder in a spiral of intrinsic motivation; each new understanding unlocks new questions. We improve our skills as we create, and when we share.

I noticed something critically important while our teams were collaborating: learning to work openly can liberate a certain playfulness that often gets ignored (or buried) in many organizations today—and that playfulness can help us solve complex problems. When we're having fun learning, creating, and sharing, we're often in a flow, truly interested in our work, creating environments that others want to join. Openness can be a fount of innovation.

While our mission is a serious one, the more joy we find in it, the more people we'll attract to it. Discovery is a delightful process, and agency is empowering. The design sprint allowed us to finish with something that spurred reflection of our project—and do so with both humor and passion. The sprint left a lot of room for play, connection between participants, collaboration to solve problems, and decision-making.

Positively open

Watching Red Hatters and Greenpeacers interact—many just having met one another for the first time—also crystallized for me some important impressions of open leadership.

Open leadership took many forms throughout the sprint. The Red Hat team showed open leadership when they adapted the agenda on the first day. Greenpeace was further ahead than other groups they'd planned for, so their plan wouldn't work. Greenpeacers were transparent about certain internal politics (because it's no use planning something that's impossible to build).

Open leaders are beacons of positivity. They assume best intentions in others. They truly listen. They live open principles. They build people up.

People left their baggage at the door. We showed up, all of us, and were present together.

Open leaders are beacons of positivity. They assume best intentions in others. They truly listen. They live open principles. They build people up. They remember to move as a collective, to ask for the insight of the collective, to thank the collective.

And in the spirit of positive, open leadership, I want to offer my own thanks.

Thanks to the Planet 4 team, a small group of people who kept pushing forward, despite the difficulties of a global project like this—a group that fought, made mistakes, and kept going despite them. They continue to pull together, and behind the scenes they're trying to be more open as they inspire the entire organization on an open journey with them (and build a piece of software at the same time!).

Thanks to the others at Greenpeace who have supported this work and those who have participated in it. Thanks to the leaders in other departments, who saw the potential of this work and helped us socialize it.

Thanks, too, to the open organization community at and long-time colleagues who modeled the behaviours and lent their open spirit to helping the Planet 4 team get started.

Open returns

If openness is a way of being, then central to that way of being is a spirit of reciprocity and exchange.

We belong to our communities and thus we contribute to them. We strive to be transparent so that our communities can grow and welcome new collaborators. When we infuse positivity into the world and into our projects, we create an atmosphere that invites innovation.

Our success in open source means working to nurture those ecosystems of passionate contributors. Our success as a species demands the same kind of care for our natural ecosystems, too.

Both Red Hat and Greenpeace understand the importance of ecosystems—and that shared understanding powered our collaboration on Planet 4.

As an open source software company, Red Hat both benefits from and contributes to open source software communities across the world—communities forming a technological ecosystem of passionate contributors that must always be in delicate balance. Greenpeace is also focused on the importance of maintaining ecosystems—the natural ecosystems of which we are all, irrevocably, a part. Our success in open source means working to nurture those ecosystems of passionate contributors. Our success as a species demands the same kind of care for our natural ecosystems, too, and Planet 4 is a platform that helps everyone do exactly that. For both organizations, innovation is social innovation; what we create with others ultimately benefits others, enhancing their lives.

Listen to Alexandra Machado of Red Hat explain social innovation.

So, really, the end of this story is just the beginning of so many others that will spawn from Planet 4.

Yours can begin immediately. Join the Planet 4 project and advocate for a greener, more peaceful future—the open way.

Read the series

Global problems require global solutions. Global solutions require open organizations. Learn how Greenpeace is opening up to address climate change.
The Open Organization at Greenpeace

We're building an innovative platform to connect environmental advocates—but system complexity threatened to slow us down. Opening up was the answer.

About the author

Laura Hilliger - Laura Hilliger is a writer, educator and technologist. She’s a multimedia designer and developer, a technical liaison, a project manager, an open web advocate who is happiest in collaborative environments. She’s a co-founder of We Are Open Co-op, an Ambassador for, is working to help open up Greenpeace, and a...