December 6, 2016
Over the recent Thanksgiving break, I had the opportunity to meet with friends of extended family members, a couple who are engaged in both disaster relief and community planning work. She is from Nepal and he is from the U.S., and together they relayed a story about their time visiting Nepal during the devastating earthquake of 2015.
The two of them were hiking in the mountains when the 7.8 magnitude quake struck. Shaken but not hurt, they made their way back to Katmandu as quickly as possible to check in on family members and then to offer their assistance to others. Originally assigned the task of loading water jugs on trucks, they then volunteered and were enlisted for their translation skills, and headed out to some of the hardest hit villages with international relief workers. Read More
October 25, 2016
A team of us at IISC are partnering with an engineering firm to work on a climate change resiliency planning initiative in a vulnerable neighborhood in New York City. Our role is to lead the creation and implementation of a “stakeholder engagement plan” for broad-based input into project deliverables, including a fully funded infrastructure project and a feasibility study.
In developing our proposal for this initiative, we were guided by the notion that resiliency can and should be a core feature of social structures and processes. That is, threats to resiliency are found not simply in conditions such as low lying coastal communities or lack of back-up energy generation, but also in social disconnection and impaired flows of key resources. We were already aware of some of the vulnerabilities of this particular community, as well as its strengths in that it is well-organized and has a considerable density of social services and community organizations. That said, even when there are such assets in a neighborhood, there are many examples of municipally-sponsored projects that by-pass or fail to fully honor existing assets and networks in a community, with results ranging from missed opportunities to actually leaching resources (including time and trust). Read More
October 12, 2016
I can’t remember exactly where I saw the phrase recently, but I latched onto it. “Connections change what is connected.” So true. And this is a reason to seriously consider the power and promise of building networks for social change.
In our mainstream culture it seems that many people tend to look at things in isolation, without appreciating that context and relationship have so much to say about the nature of … well, everything. Think about the following examples: Read More
October 7, 2016
In light of a recent conversation with Jana Carp, an academic who has studied the underlying principles of the “slow movement” and how they connect to sustainability, place-making and livabily, I am revisiting, revising and reposting the piece below. Jana and I were connected by a mutual colleague with the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, given our mutual interests in public engagement, community-building and sustainability (inclusive of justice), and had an interesting conversation about slowness and networks.
At one point, the question came up as to whether networks might cut against slowness, especially when the emphasis is on rapid growth, diffusion, and trans-local connections. My thought at the time was that this certainly could be the case, and that is why it is important to think about both the breadth and depth dimensions of networks, as well linking different scaled networks (local, regional, global). The importance of networks for social change can certainly reside in their reach and rapid scaling. Their potential also resides in the nature and quality of connection, how deep the ties that bind are and what they help to create and circulate. And this brought me back to these reflections on how to think about “social velocity” in networks and collaborative work …
My friend Joel Glanzberg is a constant source of provocation and insight. The way he sees the world, through a living systems and pattern-seeking lens, is not only refreshing but unnerving in that it is evident how simultaneously critical and rare his perspective is. Joel is great at helping me and others to see beyond objects and structures to underlying patterns and processes, and how these are what animate living systems. Read More
September 13, 2016
Think like a network, act like a node.
At IISC, we continue to emphasize that networks, not organizations, are the unit of social change. Part of the reason for this is that networks at their best are able to leverage what are known as “network effects.” These effects, as described by Madeleine Taylor and Peter Plastrik, include the following:
Rapid Growth and Diffusion
Through its myriad nodes and links, as well as the ongoing addition of participants and new pathways, a dense and intricate network can expand quickly and broadly. This can be critical for spreading information and other resources and mobilizing actors in ways that organizations simply cannot achieve.
August 30, 2016
“A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems.”
– Wendell Berry
An essay that I return to now and then, including over these past summer months, is Wendell Berry‘s “Solving for Pattern.” Published in 1981, the piece essentially considers systemic approaches to more “sustainable “agriculture, though the concept alluded to in the title has wider application. The phrase “solving for pattern” is an invitation to take a larger and longer view of “problem-solving,” to think about interventions that serve a bigger picture in more sustained and multiply beneficial ways.
Solving for pattern, according to Berry, runs counter to reductionist and mechanical solutions, which lend themselves to more predictable and relatively contained situations. When reductionist solutions are applied to more complex and systemic situations, they are more prone to failure and to exacerbating negative aspects. Real-life examples include:
August 23, 2016
“Processes aimed at racial equity change can overlook the privileged side of inequity.”
August 17, 2016
In numerous social change networks that we support at IISC, racial equity has been put at the center of the work, whether or not that was the initial impetus for coming together. This is not seen as ancillary to the change effort, but now understood as foundational, in that systemic inequity around race is part and parcel of the water in which we swim. In a few of these networks where there is a majority of white participants, increasing numbers of people are asking what they can do about structural racism, and one response is that there is important work to be done around whiteness and white privilege. As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk point out, this is often a critical missing link in racial equity work. Read More
Networks, or webs, are core to living systems. Thinking and looking through a network lens can help people to understand the patterns and quality of connection that either make life possible and enable liveliness or threaten life and livelihood.
Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in their work on “cognition” in living systems, propose that there is no knowing outside of connecting or relating.
“The world as we know it emerges out of the way we relate to each other and the wider natural process.”
In other words, according to Maturana and Varela, it is through connecting and relating that “a world is brought forward.” The quality and qualities of that world depend, in large part, upon how people and other elements of living systems connect and relate to one another. Read More
August 9, 2016
Social change networks are complex, compared with other human organizational forms; they are not so easily controlled, directed or predicted. And that is as it should be, especially when dealing with real life diversity and uncertainty. This can cause some anxiety on the part of those who would like to be able to better control for outcome and process and may not be very comfortable with emergence and self-organization. But these are the life blood of complex networks, part of their intelligence and effectiveness, even as people may struggle to wrap their heads around the full picture of what is happening. That’s the way life works.
That said, experience suggests that there is an important effort to be made and role to be played in tracking (even if imperfectly and incompletely) the unfolding story of a social change network over time. This is especially important for those in pursuit of hard evidence of effectiveness and/or some kind of guarantee that there is return on one’s investment of time and other resources. I have noted previously and continue to be struck by the fact that seeing signs of network impact can indeed be difficult, perhaps because of a kind of conditioning around what constitutes “action” and “success.” Furthermore, the pace of life can cut against an appreciation for what is moving right before one’s eyes in fairly nuanced and perhaps more measured ways. Read More
August 1, 2016
I recently re-read portions of Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows. This second update to the original 1972 report from the Club of Rome affirms that current business-as-usual resource usage globally has our socioeconomic systems headed toward collapse shortly after the year 2050. The update reiterates the necessity of taking the impending crisis seriously and mobilizing quickly to adopt strategies such as:
While all of this serves as a strong wake-up (or stay awake) call, what most caught my attention was the concluding chapter, where the authors move from discussion of the technical fixes required to get us on the right track to a serious appeal to more adaptive approaches. Read More
July 7, 2016
For the past 4 years, IISC has supported Food Solutions New England (FSNE) in developing a network and collaborative practices to forward its work for “an equitable, ecological regional food system that supports thriving communities.” In the past year, this work has included conducting a system mapping and analysis process to identify leverage areas for regional strategy development. One of these leverage areas is “making the business case for an equitable ecological regional food system,” which includes thinking at the levels of individual food-related businesses, economic development, and political economy. Strategy development will begin in earnest this fall, and as a precursor, IISC and FSNE facilitated a convening of businesses and community members in the Boston area to discuss how business are already aligning with the New England Food Vision and the real challenges that stand in the way. What follows is a summary of that evening’s conversation.
“You have to be patient, develop trust, and have people go with you.” These were words from Karen Masterson, co-owner of Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton, MA as she talked about what it takes to align her business with the aspirations of the New England Food Vision. Read More
June 16, 2016
Last week over 190 delegates attended the 6th annual New England Food Summit in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This marked the completion of a cycle through all six New England states and an important moment in the evolution of Food Solutions New England, a network of networks that has been in development with IISC’s support around a bold Food Vision that sees the region becoming more connected and self-sufficient while supporting a more equitable, eco-logical and vibrant food economy.
Leading up to the Summit, the FSNE Network Team engaged in a year-long system mapping and analysis process that yielded a few key systemic health indicators associated with the Vision as well as a set of leverage areas for framing and advancing regional strategies in the direction of the Vision:
- Engaging and mobilizing people for action
- Cultivating and connecting leadership
- Making the business case for a more robust, equitable and eco-logical regional food system
- Weaving diverse knowledge and inspiration into a new food narrative