Author Archives for Gibrán Rivera

July 21, 2009

By the Year 2020 We Will…

That’s in just 11 years, so what is our vision? Things are changing really fast, so how do we take the shift into account. In his TED Talk on the next 5000 days of the web, Kevin Kelly outlines the contours of the world that is emergent, and it is very different than anything we’ve seen before. What is our role, as individuals and communities, organizations and movements – people who want to see a better world – how do we help shape this?

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July 14, 2009

Can We Evolve?

Of course we can! It’s what we do! But can we evolve at will? Can we be a conscious part of our evolutionary process? I’m not trying to get trippy here; it just seems to me like we have to evolve and we have to do it fast. A few weeks back Nicholas Kristoff wrote a piece titled “When Our Brains Short-Circuit,” he tells us that “evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we aren’t well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.” His point is that we might be quick to freak out about terrorism (things blow up right away), but terribly slow to act when it comes to global warming (it unfolds over decades) – but which is more deadly?

And our big problem is that the political process we have forces lawmakers to move swiftly on whatever is freaking out the most people, even if it is at the expense of the long-term, or civil liberties for that matter.

We were intelligently designed to run from a saber-toothed tiger, but we have not yet evolved to deal smartly with the massive problems our own “advancement” has created –seems that we evolved unevenly, very fast industrially but very slow morally. And this is where my question comes back in. Is there anything we can do to advance our own evolutionary process? Are there modes of engagement with our selves that might help to catalyze radical shifts in our awareness? Alarmist communications only take us so far. Technical fixes are moving too slowly. Global warming can only be stopped by a radical shift in what Ron Haifetz would call the level of our values, beliefs and assumptions. I call this an evolutionary shift.

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July 7, 2009

Cancer Grants and Social Change

The thing with paradigms is that they inform EVERYTHING we look at, a paradigm is a lens with which we make sense of the world. This is why a paradigm has an uncanny ability to replicate itself in system after system. I recently read a fascinating article in the New York Times, Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe, and while it focused on the world of science, it described conditions that are easily identified throughout the social sector. I identified more than 15 such similarities, here are just four of them:

  • The grant system has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with a focus on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer.
  • It has become lore among cancer researchers that some game-changing discoveries involved projects deemed too unlikely to succeed and were therefore denied grants, forcing researchers to struggle mightily to continue.
  • “There is no conversation that I have ever had about the grant system that doesn’t have an incredible sense of consensus that it is not working. That is a terrible wasted opportunity for the scientists, patients, the nation and the world.”
  • Some experienced scientists have found a way to offset the problem somewhat. They do chancy experiments by siphoning money from their grants. “In a way, the system is encrypted,” Dr. Yamamoto said, allowing those in the know to wink and do their own thing on the side.

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June 30, 2009

It’s Like a Computer Model

Network Theory and Social Technology have become so tightly bound that it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about networks for social change without having one of our nonprofit-types freak out about technology, learning curves, accessibility, etc. I have been looking for ways to sift through the distinctions in a way that salvages core network lessons for movement building; here is some of what I’ve come up with:

  1. The network approach works offline as well as online (it is a logic, not a technology)
  2. We should move from an organization-centric paradigm to a network-centric paradigm (our organizational structures can evolve in this direction)
  3. Our leadership models must evolve in order to handle decentralization (deemphasize control and emphasize connection)

I have been using a “rocket building” analogy. Building a rocket is too expensive for us to just start building at random. Instead, we first build a computer model of the rocket, there we adjust for all sort of variables, the pull of gravity, energy needs, the best types of material, etc. We see how it works on the computer, and then we build it.

Similarly, we could not have dared to build an offline world that allows for as much decentralization and self-organization as the online world does. Our current organizational structures – from the state, to the corporation, to the foundation and the nonprofit – are too strongly cemented. Breaking down organizational walls and internal hierarchies would have put too much at risk.

The online world has provided an unprecedented space for large-scale experimentation in new forms of organization. It has become our own computer model and it is showing us amazing things about what is possible not only online but also offline. Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine has gone as far as calling this The New Socialism. And while I’m sure that Marx is turning in his grave, what I continue to argue is that an entirely new paradigm is finally emerging and that it is through our participation that we’ll actually have a chance to shape it.

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June 30, 2009

It's Like a Computer Model

Network Theory and Social Technology have become so tightly bound that it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about networks for social change without having one of our nonprofit-types freak out about technology, learning curves, accessibility, etc. I have been looking for ways to sift through the distinctions in a way that salvages core network lessons for movement building; here is some of what I’ve come up with:

  1. The network approach works offline as well as online (it is a logic, not a technology)
  2. We should move from an organization-centric paradigm to a network-centric paradigm (our organizational structures can evolve in this direction)
  3. Our leadership models must evolve in order to handle decentralization (deemphasize control and emphasize connection)

I have been using a “rocket building” analogy. Building a rocket is too expensive for us to just start building at random. Instead, we first build a computer model of the rocket, there we adjust for all sort of variables, the pull of gravity, energy needs, the best types of material, etc. We see how it works on the computer, and then we build it.

Similarly, we could not have dared to build an offline world that allows for as much decentralization and self-organization as the online world does. Our current organizational structures – from the state, to the corporation, to the foundation and the nonprofit – are too strongly cemented. Breaking down organizational walls and internal hierarchies would have put too much at risk.

The online world has provided an unprecedented space for large-scale experimentation in new forms of organization. It has become our own computer model and it is showing us amazing things about what is possible not only online but also offline. Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine has gone as far as calling this The New Socialism. And while I’m sure that Marx is turning in his grave, what I continue to argue is that an entirely new paradigm is finally emerging and that it is through our participation that we’ll actually have a chance to shape it.

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June 23, 2009

The Barr Fellows

I knew a few Barr Fellows before I started doing the kind of work I do today. I knew a few of them before they were Barr Fellows, and so I also knew them after. It was in this nonscientific way that I was able to observe some of the subtle and not so subtle shifts that were happening among my friends – the fellowship had an effect on them and on their work. Conceptually, the idea behind the fellowship was something that I could understand, network theory and the power of relationships already made intuitive sense to me.

Check out the Barr Fellows Program for a formal description of the effort. But to risk oversimplification, the fellowship is about taking a diverse group of amazing leaders in Boston’s social sector, rewarding them with a sabbatical, connecting them to one another and exposing them to social innovation in other parts of the world.

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June 16, 2009

Instituto Elos

When was the last time you heard an Executive Director talk about dreaming and mean it? I don’t mean to be cynical, and I do in fact consider myself an optimist, but I don’t have the best perspective on the institutionalization of the nonprofit sector in the United States. I often feel like words such as “vision” and “dreaming” have become the stale objects of grant proposals. But over the last few days here in Brazil I have been reminded that these words speak of an essential power that makes us human, these are faculties inherent in our evolutionary thrust, and it is time to reclaim them.

From Instituto Elos.

Led by Edgard Gouveia Júnior and a team of brilliant architects Instituto Elos has set out to make dreams possible again. Over the last few days I have witnessed the underbelly of this global capitalist system and human beings surviving under some of the worst living conditions many of us could imagine. This is where Elos has chosen to work. Edgar told me that he deeply believes in the symbol of the Yin and the Yang, he said that it is where darkness seems immutable that we find the brightest points of light.

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June 9, 2009

The Hub

Emergence is an interesting thing; one might even argue that it is the most naturally occurring of all things – couldn’t we say that the universe itself just emerged and keeps emerging? As we approach the limits of the best laid out planning processes we could come up with we begin to face the fact that a world of increasing complexity cannot be managed like it is a big machine that will produce predictable and measurable outcomes. In this increasingly complex world some of us are seeking ways to align ourselves with the process of emergence, to foster and facilitate it, to serve it with sharp intentionality and to let go of command and control fantasies.

Here is where “The Hub” comes in. I had the pleasure of visiting “The Hub” in São Paulo and I find myself deeply inspired. Emergence Theory demands locality, it proposes that local micro-interactions are foundational to the emergence of new systems. “The Hub” is about co-location, it provides a physical space that is meant to “facilitate unlikely encounters” among people concerned with social change and social innovation. “The Hub – São Paulo” provides a beautiful creative space that is open, flexible and stimulating. Small teams or individual social entrepreneurs can make it their full-time home, or they can arrange to rent space there anywhere from 5 to 100 hours per month.

These social innovators may be focused on anything, and ideally on different things. In fact, given that the “The Hub – São Paulo” is still in start-up mode, I have learned that some of its tenants do not even have an explicit social mission. A space like this, without walls or fixed desks is a space where previously unthinkable projects can emerge, it is an ideal space for the intersection of fields that makes “The Medici Effect” possible – this is how innovation happens.

Hub Hosts are a lot like network weavers. Yes, they take care of details like shared printers and internet connections, but they also work to interconnect tenants using the space. Tenants are encouraged to host events and information sessions where they can share what they are working on and what they are learning. “The Hub” is a truly vibrant space where socially committed individuals can experience life in a network and begin to shed their organizational constraints. “The Hub” is just one response to the need for new forms of human organization, but it certainly is a great one, it is the sort of place from which a new world can emerge.

What other efforts to apply network theory do you know about?

For more on The Hub:
Creating an Ecology of Social Innovation

from the Kosmos Journal

For more on Emergence:
Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale

by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
by Steven Johnson

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June 2, 2009

Draw It Out

“The explosion of creativity in the Renaissance was intimately tied to the recording and conveying of a vast body of knowledge in a parallel language: a language of drawings, diagrams, and graphs-as, for instance in the renowned diagrams and sketches of Galileo.”

-Michael Michalko, Cracking Creativity

So I’m not Galileo, but there is something very powerful about the use of images in seeking a common language to work with complexity. Check out the set of drawings we used in a recent learning meeting. We are trying to understand the relationship between advocacy coalitions, local groups, the State, and investing in Network Building capacity. Can you put the story together?

mnaa-diagram

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May 26, 2009

Design for Resonance

What a great short video on the design approach! There is so much here that is applicable to social change and to our work at IISC. To offer you a teaser, I was particularly intrigued by the distinction between insights and ideas, where the folks at Continuum argue that ideas are those that make insight actionable. And here at IISC, I think we find some aspirational resonance with the statement that “we don’t hide behind a hundred ideas, we focus on making the right idea possible.” Enjoy!

Resonance from Continuum on Vimeo.

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May 19, 2009

Learning and Living Networks

I’m intrigued by the idea of living systems and so I spend a lot of time thinking about what it is that gives a network a life of its own. If I’m convinced of the need of decentralized structures and in the power of self-organization then I have to concern myself with what it is that motivates networked efforts to take on a life of their own. When I look at my own experience of life in a network I understand that learning is a key motivator for decentralized self-organization.

To be specific: I want to learn the best way to apply the logic of decentralized structures to movement building efforts.

In order to do this: I read, I experiment, I share my learning, I become engaged in relationships with others who want to learn the same thing.

People who are engaged in a quest for something that they are passionate about come together of their own volition. I am part of a network of friends who are people interested in movement building and social transformation, we come together to socialize as well as to problem solve and learn together. In order to keep this network alive we most often have to overcome obstacles like being too busy working in some social change nonprofit!

So my own experience of life in a network demonstrates that the desire to learn about something that you are passionate about is great fuel for decentralized self-organization. But there is one more layer of nuance here. Among my group of friends we are not doing the kind of learning that is defined by some specific quantity of knowledge being transferred from one head to another, we are engage in the type of active learning that informs creative action.

So there is learning, but there is also something about creative power. But that’s a topic for another blog.

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May 12, 2009

Shared Liberation

I’m proud of us, we are just getting started, but I’m still proud of us. The IISC staff just wrapped up four facilitated days (over a number of months) on the question of race and oppression and how these affect our organization and our work. The conversation wasn’t always easy and no one believes the rest of the process will be easy either, and yet we know that we are committed and I think that fact came through. We have so many ways of looking at this thing, so many stories, experiences, wounds, reactions, aspirations, hopes, demands and dreams – but there was one thing that was clear, and that’s that we are ready to shift.

I feel like I’ve had such a long and contentious relationship with this topic, like race consciousness helped me to become more free me but it has also been a lens that held me back. I’m still grappling with it, and I’m evolving as it does, but it feels good to do this work in the context of IISC. I know that here we can make headway and wherever we succeed we will be able to give forward to the people that we serve.

I’m looking forward to making the right structural adjustments, and to helping develop a space where we can all do our own work while also tending to the collective that we are. I’m looking forward to doing those things that we know work as well as to finding new approaches that will allow us to innovate in this field. I am looking forward to an expansion of my own heart in this process, to holding the awareness that we live in a social context where oppression still strives while also reaching forward to the liberation that must also become mine.

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