May 20, 2015

The Networks Revolution

Those who see networks as a fad likely see them only as a tactic, as opposed to a fundamental way of being.


By Calvinius [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago, Scientific American published a guest blog looking at the revolution in human thought that is being inspired by a network perspective. In the post, co-authors John Edward Terrell, Termeh Shafie and Mark Golitko write about how modern research in the natural and social sciences increasingly shows how the world does not revolve around people as individuals:

“Instead, what we are like as individuals critically depends on how we are linked socially and emotionally with others in relational networks reaching far and wide.”

This view has implications for how we think about everything from identity to disease to to mood to genetics to thought itself (allusions here to quantum physicist David Bohm’s statement that “Thought is a system.”). The authors convey excitement about what this new (and in many ways old) understanding of connectivity makes possible, including a view of humans as “not a basically individualistic, asocial, and quarrelsome creature that comes in bounded linguistic, ethnic, racial, or religious types, but a social species linked … by far-reaching network ties.”

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In another related recent article in The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz upholds this interconnected view of the world by showing how devastating disconnection can be to human health. As she notes in “The Lethality of Loneliness” –

“A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer.”

She goes on to point out that “the lonely” are largely comprised of people living in poverty, those subjected to bullying and oppression, and others seen as somehow “different.” When one considers how isolation can impact genes, it is evident how the cycles of poverty and oppression can play out at a fundamental psychobiological level, and how much more fundamentally important it is to do the work that reconnects.

Yet another recent article, this one focused on drug addiction, looks at how much of the dominant narrative around addiction, focused on blaming the individual and chemical dependency, can and should be turned on its head. Author Johann Hari says that addiction is an adaptation to what he calls “a terrifying cage” of isolation. His research into what truly leads to successful recovery suggests that:

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

Life is networked and thrives through exchange. This is made that much more evident through some of the new tools out there that allow us to see life in action, to do old things in new ways and new things we never imagined.


One of my favorite network stories is relayed by the book and website, The Dragonfly Effect, and shows how new network tools can literally help save lives and deny/reshape the statistical odds. Sameer Bhatia and Vinay Chakravarthy were both diagnosed with leukemia in their late 20s. The treatment for AML is often a bone marrow transplant, which requires a genetic match. The problem at the time was that the U.S. National Marrow Donor Program’s registry contained a minority of donors (1%) from the South Asian community. This gave Sameer and Vinay only a 1 in 20,000 chance of finding a match they had only months to find.

Their friends figured that to beat the odds, they had to get 20,000 South Asians into the bone marrow registry in 3 months. With incredible dedication, they organized teams and used Facebook, Google Docs, YouTube and other tools to mobilize and help others to organize bone marrow drives around the country. In 11 weeks, this effort registered 24,611 South Asians into the bone marrow registry and found a match for both Sameer and Vinay. Furthermore, the drives in San Francisco yielded 80 matches for other leukemia patients. Sameer and Vinay both received transplants. Each ultimately passed away a few months later but the effort had an impact that went beyond their tragic deaths. It had changed the way recruitment for registrants happens and through the additional registrations, increased the statistical odds of finding matches for those in the South Asian community.

In a review of lessons learned from this effort, Robert Chatwani mentions things like the importance of staying focused, telling a good story, and designing for collaboration. What he does not mention in what I’ve read, that I think is high on the list of success factors, is that this effort worked largely because it tapped into a pre-existing and robust network. That was key to its thriving. And so a lesson for me is the importance of both building and being aware of networks around us.

Slide1To be clear, while I am a big believer in the “networks revolution” I do not see networks in and of themselves as a panacea. First of all, they just are. Secondly, there is research (see above) that shows that increasingly “network based markets,” without some mitigation and disruption, can exacerbate inequities and human suffering. Lastly, I am personally interested in working with and cultivating not simply generative networks, but regenerative networks – networks that contribute to an evolutionary capacity of self-determination, greater social equity and ecological sustainability. More about this soon . . .

“Often, the most fruitful question is: what are we not seeing?”

– Joel Glanzberg


Photo by Les Haines

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May 15, 2015

Hearing Voices from the World of Philanthropy

The European Foundation Centre (EFC) is an international membership association of foundations and corporate funders working to strengthen the philanthropic sector in Europe and further afield. It is currently creating a new strategy for 2016 and onwards. IISC staff based in Belfast are supporting the EFC with the design and facilitation of this process. In developing the strategy EFC really wants to engage with a wide range of stakeholders so that the plan will be aligned closely with the needs, interests and aspirations of foundations and corporate funders in Europe and the wider world.

From Louise O’Meara, Regional Director of IISC Ireland: “We are delighted to be working on this project. The future of philanthropy in Europe and beyond is hugely important in addressing issues of social justice. Across the planet people are looking for new ways to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives. Philanthropy is central in enabling this and the European Foundation Centre has an important role in helping foundations and others to maximise their impact”.

IISC has worked with the Board of EFC and its staff in the early stages of the planning process and is now reaching out to its wider membership, seeking their views and wisdom, to inform the new strategy. A key mechanism for this is EFC’s Annual General Assembly and Conference, this year being held in Milan, Italy. IISC and EFC staff members will be hosting strategy workshops, conducting one to one conversations and employing a ‘strategy booth’ where participants can post ideas on where EFC should be heading in the future. They will all be donning super sized ‘strategy spectacles’ during the conference to help promote the strategy process and encourage people to get involved – even if at risk of looking a little bit silly!

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May 13, 2015

Networks for Change: Full Benefit Accounting

“Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

~Kurt Vonnegut

Photo by Phillie Casablanca

Last week while having a discussion with a group about food system economics, I was reminded that the word “externalities” does not always refer to something bad. An externality can also be something beneficial that is not formally accounted for by “the market.” This had me reflecting on what can happen in networks, really any collaborative endeavor, where some of the real “goods” remain out of sight, on the edges of peripheral vision, at least with respect to where people typically tend to concentrate focus.

For example, I just looked at a report to a funder from a network with which I’ve been working the past 18 months. In putting together this striking piece, the coordinator interviewed members of the Network Design Team to gauge how they have been impacted and influenced by their experiences on the Team and with the network. It is worth noting that part of the early effort of our work together was to expand and diversify this Team. What came out were some very rich stories about personal growth and development, important and inspiring work for racial equity in members’ home institutions and communities and a new and richer understanding of each person’s own work. More specifically, people mentioned the following “goods”:

  • Not feeling so alone in pushing for justice in their institutions.
  • New language (including data and stories) and colleagues to support their work.
  • Renewed faith in academia to be able to do work/research that supports justice.
  • New partnerships with and trust between institutions around work for justice.
  • Courage to reach out to unusual suspects and across lines of difference, which has enriched people’s work and lives (and so bolstered the desire and commitment to continuing reaching out).
  • Refined lenses for individual’s work (including racial equity impact assessments).

As I read the report, I had a sense of “net impact” residing in the connections between these otherwise perhaps not so formally recognized reflections and stories. When the report went out to the network, the response was one of the most enthusiastic and appreciative I have heard around that kind of document (comments such as – “It’s the best report I’ve ever seen.”). All of which reinforces for me the power and importance of reflection and learning in network development and impact.

In addition, it raises for me how making the periphery the norm” is a constant and challenging practice in networks, where people may be more prone to look to the center of activity, the steering committee, or some other formal leadership body and ask “Are we there yet?” But as the old country song goes, that kind of orientation may have people looking for love in all the wrong places.

Much of the magic of networks, like in all living systems, resides in self-organization that is not centrally planned and that is often not tracked or easily seen. Unless people train their eyes and lines of inquiry accordingly. So it’s not simply a case that the watched pot never boils, but that it isn’t really about the pot after all, but the ripples of energy that flow beyond, beneath and all around it.

“However insightful we are at seeing and redirecting forces in the physical world, unless we also address patterns in the human mind, our work cannot last.”

Joel Glanzberg


Photo by Nico Paix


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May 7, 2015

Boston Visioning Lab: a City Imagines

Mayor Walsh opens Go Boston 2030 Visioning Lab Friday at noon.

Boston is making (future) history May 8-9 at the China Trade Center. Led by Mayor Walsh and the Boston Transportation Department, the Go Boston 2030 Visioning Lab will inspire people in Boston to think big, another chapter in an unprecedented public planning process for the city.

The event will open with remarks by Mayor Marty Walsh. “Boston is a city of innovation, diversity and collaboration – a city where creativity and imagination are some of our most powerful assets,” said Mayor Walsh in a recent press release.

Go Boston 2030 spent the fall and winter collecting over 5000 questions from residents, workers and visitors across the city about getting around Boston in the future.  Now these questions will be turned into a public vision at the two-day event. Read More

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May 7, 2015

“Mapping” Questions to Enrich Networks

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to facilitate some of Farm to Institution New England‘s (or FINE’s) Summit at UMass-Amherst. Specifically I was asked to offer a bit of thinking, a few prompts and guide conversation here and there around the potential of further developing the Farm to College network, as represented in the room that day by students, faculty, college administrators, community organizers, institutional procurement professionals, farmers, funders and others from the so-called “value chain.”

I told the story that has been passed on to me by Beth Tener about her work with the Barr Foundation around the Green and Healthy Buildings Network in Boston. This is a well documented example of the power of mapping and connecting agents in related but otherwise separate fields for mutual benefit and greater impact. We used this as a jumping off point at the Summit to encourage people to be more curious about existing and potential connectivity in the room.

As we invited people to consider their connections and close triangles throughout the day, I offered the following questions for reflection that I find useful when helping participants in networks become more aware and intentional regarding their potential:

Who is here and who is not here and how does that matter?

What do we know and what are we able to do with those here? In light of what we are trying to do, who else might we consider inviting? What might that make possible?

Who is connected to whom/has access to whom and who does not have access to whom and how does that matter?

Just because we are all in the room, does not mean we all feel comfortable with and connected to one another? Acknowledging this, what are the limitations of our current patterns of connection? What might new channels make possible?

What do we feel we are able/willing to share through existing connections and what are we not able/willing to share and how does this matter?

Even if we are connected robustly, there are important considerations of what flows through these connections and in what directions. What is flowing and between whom and what does that make possible? What might new flows among different participants in different directions make possible? This has important implications for equity.

Curious to hear if these questions are useful and if so how.

May 5, 2015

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

We’ve heard this call and response chant echo down boulevards from St Louis to Baltimore as the #BlackLivesMatter movement takes to the streets. This is what democracy looks like, when the people most affected by a situation organize for change. They call out to us from the streets to remind us that democracy is not about the mechanics for voting for representation.

We don’t all have to march in the streets to use our power and privilege to push for a more just society. I received a copy of a wonderful letter last night. A friend who lives in Baltimore was deeply disturbed by a video that appears to show a Baltimore city police officer violently assaulting a man from behind, even though his hands are raised in surrender. Read More

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April 22, 2015

Network Building as Change: Caring Through Connection

The following is a slightly modified post from a little over a year ago. In recent months, the notion of putting care at the center of “net work” – to ground it, make it real and people accountable – has surfaced a number of times and strengthened. The original post included the phrase “the empathic turn.” Since that time I’ve come to see “caring” as a more appropriate word, rather than “empathy,” as it evokes for me not simply feeling but action. This re-post is inspired by the activists and thought leaders who are about to gather in Oakland, CA for the “Othering and Belonging” Conference, hosted by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society

In an essay that I continue to revisit, the poet/essayist/novelist/farmer/ conservationist and champion of sanity, Wendell Berry, talks about what he calls “the turn towards affection.”  Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to despoil landscapes and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for both deep rooted connection and . . . imagination:

“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”

In other words, by his assessment, imagination thrives on contact, on an intimate form of knowing that is not simply intellectual, but intimate and holistic. For Berry it is only this kind of knowing that can lead to truly “responsible” action.

Others, past and present, hold the truth and power of this kind of fuller bodied knowing to be self-evident, in environmental conservation and social justice efforts and in what it means to be a responsible human. Professor john a. powell writes in his book Racing to Justice:

“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”

Read More

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April 16, 2015

Regenerative Thinking for Social Change

“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”

Howard Thurman

Spiral Fern

Spring seems to have finally arrived in New England after a long and very hard winter. For me this brings with it gratitude and utter amazement at the regenerative power of life. To have seen the mounds of snow and ice only a month ago, and along with it many frozen hearts and souls, I find it amazing as I watch the colors and sounds and spirit of this new season come forward with what almost feels like reckless abandon. Such is life and its regenerative nature, the ever present “growing edge.”

This is cause for me to reground in the teachings of mentors I’ve had who have introduced me to the power of “regenerative thinking,” an approach that aligns with a living systems view of life. Regenerative thinking can stand in contrast to mechanical approaches, which assume a rather linear, predictable and controlled environment. The very notion of regeneration is an invitation to examine some of the underlying assumptions of our actions, to lift up for closer inspection how our thinking may or may not be in alignment with what we are really after, what we are trying to bring to life, in the realm of social change. Read More

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April 8, 2015

Networks, Collective Impact and the Place of Expertise

“Too many of us … feel pressure to be experts. But the most valuable thing you can do is to express vulnerability, to listen to people working things out.”

John Hagel

Expert“Expertise” is one of those concepts that seems to get vetted every now and then, and in the current climate of complexity, collective impact and networked approaches to change, there is certainly good cause for this. Mark Twain once quipped that what made the expert an expert is being from someplace else. There may be some truth and value to this view when a set of “outside” eyes can lend new perspective to a situation. And certainly it has often been the case that deference is given to this manifestation at the expense of local and other sources of knowledge. Read More

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April 1, 2015

Aligning Tactics and Beliefs for Collective Impact

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

-The Talmud

A year ago at this time I had the opportunity to be part of faculty for the launch of the Presidio Institute’s Cross-Sector Leadership Program in San Francisco.  My role in representing IISC was to lead conversation around core concepts and frameworks related to the design and facilitation of complex multi-stakeholder change processes. On the last day of the launch I partnered with Jennifer Splansky Juster from the Collective Impact Forum to do a deeper dive around collaborative process design, with Jen offering more guidance around the specifics of taking a “collective impact” approach. During this session, I invited Fellows to step back and consider their cross-sector change work by reflecting on the framework above, the essence of which I have inherited from the thinking and work of Carol Sanford.

This framework starts with the notion that our chosen change methods are grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about people, the world and how we know what we know.  Not being aware of or open about this can get people into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when people are not operating from the same system of beliefs. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More

March 26, 2015

Collective Impact: Equity, Community and Network Thinking

Learning Wall

Just returning from the Champions for Change gathering in Washington, DC hosted by the Tamarack Institute and the Collective Impact Forum. I was in attendance with a couple of others from the Food Solutions New England Network Team to learn more about people’s experiences with creating and developing a “backbone” function in their “collective impact” efforts, and also had the opportunity to do a couple of skills sessions around IISC’s “Dimensions of Collaborative Success” framework from Facilitative Leadership for Social Change. Read More

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