Network Development as Leverage for System Change

January 20, 2016 1 Comment

How focusing on diversity, flow and structure in human networks can be a foundation for great change.


Over the past couple of years, we at IISC have partnered with a few different social change initiatives that have engaged in system mapping to both align diverse stakeholders and surface leverage points for collective intervention. In looking back at these different mapping processes, it is striking the similarities of the areas of focus that have been identified, despite the variety of issues being addressed (food system fragility to educational disparities to public and environmental health). Across these efforts, common areas of leverage have surfaced around:

Changing the dominant narrative.

Each effort has recognized that there is a dominant story that supports the existing system’s legitimacy. This has profound impact on what different players see as being possible. It is noteworthy that the narrative shifts each has called for are in the direction of more expansive and equitable definitions of health and development.

Changing information flows/making information more transparent and accessible.

Communcation is the lifeblood of social systems, and each of these initiatives has recognized that power gets bound up in who has timely access to and also who shapes critical information, as well as what kind of information is valued.

Creating more equitable access to and determination of resources.

From financial to social to living and material capital, each of these initiatives has also recognized that inequitable distribution of resources has contributed to social disparities and overall systemic vulnerability. Another significant factor is who gets to say what is deemed to be valuable in the first place.

Supporting self-organization/democratic empowerment.

This leverage area flows as a matter of course from the two above. Systemic sickness and brittleness is evident in the fact that fewer people and power brokers are shaping systemic opportunities and outcomes, and often for their own benefit. Each of these efforts see more distributed decision-making and implementation as key to justice, sustainability and true prosperity.

Working with government to change incentives and supports in favor of healthier and more equitable opportunities and outcomes.

Each initiative recognizes the important role of government in changing policies and procedures in the direction of more just and sustainable means and ends.

It’s interesting and perhaps not accidental that these leverage areas align with what the late system thinker Donella Meadows identified as some of the deeper leverage points to affect change in any complex human system

  • the mindset (story) out of which the system arises;
  • the power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure;
  • the rules of the system; and
  • the structure of information flows.


To get at any of these leverage areas clearly requires considerable clout – a network of diverse actors. And from our perspective at IISC, that network is not simply a means to an end.

Viewed in a certain way, and in consideration of the leverage areas mentioned above, intentionally developing human networks can be an important end in and of itself

Part of the new story emerging across these various change efforts referenced above is a focus on what Sally J. Goerner calls “dynamic evolution,” which transcends the picture of a world built on competition, supremacy and selfishness. Through their multi-disciplinary study of energy network sciences (ENS), Goerner and her research colleagues point to an understanding of societal health as predicated upon more intricate human and organizational networks. Importantly, to deliver multiple goods in sustainable fashion, these networks must be characterized by:

  • social diversity
  • distributed empowerment and intelligence
  • widely circulating information and effective communication
  • synergistic exchanges of resources (or “capital”) of many kinds

In other words, given unhealthy biases toward “efficiency,” streamlining, monoculture, concentration of resources and systemic brittleness, Goerner and colleagues see more robust network connections, flow and variety as being fundamental to social change and long-term resilience.

Taking this one step further, the Capital Institute (to whom Sally Goerner is Scientific Advisor) has created a list of 10 indicators for systemic health with direct ties to human network development (see their paper “Regenerative Development: The Art and Science of Creating Durably Vibrant Human Networks“). These give more specific guidance as to what systemic change initiatives might pay attention to as signs that they are on the right track.

Measures of Flow

  1. Robust cross-scale circulation: Assesses how rapidly and well a variety of resources reach all parts of the social body.
  2. Regenerative return flows: Assesses how much money and other resources the system recycles into building and maintaining its internal capacities, including human capital.
  3. Reliable inputs: Assesses how much risk and uncertainty there is for critical resources upon which the system depends.
  4. Healthy outflows: Assesses how much damage the system’s outflows do externally.

b176f8ea-ec28-b85e-3ac1-94f38e0fa03cMeasures of Human Factors

  1. Degree of mutualism: Assesses the ratio of win-win vs win-lose relationships within the network.
  2. Constructive vs exploitative: Assesses the level of value adding and capacity building activities vs. draining or “gradient degrading” (extractive) ones.
  3. Adaptability (place in the adaptive cycle – see image above): Assesses the system’s readiness for change and its place in a classical S-curve cycle of development (related to degrees of diversity and formalized organization).

Measures of Structure

  1. Number and diversity of roles: Assesses both the diversity and number of players perspectives in different activities critical to system functioning.
  2. Distribution of resources: Assesses where resources, including money, go.
  3. Balance of efficiency & resilience: Assesses the balance between levels of diversity and flexibility (resilience) and streamlining of throughput (efficiency).

I am curious to hear reactions and experiences with applying this kind of a network lens to system change efforts, and as a new member of the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, I look forward to sharing additional insights from energy network sciences.

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