Networks Building: No Small Change

April 24, 2013 9 Comments

No Small Change

|Photo by Paul Downey||

In the past few weeks, I have heard some interesting and divergent comments about networks as they relate to social change.  In one case, someone in philanthropy declared that the “network experiment” was over and it was “back to funding individual organizations.”  In another case, I heard tremendous enthusiasm expressed relating to the “paramount importance of building trust and relationships” for change to happen.  To the first –  “No!”  To the second – “Yes, and . . .”.  We are still in the midst to waking up to the reality and potential of networks in our lives, present company very much included.  Here is some of what we are seeing and hearing with respect to where network approaches and tools, at their best and very much with our intention, can take us. 

Decommodifying land, labor, and relationships/Shifting ownership.  As Marjorie Kelly and Carol Sanford, among others, illustrate in their respective work, some of the most helpful and hopeful social innovations are found in organizational networks that are intentionally embedded in deep and shared social and ecological values.  We are witnessing a move from a mechanistic and extractive orientation to a regenerative and responsible one that embraces contributing to living systems as being key to survival and thriving.  New more responsible companies and organizations are built into and on the logic of “ethical” networks, embracing accountability not just to shareholders, but to the wider and living system of “stakeholders” – customers/clients, community members, ecosystems, employees and other “co-creators” in the dynamics of value regeneration.  More open networks that pull in the “periphery” can help distribute ownership.

Redefining what we value and how we are able to value it.  Think of local currencies, brought together by localized and more densely connected networks, that ascribe value to skills and belongings that may get overlooked by the standard market economy.  Or think about Craigslist, eBay, Freecyle, and how, through new channels of discovery and exchange, items and ideas we might otherwise throw away have found new value.  These systems and tools are working because like other living systems, they offer more than one scale and source to assess value.

Building and redistributing power and wealth.  Power is held in place in part by existing patterns of connection and resource flows.  And power is not finite.  Abundance and alternatives have not dried up, but are being held up, held back, held by and/or flowing between and to some and not others.  Shifting and reclaiming flows through network activity can create new power arrangements and priorities. According to an article in the most recent issue of The Intelligent Optimist, three years after Kickstarter was created, almost 50,000 projects have launched, many of them completely by-passing banks, nearly half of them successful, raising total proceeds of $175 million.  In addition, today, microfinance has created a parallel banking system that has displaced much of the traditional banking and lending structures in the developing world.  These innovations are built on the logic of creating and accessing new connections and encouraging exchange, local and translocal.

Creating resilience.  According to Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute, “Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.” It’s networks!  Furthermore, research shows that as more resources are fed into and shared in a network, this leads to greater and more diverse self-organizing activity which is a source of resilience and adaptation.

No, networks are not going away.  They’ve always been with us (they are us!) and as we become more aware of and adept at seeing and working with them, we create new possibilities.  This is not at all to say that networks are a panacea.  Like any structure, they can be designed and used for different purposes.  But the network ethic and emphasis on making connections, trust, transparency, generosity, and generativity gives us much to work with in the pursuit of justice and sustainability.


  • Carole Martin says:

    Even architecture and design of public space incorporates network thinking – and celebrates it. I turn to to learn about the questions and “exhibit A” examples related to networks and social change in the design world. What more can each of us do to design with network principles in mind?

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Carole, for reference and the great question.

  • GibranX says:

    Great reflections here, and you might have guessed that I’m in huge agreement. I think about working with networks as “taking reality into account.” They are the naturally occurring structure BELOW which we have structured ourselves and our industrial society. By paying attention to networks we begin to evolve ourselves, to move UP, towards a better order. NO – not utopia, just a next stage development that will later be integrated and included into whatever we figure out.

    Statements that equate networks with a passing funding fad come from a significant misunderstanding of what they are. These statements are a perfect example of an old or dominant paradigm taking a new and emergent one and try it to turn it into a tool. It is a survival mechanism for those who are having a hard time adapting to what is actually happening now.

  • Adam Pattantyus says:

    Curtis, I appreciate your discussion of the diversity of networks. It seems that we’re all “learning to see” the many networks that are already there and support our lives such as ecological, community, transportation, communication, market and governance networks. As we see the power of these networks and the strengths they have to connect and sustain us, we see the possibility of creating new, purposeful networks that can create new outcomes. When we look at “networks,” I believe it’s important to extend beyond just connecting and communicating. Networks also include coordinating action and facilitating exchanges of all types. You speak to this point in this and other blogs. In fact, the most robust and resilient networks are those that create additional value for each participant while strengthening a community or an ecosystem (any type) as a whole. Usually, these networks are resilient because of the number and diversity of exchanges between different participants and different levels of the network. I believe this is the messy vibrancy that Geoffrey West speaks to, as you have referenced.

    In the end, I believe the most “alive” networks are those which are inclusive, take meaningful/visible action and which are generative, creating value for every participant and the whole system with each action and each exchange. For this to happen, networks have to be supported by some type of structure and rule sets. If we look at the most successful networks, we’ll find these structures underpinning them.

  • Beth Tener says:

    Great post and comments. In addition to the values of networks you mention, two additional ones that I believe that networked, more emergent ways of organizing will enable are: 1) the ability of each individual to bring out their best work/strengths/ideas and 2) a group/system’s ability to receive much more diverse feedback so it can learn, adjust, and respond. In hierarchical organizations and ways of organizing that are based in competition, top-down plans, and only a few in “leadership” posts having the real power, both of these critical components of healthy organizations and collaboration can get blocked.

    Comparative sociological studies show that the US ranks as THE most individual-oriented society vs. community/group oriented. This explains to me in part the challenges of working in networked ways – we are not internally oriented or trained to think at a systems level and current organizational dynamics, funding, etc. emphasize focusing on parts and our piece vs. the whole. I can imagine people throwing in the towel to say it’s a fad when they don’t see immediate results and come up against individual and organizational barriers to working in networked ways.

    Since networks mimic the design principles & innovative capacity of ecosystems and living systems, I believe they are a natural evolution for humanity and offer potential we can imagine (based on the diversity and resilience of nature) but perhaps can’t yet see.

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, Beth. I would be interested in disaggregating the data in that sociological study you mention to see where different sub-groups come down in terms of collective vs. individual orientation. Failure to do that is probably what contributes in part to our inability to “see” certain patterns. I think that there is a lot going on beyond and beneath the channels we typically look for, activity in the “periphery” if you will. Junot Diaz points to this in a recent interview with Bill Moyers – “I think one of the things that’s real strange, and you see it for when I see it with my kids, is that they have entire networks of communications and entire networks of sort of joining up with each other and talking that I think elude folks like me and older. I mean, I’m not on Tumblr every darn day. I’m not. I don’t have Instagram. I don’t get on any of these networks my kids are on. There’s all this movement and information that’s passing and that is sort of slipping past what we would call the mainstream radar.” I think there’s real hope in that! The interview is here

  • Biannca Pace says:

    Beautifully written and brilliantly thought out… this is the new that is hovering over humanity. Working in group formation is a natural next step after the highly individualised focus of the past 2000 odd years. We had to have that evolutionary step from tribal to individual and now our next step is group consciousness and an understanding of the synthetic nature of the world indeed the Universe. UNI Verse…sadly we are not all singing one verse yet, but that is where we are heading and posts and ideas/comments like this bear witness to that progression forward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *