Networks Building: No Small ChangeApril 24, 2013 9 Comments
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.