Tag Archive: adaptive

July 27, 2019

Getting With the Flows: “Net Work” As Change

For a number of years now I have been digging into network approaches to social change, including supporting collaborative network formation and development at national, regional, state and local levels around a number of issues, from food insecurity to health inequity to environmental conservation to economic decline and stagnation. While there have been promising advances made in many spaces and places to build trust and connection across various lines of difference (geographic, sectoral, cultural, ethnic, racial) and also to achieve alignment around shared goals and shared identity, significant change has been slow to come and while I know it is important to be realistic about time, I keep feeling that there is a missing link between the work of network development and what is often held up as the goal of “system change.”

I will admit that increasingly I find the stated goal of “system change” a bit hollow and too big, too abstract. Change from what to what? For the sake of what and whom? Increasingly I am more interested in looking at the work of system change as being about working with living systems (neighborhoods, communities, organizations, economies, democracies, etc.) to be equitable, salutogenic (health-promoting) and regenerative (self-renewing). Arguably many of the systems that change agents are focused on are in a state of crisis and/or impending collapse, putting significant portions of the human population, if not the entire species, at risk.  And, of course, the extent to which many of these systems have been “functional,” it has often been at the expense of certain people and the planet (parts or the entirety thereof).

As I hear more talk about the need to come together, connect and collaborate across boundaries (build networks), I keep wanting the conversation to get to another step. Instead of saying that we are here to build networks to work on systems, I want more people to realize that the networks that we are trying to create and that already exist are part and parcel of those systems. That is, neighborhoods, communities, economies, political and health systems, are also networks, or networks of networks – patterns of connection and of flow. They are characterized not just by elements (including people) that are in relationship (that we might see in a typical network map) but also by the resources that move through those channels of relationship (money, information, nutrients, etc.). This realization takes us into the realm of what are called the “energy network sciences” and the idea that evolving patterns and the quality of connection and flow changes and/or creates new systemic possibilities.

Image from Marco Nuernberger, “Flow,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”

My friend and mentor Sally J. Goerner, quoted above and throughout the rest of this post, recently published a paper entitled “The Collapse of Oligarchic Capitalism and the Rise of Regenerative Learning: How the science of energy systems clarifies what’s happening today and what comes next.” In this paper she builds on her previous and robust work to illustrate how “flow networks” have a lot to say about our current political, economic and climate disruptions and crises.

She begins by reframing our view of evolution from one that is mechanical and accidental to one that is dynamic and quite intelligent. As she writes – “The new logic of life comes most clearly from the new story of growth, development and evolution emerging from an energy-driven process called self-organization.” Self-organization, a phenomenon that is recognized and valued by many network weavers, occurs through the ongoing process of life meeting life and creating new patterns of vitality. Sally writes –

“Instead of improbable accidents in a universe running downhill, we are probable products of energy-flow and binding forces … that connect us in an all-embracing ever-evolving web moving inexorably toward increasing intelligence, complexity, integration and balance.”

In order for this process of complex evolution to occur, there is a need to keep energy flowing and cycling and recycling through an “ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue” so that new patterns of organization can form that are resilient in an ever-changing environment. This flowing energy can exist in the form of information, learning, money, and other crucial resources. When this flow is stunted or fails to happen, certain parts of the system in question can be put at risk, and over time, especially if energy makes it to only a small part of the overall system (through disconnection, blockage, hoarding, extraction) the whole system faces the prospect of collapse. What this means is that the system loses its capacity to regenerate.

Image from tinyfroglet, “Energy Flows,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“Regenerative systems maintain their existence by constantly channeling critical flows back into nourishing their internal processes and organization and other forms of revitalization.”

Sally spends the bulk of her paper showing how non-regenerative patterns apply to the logic and playing out in the US and globally of economic neoliberalism and oligarchic capitalism. “Neoliberal economies under-invest in human capacities, encourage extractive and speculative practices, promote concentration over circulation; and extol corporate gigantism instead of proper balance.” This is all exacerbated by the accompanying dynamic of the concentration of significant influential decision-making power in fewer and fewer hands (elites) that are self-serving. And this makes the entire system (economy, political system, organization, community) unstable because it violates the rules of “regenerative vitality” – it is less “intelligent” in its ability to respond through diverse sensors and actors to environmental signals.

The counter to where we are and are heading is to be found, in part, through bringing an energy or flow networks perspective which encourages us to keep evolving “constructive, synergistic human networks, linked by mutual benefits, energized by common-cause, and fueled by the robust circulation” of energy/resources. This means embracing a different set if values than those offered by neoliberalism, for example – uplifting a full accounting of human and planetary “externalities” (oppression, theft, pollution, ecological degradation); the care, inclusion and feeding of entire and diverse networks of interconnected individuals, organizations, businesses, communities, cities, governments and the biosphere; and a commitment to robust social learning across all kinds of difference.

This is where I want to take the conversation with more and more social change agents and network weavers going forward. Let’s not focus simply on the structural form of our networks and net work. Let’s focus on what is moving and what facilitates flow through those connections; from where and from whom, to where and to whom; as well as what and who flow supports in terms of resilience, thriving, as well as adaptive and regenerative capacity.

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August 1, 2016

Net Work: “Soft” Tools for Real Change

I recently re-read portions of Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows. This second update to the original 1972 report from the Club of Rome affirms that current business-as-usual resource usage globally has our socioeconomic systems headed toward collapse shortly after the year 2050. The update reiterates the necessity of taking the impending crisis seriously and mobilizing quickly to adopt strategies such as:

While all of this serves as a strong wake-up (or stay awake) call, what most caught my attention was the concluding chapter, where the authors move from discussion of the technical fixes required to get us on the right track to a serious appeal to more adaptive approaches. Read More

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September 29, 2011

The Evolution of Revolution

The whole globe is shook up, so what are you going to do

when things are falling apart? You’re either going to become

more fundamentalist and try to hold things together or you’re

going to forsake the old ambitions and goals and live life as an

experiment, making it up as you go along.

-Pema Chödrön

I’m blown away by #occupywallstreet.  And I am thrilled by the conversation it has unleashed – sometimes amused, sometimes frustrated and often moved.  I’ll be at Liberty Plaza this Friday.

I’m appreciating the political discussion, the strategic questions, the desire for racial inclusion in this emergent process.  However this turns out, it is way bigger than a protest.  Something is changing, Kevin Kelly points to it: Read More

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August 9, 2011

Network Design Principles

network map

|Photo by cambodia4kidsorg|http://www.flickr.com/photos/cambodia4kidsorg/5483312300/in/photostream|

For the past couple of years I have been involved in varying degrees and for varying lengths of time with a number of efforts around the New England region to build city and state-wide movement and infrastructure to achieve greater impact around a number of different issue areas.  Whether or not these efforts have expressly used the word “network,” (all embrace the core concept of multi-stakeholder collaboration), they are all trying to create, develop, or reinforce more inclusive, distributed, and efficient means of achieving significant systemic change.

Ultimately each of these efforts has steered clear of adopting an exact replica of a network structure that is working elsewhere, implicitly understanding my friend and mentor Carol Sanford’s mantra that “best practice obliterates essence.”  Instead, within and across these efforts they have been articulating some common “design principles” that guide their emergent and evolving structure.  Among these are some form of the following: Read More

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May 12, 2011

Positive Leadership and Sustainability

positive 4

|Photo by Kelly Schott|http://www.flickr.com/photos/so_wrong_its_kelly/4386155115|

A couple of weeks ago I was an enthusiastic participant in our sister organization Interaction Associate’s most recent offering in their LeaderLens webinar series.  The featured presenter was Erik Gregory, a specialist in positive psychology.   With roots in the theories and practices of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm, positive psychology focuses on the study of human strength and virtue, rather than pathology.  This includes looking at what explains resiliency, courage, optimism, and hope, even in the most daunting of circumstances. Read More

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March 3, 2011

AMP-ing Up Our Work

REAMP

Over a year ago, during a network building community of practice meeting, future IISC board member, Idelisse Malave, suggested that I take a look at the RE-AMP Energy Network as a successful example of a multi-organizational network.  I made some initial calls to their coordinator and ended up dropping the ball (oh look, a squirrel).  Then a few weeks ago I was alerted to a new case study from the Monitor Institute about that very network.  And so we have Transformer: How to build a network to change a system, a wonderful report about what has contributed to the successes of a regional network that has been making great headway in reducing greenhouse gas reductions in the Midwest over the past six years.  Lead author, Heather McLeod Grant, a past participant in our network building community of practice, renders a great service in elucidating six key and contributing principles to RE-AMP’s success, many of which have great resonance with our experiences at IISC around designing and facilitating complex and collaborative multi-stakeholder change efforts. Read More

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February 2, 2010

From Complication to Complexity

If you don’t have four minutes, make them!  Here is one of the simplest explanations of the Cynefin framework and it is one of the most useful ways to understand the shift that we must make in the social sector.  I start most of my client work by arguing that the problem we are facing in the sector is that our system has been developed to address complex problems as if they were complicated.  For example, our urban public schools are trying to teach many kids who might be facing hunger, trauma, violence, lack of documentation and a myriad other social ills, but we are spending our time arguing about curricula and standardized tests.

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December 15, 2009

Networks and Collaboration

Part 3 of Three Lenses for Collaboration

The second lens through which the Interaction Institute for Social Change looks at collaboration is the lens of networks.  I think about this as one of the most important interventions on the sector, the shift from an organization centric paradigm to a network paradigm.  The good news is that this shift is already happening; the even better news is that this shift calls for stronger and deeper forms of collaboration.

In the recent Convergence report, LaPiana consulting identifies the fact that “networks enable work to be organized in new ways” as one of five converging trends that will redefine the social sector.  It is important to understand that while there is a close relationship between new social technology and our capacity to work  in networks, the shift to a network paradigm is not just a technological shift – it is a different way of organizing how we work together, a different paradigm for collaboration.

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December 8, 2009

Power, Equity, Inclusion and Collaboration

Part 2 of Three Lenses for Collaboration

Last week I started writing about the Interaction Institute for Social Change and our three lenses of collaboration.  We are talking about the sort of collaboration that is needed if we are to address the evolutionary challenges that define this historical moment.  We are talking about collaboration that catalyzes our collective wisdom and capacity to think new thoughts, the sort of collaboration that allows us to maximize our shared resources while inviting us to live ourselves into the world we are trying to build.  This is why I call this the lens of democracy, because it is the lens through which we define the best possible ways of being-with. Read More

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