“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”
– Sally J. Goerner, Robert G. Dyck, Dorothy Lagerroos, The New Science of Sustainability
This post builds on a post from a couple of weeks ago, looking at how in a time of pandemic, with viruses revealing other viruses (racism, othering, oligarchy, mechanical thinking run amok), and triggering viral responses of various kinds, this is prime time to cultivate network literacy and strength. In this post I want to highlight the importance of “flow network science” or the “energy network sciences.” These fields stretch across disciplines and look at how nutrients, information and other vital sources of energy move through the structures of living networks.
Dr. Sally J. Goerner and her colleagues (Dan Fiscus, Brian Fath, Robert Ulanowicz, and others) have looked at how certain features of systems-as-networks (communities, ecosystems, economies) contribute to their long-term health and thriving, including diversity, intricacy, adaptability and robustness. A key is to focus on those dynamics that support the self-renewing (regenerative) and saluto-genic (health promoting) capacities of living systems as and so that they evolve and adapt to disturbances in their environment (which is really an extension of their being!). A big part of this is not just focusing on the pattern of network connections, but what is moving through those connections, including quality and velocity of those flows, from whom and to whom.
At IISC, we are fielding lots of questions right now about what networks are doing or should do to not only to respond to the COVID19 emergency and achieve some semblance of stability, but also to build pathways to better, more resilient and equitable systems. Taking a cue from what we are observing and what we are learning from energy network sciences/flow networks, some of the things networks can do and are doing include:
Weaving and convening diversity to foster systemic intelligence and resilience
Distributing power and intelligence to enable rapid and timely responses in different parts of “the body”
Circulating accurate and accessible (curated) information in various forms (text, visual, audio) throughout “the whole” to support diverse learning and adaptation
Facilitating effective (clear, concise, well-timed and spaced) communicationand conversation to help people stay grounded, focused and moving on what matters
Disseminating elements of opportunity- and abudance-based narratives that encourage people to lean into these times and not flee from or freeze in the midst of them
Identifying and circulating a variety of nourishment (multiple forms of “capital”) widely (especially to those who are otherwise undernourished) in the form of money, ideas, in kind support, and other resources
Promoting robust exchange to support innovation, learning and systemic vitality at different levels
Creating safe and brave spaces for people to share their challenges and successes, get peer-assists, give and receive emotional support that encourages risk-taking and further venturing into uncharted terrain
Designing and carrying out network activity and engagement with an ethic of love (“seeing others as a legitimate others”), care, generosity, abundance, common cause, mutualism, transparency, inclusion, equity, and our full humanity (minds, bodies, hearts, spirits)
And we can “double click” on each of the above to delve deeper into the “who” (roles and relationships), “how” (processes), which we are actively doing with a variety of groups, and will share more of what we are learning in future posts and webinars.
And in that spirit of learning, please share what you are learning and would add with respect to what networks can do and are doing to create pathways to the new and the better.
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.
“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”
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.
“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.
Photo by tracydekalb, “Redbud Love,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
The following post was originally published in 2014, and has been edited. In many ways it feels even more relevant five years later …
Over the past dozen years or so at IISC (our half-life as an organization, and my whole life as a member of this amazing community), we have seen and experienced some interesting progressions. In our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change trainings and consulting work, we talk about the “interior condition” of effective collaborative and network leadership. When I first joined the organization, we used to say that collaborative leaders and change agents embraced an ethic of “service, authenticity and respect.” Then we made the move of changing “respect,” which came across to some as a bit weak, to LOVE. For the first couple of years after making this switch, when we asked “What’s love got to do with it?” with respect to effective leadership and work for social change, there were definitely some uncomfortable silences. Some participants would ultimately want to rename love as “respect” or “passion.”
Then in 2009 we started noticing a change. More heads nodded in rooms when we mentioned the “L-word,” less nervous laughter and shifting in seats. In one particularly striking instance, during a training with health care and public health professionals, a senior and very respected physician responded,
“What’s love got to do with it? Everything! Beyond my technical skills, I am effective in so far as I am able to really see my patients, students, and colleagues, to make them feel seen for who they are.”
“Community exists when people who are interdependent struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so they can realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past.”
-Carl Moore (quoted by Dr. Ceasar McDowell)
A couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of network thinkers and doers pulled together by Steve Waddell and Diane J. Johnson, on behalf of the Emerging Network Governance Initiative. Our time together was designed for us to (1) get to know one another better and our respective work (because that’s what network weavers do) and (2) explore possibilities for collaboration to bring different network processes and forms of governance to bear at various scales in the face of the struggle/failure of traditional government to hold and do justice to demographic complexity and address a variety of social and environmental issues.
We spent some time early on unpacking the words “emergent,” “network” and “governance.” While we did not come to final agreement on set definitions, here is some of what I took from those conversations.
Emergent and emergence refer to the dynamic in networks and in life in general through which novelty arises in seemingly unexpected ways.
What is emergent is not planned per se, but rather surfaces through complex interactions between parts of or participants in systems.
I have been working with a national environmental health and justice network for the past few years, and at a recent retreat, the core leadership team wrestled with a set of criteria for guiding the creation of equity-grounded, whole network-mobilizing and systems-shifting strategies. This is where we landed:
If successful, the strategy will move us towards our long-term systemic goal.
The strategy is fundamentally collaborative in nature.
The strategy is consistent with network’s values.
The strategy does not advance the network at the expense of other key constituencies, partners, or social justice movements.
The strategy is worth the expenditure of time, resources and opportunity costs of pursuing it.
Last week I participated in the Network Leadership Training Academy hosted by the University of Colorado at Denver’s Center on Network Science. It was wonderful to meet fellow network geeks and enthusiasts from around the country and Canada and to hear about diverse applications of network theory and practice, from public health to public transportation, from early childhood education to after-school programming, from housing to firefighting.
I was invited to share some of what we at the Interaction Institute for Social Change are learning as we work at the intersection of networks and equity, which included telling the evolving story of Food Solutions New England. There seemed to be resonance with and appetite for going deeper to unpack how networks can be forces for truly equitable liberation from dysfunctional and damaging systems.
And there were many other presenters over the course of the couple of days I was able to attend. Here are some of my take-aways.
In networks, less is often more with respect to personal connections. Given that people can only manage a certain number of social connections, a good question to ask is “How can we cultivate and maintain the fewest number of connections that are valuable?”
Closed networks do not lend themselves to novelty. For innovation (and presumably for both resilience and adaptability) it is important to pay attention to “structural holes” in networks.
Effective engagement rests on authentic listening, informal exchanges and meetings (lunch, coffee), identifying and honoring strengths and assets, thinking of people as people and not projects, constantly showing up and closing loops.
In order to activate a network you have to have established sufficient trust and reciprocity.
Effective networks for individual “leaders” are open (distributed), diverse and deep.
From conversation and reflection with participants:
Connection is a social determinant of health.
Increasingly healing needs to be viewed as a foundational goal of developing networks.
Effective networks for individuals are not necessarily effective networks for collectives and social change. We have to be clear about what our scale and intentions are. (ON this front, check out this wonderful post by Christine Capra – “Networking Does Not Equal Network WEAVING“)
Additional resources to consult:
The Partner Tool, a social network analysis tool designed to measure and monitor collaboration among people/organizations.
Person-Centered Network App, for use by a provider to first screen a person to assess their gaps and strengths in their personal support systems and then, based on the results, link them to available community resources.
In this series on network design and network thinking, I explored the power and promise of networks as residing in how connection and flow contribute to life, liveliness and learning. See, especially, Connection is Fundamental.
In Why Linking Matters, I looked at how certain networks can more optimally create what are known as “network effects,” including small world reach, rapid dissemination, resilience, and adaptation.
I also noted, in Structure Matters in particular, that living systems–including classrooms, schools, school districts, and communities–are rooted in patterns of connection and flow. That’s why shifts in connections–between people, groups, and institutions–as well as flows of various kinds of resources can equate with systemic change, and ideally they can lead to greater health (in other words, equity, prosperity, sustainability).
Networks can also deliver myriad benefits to individual participants, including: inspiration; mutual support; learning and skill development; greater access to information, funding, and other resources; greater systemic or contextual awareness; breaking out of isolation and being a part of something larger; amplification of one’s voice and efforts; and new partnerships and joint projects.
It’s also true, however, that not every network or network activity creates all of these effects and outcomes. The last two posts looked at two factors that contribute to whether networks are able to deliver robust value to individual participants and the whole, including network structure and what form leadership takes. Networks are by no means a panacea to social and environmental issues and can easily replicate and exacerbate social inequities and environmentally extractive practice. So values certainly have a place, as does paying close attention to dynamics of power and privilege.
It is also the case that individual and collective behavior on a day-to-day basis have a lot to say about what networks are able to create. The following is a list of 25 behaviors for you to consider as part of your network practice as an educator:
Weave connections and close triangles to create more intricacy in the network. Closing triangles means introducing people to one another, as opposed to networking for one’s own self, essentially a mesh or distributed structure rather than a hub-and-spoke structure.
Create connections across boundaries/dimensions of difference. Invite and promote diversity in the network, which can contribute to resilience and innovation.
Promote and pay attention to equity throughout the network. Equity here includes ensuring everyone has access to the resources and opportunities that can improve the quality of life and learning. Equity impact assessments are one helpful tool on this front.
Name and work with power dynamics and unearned privilege in the direction of equity.
Be aware of how implicit bias impacts your thinking and actions in the network. Become familiar with and practice de-biasing strategies.
Think, learn, and work out loud, in the company of others or through virtual means. This contributes to the abundance of resources and learning in the network.
Don’t hoard or be a bottleneck. Keep information and other resources flowing in the network.
Identify and articulate your own needs and share them with others. Making requests can bring a network to life as people generally like to be helpful!
Stay curious and ask questions; inquire of others to draw out common values, explicit and tacit knowledge, and other assets.
Make ongoing generous offers to others, including services, information, connections.
“… Keep reaching out, keep bringing in./This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,/for every gardener knows that after the digging, after/the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”
The following is an excerpt from the third in a series of posts on networks, education and learning. The full post and series are published on the Education Week website. This post builds on two previous ones – Connection is Fundamental and Why Linking Matters – and looks at the importance of structure in supporting network effects while considering equity and power dynamics.
Networks are not necessarily easy to control in terms of their overall structure, especially when they are large and complex (diverse and widely distributed). And it is important to note that there are network phenomena that may tend to pull a networked endeavor in a certain structural direction.
For example, homophily is a phenomenon where social networks tend to form clusters of nodes with similar properties or attributes. This is captured by the adages, “Birds of a feather flock together,” and “Those close by form tight ties.” The result can be self-segregation along various lines of difference, for example racial, cultural, or class divisions in schools. Or consider the current pronounced political polarization in our country. The key to confronting homophily is to be both aware of the tendency and diligent about creating structures and incentives for bridging across boundaries.
“Opportunity … depends, at least in part, on our inherited networks.”
One of the great hopes and marvels of networks is that they can be liberating, especially in the face of bureaucracy and various barriers (see more about “network effects” in the previous post in this series). While this is worthy of celebration, another important phenomenon to be aware of is that networks can be deeply inequitable.
The following is a segment from the first post in a series focused on network theory and its actual and potential applications to education and learning. This series appears on the Education Week website and was invited by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) as it explores the potential of networks to advance equity, adaptability and excellence in public education …
Network theory is on the one hand a new and emerging interdisciplinary science and on the other hand it is ancient, grounded in indigenous and experiential ways of knowing about the reality of interconnectedness. Another important element of “network science” is imagination–the use of creative expression and metaphor that recognizes and works with relationship and relatedness that can help to guide our minds, hearts, and hands. These posts will draw insight from this broader understanding of network theory. This first post offers a larger view of the nature and potential of networks in our lives.
There is a lot of talk about networks these days. And there is considerable hope and effort being put into more interconnected ways of working and learning in order to bring about much needed innovation and change in multiple fields, including education. This is exciting, and at the same time I am concerned that the conversation can be relatively narrow, or leap ahead of some deeper insights of network theory and practice. In so doing there is a risk of not getting to the more promising potential of networks.
Connection is fundamental. This is a core observation of network theory (and various wisdom traditions). Network theory starts by pointing to the fact that we often talk about the world in terms of individual things and their properties. This kind of approach may work in situations and in systems that are fairly simple and relatively static. But when the interactions and the complexity of the elements in a system increase, it is the connections that determine the characteristics of the elements in the system and its overall health. This holds true for any kind of dynamic living system–ecosystems, human communities, economies, etc.
“Network theory suggests that what a system becomes emerges from the complex, responsive relationships of its members, continuously developing in communication.”
Life is at base a network. It thrives on connection. We all know this, experientially, because we are alive! And when we are not feeling alive or lively it is often because we are disconnected, cut off in some way–from other people, from the natural world, from our selves (feelings, bodies, values), from power or a sense of purpose. (See the UK’s recent move, incidentally, to appoint a Minister of Loneliness to address the multiple ills stemming from growing social isolation). Life thrives on connection. …
Return-on-investment (ROI) is not a term that I love, especially given how militantly utilitarian and narrowly it is often considered and applied. My friend, mentor, business consultant and holistic thinker Carol Sanford refers to ROI as “the future increase in value that is expected when the initial capital contribution is made.” Carol is quick to point out that capital can take many forms (financial, intellectual, social, spiritual, natural, etc.), and for network participants (or let’s call them “co-creators”) this often takes the form of investments of time, money, knowledge, creativity, and social connections.
Why would co-creators in networks take the time and risk to make such an investment? What is the expected return? Presumably, when we are talking about networks for social change, the principle driver is the desire to make a meaningful difference for people, places and purposes they care about and that they sense will be more positively impacted through network activity. Co-creators are also “kept in the network game” if participation enhances their own capabilities, grows and deepens their connections, and gives them increased opportunities to be creative, and perhaps even find a place of belonging!Read More
We know we are not alone at IISC when we say that 2017 left many of us a bit exhausted and breathless, if not somewhat dumbfounded. What occasionally felt like the wheels coming off of our country’s management and morality caught us by varying degrees of surprise, which is not to say that the underlying frustration and ongoing dynamics of “othering” were necessarily shocking. Rather, the unabashed in-your-face tenor of it all got to points where it was all I could do to stay even minimally tuned in to have at least a fingernail on the pulse of things (but really, there were few places to hide!).
I am grateful that as an organization we take a break at the end of the year to rest, restore and reflect. And while some of us may feel like we could use another week (or two), I for one feel ready and resolved to step boldly into 2018 with an open heart and humble sense of not knowing (what will happen, what is in others’ hearts and minds, what the answers are). I would characterize this as a stance of love or loving kindness. Read More
“We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand.”
– URSULA K. Le GUIN
Image by Stephen Bowler, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
A note on the quotes below (and the Le Guin quote above): I am grateful for the beautiful piece by Evan Bissel, “Frames for Life, Liberation and Belonging,” which appears in the Othering and Belonging Journal. This piece lifts up some central elements of an emerging and humanizing narrative for our times, with focus on themes such as transition, liberation, belonging, commons, interconnection, abundance, sacred, curiosity, play, and place. I strongly encourage readers to check it out, to sit with the piece and let it soak in, and to share it.
This post follows the thread of a conversation that has been evolving across events I have been involved with the past few months, and a bigger and broader conversation that is clearly informing it. This is certainly not a new conversation, but there seems to be a renewed or perhaps more public vigor to it, at least in multi-racial and multi-generational social change groups and initiatives with which I have been involved.
It has cropped up in a network leadership program where a discussion about the difference between working for equity and working for justice pointed in the direction of the need to pursue liberation, and not simply inclusion and accommodation in fundamentally harmful systems. Read More