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.
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
– Herman Melville
2017-2018 NLI cohort members engage in a team building exercise focused on the dimensions of collaborative success.
Last week I worked with the Backbone Team of Food Solutions New England to launch the second cohort of the Network Leadership Institute (NLI) at Ohana Camp in Fairlee, Vermont. This initiative has grown out of FSNE’s commitment to cultivating both thought leadership and network leadership“to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the NLI was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership (see image below). Read More
Not long ago, at a gathering of the Food Solutions New England Network Team, one member, Dorn Cox, told the story of a farmer who has become renowned for the health of his soil. Remarkably, the soil health consistently increases, due to on-farm practices created over years of close observation and experimentation. This is significant as it has boosted the quality of the farm’s produce, reduced the need for and cost of inputs (helping to increase revenues), increased the soil’s ability to handle extreme precipitation and dry conditions brought on by climate change, and mitigates carbon release.
This accomplished practitioner has subsequently been sought out by academics and has served as lead author on numerous peer reviewed academic articles about his soil health practices. Dorn then relayed that the farmer recently reported that because of academic protocols he cannot get access to the very articles he has co-authored. Dorn punctuated his story with the lesson that:
To support learning, equity and resilience, knowledge wants and needs to be free and accessible.
This is a key principle for leveraging networks to make change. In the old world, knowledge was owned and proprietary. But in this increasingly volatile world,to help people be adaptive to change, there is need for robust flows of information that are equitably generated and accessible. This was a lesson learned by professor Anil K. Gupta, before he started the Honey Bee Network in India.
By his own admission, Dr. Gupta had been engaged in the practice of extracting information from people that served his own or purely academic purposes, without ensuring that the information made it back into the hands and minds of practitioners. He realized that “on efficiency and ethical grounds,” this could not continue. Read More
“Long term prosperity is primarily a function of healthy human webs.”
– Sally J. Goerner
Over the past several years of supporting self-declared “networks” for social change, we at IISC have been constantly evolving our understanding of what is new and different when we call something a network, versus say a coalition, collaborative or alliance. On the surface, much can look the same, and one might also say that coalitions, collaboratives and alliances are simply different forms of networks. Yes, and . . . we believe that what can make a big difference is when participants in a network (or an organization, for that matter) embrace new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. So let us propose here that network approaches at their best call on people to lead with some of the following:
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:
Last week, we held an internal learning session for staff and affiliates entitled “Advancing Equitable Networks.” IISC Affiliate Kiara Nagel and I presented some thoughts about our ever evolving practice of supporting network development for social change, including situating our current approach in IISC’s mission and vision, and our collaborative change lens (see above), which lifts up the importance of understanding and shifting power dynamics for equitable outcomes, embracing love as a force for social transformation and seeing networks as the underlying infrastructure of change.
We then elicited and shared some questions that are at the growing edge of our network consulting practice, including these three: Read More
Two weeks ago I wrapped up Harold Jarche’s on-line course on social learning and am committing to practicing some of what I learned through blogging as “learning out loud.” This is not an entirely unusual practice for me, but Harold has helped me to better appreciate the value of turning off the critic and putting “rough draft thinking” out there, as a way of crystalizing and mastering my own knowledge but also (possibly) connecting it to others who may be on the same wavelength/ have similar lines of inquiry and (perhaps) contributing to social change. Preposterous? Maybe.
But consider how our understanding of how the world works is shifting through our ability to see connections, appreciate the social creation of knowledge and grasp the emergent nature of change. Seeing reality through a living systems lens helps us to understand ideas as seeds, expression as sowing, interaction as fertilizer and social networks as the metabolic infrastructure to bring new things fully to fruition. Read More