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.
Image by garlandcannon, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
In a couple of articles that have been re-cycling in different social circles, the reminder is offered that tipping points for social change do not need anywhere close to a majority of actors.
A few years ago, scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute explored what it takes for an idea to spread from few to many, for a minority opinion to become the majority belief. According to their study, the RPI researchers said that the answer is 10%. When one in ten people adopt a stance, eventually it will become the dominant opinion of the entire group, they say. What is required is commitment.
More recently, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London conducted an experiment that suggests that for activists to achieve a tipping point around change, 25% of a given population is required. They published their study in the journal Science.
Of course there are complicating factors, including the fact that there are often competing factions each vying for their own 10-25% and with social media and disinformation campaigns, confusion can rein and commitment may require an additional degree of diligence. Nonetheless, we might take more heart in the power of the few.
And this is clearly not just about numbers and counting.
Image by Graylight, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
As I was just starting work at IISC, back in 2005, our founding Executive Director Marianne Hughes, introduced the staff to the work of John Paul Lederach, and specifically his book The Moral Imagination. As I recall, she did this as a result of a sabbatical during which she explored the power of networks and of art in social change. These two things show up centrally in Lederach’s work. Lederach has spent years doing peace and reconciliation work in some of the most intense and entrenched conflicts in the world. And he writes not really as a master technician, but as a poet, which is very much by intention.
I thought of The Moral Imagination a couple of months ago, when I began to realize how starved many people I meet seem to be for alternatives to what we currently have as mainstream systems in this country. Many are speaking up against and resisting what is not working, has long been unjust, and is fundamentally sustainable, which is crucial. And in the absence of clear alternatives (see “reimagine” and “recreate” in Spirit in Action’s image below), what can ensue is … conflict. Entrenched conflict, with no creative point of release.
I also thought of Lederach’s book, because he writes how central networks, human webs, and authentic human connection is to the work of peacebuilding and reconciliation. Up until recently I had thought about peacebuilding as a field as having more to do with what goes on in “other places” like Ireland, Sudan, Colombia, Tajikistan. If nothing else, these past couple of years have provided a need to adjust that understanding – peacebuilding is needed at home.
So I’ve been scouring Lederach’s writings, and there is a lot that resonates. Lederach was recently featured on a powerful program of On Being with actress and activist America Ferrera (no doubt another reason he has been on my mind). There is much to say about The Moral Imagination, but for now I am offering some passages and quotes that struck a chord and I’m curious to hear what reactions those reading have … Read More
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
When we are able to build
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible. …
simply because the space is there,
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.
– “Fire,” Judy Sorum Brown
Change does not tend to happen through piling on, through simply adding to what we are already doing or whatever heap we have in front of us.
Change happens, say scientists and sages, through some kind of release, through letting go. Not of everything, but of something. Something that will create enough space for creativity (something else!) to happen.
Changing the way we do work, behave, and treat one another and the planet doesn’t mean dumping new techniques on top of old ways of working. It means carving out creative niches that are given space for the breath of life to reach them. So they can grow. So that they can find their way.
Change does not tend to happen in isolation (the proof of re-treat is ultimately in re-engagement). It happens through connection, through webs (no one is an island). It happens through collective care and nurturing. Too much space – distance, disconnection – can kill the spark of change.
The following post originally appeared on the IISC site four years ago. It has been slightly revised and is offered here to help those focused on leveraging “network efforts” with their change efforts to consider how they might shift and align their thinking and actions.
This post builds on another focused on the power of asking “beautiful questions” and inspired by a staff challenge to articulate lines of inquiry stemming from IISC’s collaborative change lens, It distills some of the underlying questions that adopting a “network lens” inspires for social change work. Please add, adjust, edit, and rift!
How does your organization/network/change initiative strive to add value to (rather than duplicate) existing efforts? What do you do best, and how might you then connect to the rest?
What are you doing to support and strengthen connections and alignment within and beyond your organization/network/change initiative?
What current patterns of connection characterize your organization/network/change effort? How do these further or inhibit the change that you are trying to be and to bring about?
What current resource flows characterize your organization/network/change effort? How do these further or inhibit the change that you are trying to be and to bring about?
What current definitions of value (determinations of what and who matters) characterize your organization/network/change effort? How do these align with the change that you are trying to bring about?
Who sits at the core of (decision-making, communication, coordination) in your network/ change initiative? Who is more peripheral? How does this arrangement help to bring about (or not) the kind of change you hope to see?
What would happen if you drew in or out to those currently onthe periphery? How might this happen?
How do you currently engage with one another in your organization/network/change initiative? What constitutes “legitimate” modes of knowing, sharing, and interacting? What does this make possible? What does prevent?
How might you engage with one another in your organization/network/change initiative to facilitate thebest of what everyone has to offer?
How are you balancing collaboration and cooperation in your organization/network/ change initiative? When is it most strategic for all or most participants to coordinate (collaborate) around a given action? When and around what is it best to keep things diffuse and self-directed (sometimes defined as cooperation)?
How have you created opportunities for mutual and continuous exchange in your organization/network/change initiative?
What is the role ofempathy in your organization/network/change initiative? What are you doing to nurture deeper understanding, connection, and trust?
What is the role ofgratitude and generosity in your work? What are you doing to nurture and encourage greater appreciation and abundance?
As I’ve worked with a variety of social change networks to launch or transition from one stage to another, I’ve been guided by the following formula:
Form follows function follows focus
My experience is that many groups and initiatives can get very concerned about structure – How will we make decisions? Who will be members? What is expected of them? What do they get in return? These are important questions, and they deserve a fair amount of time tending to them. What can bog many groups down at this stage, however, is that they have not sufficiently sorted out the functions of the network, how it creates value, if you will, which has important implications for form. And if the group is not clear on its focus (purpose, animating goal, mission), this can be that much more perplexing.
So I’m spending more and more time with networks sorting out their core “jobs,” with a few additional guiding mantras, including:
Do what you do best and connect to the rest.
The value proposition of change networks in my mind is that they add value to a broader landscape of activity, not that they come in and try to take over. Even if this is not the intent, groups can spend little time figuring out what already exists “out there,” what efforts are underway, what other collective efforts are operating. This lack of awareness risks creating unnecessary and unhelpful duplication and competition. Read More
This post originally appeared on the Health and Environmental Funders Network website. It was co-authored by Fred Brown, The Forbes Funds, President & CEO; Debra Erenberg, Cancer Free Economy Network, Strategic Director; and Ruth Rominger, Garfield Foundation, Director, Collaborative Networks Program. IISC was centrally involved with the launch of the Cancer Free Economy Network, serving as lead process designer, facilitator and network coach from 2014-2017. IISC is currently supporting the development of CFEN’s network strategy.
We can do this! Within the philanthropy sector, there are so many solutions emerging around the world from people coming together to tackle the social, economic and environmental problems challenging humanity right now. We are in a time when connecting solutions together to align and reinforce each others’ progress is the most critical strategy across issue silos.
The Cancer Free Economy Network (CFEN) is one such example, where people with solutions — good ideas, strategies, initiatives, expertise, models, products and passion — are collaborating to build an economy that supports health and well being for all. These types of social change networks are held together with universal core values. In CFEN, the values are framed as simply as:
The water we drink, the air we breathe, and the products we use every day shouldn’t make us sick, cause cancer or any other disease.
The network is an open and flexible way to connect to an extended community of people who are building power together to phase outall toxic chemicals manufactured and put into industrial and consumer products that are making us sick and damaging our environment. Collectively, we know of many solutions that are readily available for moving the economy in that direction.
Like many social change networks that take a holistic, collaborative approach, people come together to connect and multiply actions aimed at shifting mindsets, structures and behaviors in many different aspects of the complex problem.
In the case of CFEN, this means there are teams from many organizations coordinating a variety of actions around toxics that together will:
Change the Story to show how we can prevent many cancers by addressing the toxic chemicals that are currently accepted as part of our environment.
Advance the science supporting health and preventing illness.
Shift the marketfrom toxic chemicals to a market producing safe, healthy, and affordable materials.
Build the power to implement system changes across diverse constituencies.
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
In the past couple of posts, I have referenced Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns, a collection of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks focused on systems theory and complexity thinking. I just finished the book and have underlined and tweeted a number of provocative lines that resonated and gave me pause (in a good way). Here are a few gems from the book that I continue to contemplate in different contexts:
“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”
“Systems theory is struggling inside a system that doesn’t actually accommodate it.”
“We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”
“What does it mean to be healthy in an unhealthy system?”
The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy? ~Terry Tempest Williams
In Turkey, voters just granted the Prime Minister additional powers. In the US, many people have long been fond of simple solutions. Today that plays out with support of a bombast who is inconsistent and offers solutions that exacerbate underlying problems.
When we work with clients, it also seems like there is a pull to simplicity, especially around issues of diversity and equity.
We field many calls from organizations and networks eager to address issues of racism. In its caricature state, which is all too common, the request is for a two-hour workshop for staff. The hope is that with a few hours of filling smart brains with a new understanding—of the history of racism, or of implicit bias, or levels of oppression—that then things will be okay.
This is false. A two-hour workshop can open some new understanding or potentially be used to make a case for change, but in no way does not even put you on the road to okay.
How is it that smart people believe that a little more in the way of “smarts” will undo a complex historical reality routed in policy, cultural narrative and economics?
Some of it seems to be a wish for easy and for ease. Many white people want the magic bullet or the easy solution to our own racism and that of our country and our organizations. We are not used to acknowledging that it took a lot of work to dig the hole that we are in and that it will take even more work to get out. Hoping that two hours or one day can give a diverse group the knowledge, tools, and understanding to create systemic change is simply a wish for simple.
In addition, there are systems that support the quest for this to be simple. For example, funders may offer relatively small dollars for organizational change efforts or not prioritize learning about systems of oppression at all. The push is almost always for fast outcomes and it seems risky to slow down and support the harder efforts that will ultimately be successful. Many leaders of our organizations, foundations, and government institutions have ourselves benefitted from the structures of racism and are content (wittingly or unwittingly) not to rock the boat.
For people working on systemic change, our job is to communicate that change is both hard and worthy. To want change requires more than a workshop; it is a commitment to put in the time, the dollars, and the effort. We know that effective equity efforts require work on multiple levels.
It may not be easy but it is fun and powerful to see the changes along the way. Change can beget more change. Change includes:
New and deep relationships that expand what is possible and build new ways of being
More equitable hiring and purchasing policies, investing in long term economic change
Policies in an organization that are constructed to undo the bias that is both implicit and explicit in our minds and our organizations.
I will write more in the coming weeks about examples of change as a motivation for those moments when we think oppression, racism, and inequity are solvable in a two-hour workshop. IISC is interested in working with groups that choose to avoid the simple and invest with their hearts and time the work that can lead to meaningful change.
I along with some other colleagues was recently approached by a networks researcher and thought leader about any emerging lessons and what we perceive to be current gaps in the “networks for social change” field around knowledge and practice. We were also invited to share any blog posts that speak to these lessons and growing edges. Below is the gist of the response that I sent, and I am curious to hear any reactions, extensions, etc.
Below are links to three blog posts that I would say speak to the growing edges in my own thinking and what I am seeing as important considerations for the field going forward. To summarize, these all have to do with how to get at deeper systemic change purpose and potential (which is not always the presenting purpose or initially perceived potential when networks form), and related to that, surfacing andworking with issues of power, privilege and identity.
Through its myriad nodes and links, as well as the ongoing addition of participants and new pathways, a dense and intricate network can expand quickly and broadly. This can be critical for spreading information and other resources and mobilizing actors in ways that organizations simply cannot achieve.