Why would we ponder how human systems work? The answer is in one word: agency.

Human agency is of huge significance to organisations, communities and social movements.  There will always be times when we need to organise via top-down networks. But the trouble is a reductionist, mechanical view of human systems is privileged in our thinking: a cultural hangover from the industrial era, reinforced by managerialism. While top-down organising has been great for many things, we have also unthinkingly perpetuated approaches that limit agency.

A new paradigm is emerging that understands networked systems as adaptive and complex. If we want to grow a movement or get bang-for-buck in an organization, understanding these dynamics is no longer optional. We need to understand self-organisation, the special sauce that liberates collective intelligence. What helps it flourish? What kills it?

The urgency of the problems we face compels us to think about this. Many creative minds use complexity concepts in corporations and the field of social innovation. Yet to date, there has been limited application in social movements and environmental campaigns. Surely now is the time. To protect Earth’s life-support system, let’s tap into the power of networked humanity.

Recent Posts

8. Enabling Emergence a case study of the Northern Rivers campaign

Aidan Ricketts and I published Enabling Emergence: The Bentley Blockade and the Struggle for a Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, SCU Law Review, Volume 19, 2018 The full text can be downloaded here. This article would be best read in conjunction with viewing The Bentley Effect, a film that captures the remarkable dynamism of the Northern Rivers campaign as resistance became normalised and went to scale. Brendan Shoebridge’s inspiring film can be viewed online for a small fee. Bear in mind that a phenomenon as complex as mass-movement dynamics can’t be captured from one perspective. This paper offers a useful lens through which we might view movements and campaigns – one that helps us choose action to suit the context, without being hamstrung by ideological positioning. Here’s part of the introduction: The Bentley Blockade was a rare occasion in Australian history when an entire region stood up to government and corporations and held the line. The confrontation took place near Lismore in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. It was a turning point in the growing national movement against coal and gas industry expansion in Australia, but what made Bentley unique was the extent to which it mobilised community support across the region. Farmers, Indigenous people, townsfolk, environmentalists, professionals and businesspeople united in a vision of a Gasfield Free region and thousands committed to a path of non-violent direct action (NVDA) to help achieve it. The Northern Rivers campaign, like the overarching Lock The Gate community movement around Australia, achieved a unity of purpose based on values shared by diverse participants. The blockade was a culmination of several years of movement building. The headline events in the Gasfield Free campaign are well documented in media reports from that period, but what remains elusive, and is best understood from an insider’s perspective, is how the emerging social movement was organised. The most visible organising entity for the movement was Gasfield Free Northern Rivers (GFNR), an alliance of numerous autonomous, collaborating action groups from throughout the region. GFNR was an unincorporated entity with no constitution, no formal membership, and no formal office bearers. Nevertheless, GFNR supported the emergence of a very large, complex and adaptable regional social movement, in concert with a tightly focused political campaign. Although loosely organised, GFNR achieved coherence through fluid performative leadership and constantly evolving structural constraints. This article explores the movement-building and blockade phases of the emergence of GFNR, with specific reference to the use of principles derived from complexity theory and from David Snowden’s related Cynefin framework. Photo: David Lowe - Greet The Dawn at Bentley April 2014