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.

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9. We want a water system that’s fit for the 21st Century

The Rous Future Water 2060 plan proposes spending ~$240 million to flood 253 hectares of rainforest and farmland  – but there is something missing in the document. There is no analysis and costing of an investment in system-wide water efficiency.  Without this analysis and costing, Rous County Council cannot possibly make a decision that the dam is the ‘best option’.  I am grateful to Professor Stuart White from the Institute of Sustainable Futures (UTS) for showing us that water efficiency is cheaper than a dam, would generate jobs, and support small-medium enterprises, trades and upskilling. Most importantly, this kind of investment has been shown to be effective in achieving supply-demand balance. Sydney Water did it. Remarkably, they were able to supply an extra 950,000 people, while maintaining water use at levels 25 years before the investment project.  Think about that! By optimising water use, close to a million people were accommodated - with no increase in consumption. System-wide water efficiency involves an audit of every part of the reticulation system. Every school, hospital, every large user and facility. This audit assesses water loss in council long pipes, and then at every part of water’s journey including appliances and fixtures, processes and behaviours. Then comes the tech retrofit and human intervention. Needless to say, retrofit and tech intervention at this scale generate many jobs (we could do with that in our region).  I appreciate that Rous staff and councillors are acting in good faith. And I can see there are ‘wicked problem’ aspects to our system. For example, Rous is the bulk supplier, but Byron, Ballina, Lismore and Richmond Valley councils own most of the infrastructure, control pricing and determine how water is either optimised (good), or lost and wasted in our system (bad). Unfortunately there is quite a bit of the latter (bearing in mind that some councils have done better than others). Instead of dealing with these issues, I can see the appeal of a Big Dam. But the Big Dam is expensive. And not just in eye-watering dollar terms. 21st century water is about achieving supply-demand balance by valuing water at every part of its journey. It's about a suite of smart water options including water efficiency; water harvesting (roof and stormwater);  water re-use (eg purple pipe re-use and purified recycled water); and council policies and investments that optimise water use. Contingency plans for drought are an integral part of this. The Big Dam is expensive in opportunity lost. By sinking all our resource into one Big Dam, we can kiss goodbye to a portfolio of smart water options that would make our system fit for the 21st century. What a lost opportunity! This would be a huge price to pay for reaching back to last-century thinking. The Big Dam has another cost: it would be an incentive for councils to continue on with business-as-usual. It would flush future innovation down the drain, because innovation happens when constraints push organisations to find new ways of doing things. Lismore City Council’s waste system shows us how this works: the state government said ‘you’re about to experience financial pain for every tonne of landfill” and suddenly LCC came up with really good innovation in waste recovery.  In facilities large and small across our region we use high-quality drinking water to flush poo down toilets, while failing to harvest water that falls on the roofs of these buildings. This is just one example of how we fail to manage water sensibly. We can do better than this. Let’s not obliterate Aboriginal Heritage, or flush an endangered rainforest down the toilet because we chose not to embrace new ways of doing things. Professor Stuart White shows us there’s a new way of thinking about water. He has scoped how this could work in the Northern Rivers NSW. Let’s grasp this. To learn more, read his Brief Summary and after that, his Rous Sustainable Water Program (slides). It’s an eye opener. Especially the cost comparison. Sit down for that slide. Then read All Options on the Table, from Water Services Association Australia. Here you will discover that while our region has been stuck on last century's dam, a whole new world of water options has been opening up: new technologies and a new appetite amongst decision-makers to speed the transition to smart water systems. If only decision-makers in the Northern Rivers would paddle out of the backwater, and join the strong current of innovation in the centre of the stream.