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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4. Grow your movement by working with complexity

This blog was written to accompany How To Win, Episode 2 of ChangeMakers Podcast, which tells the story of the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers campaign.
When it comes to winning campaigns, nothing beats getting an understanding of how social movements work…there are some great resources that people can dip into[1]. As episode 2 of ChangeMakers explains, in the Northern Rivers, a bunch of us were familiar with social movement theory, especially with Bill Moyer and his work[2], and had on-ground experience in campaigns. This was invaluable. But there’s another type of knowledge that’s useful in growing social movements – and that’s an understanding of how human systems work. This knowledge is sometimes called complexity theory, but don’t get dismayed by that name! It’s a way of understanding practical steps to get things happening on a larger scale. The basic concept is that natural and human systems are different from machines like your car.  A car is predictable…when you press down on the accelerator; you’ll gain speed in a linear fashion. Your car is not creative. Your alternator and drive shaft don’t suddenly get together and invent a whole new way of driving! Fortunately, human systems are capable of sudden, non-linear change when social movements get going. Like any natural system, tipping points are reached and suddenly your social movement starts behaving in an entirely new way. In the Northern Rivers we went through several of these tipping points as our movement ramped up, with many thousands of people involved.  Our alliance maximised self-organisation. With 18 action groups and 147 self-declared Gasfield Free communities, creativity abounded. It was a wild ride. When I threw myself into the Northern Rivers campaign I’d just spent 4 years exploring how complexity concepts can be applied to social change[3]. Here are some practical examples of how I found this knowledge useful in the hurly-burly of the Northern Rivers campaign. I was part of a Capacity Building team that sought to scale up the movement. Amongst other things, we hatched an idea that grew into Gasfield Free Communities –a process of grassroots democracy whereby communities unilaterally declare themselves Gasfield Free. I pitched this concept to people in The Channon, and we decided to do a pilot. We held a public meeting, watched a film, and asked people for a show of hands to the question: Do you want your roads and lands Gasfield Free? Hands shot up for YES. Then we asked if they’d like to give everyone in the community their say, by visiting every household, and they organised in survey teams. When the results came in, 99.3% of 432 respondents said YES, and we declared our district Gasfield Free in a defiant, joyful ceremony captured in this video. [caption id="attachment_94" align="alignleft" width="300"] The first Gasfield Free Community at The Channon 2012 photo: David Lowe[/caption] Complexity theory helps explain how the Gasfield Free Community strategy spread like wildfire, engaging citizens across political affiliations, mobilised entire communities, and created a sense of entitlement to live Gasfield Free. This process took the defiance embodied in the individual Lock The Gate sign to the level of communal resistance. Victorian campaigners used this process as part of their strong campaign to get an onshore gas ban in that state. Around Australia, there are now 450 Gasfield Free, or Coal Free communities. In the Northern Rivers, when this grass-roots process took off, I was able to use my knowledge of complexity concepts to help it develop and go to scale:
  • To replicate virally, it needed self-organisation. That won’t occur with tight constraints (many top-down rules). We shared the process in such a way as to empower communities to organise their own surveys and declaration ceremonies.
  • But the converse is also true. Self-organisation won’t occur with zero constraints. We provided some minimum guidelines for a comprehensive survey with reliable data, to give traction to the campaign. For...