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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2. Why bother with how complex systems tick? One word: agency

I took a plunge into understanding what makes complex systems tick in 2008, while helping develop Sustain Northern Rivers, a regional collaboration to address climate change in northern NSW. My friend Ken McLeod suggested I kick off a Learning Circle in Health Promotion where I was working. So we did. Our question was “Complexity theory is being used in many knowledge domains, how could it help us understand whole population change?” Thus began a journey in which I’ve experienced the usefulness of these concepts in population health, organisations, social movements and campaigns. The real world of human interaction is characterised by self-organisation and emergence. With these qualities, human systems are adaptive and complex, very different from linear, predictable machines. Yet the machine-metaphor has entrained our thinking, reinforced through 20th century managerialism. Some might ask…does it matter? After all, effective people have always instinctively worked with these dynamics. I’ve reached the conclusion that it does matter. It matters if you want to empower a community to take charge of their health. It matters if you want a social movement of sufficient turbulence and power to effect change. It matters if your organisation wants to maximise outcomes for every dollar accepted in donations. All of these ambitions require us to liberate agency. To do this it helps to become fluent in the language of human systems that are networked, self-organising and emergent. When I first took the plunge into complexity concepts via a learning circle, we worked our way through videos, articles and books in a highly mutual and beneficial process of collective learning. At first I found some concepts elusive, and took this as a good sign that complexity was a new paradigm. I had to re-read some material before I developed conceptual anchor points and was able to apply these concepts in practice. I’m not an expert in complex adaptive systems, but I am passionate about our ability to work together to sustain healthy communities and healthy ecologies. In these blog posts I’ll share some of the resources and AHA moments that, along the way, helped me work with others to liberate agency. I hope it’s useful.