3. Seeing networks in a new way

I started to understand the dynamics of human systems while working in North Coast Health Promotion NSW. In 2008 we formed a learning circle to understand how complexity theory might help us understand population-scale change. A rich journey!

Our collective learning process helped me grasp how interacting people create adaptive, complex systems with important qualities. To influence complex systems, we need to work with their dynamics: initial conditions; self-organisation; network cascades; critical mass; tipping points; and emergence.

At that time I was part of a stewardship team for a regional collaboration to address climate change, and was able to embed helpful concepts in my practice. From the field of social innovation, we adapted a governance model for distributed leadership. Our ease of working was exciting, as were the projects that emerged from the soft infrastructure of our networks. A social network analysis showed development of a highly connected network of organisations. There were significant improvements in network density, decentralisation, clustering and reciprocity. We published this network analysis in Networked resilience in rural Australia: a role for health promotion in regional responses to climate change.

Then in late 2011 I joined the campaign to stop coal seam gasfields, and was fortunate to work alongside wonderful campaigners who know how to build a system of distributed leadership. In this context I found I could apply complexity concepts in a grounded and practical way as we created the conditions for network cascades, critical mass and tipping points. As the Gasfield Free community process went viral, it was especially helpful to see, hear and feel self-organisation, the life-force of social movements. Tight constraints kill self-organisation. But conversely, the Gasfield Free community process needed some constraints to be useful to the campaign. Throughout these turbulent beginnings, it was encouraging to have a sense of networks as fluid mediums for agency.

My learning journey had started with a circle in which we shared our responses to videos, articles, websites and books. There was a moment, early on, when I understood networks in a new way. It was a bit like the perception change that happens in the duck/rabbit illusion. After I looked at network animations by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, I saw networks in motion. Ever since, networks have been full of potential: morphing inflorescences as behaviors and norms are transmitted person to person, sometimes in potent network cascades.

As I write this, the story of Casino comes to mind. To many in the Northern Rivers campaign, what happened in this town was critical. The Casino story might lack the high drama of Bentley (see post 1), but it contained the special sauce that gave us success. At first, the town and local council seemed wedded to the dream that gas company Metgasco had sold through their public relations endeavors. The company had made Casino their base. Forty holes had been drilled within 20km of this rural township. Worse still, a production licence had been granted, and the industry was poised to spread across the landscape. Early efforts by the local Group Against Gas were discouraging.

Yet within three years, a transformation had occurred: the majority of citizens were opposed to gasfields, and Richmond Valley Council (welded, it seemed, to Metgasco), suddenly voted to adopt a policy to oppose coal seam gas development. How did this occur? It came from person-to-person network influence – as citizens reached out to fellow residents in numerous ways including door-knocking and leafleting. Persistence and courage were the order of the day. Local activists were not deterred by initial non-responsiveness…they kept up their activities, and coal seam gas started to register in the town’s conversations. These trends would have been amplified when surrounding rural districts started grassroots community surveys and declaring themselves Gasfield Free. The families from those districts had friends and bought supplies in Casino…imagine their conversations as they went to conduct the ordinary transactions of rural life. Finally, in addition to all these exchanges, campaigners opened an environment centre in town, creating further connections that bridged affiliations. Concerned, ordinary citizens talked about the threat posed by this invasive industry. I think of it like turning the Queen Mary with paddling canoes. At first she won’t budge. Add enough canoes and over time the vessel turns. Thus did Casino shift, a crucial part of the mass movement dynamics we achieved in the Northern Rivers.

In many ways, Casino is the best story of the Northern Rivers victory. It shows that face-to-face networks are not just the circulatory streams in human systems; they are the lifeblood of campaigns. Conversations carry the oxygen. The Casino story shows that we should never give up because of assumptions about a town, a place, a group of people, and that, despite the power of cashed up companies, People Power movements have the means to win.

If you would like to see networks in motion, have a look at Christakis and Fowler’s animations on smoking cessation and obesity. Their work shows all kinds of norms and behaviors spreading as we influence our friends, and our friends’ friends. Their book Connected is a great read. Or watch Dr Christakis in this video. As you will probably infer, understanding networks could be used for good or ill.

To really understand the role of networks in movement building, it helps to grasp the functional difference between centralised and decentralised networks, but that’s another story.

One measure of how Casino changed was the response to ‘Honk for No CSG’ during protests outside Metgasco’s office. At first there were few responses, but the number of honks grew. Photo: David Lowe