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Time for Change

These are exciting times. Change is afoot, people are dreaming up clever ways to improve things, and a movement is building from the grass roots. There’s plenty of resistance to change too, though. The UK currently has an education minister who believes in rote learning, and an environment minister who denies climate change*. There’s a lot of work to do before we see significant, lasting and overarching change for the better.

The other day I attended an UnLtd event about how to map and grow peer to peer networks around social enterprise in Manchester. I came away with a few observations and ideas about where there might be room for improvement.

Think People, Not Organisations

There’s more talk of organisations than of people. That makes sense, as it’s the way we organise groups and describe what they’re doing. Beyond this utility, though, I think we need to shift the language we use, and the systems we build, to focus on what really makes things happen: people. This might seem like it’s just a matter of semantics, but I think it’s an important distinction. Sometimes—perhaps often—it’s groups of people making a difference, and the fact that they form groups is, of course, hugely significant, but it’s not the organisations that really matter, it’s the people. Social entrepreneurs and activists take their vision for better and their drive to realise it with them from project to project. People connect with each other, not organisations. I might have an interest in a particular organisation doing good things, but it’s always trumped by my interest in the individuals I meet, and their ability to inspire and energise me into action. If they move on, a lot of my interest usually stays with them.

Thinking about this, I wondered if support organisations might be an exception. If you’re a social enterprise in need of free or cheap legal advice, does it matter whether it comes from an individual or an organisation? Perhaps not, but if Jane Smith at a law firm takes ownership of the company’s social side, and is introduced to the community as the go to person for legal stuff, that has to build a stronger network than simply listing the business as a resource. Language and systems are powerful things. Structure both around people for greater effect.

Momentum

We’re human. We get excited about ideas, and sometimes we gather around exciting ideas to form groups and build the energy levels ever higher. This is the all-or-nothing spark which may or may not lead to better things, but without which nothing can begin. It’s that one giant push required to get an idea off the ground and build momentum. But this energy and excitement is usually short lived. That’s just the way we’re wired. Levels of energy, excitement and creativity are a roller coaster for individuals, and sometimes even more so for groups. Most of our current systems for getting things done assume that we have a pretty consistent output. There’s a natural ebb and flow, and there are probably more ways to work with it, harnessing the highs, and mitigating the lows.

Sow More Seeds

Despite a growing grass roots social movement, most school children and young people are pushed through a system that actively discourages innovative thinking, genuine creativity, and entrepreneurialism. How do we bring more kids into contact with more change-makers, inspire them, skill them up and convince them that they can affect their world?

Connecting the Dots

Whenever I attend an event about change makers, I go away with a sense that there’s something missing from the bigger picture. Some kind of glue to hold this together and make it stronger. I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on it. I’m starting to think, though, that it might actually be a latent desire to assert more control over this. Is it me wanting to harness the power of all this good and create even stronger networks of people to make things better?

I think there’s a lot more to come, and a hell of a lot more work to do to really make the most of this, but it’s not going to happen through structure, organisation, or centralisation. It’s going to really take off when we embrace the decentralised, ad-hoc nature of networks, and let the dots connect themselves. We just need to do everything we can to grease the wheels.

Geography

I was at Wayra UnLtd a couple of weeks ago, and it reminded me just how vibrant the scene is in London. There’s a geographical density of talent and ideas that Manchester will never have, nor will any other city in the UK or most of the rest of the world. So how do we compensate? Are there any advantages to having less population density? Or perhaps it doesn’t matter. Maybe it makes sense that these things are relative to population density. What is important, though, is that other places learn from the most vibrant ones without trying to emulate them. Learn and test, but avoid blindly copying the things that only work due to their unique or dense population. Accept the differences.

Connect Big with Small

Similarly, small social enterprises should learn from large organisations. At Fieldwork, we’ve been working with large charities and tiny organisations, and we’re starting to see ways to cross-pollinate. I’d love to see large organisations open up data, share their learnings, and use unique insights, gleaned from testing and running programmes with large audiences, to mentor social startups. They’d benefit hugely for doing so, because this goes both ways. Large organisations have a lot to learn about being agile, testing assumptions, pivoting, and being focussed enough to build simple products that work. All things that startups can’t survive without being good at.

Spark & Flow

I think about the patterns in communities and networks as Spark & Flow. (It’s a wanky title, I know, but it’s cumbersome to write about otherwise.) Spark is the start of something. It’s an event that can only happen once, and which causes change, however small. It’s people connecting for the first time, the start of a new idea, or someone making a significant commitment to something new. Flow makes up the majority of network activity. It’s a conversation on Twitter, a weekly meet-up, or the sharing of a resource. Flow doesn’t change things directly, but it keeps the community tightly knit an provides opportunities for Spark.

Spark and Flow are a virtuous cycle. More Flow means more opportunities for Spark, which generates more Flow, and so on. The network grows and strengthens. Building networks strong enough to make the most of all of this good work, means tending to both Spark and Flow. Finding ways to produce more opportunities for both, without distracting from the really important stuff: the actual work.

People & Networks

Everyone has a place. Some are brilliant connectors, matchmaking those who make things happen to great effect. Others might not feel connected to it at all. Both are doing great work. How do we make sure those on the fringes—or completely on the outside—are supported and valued by the community? How do we make the most of the great work being done at both ends of that spectrum?

Stories

Stories are powerful. Good ones build and strengthen communities, inspire action, encourage contemplation, and help identify and showcase great work. Getting the right stories to the right people could help with a lot of the things above.

*This was first posted in mid-2014 before the cabinet reshuffle

The image above is a crop of, “ABXY,” which is copyright (c) 2013 Pedro Vezini and made available under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license