This spring I was at an inspiring meeting in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A dozen of us gathered from different parts of the US to continue an exploration of common ground. There’s a confluence happening. Especially over the last decade people have been working with different words to explore the same questions: How do we create healthy communities? Communities where happiness is pursued, not consumption. Communities where people live with the graceful bounty of this planet rather than destroying it. Communities where both excessive poverty and excessive wealth are outside community norms.
They’ve been called sustainable communities and thriving communities and resilient communities. A whole Transition Towns movement has grown up to help communities see how to move from where they are now to where they want to be. Just how similar are these different efforts?
Many names are used to describe a similar possibility:
- One Thriving Communities website asks: How do you know a thriving community when you meet one? Information and resources flow smoothly through the community from where these assets exists to where they can be best applied. The people within a thriving community feel cared for, acknowledged, and yearn to give back to their community as a whole as well as to the people within it. There is a sense that the community becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The community becomes resilient to shifting outside forces and responsive to the needs of its members. A thriving community does not become passive, instead it holds a balance of tension to uplift the community as a whole.
- A website about Resilient Communities suggests Resilient communities are capable of bouncing back from adverse situations. They can do this by actively influencing and preparing for economic, social and environmental change. When times are bad they can call upon the myriad of resources that make them a healthy community. A high level of social capital means that they have access to good information and communication networks in times of difficulty, and can call upon a wide range of resources.
- Bay Localize says that we inspire and support Bay Area residents in building equitable, resilient communities. We confront the challenges of climate instability, rising energy costs, and recession by boosting our region’s capacity to provide for everyone’s needs, sustainably and equitably. We achieve this by equipping local leaders with flexible tools, models, and policies that strengthen their communities. Why local? Why now? Humanity is at a turning point. We’re using so much of the Earth’s resources that we’re endangering the very life-support systems upon which we all depend. At the same time, too many people in our communities are going without the basics to lead healthy lives. The task of our generation is to learn to live happily on fewer resources, to distribute these resources equitably, and to make our communities resilient enough to withstand the bumps in the road along the way.
- Transition US says that its movement is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. Transition Initiatives differentiate themselves from other sustainability and “environmental” groups by seeking to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience.
- Shuli Goodman, a friend and colleague of mine, gives a robust definition of the term sustainability, a term that has fallen out of favor in many places (who wants to just be sustainable?). Shuli suggests sustainability is conceived of as a journey, perhaps even a hero’s journey, with the promise of transformation and redemption. It is not something we arrive at and then are done with . We cannot buy it or make it–it’s not a product. Rather than a destination, sustainability is an emergent process with multiple developmental stages leading towards respect and care–a practice of non-harm to our collective natural capital. Or, from a more positive perspective, sustainability is a journey towards personal and planetary health.
These movements use different language to talk about themselves, but listening beyond the words, they embrace a resonant set of purposes supporting the creation of healthy communities. What would become possible if we started to be able to see this as a meta-movement of transformation?
Already an amazing array of resources has been assembled to support people working in these domains. Much of what each movement has done is still relatively invisible. What would happen if their knowledge became a common resource? Some of examples I’ve seen for the first time in the last week include:
✓ Transition US has a delightful Knowledge Hub, personally stewarded by people in the field, which provides access to a wide range of resources.
✓ Bioneers website hosts a body of resources gathered over the last 20 years from a wide range or areas and with the guidance and support of both participants and presenters in their remarkable annual conferences.
✓ Bay Localize has, among other things, created a remarkable Community Resilience Tool Kit which provides access to an array of resources.
These are just a few examples, of course, of what’s already out there ready for wider use. It’s pretty amazing when I stop to think about all this. Many, many people have been working away, often quite quietly, to discover how to make a difference in their lives and local communities. They’ve engaged in numerous experiments, sometimes succeeding and other times failing and always learning as fast as possible. The resources available on these and other websites are the fruits of many years of many people’s labor. It’s now time to move them out into the world, going to a wider scale.
From Emergence to Transformational Change
There’s a new way of thinking about how change is created that is present in this work. For the last decade at The Berkana Institute we worked with many communities around the world that shared some key principles and beliefs about change which apply here as well:
- Every community is filled with leaders
- Whatever the problem, community itself has the answers
- We don’t have to wait for anyone. We have many resources with which to make things better now
- We need a clear sense of direction AND we need to know the elegant, minimum next step
- We proceed one step at a time, making the path by walking it
- Local work evolves to create transformative social change when connected to similar work around the world
In other words, we do this work together. Stepping forward, experimenting, learning, and finding that elegant minimum next step. In past years, those of us concerned about these areas have been engaging in a variety of incremental change efforts. It’s great work. Individual people are improving their lives and finding more contentment. But overall our directions continue to be unsustainable. One of my questions is how does our important work, which has been guided by principles of emergence, actually lead to transformational change? How do we increase the impact of our work? Incremental change just isn’t good enough: Disasters are happening and systems are collapsing because of the choices we as humans have made about how to live on the planet. How do we transform?
I’ve been reading Shuli Goodman’s dissertation on Organizational and Community Transformations after a Catastrophic Event. Her entire dissertation is a fine and promising piece of work. Shuli has looked at the journey of a number of US that have used disasters as a springboard for transformation. Her dissertation also led me to a remarkable article by Connie Gersick from the early nineties: Revolutionary Change Theories: A Multilevel Exploration of the Punctuated Equilibrium Paradigm. The article uses the concept of punctuated equilibrium to distinguish between incremental change and transformative change. I like the way Gersick distinguishes between incremental change and transformative change. Incremental change, she says, is when we change the height of the hoops on the basketball court — the game is still basically the same. Transformative change happens when we remove the hoops entirely — it is a whole new ball game. Moving the hoops around isn’t enough. We need a whole new plan for how we live on this small planet of ours. I want to share a few excerpts from Gersick’s article:
Deep structures persist and limit change during equilibrium periods, and it is what disassembles, reconfigures, and enforces wholesale transformation during revolutionary punctuations. And we, my friends are in a period of “revolutionary punctuations”
Gradualist paradigms imply that systems can “accept” virtually any change, any time, as long as it is small enough; big changes result from the insensible accumulation of small ones. In contrast, punctuated equilibrium suggests that, for most of systems’ histories, there are limits beyond which “change is actively prevented, rather than always potential but merely suppressed because no adaptive advantage would accrue.” It appears that we’re now at one of those punctuated equilibrium points. One of the ramifications of this is that the future — form, structure, relationships, content — does not exist and cannot be seen. Our great challenge and opportunity is to work with it as it emerges.
This piece of research from the early nineties makes five key assertions based on comparative analysis based on analysis of change and transformation from seven different bodies of work on individuals, groups, organizations, scientific field, biological species and grand theories:
- Systems evolve through the alternation of periods of equilibrium, in which persistent underlying structures permit only incremental change, and periods of revolution, in which these underlying structures are fundamentally altered.
- Systems do not evolve through a gradual blending from one state to the next. Systems’ histories are unique. They do not necessarily evolve from lower to higher states, through universal hierarchies of stages, or toward pre-set ends.
- Deep structure is a network of fundamental, interdependent “choices,” of the basic configuration into which a system’s units are organized, and the activities that maintain both this configuration and the system’s resource exchange with the environment. Deep structure in human systems is largely implicit.
- During equilibrium periods, systems maintain and carry out the choices of their deep structure. Systems make adjustments that preserve the deep structure against internal and external perturbations, and move incrementally along paths built into the deep structure. Pursuit of stable deep structure choices may result in behavior that is turbulent on the surface.
- Revolutions are relatively brief periods when a system’s deep structure comes apart, leaving it in disarray until the period ends, with the “choices” around which a new deep structure forms. Revolutionary outcomes, based on interactions of systems’ historical resources with current events, are not predictable: they may or may not leave a system better off. Revolutions vary in magnitude.
It seems to me that our work now is to consciously create a new set of deep structures which simply support better ways for all of us to live on this planet of ours.
Some of us think that it is time to become much more intentional about collaboration. Numerous synchronicities and synergies are available when people passionate about building healthy communities embrace each other’s work. Leaders of some of these efforts have started to come together in a new effort — a Thriving and Resilient Communities “Collaboratory” — to share ideas, build and strengthen relationships and to begin to co-create a broader impact – a system of influence. The Threshold Foundation has provided some initial support for the development of this Collaboratory, helping to bring these different bodies of work closer together.
We’ve begun to take some initial steps:
- We’re bringing people and organizations from these different efforts together to build relationships and to learn more about each other’s work. A limited number of face-to-face meetings, regular phone and Skype calls, sharing of ideas and documents in Google Docs, and beginning to build out of a project wiki are among the initial steps to understand each other’s work and strengthen relationships.
- Scott Spann from Innate Strategies will be helping to build relationships and to increase clarity across the network. We’re hoping that Scott’s approach can help these separate efforts understand themselves as a meta-movement. His work is powerful. For example, Innate Strategies designed and launched the RE-AMP collaboration of 24 members from utilities, government, non-profits and foundations who wanted to increase renewable energy in the Midwest U.S. Levels of confidence and trust among the participants by clarifying each of their individual needs and strategies and integrating all 24 perspectives into a unified view of their system with a single, shared goal.
- For more than 20 years, the annual Bioneers Conference has brought increasing numbers of people together to learn with each other about new ways of building enduring and healthy communities. This fall’s conference will be preceded by a one-day intensive where we hope to draw together more than 400 practitioners working to create thriving/resilient/sustainable communities to learn with each other and to explore this larger movement. This event will be one major attempt at further mapping this growing field of endeavor.
- The Collaboratory is beginning to call together this wide field because we believe that as these connections and relationships are made, even more compassionate action will follow. It is an exciting time.
Our overall intent in doing this is to Name, Connect, Nourish and Illuminate this field. Berkana also articulated this four step process — name trailblazing leaders and communities, connect them to one another, nourish them with relationships, learning, resources, and support, and illuminate their stories as important examples of the future taking place right now — as one way in which important work grows to larger scale.
At Berkana, we spoke of this as the work of developing systems of influence. In this case, we’re working to manifest a meta-movement which is truly transformative. Watch for more news of the Collaboratory as our work unfolds.
A Last Note: Dialog
I want to add one more thing, in conclusion, to this somewhat long blog. We’re not just talking about structural and technical changes here. The only way these changes will endure is if they grow from a strong field of relationships in which we learn to be in community again.
I’m told that one of the biggest limitations in current community movements is not technical — it is relational. People’s egos get in the way. They find it impossible to hold the tension of differences. They are unable to listen deeply for understanding rather than rushing to judgments. When there is an overwhelming and obvious disaster, we can put those things aside and work together. However, we’ve lost some of the relationship skills which make it possible to continue to do this week-in, week-out for the rest of our lives.
The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter movement, in the US and around the world, has been helping people learn how to reweave this relational field. This is one of the essential capacities in building a transformational movement.