Learning the Art of Social Transformation from Natural Ecosystems
Canadian academic and author Frances Westerley was in New Zealand recently presenting a series of workshops based on the book Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed that she has co-written with Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton.
Getting to Maybe provides a very accessible introduction to the field of Social Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation. While the book does include a number of powerful stories about successful change makers, it manages to do so in a way that avoids putting these people on a pedestal, explaining how and why they achieved what they did. Westerley, Zimmerman and Quinn-Patton have managed to get behind the public face of these stories to consider the joys and profound challenges involved in many of these projects. This narrative quality makes for easy and interesting reading. Each chapter of Getting to Maybe also begins with a poem, which allows a more ‘open hearted’ reading of the book.
If this was all that this book was it would still be a good read, but the real achievement of Getting to Maybe is the systemic thinking that underpins the structure and design. Each chapter is based on a ‘creative archetype’ that expertly describes a stage in both the development of each social innovation project, but also in the personal journeys of the innovators involved.
By clearly identifying and communicating this link between the personal journey of the practitioners and the creative process they are exploring to create social change, Westerley and her co-authors have given a new level of substance to the popular slogan “be the change you want to see in the world".
The Resilience Model
Getting to Maybe is refreshingly light on conceptual models and theoretical speculation. The book has only one such diagram in it and it was this model that Westerley fleshed out with participants in her New Zealand workshops.
The ‘resilience’ model was developed by Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling and is described in detail in their book Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Amazon link). Westerley, along with Gundersen and Holling are members of the resilience alliance, a group of natural and social scientists considering what we can learn about human ecosystems from the latest thinking about natural ecosystems modelling.
The ‘figure-eight’ or ‘four-quadrant’ resilience model describes the ways that all ecosystems are in a cycle of constant regrowth, maturity, death, and rebirth. If you accept this idea then any approach to the change, be it environmental or social, based only on the concept of conservation or restoration eventually becomes problematic.
Applications to Social Innovation
Frances Westerley uses this model to describe four the stages involved in conceiving, developing, implementing and completing successful social innovation projects. It also serves to highlight the different attitudes and competencies required by each stage. In other words she uses the resilience model to describe a comprehensive creative process inspired by natural systems.
Usually creative process models start at ‘the beginning’ with an idea, but I believe that the model is most effective when we start in the top right quadrant or conservation stage. Paradoxically, those of us interested in changing the world are generally presented with systems, practices and ideas that are established and entrenched.
Westerly describes this stage as ‘an established innovation’. It is useful to remember that at some time in history every system, no matter how dominant it may have become, was once a new and vulnerable innovation. The difference is that now it has become established. The characteristics of this phase are:
• It is a time of profitability and high performance
• Increased demands for measurement and productivity
• Increased reliance on systems for monitoring and rewarding efficiency
• Domination of technocrats/bureaucrats
In this stage visionaries are asked to step aside or move on.
2. An Idea Is Born
The deep insight of the resilience model is seeing the intrinsic relationship between creation and breakdown. Most innovations begin not with a happy flash of inspiration but with stress, confusion, identity crisis, and depression. The characteristics of this phase are:
• Breakdown of trust, networks and meetings
• Breakdown of meaning and increasing isolation
• Parasitical or looting behavior as resources are released
• Increased feedback
This stage suits people who thrive on crisis or who are interested in new beginnings while others may experience grief or depression or fear.
3. New Ideas are Developed
In any creative process this is the where the chaos really starts. Even while the system is still breaking down multiple new initiatives may be looking for places to manifest. The characteristics of this phase are:
• Reflection moving to experimentation and multiple “random walks”
• Initiatives that often lead to little in the way of measurable outcomes
• Lots of false starts
• Frustration and mounting anxiety about inputs/output ratios
This stage suits people who learn by doing, are process oriented and who can hold complexity. Others may feel increasingly anxious about ‘wasting time’, deadlines, or a perceived lack of direction and focus.
4. A New Idea Is Implemented
In the final phase one idea is selected from a wide range of possibilities and is launched as a product, process or organization. The key characteristic of this phase is one of dynamic of start-up:
• High excitement as the initiative takes form
• Communication is still highly personal, roles flexible
• Integration is achieved through mutual adjustment
• With success and time, there is increasing need for organizing systems such as job descriptions, accountability and regulation
In this stage team-builders, technical people and engineers come into their own. Conceptual thinkers and visionaries may feel uncomfortable as their ideas confront the pragmatics of implementation.
Getting to Maybe
Of course there are no guarantees that this new initiative will take root. Even if it does, the resilience model tells us that it will have a finite life-cycle and that we can look forward to the death of our precious creation. Knowing this makes it possible for us to plan ahead and ‘build in’ creative release stages into our organizations so that they can be more resilient to the changes ahead. We can also be thinking about how to effectively conserve resources that are released when our projects fail, so that the next innovations can flourish.
I suspect that it is no accident that the sideways 'figure 8’ of the resilience model is also the symbol for infinity. At this time in history many signs point to something trying to die and at the same time something trying to be born.
What we know from looking at natural ecosystems is that new life wants to happen and that innovation and adaptation want to emerge. New books like Panarchy and Getting to Maybe are giving us strategies for participating in this vast creative process rather than trying to control it, or arrest it at a point that is advantageous to us.
If humans are indeed part of the natural world we live in then it shouldn’t surprise us that our social systems may operate according to the same general dynamics that apply to ecosystems like forests, watersheds and coral reefs. Those of us interested in changing the world having some meta-models to guide us in our work may prove essential.
I haven't read the Panarchy book yet, but for a briefer introduction to the concept of resilience in natural systems and the 'figure eight' model, check out Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, by Brian Walker and David Salt.
From the description:
"'Resilience thinking' offers a different way of understanding the world and a new approach to managing resources. It embraces human and natural systems as complex entities continually adapting through cycles of change, and seeks to understand the qualities of a system that must be maintained or enhanced in order to achieve sustainability. It explains why greater efficiency by itself cannot solve resource problems and offers a constructive alternative that opens up options rather than closing them down."
Recently I've been taken with the RSVP Cycles, another 4-part system for visualizing the creative process, developed by environmental designer Lawrence Halprin way back in the '60s. It consists of the elements of Resources, Scores, Valuaction (feedback), and Performance, with each element in constant dialogue with one another.
Systems thinker Fritjof Capra, in his book the Hidden Connections, describes a similar four-part process to describe the evolution of human systems. In his model, Halprin's RSVP are replaced by matter, form, meaning, and process, respectively.
Thanks Justin and Adam for your posts.
Other interesting four stage models are Ken Wilbur's four quadrants (see 'Integral Spirituality') and William Isaac's 'four rooms' (see 'Dialogue').
What is it about the four archetype that is so compelling?