Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale
& Deborah Frieze,
Despite current ads and
slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as
networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a
common cause and vision of what’s possible. This is good news for those
of us intent on changing the world and creating a positive future.
Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical
connections. We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to
change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits. Through these
relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage,
and commitment that lead to broad-based change.
But networks aren’t the
whole story. As networks grow and transform into active, working
communities of practice, we discover how Life truly changes, which is
through emergence. When separate, local efforts connect with each other
as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice,
suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of
scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and
capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were
hidden; they simply don’t exist until the system emerges. They are
properties of the system, not the individual, but once there,
individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses
greater power and influence than is possible through planned,
incremental change. Emergence is how Life creates radical change and
takes things to scale.
Since its inception in
1992, The Berkana Institute has been experimenting with the lifecycle of
emergence: how living systems begin as networks, shift to intentional
communities of practice, and evolve into powerful systems capable of
global influence. Through our work with communities in many different
nations, we are learning what’s possible when we connect people across
difference and distance. By applying the lessons of living systems and
working intentionally with emergence and its lifecycle, we are
demonstrating how local social innovation can be taken to scale and
provide solutions to many of the world’s most intractable issues—such as
community health, ecological sustainability and economic self-reliance.
need to understand networks
Researchers and social
activists are beginning to discover the power of networks and
networking. And there is a growing recognition that networks are the new
form of organizing. Evidence of self-organized networks is everywhere:
social activists, terrorist groups, drug cartels, street gangs,
web-based interest groups. While we now see these everywhere, it is not
because they’re a new form of organizing. It’s because we’ve removed our
old paradigm blinders that look for hierarchy and control mechanisms in
the belief that organization only happens through human will and
Networks are the only form
of organization used by living systems on this planet. These networks
result from self-organization, where individuals or species recognize
their interdependence and organize in ways that support the diversity
and viability of all. Networks create the conditions for emergence,
which is how Life changes. Because networks are the first stage in
emergence, it is essential that we understand their dynamics and how
they develop into communities and then systems.
Yet much of the current
work on networks displays old paradigm bias. In social network analysis,
physical representations of the network are created by mapping
relationships. This is useful for convincing people that networks exist,
and people are often fascinated to see the network made visible. Other
network analysts name roles played by members of the network or make
distinctions between different parts of the network, such as core and
periphery. It may not be the intent of these researchers, but their work
is often used by leaders to find ways to manipulate the network, to use
it in a traditional and controlling way.
What’s missing in these
analyses is an exploration of the dynamics of networks:
- Why do networks form?
What are the conditions that support their creation?
- What keeps a network
alive and growing? What keeps members connected?
- What type of leadership
is required? Why do people become leaders?
- What type of leadership
interferes with or destroys the network?
- What happens after a
healthy network forms? What’s next?
- If we understand these
dynamics and the lifecycle of emergence, what can we do as leaders,
activists and social entrepreneurs to intentionally foster emergence?
What is Emergence?
Emergence violates so many
of our Western assumptions of how change happens that it often takes
quite a while to understand it. In nature, change never happens as a
result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate
of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring
up simultaneously in many different areas. If these changes remain
disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale. However, when they
become connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with
influence at a more global or comprehensive level. (Global here means a
larger scale, not necessarily the entire planet.)
These powerful emergent
phenomena appear suddenly and surprisingly. Think about how the Berlin
Wall suddenly came down, how the Soviet Union ended, how corporate power
quickly came to dominate globally. In each case, there were many local
actions and decisions, most of which were invisible and unknown to each
other, and none of which was powerful enough by itself to create change.
But when these local changes coalesced, new power emerged. What could
not be accomplished by diplomacy, politics, protests, or strategy
suddenly happened. And when each materialized, most were surprised.
Emergent phenomena always have these characteristics: They exert much
more power than the sum of their parts; they always possess new
capacities different from the local actions that engendered them; they
always surprise us by their appearance.
It is important to note
that emergence always results in a powerful system that has many more
capacities than could ever be predicted by analyzing the individual
parts. We see this in the behavior of hive insects such as bees and
termites. Individual ants possess none of the intelligence or skills
that are in the hive. No matter how intently scientists study the
behavior of individual ants, they can never see the behavior of the
hive. Yet once the hive forms, each ant acts with the intelligence and
skillfulness of the whole.
This aspect of emergence
has profound implications for social entrepreneurs. Instead of
developing them individually as leaders and skillful practitioners, we
would do better to connect them to like-minded others and create the
conditions for emergence. The skills and capacities needed by them will
be found in the system that emerges, not in better training programs.
Because emergence only
happens through connections, Berkana has developed a four stage model
that catalyzes connections as the means to achieve global level change:
Name, Connect, Nourish, Illuminate (see Appendix). We focus on
discovering pioneering efforts and naming them as such. We then
connect these efforts to other similar work globally. We
nourish this network in many ways, but most essentially through
creating opportunities for learning and sharing experiences and shifting
into communities of practice. We also illuminate these
pioneering efforts so that many more people will learn from them. We are
attempting to work intentionally with emergence so that small, local
efforts can become a global force for change.
The Lifecycle of
One: Networks. We live in a time when coalitions, alliances and
networks are forming as the means to create societal change. There are
ever more networks and now, networks of networks. These networks are
essential for people finding likeminded others, the first stage in the
lifecycle of emergence. It’s important to note that networks are only
the beginning. They are based on self-interest--people usually network
together for their own benefit and to develop their own work. Networks
tend to have fluid membership; people move in and out of them based on
how much they personally benefit from participating.
Communities of Practice. Networks make it possible for people
to find others engaged in similar work. The second stage of emergence is
the development of communities of practice (CoPs). Many such smaller,
individuated communities can spring from a robust network. CoPs are also
self-organized. People share a common work and realize there is great
benefit to being in relationship. They use this community to share what
they know, to support one another, and to intentionally create new
knowledge for their field of practice. These CoPs differ from networks
in significant ways. They are communities, which means that
people make a commitment to be there for each other; they participate
not only for their own
but to serve the needs of others.
In a community of
practice, the focus extends beyond the needs of the group. There is an
intentional commitment to advance the field of practice, and to share
those discoveries with a wider audience. They make their resources and
knowledge available to anyone, especially those doing related work.
The speed with which
people learn and grow in a community of practice is noteworthy. Good
ideas move rapidly amongst members. New knowledge and practices are
implemented quickly. The speed at which knowledge development and
exchange happens is crucial, because local regions and the world need
this knowledge and wisdom now.
Systems of Influence. The third stage in emergence can never be
It is the sudden appearance of a system that has real power and
influence. Pioneering efforts that hovered at the periphery suddenly
become the norm. The practices developed by courageous communities
become the accepted standard. People no longer hesitate about adopting
these approaches and methods and they learn them easily. Policy and
funding debates now include the perspectives and experiences of these
pioneers. They become leaders in the field and are acknowledged as the
wisdom keepers for their particular issue. And critics who said it could
never be done suddenly become chief supporters (often saying they knew
it all along.)
Emergence is the
fundamental scientific explanation for how local changes can materialize
as global systems of influence. As a change theory, it offers methods
and practices to accomplish the systems-wide changes that are so needed
at this time. As leaders and communities of concerned people, we need to
intentionally work with emergence so that our efforts will result in a
truly hopeful future. No matter what other change strategies we have
learned or favored, emergence is the only way change really happens on
this planet. And that is very good news.
Stages for Developing Leadership-in-Community
Berkana works with pioneering leaders and communities using a four-stage
approach. This has evolved out of our understanding of how living
systems grow and change, and years of practice and experimentation.
Pioneering leaders act in isolation, unaware that their work
has broader value. They are too busy to think about extending their
work, and too humble to think that others would benefit. Berkana’s first
act is to recognize them as pioneers with experiences that are of value
Life grows and changes through the strength of its connections
and relationships. (In nature, if a system lacks health, the solution is
to connect it to more of itself.) Berkana creates connections in many
different ways. We design and facilitate
community gatherings. We host networks where people can exchange ideas
and resources. Our collaborative technology supports communities of
practice through dedicated websites, online conferences, asynchronous
conversations and cocreated knowledge products.
Communities of practice need many different resources: ideas,
mentors, processes, technology, equipment, money. Each is important, but
foremost among these is learning and knowledge: knowing what techniques
and processes work well, and
learning from experience as people do the work.
Berkana provides many of
these sources of nourishment but, increasingly, we find that the most
significant nourishment comes from the interactions and exchanges among
pioneering leaders themselves. They need and want to share their
practices, experiences and dreams. Creating opportunities for people to
learn together has become our primary way of nourishing their efforts.
It is difficult for anybody to see work based on a different
paradigm. If people do notice such work, it is often characterized as
inspiring deviations from the norm. It takes time and attention for
people to see different approaches for what they are:
examples of what the new world could be. The Berkana community publishes
articles, tells our stories at conferences, and host learning journeys
where people visit pioneering efforts, learn from them directly, and
develop lasting relationships.