This is the text I wrote for a session I did for the Leadership Centres’s Future Vision programme – clearly its not what I actually said but hopefully close enough. I’ve used it to work through a couple of questions and also drop in the references I used in the session.
I want to start by letting you know a bit about myself and then a bit about the frame of reference I work from. I hope we’re then going to explore across complexity, sociology, technology and democracy and end with a question as I don’t think I have answers.
My background is a varied; I have worked in a university, multiple start ups, a major charity and a FTSE100 (and then FTSE 250!) business. I am currently Director for Communities at Adur and Worthing Councils where all of these different threads actually knit together pretty well. I’m a technologist by trade but a sociologist from a research perspective so am well placed to ask the perpetual question of which came first; the technological chicken of the social change egg?
I’m an action researcher and this means I pretty much live my enquiry and I want to work around to one of my current enquiry questions here today.
But first I want to give you my frame of reference (very sociologist) as it’s how I navigate complexity. I’m a systems thinker and I use the 3 horizons model that I know you are familiar with but I am also very drawn to the Berkana two loop model which I was introduced to by Cassie Robinson in her work on Stewarding Loss. I like the emphasis on the transition between old and new and the acknowledgement that there is loss as well as growth in that transition. As a leader I think this question of whether you are hospicing the old or birthing the new is critical and should be present in all of our actions.
I’m also of the view that in terms epoch shift we are moving from an industrial to a network society. There have been lots of labels for this transition (Information Age, post industrial etc etc) but I land on network society as I think the shift to networks as dominant social structures is foundational, as is the centrality of connection in those networks. For more on this I would read Manual Castells “Networks of Outrage and Hope” and you can find some references here. In terms of the relationship between this and the systems thinking approach of the Berkana or 3 Horizons model I think of the epoch frame as being the ingredients and the systems work the recipe – either way the cooking process is the transition that we are working through.
There are many different domains I believe this transition is being played out in but technology is clearly a critical one – and never more so in a year where we have spent as much time online as offline. Technology change has been accelerating for a while now and one of the effects of this is the way in which we see the leading edge of it ‘captured’ by tribes who are insistent of the preeminence of their shiny thing. Have a look here for a brief introduction to the different tribes of digital which has been a long term hobby project of mine.
Its easy to fall into a trap of technological determinism (and the digital cargo cult) and say tech is driving this change but we have to remember that these great transitions have been going on for ever – we have to look beyond the technology however shiny it is. we need to look below the surface the effect of technology on society and I want to call out two big effects. Firstly, technology is creating network effects that speed up the pace of information flow which creates feedback loops that amplify change. If we go back to the two loop Berkana model those green shoots of innovation become visible faster – but perhaps without the benefit of the compost of the old system to help them grow roots and establish themselves.
The other technology driven change effect is around data; we have reached the point where we will never again be able to take a decision confident that we have all of the information and if that isn’t destabilising those of us raised in an age of certainty then you haven’t thought about it enough.
I want to pause there and ask you to reflect for minute on this and also to ask you at what point technology stopped making sense for you? For me it was cloud computing which took me an embarrassing amount of time (for a technologist) to get my head around. I’m now giving quantum computing the side eye and wondering when I need to think about that.
In the session this led into a really interesting conversation which reflected on the need for technologically literate leaders, the challenge of being responsible for technologies that you don’t understand and then into a discussion about some of the underlying inequalities of our technological landscape with respect to access and capture of our digital civic spaces by private enterprise and a national avoidance of properly addressing technology in schools.
The other big theme I wanted to touch on is the disruption of democracy. Before doing that just a word of caution; democracy is often seen through Churchill’s quote as ‘the worst form of government except everything else that has been tried’ but this is very liberal western view and I am very conscious of the colonial tendency to assume this will be true wherever democracy lands. But in our context democracy is a powerful thing that is under great stress from the dismantling of the print media and the effect this has on the public sphere, the end of deference which means we no longer hold our authority figures as having legitimacy as a right.
Democracy as we know it, representative democracy is being weakened by multiple forces but I would call out two in particular; the change in the public sphere caused by the impact of social media on the 4th estate and the impact of the death of deference which is wrapped up in our transition to a world where networks and not hierarchies are pre-eminent.
The impact of social media on democracy is well documented and is an example of the amplification effect I spoke about earlier as well as being symptomatic of some of the structural inequalities in our current digital infrastructure which is constructed almost entirely around shareholder rather than public value. The impact of the end of deference has shifted the nature of our relationship with our politicians and left us in a space where we question and challenge them in a way which was unthinkable in previous generations. Combined with the certainty of media led political discourse – and the uncertainty brought by complexity and the fact we can never again know all the of the facts – this undermines this end of deference means we know longer think of our representatives as ‘enough’. There is another effect here of the impact of political parties as dominant but decaying that creates a barrier between the politician and their constituents (more on this here).
The other democracy disruption to call out is the change in social movements and their ability to exploit the networked effect. Social movements have always lived alongside democracy (think luddites or suffragettes before we get into more recent disability or LGBTQ movements. Networked social movements take advantage of the network effects we spoke of earlier and while fragile can have huge visibility in the blink of an eye as has happened with Black Lives Matter or Me Too. Again there is a risk of green shoots with weak roots in these movements. Francesca Polletta wrote about the inevitability of bureaucracy in social movements and the shift from informal to formal action being part of the natural development of social movements (pithily she called her book ‘Freedom is an endless meeting‘) but organisations like Extinction Rebellion understand this. Learning from the Occupy moment which struggled to gather from XR has a sophisticated decentralised organising method which makes them very much part of the emergent system. For more on this I highly recommend reading Zeynup Tfucki and her work on networked social movements.
Democracy has been ‘stuck’ in a singular form for a long time now but it doesn’t need to be that way. Methods such as citizen’s assemblies are getting real world traction and this opens up the possibility of real democratic change.If we apply our Berkana loops to our western democracy we can see a dominant patriarchal representative system being hospiced and more participatory and deliberative system emerging.
Again, in the session we ended up in s discussion about democratic design. The idea that we need to be deeply participative at the ’15 minute city’ level (communities of place) or within communities of interest and representative for the national/global themes – with deliberative methods address the tensions in the between these arenas was well received as was the need to redraw the map of place to reflect real communities and not bureaucratic boundaries (more on that in this post about community mapping).
Finally I wanted to reflect on the transition that we are all living through now as we move towards a post pandemic, or pandemic adaptive, world. As we emerge I am seeing people who are exhausted from keeping our institutions running over the last year and I am also meeting people who are energised by the potential to do things differently, particularly as I look to the community led responses of mutual aid groups and food partnership. As these new groups and energy emerge they start to face the growth questions that any new organisation has around organising, governance and form, and we can chose how we respond when they ask for help or just fellowship. Often this energy is fragile and won’t survive our bureaucracy – we have to decide if thats a useful test or an example of outdated norms.
There are green shoots right now and as I have said throughout change in a technological and network age is both fast and fragile. We are a group of people who have power in the dominant system; The question I want to leave us with is whether we are spending out energy trying to manage those green shoots in our hospiced institutions or if we are working with them to design something new?