The future of the network

Sensemaking / The future of the network

We asked three social change experts from across Forum for the Future's global network to tell us what they think makes a powerful network for change

By Futures Centre / 21 Jun 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Network Futures. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

Jonathan Dawson is Head of Economics at Schumacher College, UK. Until recently a long-term resident at the Findhorn Ecovillage and a former president of the Global Ecovillage Network, he has around 20 years' experience as a researcher, author, consultant and project manager in the field of small-enterprise development in Africa and South Asia.

We are by common consent moving into a world of enhanced electronic connectivity in which networks are playing a greatly expanded role. This is what has been described as the emergence of new power, which, by contrast with old power, “is made up by many. It is open, participatory and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it is most useful when it surges”.

However, let’s not forget that the economic significance of enterprise networks and clusters long pre-dates the arrival of the internet. The Mondragon co-operative group, which demonstrates the value of provision of integrated support services among networks of mutually supportive enterprises, dates from the 1950s. Similarly, the vibrant competitiveness of the dense clusters of small-scale family-owned businesses and co-operatives in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy long pre-dates the digital revolution. These are but two of an older generation of successful, network-based, co-operative experimentation.

Could it be that there are valuable lessons to be learned from these older networks that might contribute to the emergence of a more just, equitable and regenerative economy? Let’s begin by looking at the shortcomings of the currently dominant networked organisational forms. Here, we have seen the emergence of a multiplicity of platforms that have enabled a great surge in peer-to-peer activity – sharing cars and tools, videos and blogs, hosting guests in spare bedrooms. The ‘sharing economy’ has boomed. What is not to like.

For starters, the dominant platforms are predominantly privately owned, delivering huge profits to distant shareholders. Second, the ranks of ‘precariat’ have swelled as workers’ rights are undermined and service providers become responsible for their own equipment, insurance and maintenance costs. Third, the ‘sharing economy’ has seen the commodification and monetisation of much informal neighbourly behaviour, insidiously undermining the generosity that builds true community.

We are here in the realm of values and governance. What is the aim of the networks: profit maximisation or the common good? And who gets to make the decisions as to how and for what the networks operate? These are the critical questions facing us at this juncture. 

In response, there has been a growing wave of innovation in the development of ‘platform co-operativism’ – that is, platforms that are owned and controlled not by distant venture capitalists but rather by the various stakeholders involved in the provision and use of the services themselves. This development has the potential to regenerate the co-operative movement and enable much greater democratic decision-making in network and platform behaviour.

Emily Cichy is Senior Manager, Insights and Integration, with citizenship at the Walt Disney Company. She currently leads the Disney Citizenship Futures Team and has a special interest in the role of creative institutions in shaping sustainable futures.

I believe the single most important thing we can do to create a sustainable future is to harness the power and ingenuity of youth, to tell their stories and enable them to scale their visions of the world. We are in the midst of the most connected and visionary generation ever, one that is committed to communities, the planet and their own well-being. They have an unprecedented understanding of and access to the world. The youth are powerful as individuals and unstoppable as networks for change. It is our job to inspire them and help them realise the world they imagine. At Disney, our approach to citizenship is rooted in this core idea – inspiring kids and families to create a brighter tomorrow.

To realise this vision, we must engage innovative networks throughout The Walt Disney Company. One approach we’re taking is to build futures teams that research, analyse and collaborate, all with a goal of integrating longer-term perspectives into business planning. We focus not just on environmental, social, and governance trends but also the macro political, technological and innovation trends all around us. This work allows us to better recognise the unique opportunities where sustainability and business values can merge. We believe these futures teams will continue to be business-centric networks that help advance Disney’s citizenship vision.

The most successful leaders and networks I’ve known at Disney and beyond have had one common characteristic – optimism. With the belief that anything is possible, we can inspire and scale change.

Aaron Maniam is Director, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Signapore, having served in his country's Foreign Service, the Prime Minister's Office Centre for Strategic Futurs and the Institute for Public Sector Leadership at the Civil Service College, where he started a lab to create serious games that could aid in the policy-making process.

Anyone who’s looked at a map would know that Singapore is small. We’re not just small: we have no natural resources except our people. And, as some periodically like to remind us, we’re a little red dot, both literally and not so literally – a speck on the geographic expanse of the world that doesn’t always matter.

But those are not the only stories that we can tell of ourselves. It’s really important that we have new stories to tell, to become not just a smart nation but a smart people. And one of those stories is about the mindsets we choose to adopt. We can choose to have a fixed mindset – a mindset that says, “What I am today, I can continue to be tomorrow.” We can choose a mindset that says, “I am limited by what I was born with”, or we can choose to have a growth mindset – one that allows us to change, grow and improve what we are today, even if takes a while. And I think this growth mindset is going to become a key part of the stories that we need to tell ourselves in the future. 

Another story is about who we are as groups of people. Are we just a crowd, unconnected by any kind of link or network or relationship? Or are we a community – with relationships, connections and links? I’d like to think that we are a community, or at least that we have the potential to become a really powerful community. 

A few years ago, many of us took part in what we called Our Singapore Conversation – a process of defining, as citizens and not only in a way told to us by top-down implementation, what we wanted to become. The process reminded us that when we come together as a community, we know and do things that we cannot do by ourselves. 

Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for thinking about the role that communities can have in shaping the future: not just markets or top-down government implementation (what she called “central direction”) but communities, groups of people coming to manage the resources that they have, and achieving far more, far better than any market or state apparatus could do alone.

A third story we can tell ourselves is that systems are not rigid. They are subject continually to our influence. We can choose at any point to say, “The system out there, it’s cold, it’s impersonal, it’s shaping my life.” Or we can choose to say that the system may be large and powerful but we can influence it too – slowly, quietly, imperceptibly every day.

It boils down, I think, to where we feel our locus of control lies. Is the locus of control external to us? Are we really just a little red dot that is affected and buffeted by the winds of the world? Or are we beings with an internal locus? A locus that says, “Yes, there is a system out there, but I can affect it through my choices and decisions, to determine what kind of destiny I have.”

It’s very important that one of our stories, at least, is to have an internal locus of control, to continually tell ourselves that no matter how difficult an external environment is, we have a choice and the ability to shape the future that we move into.

What we think we cannot solve, like the many complex problems out there, we can at least navigate and celebrate.

Image credit: Gisèle F

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