Saturday, January 10, 2009

Viral Philanthropy Introduction

How can a foundation or charitable endeavor have the greatest impact? I think its through 4 basic strategies:

1. Funding 2-step viral strategies for transformation

2. Providing support for learning/policy communities among "grantees"

3. Creating viral strategies to build an expanding donor community

4. Enabling donor and grantee to engage directly

More on each of these tomorrow!

I'm not sure that any philanthropic effort currently employes all 4, but I'm counting on those of you who have implemented one or more to share your experience with us.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Points of Leverage for Transformation

When we want to understand how small changes can be leveraged into transformation, Donella Meadows has a great list of 12 leverage points she compiled back in the seventies, but which is still so applicable today.

The leverage point I most like is Number 3: The Power of Self-Organization.

The most stunning thing living systems can do is to change themselves utterly by creating whole new structures and behaviors. In biological systems that power is called evolution. In human economies it's called technical advance or social revolution. In systems lingo it's called self-organization.

Self-organization means changing any aspect of a system lower on this list—adding or deleting new physical structure, adding or deleting negative or positive loops or information flows or rules. The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience, the ability to survive change by changing.

The human immune system can develop responses to (some kinds of) insults it has never before encountered. The human brain can take in new information and pop out completely new thoughts.

Self-organization seems so wondrous that we tend to regard it as mysterious, miraculous. Economists often model technology as literal manna from heaven—coming from nowhere, costing nothing, increasing the productivity of an economy by some steady percent each year. For centuries people have regarded the spectacular variety of nature with the same awe. Only a divine creator could bring forth such a creation.

In fact the divine creator does not have to produce miracles. He, she, or it just has to write clever rules for self-organization. These rules govern how, where, and what the system can add onto or subtract from itself under what conditions.

Self-organizing computer models demonstrate that delightful, mind-boggling patterns can evolve from simple evolutionary algorithms. (That need not mean that real-world algorithms are simple, only that they can be.) The genetic code that is the basis of all biological evolution contains just four letters, combined into words of three letters each. That code, and the rules for replicating and rearranging it, has spewed out an unimaginable variety of creatures.

Self-organization is basically a matter of evolutionary raw material—a stock of information from which to select possible patterns—and a means for testing them. For biological evolution the raw material is DNA, one source of variety is spontaneous mutation, and the testing mechanism is something like punctuated Darwinian selection. For technology the raw material is the body of understanding science has accumulated. The source of variety is human creativity (whatever that is) and the selection mechanism is whatever the market will reward or whatever governments and foundations will fund or whatever tickles the fancy of crazy inventors.

When you understand the power of self-organization, you begin to understand why biologists worship biodiversity even more than economists worship technology. The wildly varied stock of DNA, evolved and accumulated over billions of years, is the source of evolutionary potential, just as science libraries and labs and scientists are the source of technological potential. Allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of particular science journals, or particular kinds of scientists, would be.

The same could be said of human cultures, which are the store of behavioral repertoires accumulated over not billions, but hundreds of thousands of years. They are a stock out of which social evolution can arise. Unfortunately, people appreciate the evolutionary potential of cultures even less than they understand the potential of every genetic variation in ground squirrels. I guess that's because one aspect of almost every culture is a belief in the utter superiority of that culture.

Any system, biological, economic, or social, that scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.

The intervention point here is obvious but unpopular. Encouraging diversity means losing control. Let a thousand flowers bloom and anything could happen!

Who wants that?

Amazing that she wrote this over 30 years ago!

What is Self-Organization?

I like to explain self-organizing as the capacity for any individual or individuals to identify something they would like to do to make a community better, find others who would enable that action to be a success, and access the resources needed to move to action. When many people are involved in numerous collaborative actions, and they share the successes and failures of those actions with others, the community can quickly become transformed and begin operating in new ways. This is called emergence.

Our brains, our immune systems, termite castles, ecosystems are all self-organizing. This self-organization has enabled each of these systems to be wonderfully adaptable and effective - far beyond what any single cell or termite could accomplish on their own.

Are we self-organized now? Well, when we organize a shopping foray with some friends, we are self-organizing. When we plan a wedding, we are self-organizing. Barn-raisings, where farm families would come together to put up a barn in one day, are a quintessentially American example of self-organizing.

But we're not so likely to be effectively self-organizing in relationship to big problems such as climate change or poverty. We tend to rely on bureaucracies or organizations to deal with community issues. Unfortunately organizations have often become siloed, tending to work alone and build an internal monoculture, and thus have difficulty generating the kind of innovation that the world needs right now. And we've become reliant on the operating procedures of the organization, where each person has a job, you know if you don't do your job you may well get fired, and communication channels are given.

So it can really make a difference to set up a support system for self-organizing. Such a system would include training and coaching to build basic self-organizing skills, incentives to encourage people to self-organize, and recognition of the role of network weaver in helping people self-organize. We'll talk more about each of these in future posts.

What has been your experience with self-organizing? What are the most successful self-organizing experiences you have had?

The Forgotten Building Blocks of Self-Organization

Most of the examples of self-organization that I find on the Internet are either personal or large-scale as in the Belarus flashmob example in a previous post.

The missing level of self-organization that no one is talking about is the small stuff: small group collaborations, especially those that cross organizational boundaries.

Self-Organizing Kickoff

If you haven't read Here Comes Everybody, grab a copy and you will soon understand why everybody is talking about self-organizing these days.

Clay Shirky, the author, is an engaging speaker with a long list of easy-to-digest videos on You Tube that I highly recommend.

One of the stories he tells of the power of self-organization took place in Belarus in 2006. Not allowed to protest by the repressive regime, young people used mobile phones to gather large ice-cream eating flashmobs. As smiling ice cream eaters were dragged off to prison, their plight was broadcast all over the world, weakening the legitimacy of the ruling party.

In a recent talk, Shirky asked "Why aren't people using Internet communications for positive actions or "online barn raisings?"

Ernst-Jan Pfauth, in a blog post on Shirky's talk, points out

Well, the people from small farm communities live in a totally different social environment. Three important factors stimulate them to organize events like a barn raising:

The farmers owe each other a favor;
The small social density causes social control. Everybody is tracking everybody’s action;
The people they know are likely to be around for some years, so it’s worth the investment

Shirky points out that these same conditions don't exist online so we have to design new environments for collaboration.

In upcoming posts, we'll review some of the ways people are starting to organize online and look at the key design elements of self-organizing, whether online or off.

Jean pointed out that some of you are already experimenting, so please let us know what you are doing by responding to this post!