Individuals, stepping out of patterns

Yesterday day I had the fortune of speaking with three people who are agents for a sustainable world. Although I didn’t plan it, and they are all coming from different directions, there is a connection. All three believe that acting so that many individuals can make their own choices is a good thing for the world.

First up was Jon Alexander. After a first career in brands and marketing he had an insight: if you treat people as consumers then they can only using their buying power. If you treat people as citizens they have many more ways of making a difference.

For the last 3 years he’s been testing that insight under the New Citizenship Project (NCP). For instance, earlier in the year NCP held a big question – ‘How can we maximise the participation of members in our organisations and in the world, by shifting from a Consumer to a Citizen mindset?’ – which individual organisations (Tate, Amnesty, NUS and others) worked through the specifics of what that meant to them.

The results so far are membership organisations treating their members differently, and also insights for others. The key conclusion: many membership organisations are trapped in transactional relationships with their members. To embrace members as participants in a cause, organisations need 3Ps: clarity of Purpose; a Platform to work through its members; and constant Prototyping that tests this new way of working.

Jon sees this as just the first of any number of collaborative innovation projects, which take the insight on citizens (vs consumers) and puts it into practice in different domains.

There are several things that I love about this approach, including the collaborative inquiry approach. Most important is that it gets to the heart of the dominant socially constricted identity of our time: ‘I shop, therefore I am’. All too often the predominant way I should understand myself – and that others should understand me – is as a consumer. Citizen is such a wider notion of identity. It is, for me, a higher leverage point in shifting the status quo: it goes to heart of the beliefs-in-action of the post-industrial flavour capitalism we have today.

Lunch was with Rich Wilson. Richard has been a serial social entrepreneur. His current focus is ongoing people more power in their public services. There are lots of public services which require people to do stuff themselves. Only you can change your diet, for instance. Rich’s experience is that, if you give people more power in those services then those services are more impactful. That is because people’s sense of whether they can make a difference – their ‘self-efficacy’ – is a big driver of what happens.

Hence two rather brilliant (though possibly mis-remembered) hypotheses.

  1. If public services treat people as if they have power then those services will be more effective and cheaper.
  2. If self-efficacy is important to people’s ability to act for their lives and it is driven by education, local peer culture and other contextual factors, then it is a driver of inequality in the UK.

Many exciting things here, too. What sings out for me is the chance to find a liberal, ‘small left’ response to the desire to ‘take back control’. Right now that understandable desire is being channelled by the populist right into ‘us vs them’ bigotry, protectionist economic policies – and, of course, a continued austerity which has cut services in the first place.

Finally, speaking with Orit Gal, a complexity political scientist at Regent’s University. An hour long meeting became a 2 hour discussion, with many points. But crucial for Orit is the role of the individual. In her favour of complexity, at any one moment society is made up of patterns, networks of connections with on-going flows between each person, organisation, city, country.

For instance, I’m writing this in a pub in Notting Hill (don’t ask, long story). Each table around me has people chatting, with the consequent flows of explicit information, implicit signals and more. Those group-specific patterns are housed within the construct of The Pub, with it’s combination of public space (what is Pub short for?), private moments and – not a minor factor – food and drink. If someone was to magic away all pubs in the UK then we’d fill that ‘pattern gap’ with something that fulfilled the same function. And indeeed, across Europe there are public places where people can privately meet for food and drink, from the French cafe to the Greek taverne. (Note: I like these others, but do have a special place in my heart for the British pub.)

At all times, in all situations, we are playing a part in a pattern, actually many parts in many patterns. If we act as we always have – reacting angrily to X or avoiding Y – then the pattern is repeated, the status quo reaffirmed. If we step out of the pattern, if we do something different, then a new way forward becomes available.

What matters, in terms of creating change, is to realise that that status quo is not a static block of ice to unfreeze, change and refreeze (a la Lewin).

The status quo is an on-going pattern of activity which is usually relatively stable over time. All individuals are in a network of relationships, constantly having a flow of information, resources and more (see the pamphlet I co-wrote on Value Networks). The macro social superstructure is made up of the combination and interaction (not aggregation) of the many micro patterns.

Change, then, has to start with at least one individual changing what they do, so this micro-level pattern is disrupted, and so that macro-level structure can be shifted.

This illuminates why Jon and Rich’s work is so exciting. They are both attempting initiatives which stand a chance of helping many, many people to have the ability to act from where they are. Whatever those people do is a potential disturbance. Just getting the current UK economy to be more agile and responsive to individuals – and less stuck with current incumbents whether public or private sector – would be a good thing. Other long-lasting macro shifts could follow from many of those individuals acting in similar ways in different places.

Orit’s ideas (which I may have mis-explained, by the way) really chime with mine. In my blog about Quadrangle Trust retreat I spoke about how If we want a future with particular qualities, then these also need to be evoked in the experiences we have along the way. One individual can do things differently – wash up differently, run a business differently – and that can have profound effects, in certain circumstances. My hypothesis is that the macro-level impacts can happen where many others are acting with same beliefs-in-action. But I’m afraid that will have to wait for a different blog post.

Enough, for now, to salute these three individuals, who themselves are stepping out of the default patterns of the status quo in order to create the vehicles where many millions of others can also step out of their patterns. How inspiring!

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