Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World

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Posted: Friday, November 12, 2010 3:02 pm

I came of age in the 1960s, when, with the music of the Beatles serving as the soundscape, America was stirred by antiwar protests, civil rights marches, and dreams of a better world. This heady time impressed on my young psyche both the firm belief that we can change the world, and the equally firm desire to do so. My favorite Beatles song, although he was not still a Beatle at the time, was John Lennon's "Imagine." I loved the song then, and I still love it today, because it is unapologetically visionary and optimistic about what is possible for our world. Its power comes from Lennon's willingness to dream and his courage to share his dream with others.

Like John Lennon and so many others, I dream of a world that is possible but does not yet exist. In large and small ways I have spent most of my adult life attempting to create such a world. Along the way I discovered the secret of being a dreamer. If your dream is compelling enough it draws forth your passion and this keeps you motivated to stay with it even when the odds are against you. And if you stay with something long enough, eventually you wring out the truths needed to bring it to fruition.

I also draw inspiration from how Thomas Jefferson handled the assignment given to him by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to write a statement declaring America's independence from Great Britain. Jefferson transformed what could have been a mundane document into a transcendent vision of possibility for how human beings might live. His dream for America stunned Adams and Franklin and became the rallying motto of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was inspired. He tapped deeply into his imagination and crafted a document that would come to epitomize the American dream and inspire many to seek this country's shores in search of it.

He courageously envisioned the world anew and then helped create it. Some have called the creation of America one of the great social innovations of human civilization. The boldness of this dream inspired him and stirred the blood of his fellow patriots. With this inspiration they were willing to release their attachment to a known but deeply compromised reality and embark on a transformative journey to create a world of fresh possibilities.

It is time to dream again. So many of the assumptions we have been operating with as a human community have proved faulty that this generation must literally re-envision them. And with the accelerating unraveling of our planet's life support system and the deterioration of so many of our social systems, we are being called to create rapid transformative change. But the current social change tools at our disposal - passing laws, adjusting tax policy, and public protest - were designed for slow-moving incremental change.

We are being called to reinvent not only our world, but also the process by which we achieve this reinvention. If the current social change tools of carrots, sticks, and protests are not sufficient, what else do we have? Are there assumptions we might rethink about what motivates people to change? Taking a page from Jefferson's playbook, might we be able to motivate people to change because of a dream that inspires their imagination, enlivens their sense of possibility, and lifts their spirit as human beings? Or to ask this question in a more tangible way, how might we empower people to voluntarily adopt new behaviors that help them, their community, and their organizations operate at a higher level of social value so we can realize more of our potential as a human species?

I have been attempting to answer this question over the past three decades, at the individual, local, national, and international levels; working with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and ad-hoc community groups; in developed and developing countries alike, and around a multiplicity of issues.

My research has taught me that people are willing to change if they have a compelling vision and are provided tools to help them bring it into being. The vision must touch their core to engender the necessary passion and commitment needed to overcome the inevitable obstacles on the path of realization. They need others of like mind going on the journey with them to stay motivated. And with a well-designed transformative change platform that is replicable, these behavior changes can be widely disseminated throughout a community, organization, country, and across the planet.

I have also seen that when individuals become personally part of the solution it creates a new dynamic in the way we tackle large societal challenges. We are able to see beyond the traditional social change formula of business as the problem and government as the solution, with nonprofits lobbying government for better regulations against business and citizens sitting on the sidelines complaining about the coziness between politicians and business.

When citizens are empowered to adopt socially beneficial behaviors, such as a green lifestyle, for example, an opening can occur for traditionally adversarial relationships to establish new arrangements of cooperation and collaboration in service of this new voting constituency and purchasing community. When all the parts of a system begin working together and there is no "other" to combat or protect against, more innovative and generative solutions start to emerge.

The model of social change that I have been describing represents what systems theory calls second order change - change that transforms and reorganizes a system to a higher level of performance. When the easier-to-implement change solutions are exhausted and prove inadequate for the magnitude of change required, the system goes into stress and must either evolve or breakdown. To evolve our social systems we need a new framework. I call it "Social Change 2.0." It stands on the shoulders of "Social Change 1.0" - command and control, financial incentives, and protest - because it could not function optimally without the rule of law and a democratic form of government that allow for free expression. But it is designed to go beyond the constraints purposefully built into this more incremental approach to change.

The Social Change 2.0 framework aspires to tread in the territory where some have thrown up their hands and wondered if change was really possible. It addresses issues that are complex and require many people to change fundamentally; issues for which there are no easy solutions and those that exist are exceedingly difficult to implement and require the cooperation of the whole system; issues which if not adequately addressed will cause an ecological or social system to break down. These issues include global warming, depletion of our nonrenewable natural resources, chronic poverty, disease epidemics, terrorism, ethnic and racial animosity, the disenfranchisement of women and minorities, and overpopulation.

Global warming is a prime example of the need for a second order change solution. Al Gore calls this a "planetary emergency" because our future well-being as a human species is at stake. Jim Hansen, NASA's chief climate scientist, says we have at most ten years to start turning global warming around or "suffer a planet that is not conducive to human life." The New York Times says the "climate crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little choices. Most of them made by us (consumer spending in America makes up 70 percent of our economy) and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences."

Social Change 2.0 has a simple and some might say radical premise: that the natural starting point for changing our world for the better is us. That taking personal responsibility to make the needed changes within ourselves and our communities is the foundation for changing our institutions, not the other way around. That people are willing to make these changes if empowered by a personal vision and the means to bring it to fruition. That these changes can be accelerated and reinforced with the right laws and financial incentives, but it begins with us.

Five design principles collectively represent the Social Change 2.0 framework:

• Empowering people to voluntarily adopt new behaviors beneficial to themselves and society

• Transforming dysfunctional or marginally effective social systems so they can achieve a higher level of performance and social value

• Inventing and implementing transformative social innovations

• Building a more collaborative playing field to maximize the potential of a social system or social innovation

• Leveraging and disseminating social innovations at larger levels of scale.

I have no pretensions to believe that the Social Change 2.0 design principles and practices are the solution for any of the enormous challenges facing us as a human community. The nature of these problems defies any single approach to change. But I have seen enough evidence applying these tools over the past thirty years to believe that they can make a contribution, either in whole or in part, to tackling issues requiring fundamental transformative change.

And the key to this kind of change is harnessing a special type of thinking which I call "social creativity." The objective of social creativity is twofold: to evolve the existing social systems and institutions we have created, which in turn have created the boundaries of our assumptions and expectations of what is possible; and to generate the new social innovations that are now needed by society.

This is the type of thinking that Jefferson and his fellow founders employed to create the social experiment of America. But Jefferson went one step further. He provided us with a core design principle for his social change philosophy considered so important by future generations that they etched it in stone on the fourth panel of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. He said:

Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

In short, we must continually evolve our social systems to reflect the changes occurring in our world and humankind's development. To be able to do this successfully with the civilization-threatening challenges we now face will require us to dig deep into our reservoir of social creativity. But humanity's survival instinct and inventiveness have always been at their best when backed against the wall. That is why we are still here as a species. It is also during these times of greatest need that the most visionary, talented, and passionate among us are aroused to action. That was the case in Jefferson's time and it is happening once again.

The human species - willingly, or fighting and kicking - will need to engage in momentous change over the next decades. How we fare on this journey will determine the fate for generations into the foreseeable future. Whether you are a social activist, social entrepreneur, or community organizer; elected official or civil servant; foundation program officer or social venture capitalist; business leader or teacher; Boomer looking for a way to give back; or a Millennial just starting your first career and raring to go, it is time to reinvent the world. Let's get started.

 

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