A Great Transformation

iStock_000004882942Small.jpgAs my own work enters a new and exciting phase, I find myself considering three intersecting and co-evolving forces: the Obama Moment, the New Great Transformation and the Social Web. I see signals in these forces of a new resilience just when we most need it.

The convergence of these forces in the context of tremendous global economic, environmental and political uncertainty signals an opportunity for renewal by change-makers, social innovators and social entrepreneurs for the benefit of us all. The complexity of the world requires better solutions, and we know from the open innovation literature that the ideas we need today do not live within a single organization.

Is this a truly transformative moment at a critical point in human history? Is a new social, economic, environmental and cultural resilience possible, or will status quo forces reassert themselves?

Full essay after the jump…

The New Great Transformation

Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest and his talks paint a picture of an emergent immune response to global environmental and social injustice in the form of a global and decentralized social movement unlike anything that has come before. When you have some time to reflect, I recommend the video of the full Long Now talk.

Paul Hawken: The New Great Transformation from The Long Now Foundation on FORA.tv

Hawken describes an emerging movement of NGOs around the world concerned with values of economic, environmental and social justice – projecting a set of global cultural creative values throughout the world.He describes this as a movement unlike any other in history. It is new, because it is not driven by a single charismatic leader with a unifying ideology. This movement is not devoid of ideology, of course, but it is primarily pragmatic and solutions-oriented about propagating memes, while being driven by a unifying set of values rather than an integrated ideological system.

Up to now every ism became a schism. This movement is born atomized.

This movement is also not trying to aggregate power onto itself, but rather it seeks to disperse pathological concentrations of power that are harmful to the sustainability of human and other life on earth. It is less about gaining power than it is about permeating our institutions with ideas and memes, trying them out to see what works, letting them go if they don’t.

Hawken claims that we are observing the end of isms. Moving from a world of privilege to a world of community. In his view, Neo-conservatism, religious and economic fundamentalism are vestigial reactions to the threat to traditional concentrations of power that is posed by this movement.

The Social Web

The emergence of a self-organizing global civil society movement that Hawken describes is enabled and accelerated by social web tools. Those who are building these tools, learning about how they are eliciting new kinds of human behaviour, and developing practices to connect those tools with the challenges and opportunities of contemporary global life are engaged in building the architecture for Hawken’s Great Transformation.

Whether in social movements, government or corporate life, the technologies and behaviours of the Social Web are already having a huge impact. This is only beginning, and these impacts will become more and more visible in the years to come, as Generation Y grows into itself and assumes its place in our organizations and our politics.

The Obama Moment

We may see a truly transformational leader take the world stage in January 2009.

Barack Obama’s recent speech on race in America, A More Perfect Union, is the closest thing I have witnessed to transformational leadership in action. This is a new style of leadership, one born out of a deep understanding of complexity of the post-modern world, steeped in grassroots community organization, recalling the best oratory from history and realized through the enabling networks, technologies and participatory practices of the Social Web. Just one of the reactions:

What I heard today, though, was not a political speech in the sense we have gotten used to in this country. I heard instead a speech that, as much as it was about Obama and Wright, was also about us. Our politics does not quite know how to handle such a thing; campaigns are meant to tell people what they can expect to receive, not to ask them to understand, forgive, and reach out. [The Plank]

A politician promoting self-help and social change. This is new. It is not the nanny-state, nor is it laissez-faire neo-liberalism. Hillary Clinton says “I will do this for you”, Barack Obama says “we can do this, but only together”. Absolutely progressive, but pragmatist and post-ideological. Somebody who does not shy away from complexity, his 37 minute speech receiving 3 million views on YouTube in a few days thereby bypassing the 15 second sound-bite horror show that is cable news. Obama is a politician who uses the Social Web not only to communicate but, as Sean Howard argues, to gain insight and enable our participation:

Even if Obama fails to achieve his goal of becoming President of the United States, I predict he will have a deeper and more powerful understanding of the American people than anyone in the history of politics. He will have engaged at a level yet to be fully grasped or understood. [CrapHammer]

The importance of Obama isn’t so much his policies, the man himself or even his potential to transform US and international politics. His importance is that he is the FIRST of his kind – a political leader that understands and is able to intelligently tap the forces of Hawken’s “New Great Transformation” using the tools of the Social Web – in order to bring participation back into democracy. This is my great hope: that others will learn and will follow.

My Work – Government 2.0?

These converging forces and my own recent work is giving me greater focus about the direction for my consulting work and greater clarity around my social mission. What is it that I do, and why am I doing it? I am wrestling with some key questions:

  1. What is the relationship between the world of control (corporations, government, governance, policy, politics) and this emerging decentralized global social movement?
  2. What is the interface between hierarchies and heterarchies? How do we break the boundaries between them and create a fusion of these categories for mutual benefit?
  3. What is the relationship between global, networked movements and place? How do we reimagine the local in the face of a profoundly changed global context?

I suppose you could say that I work in the Government 2.0 space. I do spend a lot of time working on projects related to public policy and planning, but I’m reluctant to attach myself to 2.0-anything. The term “Web 2.0” didn’t help us understand the Social Web with any particular insight, so I’m reluctant to hop on the Gov2.0 bandwagon. But I will try to give some definition to how these emerging trends impact the public sphere.

My reading of whatever “Government 2.0” is is not about “E-Government”. It is not about info-age efficiency from automating government services using web tools, however useful and beneficial these applications of technology might be. E-Government is not transformational change, it is incremental change.

The E-Government discourse does not allow for insight about what public policy should be and how its goals can be achieved. Nor does it provide guidance about how the private and public spheres collaborate in new ways to produce those public benefits.

My focus on public engagement and open innovation models in Government and governance is in part about enabling a new conversation about how we develop policy and plans, how regular citizens can become part of a solution-making process and how we can reconsider and reconfigure the public sphere in order to get better solutions. It is about open innovation applied to developing public policy solutions – inside or outside government.

And yes, this is an emerging field of practice, with much that is not yet well understood. So I look for collaborators and clients who are interested in doing innovative work in this emerging space; groups of passionate individuals interested in playing midwife to something new that is actually pretty old: nature reasserting itself as a form of social resilience to global change.

7 thoughts on “A Great Transformation”

  1. I think you should look at Foucault for your analysis. It’s a natural fit: you are speaking about control (power) and discourse. Dispense with the categories that people like to place him in (post-structuralism be dammned), and I think you will find an interesting and subtle ally. I think you’ll end up finding a bleaker picture of reality, since the relationship of control and the discourse and organizational tools are going to be, by necessity (in my opinion), more restrictive.

  2. Really interesting application of some ideas to something that has been abnormally emotional.

    I never went past the “This feels good, and damn that’s a change from what we’re used to.”

    So reading this post is a treat because the ideas behind the emotions are just as exciting as the possibilities and “hope” involved!! Love it!

  3. It’s almost 2 a.m. where I am and I’ve just finished a brief and somewhat fluffy piece examining the phenomena of Obama and Palin. In seeking out additional information about Obama’s transformative capacity, Google got me here. This note is to thank you for your expansion of my knowledge.

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