The Participation Paradigm (Pt. 2): The Social Economy and Collaborative Facilitation Processes

What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now is fine with me, but I’m happy to consider your opinion as well.  
-“Protest” Sign at Rally to Restore Sanity, Washington, DC

Occupy London, like the movement more generally, has opened up a space for public dialogue. By naming the systemic problems facing our society, the movement has invited people to question their relationships to corrupting and regressive institutions. Within this new space of possibilities, society has been asked to explore its values and priorities; it has been shown a different way of living and relating to one another through a dynamic mixture of participatory events and processes contributing to the life of the camp. In questioning the relevance of old-paradigm institutions such as the centralized state and the financial system to adequately address converging crises – and working towards systemic solutions to these crises through civic engagement – Occupy London is a unique manifestation of the social economy in action.

According to Robin Murray, the social economy is that area of economic activity “not geared to private profitability”. It is motivated explicitly by social values and yet, contrary to mainstream economic theory, has resulted in widespread social innovation and production. The development and integration of more collaborative methods of group facilitation represents a particularly exciting realm of innovation being explored in areas of the social economy such as Occupy camps and other hybrid social institutions.

To respond effectively to the highly complex and uncertain conditions we now find ourselves in, methods of problem-solving and community organization must also reflect complex system dynamics. Numerous examples from around the world – from participatory budgeting in Brazil to development of energy action descent plans in towns across the UK – provide evidence that more distributed and participatory group processes can be far more effective at responding to complex problems. As importantly in the long-run, such participatory processes build the foundations of a more inclusive and democratic society by contributing to a different cultural narrative of empowerment and community agency. Participants in such processes shift from consumers of goods and services to co-producers of the life of society.

As a way of simultaneously adding to the critique of our dominant growth-based economic paradigm and introducing more collaborative, dynamic forms of group engagement to the Occupy London community, I developed and facilitated a participatory visioning workshop. Entitled “Occupy the Future! Re-envisioning Economics in an Ecological World,” this workshop drew on the perspectives of ecological and transition economics to suggest alternative approaches to the institutionalized problems of resource over-exploitation and increasing wealth disparity. Crucially though, these concepts were introduced using inclusive and participatory techniques which transformed participants from passive audience to active co-creators of the learning experience.

The arc of the workshop was inspired in part by the transformative learning model practiced at Schumacher College: we began by exploring the implications of our dominant cultural narrative on economic and ecological systems, embodied ourselves as members in a vast and interconnected community of life, personally envisioned what a sustainable and equitable future might look and feel like, and finally created a collective vision of the type of economy which might support this sustainable, equitable, meaningful future for all. The results of this creative and collaborative process were highly consistent with the decentralized, re-localized, post-carbon future envisioned by, among others, the Transition Network (2009), E.F. Schumacher (1973), and the new economics foundation (2009).

Equally as important as the content of the workshop were the methods chosen to facilitate it. We employed proven self-organizing techniques such as Open Space Technology (used frequently by the Transition Network), personal visioning processes developed by Joanna Macy, Starhawk and others, as well as embodiment activities developed by Robin de Carteret and others at Schumacher College.  The cumulative effect of these activities was intended to be a feeling of empowerment about the future, rooted in the re-imagining of ourselves as active co-creators of our current and future communities. In nurturing the collective intelligence of the group – regardless of (or perhaps because of) the fact that it consisted largely of strangers – we arrived at far richer and more compelling visions of the future; richer due to the diversity of experience represented in the group, and more compelling because the vision was shared and thus responsible to more than one individual.

Social innovators such as Charles Eisenstein and Alpha Lo have written on the many varied techniques that might be employed to further develop the participation paradigm in settings such as Occupy communities. From Gift Circles to Appreciative Inquiry and World Cafe processes, there exist a growing abundance of facilitation methods that both harness and embody the self-organizing, non-hierarchical networks of the social economy. Such processes have the potential to contribute to a virtuous cycle of empowerment and participation because they simultaneously teach new ways of relating and exchanging information, while also creating more generative solutions to complex problems arising out of the collective and distributed intelligence of social networks.

A New Paradigm

Our stories guide us to write our reality. And because we then see our reality through these stories we think that is all that is possible. We collectively create these self-imposed constraints on reality. When we write new stories, our collective reality becomes different, we interact in new ways, we build new things, a whole new world becomes possible.
– Alpha Lo

The universe is pregnant with both uncertainty and potential. How we understand our collective and individual roles in shaping an uncertain future is significantly conditioned by the dominant cultural narrative, or paradigm, influencing us. In a period increasingly characterized by rapid non-linear change – in ecosystem functioning and climate regulation, in financial stability, in political representation and inclusiveness – we must employ a new set of tools, processes, and forms of organization more coherent with the nature of the world as we now know it.

The participation paradigm, then, represents a growing acknowledgment of the failure of neoclassical market mechanisms to fulfill our individual and collective needs above a certain threshold of material comfort. The narrative of citizen as consumer is both profoundly degrading to our higher potentials and materially destructive as the linear industrial economy threatens to transgress ecological limits. In its place, a more ecologically sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling paradigm of co-creation and mutual aid.

While it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the efficacy of ongoing developments such as the Occupy movement to catalyze systemic change, I have placed trends towards more participatory and distributed forms of organization in the context of the emerging social economy, an area of the socio-economic system better suited to respond innovatively to change. Examples of social innovation in action are demonstrating how we can organize our communities around something more meaningful than monetary transactions, that we can choose to base our relationships on cooperation instead of competition, generosity instead of greed, creation instead of consumption.

If our “Occupy the Future!” workshop was any indication, a meaningful exploration of the future begins with participation in the present. Individual and collective empowerment provides a limitless source of innovation and resilience, and thus simply re-envisioning ourselves as co-creators of the future brings us one step closer to realizing it. As one participant commented at the end of our workshop,

“What I’m taking away with me is this idea that much of the time we imagine that the future is something that happens to us, that it’s up to other people as to how the world is going to be. This [workshop] has reinforced the idea that actually we all create the future together. We are co-creating it. “

Participation, in all its manifold expressions, provides a way of re-experiencing the world in a more empowered way. In participating more fully in the life of society, we enter into relationship with all our fellow participators. And if the currency of the new social economy is relationships, then the revolution truly is love.

The Participation Paradigm (pt. 1): Decision-Making Processes in the New Social Economy

The converging social, economic, and ecological crises of the 21st century demand a radically new approach to understanding and relating to the world. Given the complexity of these crises, old hierarchical structures of organization and thinking are inadequately situated to respond to the dynamic uncertainties of this world in transition. Yet, along the margins of the old paradigm we are now witnessing the flowering of more fluid expressions of living and relating, better able to respond to and anticipate shocks to the interconnected ecological-economic system.

Consensus decision-making at Occupy LSX

Emerging forms of distributed and participatory decision-making are evolving alongside more inclusive and collaborative group facilitation processes to create a self-organizing, interconnected, non-hierarchical body of practice coherent with our converging 21st century crises. This represents a movement from the old linear model of control to a new paradigm of participation, with the network as the central organizing principle.  Nowhere has the emergence of the participation paradigm been as visibly embodied as in the unfolding “movement without a name”: in the squares of North Africa, in the global networks of online activists, in the tent cities of the Occupy movement and the Spanish Indignados.

In the shadows of the traditional neoclassical mechanisms of the market and the state, a robust social economy is also emerging, comprised of networks of social campaigners, non-profit organizations, cooperatives, and community groups. Connected through a parallel economy of ethics and reciprocity, the social economy represents both a critique of and alternative to neoclassical economics and hierarchical political systems. It is the unfolding of a new cultural narrative based on cooperation and mutual aid, distributed systems and collective intelligence, manifesting in self-organizing patterns and the flow of network relationships.

The Occupy Movement and Innovative Decision-Making Processes

This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us!
– Occupy London General Assembly

The global Occupy movement represents a particularly unique expression of the new participation paradigm. Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as similar expressions of protest across Spain and Greece, Occupation sites have sprung up in nearly 1000 cities across the globe since September 2011. Perhaps the defining feature of this diverse movement is that it can no longer be narrowly defined as a protest at all. Many of the Occupy sites have evolved into fully functioning tent cities, complete with a decentralized system of governance, waste management services, teaching and learning programs, health and safety provisions, media teams, kitchens, and a thriving gift economy of goods and services. In these communities, people are connected not through obligation and coercion, but through participation and caring. From this perspective, Occupiers are forging an alternative model of living and relating to one another, not simply reacting to perceived injustices. And all this provocatively situated in the very shadow of the old paradigm: banks, financial institutions, and city halls.

The most notable innovation of the Occupy movement thus far has been the widespread implementation of participatory, consensus-based decision-making. Influenced by the research of anarchist, activist, and professor David Graeber, consensus decision-making is a decentralized, non-hierarchical, and completely participatory process. Unlike majority-based voting or consent systems, consensus depends on the agreement and compromise of all present participants. Decisions are only made once all objections have been addressed, and consensus is achieved through a creative process of synthesis where all voices are given equal weight. While this can result in a lengthy and sometimes messy affair, decision-making becomes a unifying process, not a polarizing one.

The decentralized nature of the decision-making process, as well as the interconnected network structure of working groups that feed information into this process, have the potential to make Occupy communities both extremely resilient as a whole and radically empowering for individual participants. As an essentially leaderless movement, the non-hierarchical structure confounds traditional methods of marginalizing opposition movements by delegitimizing or attacking the leadership. Giles Fraser, the St Pauls canon who resigned in protest of the church’s response to the Occupy London camp, compares the movement to a starfish, saying “it is precisely because Occupy is self-consciously leaderless and maddeningly amorphous that it has so much potential to regenerate the public conversation.”

One analysis of the non-hierarchical structure of the movement is that it is leader-less, but one could just as easily say that it is leader-full. The radically inclusive nature of the working groups and decision-making processes give everyone the opportunity to contribute in whatever way they are capable.  When functioning healthily, this results in a revolving door model of leadership where individuals step up for certain tasks but are continually replenished with new faces and thus new perspectives. In this way, the complexity of organizing such a diffuse and nebulous movement is distributed to the margins where the collective intelligence of the group is activated. Just as in ecosystems, diversity, cooperation and flexibility help create a resilient system better suited to the rapidly changing and uncertain environment which the camps find themselves both mirroring and responding to.

The Occupy ‘micro-societies’ also serve as training grounds and real-time laboratories for social innovation. The ability to continually experiment and respond to feedback is one of the essential qualities of a complex adaptive system, and thus Occupy communities are modeling how organizations and other complex adaptive social systems can more effectively respond to crisis. At the personal level, individuals empowered by inclusive and participatory decision-making processes will take new skills and ways of organizing out into the emerging social economy, of which many of them are already a part.

In demanding “real democracy” – a more direct and participatory form of democratic decision-making – the Occupy movement has aimed to embody what it seeks. In so doing, it has significantly contributed to a profound paradigmatic shift from control to participation, from linear hierarchical institutions to self-organizing horizontal networks. As these networks merge and flow outward, they weave an alternative cultural narrative around participation and the power of collective intelligence to respond more resiliently where hierarchical institutions and market forces have failed.

Pt. 2 will explore the social economy and collaborative group facilitation processes in the transition to the participation paradigm.

On energy systems and worldviews

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world has just 5 years in which to radically transform its carbon-intensive energy infrastructure before the “lock-in” effect will make runaway climate change inevitable. A rather somber and urgent warning from one of the world’s most respected – and conservative – energy bodies.

Given the scale and design of our industrial energy infrastructure, high-carbon energy generation – coal plants, oil refineries, natural gas fracking wells, and “unconventional” tar sands mining – will continue to emit large quantities of CO² for many years after they are built. This “lock-in” effect means that the emissions of already existing or newly built carbon-burning energy sources will persist in the environment for years – centuries in fact – even once switched off. All of this makes the recent debate over whether to further exploit dirtier, more carbon-intensive forms of energy such as tar sands all the more ludicrous.

The message from scientists and energy experts could not be clearer: according to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, “if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

An opportune time then, for the global Occupy Movement to focus on the links between a violent, unsustainable economic system and the continued exploitation and pollution of our environment. On Friday the general assembly of Occupy LSX reached preliminary consensus on an official acknowledgment of this link, adding a tenth point concerning climate change to the Occupy LSX Initial Statement. Along with the recent commitment to installing renewable energy sources such as solar panels and bicycle generators at the St. Paul’s camp, these actions go a long way towards emphasizing that it is the same underlying worldview which results in increasing concentration of wealth, corruption of the democratic process, and degradation of the one earth which all else relies upon.

People are starting to question and speak out against this entrenched economic materialism in increasing numbers. In a major victory, sustained non-violent actions against the Keystone XL pipeline in the US and Canada has resulted in the Obama administration delaying approval of the pipeline until at least next year, effectively killing the project according to Bill McKibben and 350.org. A network of activists and ordinary citizens worried about the health affects of fracking are currently organizing a large protest in New Jersey on November 21 to prevent fracking in the Delaware River Basin, the source of drinking water for 16 million people. And of course, the global Occupy Movement has galvanized action against the pervasive corporate influence that has so entrenched the fossil-fuel and finance industries perpetrating these crimes against the earth.

A solidarity action in front of the US Embassy in London protesting the Keystone XL pipeline (Nov 6)

What the mainstream media misses though, is that opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and other similar projects is not simply about avoiding potential environmental and economic disasters like oil spills; it’s about preventing inevitable environmental and social disasters like irreversible climate change and increased privatization of the commons. Even if the pipeline does its job perfectly, ‘safely’ transporting crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the US gulf coast, in simply consuming the resulting oil we will knowingly and consciously do more harm to the environment than any single oil spill could ever do.

It is the fundamental set of assumptions behind this pipeline – that the earth is for our exploitation, that increasing consumption will lead to higher wellbeing, that neoliberal economic policies are what is best for all – that people are beginning to reject in critical numbers.

The fact that this pipeline, like all other carbon-intensive energy projects, is painted as a savior for unemployed workers proves how untenable our current economic system really is. Yes, millions of people desperately need jobs – but not ones that will systematically destroy job opportunities and the potential to flourish for all future generations. In fact, the rapacious and extractive capitalist economy which depends on these types of massive projects necessitates systemic unemployment to keep labor costs down and maintain a surplus of workers willing to compete for any task offered to them.

Ultimately, long-term solutions designed to prevent climate change and restore the environment are also the only long-term solution to the systemic unemployment embedded in our industrial economy. And more crucially, they are solutions that restore the intrinsic dignity and meaning of work.

The transition to local, distributed, and restorative energy systems will not only drastically reduce carbon emissions and reduce environmental degradation, it will also redistribute economic and political power away from corporations and large-scale bureaucracies to communities and bioregions. Already several Transition Towns across the UK, including an ongoing project where I live in Totnes, have funded and built their own community power stations using entirely renewable energy sources. This simultaneously frees communities from dependence on fossil fuels and gives them complete autonomy over their energy supply.  The installation and maintenance of small-scale, community-owned energy systems also keeps jobs and money in local communities.

What we are talking about is not simply a matter of reconfiguring our energy infrastructure or reforming the financial system though. In the words of Joanna Macy, this is about shifting from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society – a shift in values which places people and planet over profits and recognizes the intrinsic value of all life. This is the shift at the heart of the Occupy Movement because it represents the deepest challenge to the status quo. When our energy systems (and all other social systems) reflect a different, life-sustaining worldview, we will live in a much more just and healthier world.