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 ecology of Occupy Wall Street

This morning I decided to read a newspaper, something I rarely do these days. Here’s why: a two-page spread in The Guardian contained articles on a new oil spill off the coast of New Zealand, widespread protests in Bolivia against exploitation of indigenous land, a scientific conference confirming the existence of the Yeti, and a meteorite crashing through someone’s roof in France. The other half of the spread was advertisements.

The world is changing rapidly around us – environmental degradation, social dislocation, and financial collapse are no longer taking place in distant lands or in a distant future. They are affecting our lives on a daily basis, whether we live in Bolivia, New Zealand, Siberia, or Paris.

In this incredibly unique stage of global transition, we have a choice as individuals, communities, and societies: sit quietly by as an impartial world changes around us or empower each other to stand up against an immoral system. Increasingly, people – the 99% – are taking that stand.


The people of Bolivia and New York City are part of the same movement, whether they realize it or not. So are the thousands who have protested against piping tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands which if magically burned overnight would shoot the CO² concentration in our atmosphere instantly from  391 ppm to well over 500 ppm. According to Bill McKibben (who visited Schumacher College last week), James Hansen, and pretty much every other scientist to consider this, the burning of this source of carbon will fundamentally and irreversibly change our planet. If that happens, it may not matter who are the rich and who the poor – we will all share the same fate.

And herein lies the strength of this burgeoning movement – it can no longer be narrowly defined as the “environmental movement” or the “social justice” movement. It crosses all causes, all classes, all countries. Without equality, we live in an unjust and unhappy world. But without a stable, resilient, healthy planet, who knows how we live at all.

Speakers at the Schumacher Centenary included environmental lawyer Polly Higgins, post-growth economist Tim Jackson, Transition Town founder Rob Hopkins, and educator and activist Satish Kumar.

It is no longer just “activists” voicing these concerns, but  people from all walks of life. Last weekend I attended a conference to celebrate, explore, and further the ideas of E.F. Schumacher, the pioneer of holistic economics. The speakers included not just environmental organizers and green economists inspired by Schumacher’s ideas but also a lawyer, a banker, and a politician. Things are beginning to change, indeed.

Occupy Wall Street, now rapidly spreading across the US and elsewhere (there are demonstrations planned for London this weekend), is a collective expression of outrage. It is about reclaiming some agency in the effort to move beyond a crumbling and corrupt system. It may not have a unified voice or demand, but right now its diversity and passion are its strengths.

Whether non-violently occupying downtown Manhattan, marching 50 days across Bolivia to La Paz, or holding a bicycle rally in one of 2000 cities across the world, this is about exploring the space of possibility. We need the courage to name what is wrong, envision a positive alternative…and ultimately to embrace a profoundly unknown future with compassion and community.

All of these popular movements, from Tunisia to London to Wall Street, are part of the same process of creative destruction, of reclaiming our right and our responsibility to create a world where everyone, human and non-human, has the opportunity to flourish.

We have a choice. And a responsibility – to ourselves, our fellow beings on this planet, our children and their children. No one has the One Solution to fix it all. The collective genius is beginning to activate though, in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. As the late great Wangari Maathai once said, “Only those who risk going too far can know how far they can go.”