Social networks are hardly news. Everyone participates in networks in our families, schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. For activists from Mahatma Gandhi to current Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street leaders, understanding networks, linking together citizens and harnessing the power of network connectivity have been central to creating social impact.
The reason to use the language of networks today is because there are now countless venues where citizens can connect with one another, nurture networks and create change for themselves and their communities. Many of these efforts were novel experiments just five to ten years ago. The crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi was piloted in 2007 and is now critical to relief efforts in crisis situations. Facebook has grown from zero users in 2004 to 800 million, or nearly one out of every nine people in the world. This story of an increasingly networked citizenry is also about face-to-face relationships. Saddleback Church, for example, has grown from 200 churchgoers in 1980 to 20,000 attending weekly services at the megachurch’s southern California campus in 2011. Its growth and sustained participation have been driven by the strong ties that are nurtured through small clusters of members who regularly come together. Small efforts to connect and empower people today could be transformative in just a few years.
Understanding such network projects and the practices that are enabling their success was the focus of a Monitor Institute and Knight Foundation study, which resulted in the report, Connected Citizens: The Power, Peril, and Potential of Networks. We studied over 70 projects —mostly in the United States and some in other countries—that are helping individuals make the change they want in the world. We focused our inquiry on efforts that are embracing a network-centric approach, a way of working that is open and decentralized. Many of them are technologically enabled. Others are rooted in in-person relationships. Most combine online and offline interaction, as well as insights from the open-source movement and grassroots organizing. All of them are about making connections.
We gleaned from our research a set of “network-centric practices” that enable citizen-centered change and capitalize on the increasingly connected and interdependent world in which we live. Like the projects we studied, some of these practices are long established, others are newer, and all represent alternatives to traditional ways of getting things done.
These are not stand-alone models. Projects using a network-centric approach are likely to embrace many such strategies at the same time. The point here is not to create a dichotomy, suggesting the common method is bad and the network-centric alternative good. We believe that skillfully blending the two will be an important leadership ability in the coming years. For example, city officials in Chicago mounted a campaign called “Give a Minute,” asking all citizens to contribute suggestions about how to increase walking, biking and the use of public transportation. They pledged to read every submission, give direct responses and incorporate the voice of the public into their decisions, while still making the final policy choices themselves.
|CHALLENGE||TRADITIONAL PRACTICE||NETWORK-CENTRIC PRACTICE|
|Inform designs and decisions||Gather input from trusted advisers||Listen to and consult the crowds: Actively listen to online conversations and openly ask for advice.|
|Connect a community with shared interests||Hold a structured conference||Design for serendipity: Create environments, in person and online, where helpful connections can form.|
|Build social capital||Connect with people who are like you||Bridge differences: Deliberately connect people with different perspectives.|
|Match community needs with available assets||Provide services to those in need||Catalyze mutual support: Help people directly help each other.|
|Organize community action||Organize a consensus-driven coalition||Provide handrails for collective action: Give enough direction for individuals to take effective and coordinated action.|
While the field of network-centric civic action is rich, it’s still in its early days. Most of the projects we looked at are experiments, just a year or two underway. We have articulated these emerging practices in the hope that social change makers will use these observations to grow and evolve this high-potential field.
The question to ask yourself is: where are there opportunities to break out of default ways of working and experiment with network-centric approaches to scale your impact?
Image credit: teaparty.org