We each have the capacity to become skillful network weavers — individuals who guide the threads of connection that bring together people, places, and ideas for transformative action. Network weaving is an essential function in any growing social movement.
Below are some key patterns I’ve learned through my work weaving collaborative networks of ecovillages, intentional communities, and permaculture projects. This isn’t an exhaustive list. I’m constantly learning new tools and principles to aid my work. I hope you glean some insight from the patterns… and feel motivated to get out there and start connecting us!
Robert Gilliam, who coined the term ecovillage and helped form the Global Ecovillage Network in the 1980s, told me once, “Networks are yin.”
It was a powerful moment of realization. Networks are yin! Networks are about the subtle, invisible, relational, flowing. We should not expect nor force our networks to express “yang energy.” Sometimes a network can burst out projects, organizations, actions. But on is own, a network is yin. Let’s not underestimate the power of yin.
Are you valuing the subtle and invisible aspects of your network?
Networks are inherently decentralized. Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, says that the movement of movements underfoot towards a more just and ecological society is difficult for the media to see because it doesn’t have a single charismatic leader at its head. Strong ecosystems of collaboration are not without leaders, they are leader-full. Every individual is invited to step into their leadership capacities within various centers of activity. A strong network enhances the number and capacity of many centers. If you desire one command center, you will lose the potential of a network.
How can you strengthen many leaders and centers within your network?
“Focus on critical connections more than critical mass – build the resilience by building the relationships.”— Adrienne Maree Brown
It’s helpful to think of networks not as the sum of many fixed points, but as the sum of interactions amongst many nodes. Like water or air, networks flow towards the spaces in-between. Practically, this means that a network is built on connection, communication, and sharing. Networks happen when we create space for exchange. Globalization, in no small thanks to the internet, allows us to carry out exchange at previously unimaginable speeds and distances. Our networks are larger than ever before.
How can you enlarge and enhance the spaces for interaction throughout your network?
The Participatory Commons is a model that colleagues at VillageLab are developing. We know that trust strengthens a network, which is why nuclear families can be viewed as the strongest of all networks. On the other end of the spectrum is the network of a nation, large in size but much weaker in trust. Their model suggests that it is possible to maintain trust at larger scales, if we foster the “participatory commons.” Intentional communities and business cooperatives are examples of this potential. More people trusting each other means more networking capacity.
How can you increase the scale of trust within your network?
Much of my understanding of networks draws from the tenants of social permaculture. Permaculture being the principles of nature applied to built environments. Social permaculture being the application of nature’s wisdom to social environments.
The following network patterns are specifically drawn from how nature operates.
In nature, life happens above and below a platform. Imagine a healthy forest, with tree branches growing towards the sky and roots burying underground, all anchored in place by a platform of soil. We often hear the word “platform” in the context of digital information technology. Facebook is a platform bringing together people from around the world, AirBnB connects strangers in private homes, Uber allows us to get rides from people we’ve never met, Meetup brings together people with similar interests for in-person gatherings. Platforms are the meeting place for networks.
What is the meeting place, the platform, online or physical for your network to exist?
The health of an ecosystem is measured by the quality and frequency of exchange amongst its elements. A healthy ecosystems is one where many different kinds of species, animal and vegetation, practice exchange. During my permaculture design course, I learned that plants give back about 20% of their sugars freely into the soil to support the growth of surrounding life. I haven’t yet done the research to confirm this figure, but isn’t that idea incredible! What if you gave away 20% of your energy freely to benefit the lives of those around you? What if we all did that?
How can you engender a high level and frequency of exchange within your network?
Permaculture teaches us the design principle of edge. When a forest meets a meadow, or a meadow meets a pond, the most biodiversity and exchange is found. Edges are extremely valuable in any ecosystem. That’s why lots of permaculturalists will tell you to design your pond in a wavy pattern, instead of a round circle. Those waves create more edge. The best way I have found to create more network edge is to offer opportunities. Instead of approaching a project or problem thinking, how can I make the most of this? Think to yourself, how can I create the most opportunity for others? Offer people jobs, purpose, responsibility, spaces to give. That’s how you grow edge.
How can you create more edge within your network?
We know biodiversity is being lost at a frightening speed. Well, so too is cultural diversity. We lose one language every two weeks. Each language represents an entirely unique way of seeing the world, a perspective that is nearly impossible to recover once gone. Listen to the margins of your network. Value the diversity. Spend time with people who are not like you.
I’m on the Board of Directors for a small non-profit organization that has historically been made up of white, middle-class, rural folks. We recently welcomed an urban woman of color onto the Board. It was amazing to witness how her presence and perspective changed the nature of the conversations we usually have. It broadened our view, challenged us, reshaped our questions. I hope every group has the opportunity to be shaken up thanks to the voice of someone new.
Who is at the margins of your network and how can you center their voice?
Fractals, repeating patterns, are found throughout our universe. The swirling pattern on your finger pad is reflected in the patterns of shifting land masses and the stars of the milky way. A friend told me about a saying they often use in their ecovillage, “how we are doing is what we do.” What you do on the smallest scale reverberates to the largest scale. In my work, I try to be as conscious as possible about what kind of state I’m in every time I open my laptop to work. Do I feel frustrated and unmotivated? Then better not to send that email or write up that report right now. I believe that one’s state of being carries an energetic signature that people can sense in every piece of work you create.
What kind of energy do you want to have fractal through your network?
All of life happens on a spectrum between total destruction (chamos) and total command (control). Networks will not function with too much order, nor with too much chaos. As network weavers, we must develop the skill of navigating the “chaordic.” Chaordic is the combination of chaos and order. Chaordic teaches us how to let go of structure and how to set boundaries. Chaordic shows us how to be at once nonlinear or unpredictable and how to retain our integrity. Chaordic is the messy space where collective intelligence is most alive.
What skills do you need to navigate the chaordic? Are you pulled more towards either chaos or order?
Like any living system, networks are dynamic. They are constantly changing and adapting. Networks unveil the true nature of life – it is never the same twice. If you are more comfortable with status quo and routine, a network will push you off balance. Much like surfing a wave or gliding down a snowy slope, the more stiff you hold yourself, the more likely you are to fall. Masters in any field are constantly adapting to their medium, receiving feedback, changing course, designing anew, even in subtle ways. As network weavers, we see the value in dynamicism because it creates resilience over time. We are not afraid of change.
How are you dynamic and how do you allow for dynamism in your network?
Greta Thunberg sparked a worldwide movement of schoolchildren striking for our climate. Each Friday thousands of them take to the streets and demand action to protect their future and that of the environment. This young woman sat for months outside of Swedish parliament, before her action caught the world’s attention. Sitting isn’t such a remarkable act. Yet, it was the spark for great things to happen. It transformed a worldwide network into a social movement. Much like Occupy, the Arab Spring or the Iceland Revolution, modern-day social movements have been prepared over years of building critical connections and laying social foundations that are ready for a spark to ignite them, catalyzed by the vast communications channels of online media. At any moment there could be another spark. There’s no planning this, there’s no telling where or when the small actions of brave people will set into motion a revolution. Networks are the birthing ground for movements.
Can you appreciate the unrealized potential of what you are building? Will you be able to see the spark?
“Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.”— Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
The book, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, describes the necessity of these two feelings in any network on its way to becoming a social movement. We need to be mad about something, or deeply sad, or terrified. If the feeling is strong enough it propels to be brave and take action. No one protests on the street because they think the world is dandy. Sure, there is much to celebrate in the world today. We live in the most peaceful time in history, with better access to health care and education than ever before. No matter where you are in the world, things have improved slowly over time. And there is still much work to do. Transform the pain into a fire that fuels your response to the world’s crises.
What makes you really angry, sad or afraid? What is the purpose of your network?
In an interesting experiment, Stanley Milgram and other researchers mailed packages to random people around the United States with instructions to try to send the package to a person they had never met before by forwarding it to acquaintances who might know the target person. On average, it took six “hops” before the package found its way to the target person. The so-called “small-world experiment” demonstrates that most of us are a lot closer than you might think. We are all connected to each other by about six people.
In a globalized world, we already exist in vast networks of potential… just waiting for the igniting spark.
Can you imagine who you are already connected to, in known and unknown ways? How does this empower your network weaving?
“The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell… argues that the six-degrees phenomenon is dependent on a few extraordinary people (“connectors”) with large networks of contacts and friends: these hubs then mediate the connections between the vast majority of otherwise weakly connected individuals.”— Wikipedia
You have the power to become a “connector,” to use your network weaving capacity to bring people together and strengthen social ties. We need to form dynamic, diverse, trust-based, feeling networks. We need network weavers who guide the threads into a strong web for resilience and change.
Leave a comment, so I know which patterns you resonate with and if there are important ones you experience in your work that I might have missed.