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Yes We Can

Author: David Towell

This commentary was first published as the concluding blog in my third series of wordpress postings exploring how together we can bring about the radical changes we need, locally and globally, to meet the pressing environmental, economic and social challenges of the 21st Century; summarised in the Centre for Inclusive Futures' mission as developing sustainable communities which include everyone as equal citizens.

In the first series, Networking for Social Change, we explored Margaret Mead's famous aphorism:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing which ever has.

We sought to illustrate what this means in practice and to analyse how citizen networks can develop and sustain a shared purpose, work together effectively and create strategies to achieve positive change. 

In the second series, Building a better future through civic partnership, we continued to emphasise the importance of citizen networks as grass roots drivers of community development and considered further how local innovation can be scaled up to larger areas and populations through partnership between such networks and those charged with place-based leadership, for example in local public authorities. 

This third series, beginning early in 2015, has sought to explore how we can Raise Our Game i.e. to make constructive and effective responses to the growing sense that contemporary challenges are growing in intensity as national leaders retreat into displacement activities rather than facing up to the real problems. The UK General Election that year brought the severe disappointment of results which seemed destined to take Britain further down the road of division and oppression. The two years since have brought further disappointment. The list is long but we can point for example to the 'Brexit' vote in the UK which has magnified national divisions and seems likely to damage the European cooperation that has been so important to securing the peace and promoting human rights in the 70+ years since the Second World War. Looking across the Atlantic to the USA, we see what is still the world's most powerful country in rapid decline as big business takes over the government and seeks to destroy democratic institutions and the confidence in truth upon which democracy depends. Elsewhere, increasingly authoritarian governments also promote their versions of a selfish nationalism from which we will all be losers. 

However in relation to all these challenges, there are local and global movements of resistance which know that a better world is possible. And in the UK, writing shortly after our 2017 General Election failed to confirm these negative trends, the very uncertainly of these election results seems to have opened up a 'space', perhaps only a brief one, where a realignment of the forces required to change course feels very possible. It's time to reassert hope over fear!

Hence the title of this posting: Yes We Can... 2017. 'Yes we can' was a slogan made famous by President Obama in his 2008 election campaign. But he borrowed this slogan from the Spanish version 'Sí se puede', the battle cry of the Californian farm workers' movement from a half-Century earlier. Marshall Ganz has told the story of this well-organised grass roots struggle under the title Why David Sometimes Wins. He has of course in mind the biblical story of David vs Goliath. But we can embrace the same inspiration in this distillation of lessons from earlier postings in this series, designed to offer a framework for raising our game in the summer of 2017.

Thinking afresh 

In Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer and Katin Kaufer offer a succinct diagnosis of three major disconnections which are fundamental to our current ills: an ecological disconnect in which our economies seek to use more resources than we have; a social disconnect in which a small, self-serving elite dominate the rest of us and leave much of the world in poverty; and a spiritual disconnect in which many of us experience loss of meaning in our lives and work.

We can overcome these disconnections and enrich our understanding through fresh thinking about the natural world and our place within it. Three original perspectives seem especially helpful.

Starting with nature, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi draw on the range of modern sciences, especially ecology, to offer The Systems View of Life: a wonderful vision of our Earth as a self-organising, living system in which all life has co-evolved over our planet's vast history. In this vision, mankind is an intrinsic part of nature, not its master and we can learn from its accumulated wisdom.

Translated practically, this wisdom suggests the need to create a new economic system which is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. Kate Raworth takes up this challenge in Doughnut Economics. At the heart of the new economics is the simple image of the doughnut i.e. a circular bun with a whole in the middle. The boundaries of the inner ring represent the social foundation of well-being that no-one should fall below; the boundaries of the outer ring represent the ecological ceiling of the planetary pressures that we should not go beyond. The goal is to provide a road map for staying within these boundaries so as to achieve prosperity for all within the means of our planet. The implications for public policy and personal behaviour are radically different to those of the conventional economics which has hitherto been so influential.

The third perspective we require is a theory of change: how can we embrace new thinking, act upon this and learn from experience? Of course, there are many possible theories here but Scharmer and Kaufer offer one highly productive approach in their formulation of Theory U. The 'U' refers to the shape of a process for social learning. This approach requires us to go on a journey together where we try to remove our own blinkers so as to better see the reality around us. We need to create the opportunities to observe what is currently happening and listen deeply to the experiences of others. We need to take the time to share and make sense of these observations and support each other in considering what might be better, looking inside ourselves to identify our most important values, our highest aspirations. And we need to take responsibility for acting so as to make a positive difference. 

Practical applications

Earlier blogs in this series have offered a range of examples of change initiatives at different levels of aggregation. Starting small, my friends John O'Brien and Beth Mount in their book, Pathfinders, explore in detail what people at risk of serious disadvantage can achieve in their own lives - and in ours - when they set out to find something better; they are able to become part of lasting relationships with their closest allies; together these people and their allies are able to create the 'space' in existing arrangements to imagine and test new possibilities; and they are always asking the basic question 'What more is possible?'. All this calls for new thinking and a process of social invention grounded in each person's situation and guided by the positive aspiration to build communities which work better for everyone.

In similar vein our Spanish colleague, Ester Ortega, in her AIREA workshops brings together larger networks of inclusive community builders to engage in a process of individual and group reflection which facilitates looking with fresh eyes at the challenges in acting on this aspiration and taking action through their associations and organisations to achieve a better future.

Robin Hambleton's book Leading The Inclusive City (sub-title, Placed-based innovation for a bounded planet), provides extensive examples of how we can raise our game at the level of the town or city. His main themes are all captured in this extended title.

Hambleton sees place-based democratic leadership as a counter-weight to the place-less power of corporate elites in a globalised world and suggests that progressive civic leadership should be concerned with building sustainable and inclusive cities, not one or the other. Typically this involves creating new spaces, 'Innovation Zones', for people with different interests and perspectives to come together to co-create new solutions to public problems which draw on the complementary strengths of civil society, the market and the state. His European examples document the impressive progress in creating better lives for people and the environment in the redesigned cities of Copenhagen, Freiburg and Malmo.

Turning to action at the national and international level, there is no greater challenge, for the natural world upon which humanity depends for its own future, than our failure so far to tackle global warming. Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate examines this challenge in depth.

She argues that, organising as concerned citizens, there are many ways in which we can try to turn the tide towards sustainability. Local communities can resist damaging policies, as we see in the U.K. over efforts to advance fracking. We can campaign for disinvestment in fossil fuels (e.g. by pubic organisations and pension funds) and for reinvestment in the alternative economic strategies set out in Doughnut Economics. We can seek to curb the power of larger corporations not least by re-empowering local communities (for example to control energy production and distribution) as described in many of Hambleton's examples. And recognising the scale and interconnections among different challenges, we can seek to join up different social movements into a global campaign in which all of us play our part. Here we can take heart from Pope Francis' thoughtful encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si. As citizens and as political leaders, we need to find moral solutions to contemporary challenges which locate our place in nature and understand that our own well-being is linked to that of others.

Strengthening our agency for positive change: 8 principles

The second posting in this series reported insights from a 'World Café' event hosted by the Centre for Inclusive Futures shortly after the 2015 General Election which brought 40 civil society leaders together to examine how we can best raise our game to meet contemporary challenges. Revisiting these ideas now, we can summarise eight key principles guiding the work all of us need to do to strengthen our agency (individually and collectively) for achieving positive change.

1. We need to engage mindfully with ourselves and our world

Effective agency will require both energy and passion, but mindfulness practitioners like Thich Nhat Hanh teach us that this starts from the quality of our own being, our capacity to centre ourselves in an appreciation of nature and celebration of life and a readiness to look deeply inside and out. We can 'be the change we want to see' by demonstrating compassion and inclusion in our own lives. This is the starting point for linking personal experience, local action and our aspirations for a better future.

2. We need to stay true to our values while open to better ways of realising them in changing times

We want to see our society as one which values diversity, welcomes everyone as equal citizens and seeks to use all our contributions in building a better future - one whose goals can be simply expressed in terms of three harmonies: living in harmony with ourselves, each other and the natural world of which we are a part. These values provide the compass that directs our best efforts.

3. We need to help each other to stay strong

Effective action requires vision and courage. We are at our best when we find ways of inspiring each other through sharing experiences and supporting each other when the going gets tough.

4. We need to 'live in truth'

This powerful phrase comes from Vaclav Havel, the distinguished campaigner against totalitarianism and former President of the Czech Republic. Much of current policy and business practice is 'sold' dishonestly. Many people are deprived of the opportunities to live their lives in ways which others take for granted. We need to open our eyes to these disjunctions and challenge the indefensible!

5. We need to get involved wherever possible with fellow citizens taking action for a better life

The stories of people seeking better lives in Pathfinders point to the importance of trusted allies and circles of support. We can add to the number of disadvantaged people finding better opportunities by 'standing with' them and and strengthen positive campaigns by 'joining up' ourselves.

6. We need to find ways of coming together with people with different perspectives to co-create new solutions to public problems

As the examples from Ester Ortega and Robin Hambleton show, we can promote fresh thinking and social innovation when we are able to establish safe spaces for people with different roles and interests to explore shared problems through a facilitated process which seeks common ground and opens up new possibilities.

7. We need to demonstrate elements in an alternative vision through many practical examples

Otto Scharmer, in his development of 'Theory U' calls this 'prototyping' - not only imagining a better world but trying out various ways of creating this and thus strengthening our capacity to share persuasive new stories about what more is possible.

8. We need to build alliances with other groups, organisations and movements to achieve positive change on a larger scale

From the local to the global, communities face interconnected challenges: working together to understand these connections, we can explore 'win - win' strategies and strengthen our capacity for radical change.

In sum, to quote a Hopi Nation message, 'We are the people we have been waiting for'. We can try each day to take some action, often small, to make a positive difference - and link up these efforts to contribute to more substantial change. Understanding the reality of people lives and our dependence on the natural world, imagining a better future, building stronger networks, doing something about it. 


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Yes We Can © David Towell 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.


Pathfinders Review 2

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David Towell reviews Pathfinders, the latest book by John O'Brien and Beth Mount published by Inclusion Press.

Doughnut Economics

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Conventional economics is broken. Here is the radical alternative we need to shape a better future which works for people and planet, David Towell reviews Doughnut Economics.

Civic Partnership

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David Towell examines how citizen groups and local authority leaderships can work together to create the civic partnerships required to deliver local change.

Leading from the Emerging Future

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David Towell reviews a challenging book which sets out a red-green agenda to address contemporary economic, social and spiritual disconnections.

The Systems View of Life

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'With nature as our mentor, another world is possible' David Towell reviews The Systems View of Life.

Leading the Inclusive City

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In his book Robin Hambleton argues that imaginative place-based leadership can enable citizens to shape the urban future. David Towell finds it an inspiring read.