Building “networks of communities” for a civic intelligence movement with impact

We live in an age of confusion, stagnation, and crisis. What we need is not more of the same top down, neo-liberal corporate and government interventions. These are just a recipes for ever more socio-economic and cultural alienation, disillusion and disempowerment. Instead, we should tap into the growing bottom-up and middle-out capacity around the world for civic intelligence: the collective, citizen-driven, (where possible institutionally supported) capability to think and work together. As Doug Schuler says:

Civic intelligence describes what happens when people work together to address problems efficiently and equitably. It’s a wide-ranging concept that shows how positive change happens. It can be applied anywhere – from the local to the global – and could take many forms.

Civic intelligence, properly taking root in the real world out there, is a necessary condition for any progressive movement-with-impact to build. A movement that is powerful, effective, and agile.  A movement that scales, not in the sense of it being a monolithic mob, but consisting of a multitude of communities, each with their own identity, but in federation having real impact. A movement that consists of countless, interwoven webs of meaningful relationships and interactions, allowing groups of citizens to both grow and interconnect strong local communities, communities of interest and of practice.

However, these communities should not become inward looking, just minding their own business. They need to actively build mutual connections across their boundaries, so that true community networks emerge. Together, these networks of communities can form a strong, resilient societal fabric capable of  much better dealing with the numerous challenges being thrown at them than each community on its own.

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To literally rebuild society, identifying and strengthening the linking pins between communities is of the essence. Such linking pins can be social bridges (e.g. people who are active in various communities), technical bridges (e.g. features like social media notifications that alert you to interesting conversations happening in other  communities) and conceptual bridges (e.g. tags that help identify meaningful connections between content on the Web). It is exactly for identifying such (potential) linking pins that community network bridge-building processes like knowledge weaving and  participatory community network mapping can be so powerful. Take, for example, the case of building conceptual and social bridges across agricultural communities of practice around the world by – in a facilitated participatory process – first mapping the projects represented by INGENAES global conference participants and then defining joint “seed actions” for follow-up.

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Building  conceptual bridges across agricultural communities of practice around the world

However, in polarized times, we need to be aware that there is not just a movement driven by emancipatory civic intelligence. There is a counter-movement as well, also consisting of  complex networks of communities. A counter-movement woven from that same fabric of interpersonal ties and bonds, albeit it motivated by fundamentally different and often opposing values, and in many cases fueled behind the scenes by powerful manipulating forces, such as well-funded “astroturf organizations”. The clash between these two movements is exemplified by the animosity and heated debates about basically everything in the present day US, and elsewhere in the world.

Instead of confronting these powers that be head-on, it is exactly by zooming in on that microscopic level of the neighbors and peers that building bridges, joint healing, and effecting change may begin, “one connection at the time”. However, that is only a necessary condition. The more abstract, but equally important mission of how to link and scale these numerous communities into something that displays emergent properties of collective intelligence is still in its infancy, both in theory and practice.

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Farrming community representatives making sense of their collaboration maps in Mbwadzulu, Malawi, September 2017.

I am not naive. I know there is an inner core, and not a small one, in that ultra-conservative counter-movement that is too set in its beliefs and ways to be changed by civic engagement. However, by finding socially inclusive ways for “liberating voices” across the chasm, creating small-scale working examples of socially inclusive change with reasonable members from the counter-movement’s outer sphere, then forging smart alliances, and alliances of alliances, the fight to (re)build a more civic & civil society will gain momentum again.

How to do that is still very much an open question, but a challenge we cannot ignore. As JFK said:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Who says we can’t set ourselves the same mission impossible to reach a more civic Earth in a decade…

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