Looking back at the Acorn Study; Part 9: Seedlings

April 8, 2021

After a couple of weeks of hiatus (early spring is definitely Bank Holiday season here in Cyprus), this blog series returns for its final look back at the Acorn Study. To extend the metaphor, it is time to look at the forest floor and examine the new growth. Before we do that, I would like to add a reminder that this study includes a far-from-representative sample and cannot draw conclusions with global applicability. It is fair to say that most of the participants are from what psychology calls WEIRD societies (western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic). Still, it is relevant to the group and context it came from and valuable in its connection with a complex of personal experiences. Through this period of looking closely at the patterns, here are some of the things we learned about this group:

  • Asking people to share an example of an action that had an impact had positive associations, and “impact” was interpreted positively by most participants (including yours truly). People shared things that they associated with the ability to make a difference long-term. They considered the majority of these examples both scalable and significant.
  • On the other hand, the involvement of large social structures in their stories is connected to a sense of impotence and paralysis.
  • People have very few expectations of businesses and rather more of government. This might suggest that greenwashing, the attempt to improve a business’ profile by highlighting their “green” initiatives (actual greenness not guaranteed), might not be as effective as often assumed.
  • Responsibility and blame are related: if you expect more from someone, they might also fail you more if they don’t deliver.
  • A more individualistic perspective expects more of consumer behaviour than of collective or institutional responses. This perspective also has resonances for knowledge: an emphasis on individual responsibility for behaviour is associated with placing a lot of focus on one’s own experience as a source of knowledge.
  • Fridays for Future and the climate movement in 2019 has had a visible impact, at least in this population. Maintaining the dynamic in combination with the lessons learned from COVID after people can gather again might be a crucial factor and a demonstrator of the power of collective pressure and organisation.
  • Participants in this collection associate the past mostly with bad things; it’s negative, it’s drawing people back to harmful patterns, it is despair, and it is what we want to leave behind. This may be particularly strong for younger people, although fewer of those participated in this collection, so a secure trend cannot be established. This observation especially makes me wonder what we would have seen with a more diverse pool of participants, with different kinds of traditions and experiences to draw upon.
  • Social and other mass media are an important source of information and awareness. The possible lesson here is to keep in mind that expertise will probably need to be filtered through that lens, potentially for younger people most of all.
  • Resilience can be found in the connections between individual and collective. This resonates with the literature on climate change and pro-environmental behaviour: individual behaviour becomes more powerful and impactful if part of a collective pattern of action, if associated with the collective potential for driving change in the world, and it also benefits from social mechanisms of collective reinforcement. Put simply, it is easier for people to act in ways that help the environment if everyone around them is doing the same and if it is considered the natural and expected thing to do.
  • We know that we might need to make sacrifices, personally and as a society, and many of us are prepared to accept those.
  • Finally, the world of late 2019 was different from the one we now live in. We might be picking up some hints of changes in perspective (and when I say hints, I mean hints. Any more ambitious statement would have been impossible here): more faith in and expectation from government intervention, more emphasis on collective action, more attention to where knowledge comes from, and a resilience-promoting pattern of combining different areas and practices.

Now that the series is over, what comes next? As seen at the bottom of every post, there is still an ongoing MassSense on COVID-19 and climate change. We closed this sequence of blog posts with some possible trends of the post-2020 world. This dedicated collection can help us explore those in greater detail and see which of the suggestions we picked up on in this collection appear to be valid in a different context. 

The launch of each new open tool reminds me of the potential for larger-scale use. If we can learn from 350 unconnected people, imagine the power and insights that can be harnessed in applications within entire communities or even on a larger scale. Imagine the capacity for direct connections and knowledge transfer and the possibilities of using this sort of tool to strengthen and mobilise existing movements by making ideas visible and tying them into collective practice.  

We have not yet decided how we will share the outcomes of the COVID MassSense – no doubt we will try something different next time! We know that the pattern of having ongoing open studies where people can join in for free will continue. After the MassSense wraps up, we will likely return to the deep well of hope and sacrifice for inspiration in our next initiative. Until then, you know where to find us!



Seeding image by Maddy Baker on Unsplash


Dear Reader, while we have your attention: we are on a determined drive to expand our network around the world. We’re certainly living in uncertain times (sic), and we believe that it will take a large collective of like-minded people to help organisations and societies navigate stormy waters, make sense of the world and make good decisions. Consider joining the Cynefin Network by clicking on the banner below. Links to eBook and paperback copies of our latest book are also available on this page.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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