Network of Networks

December 4, 2008

Of all the chaos and complexity metaphors, one that is increasingly relevant to my work in communities is the scale-free network. We can speculate about why:

•The ubiquitous internet gives us new ways to think about human systems.

•Escalating challenges and diminishing resources push us toward new models to support action.

•In-coming generations have transformed our traditional organizational and social systems into their own network architectures.

•Changes in network theory help us imagine dynamic and dynamical transformation over time.

•Old hierarchical relationships and distributions of resources and power are breaking down under the load of fuzzy boundaries, global reach, and massive diversity.

You probably have your own list of reasons why network-based explanations are showing up in surprising places.

Ultimately, the reason my clients and colleagues turn to networks is that nothing else works as efficiently and effectively to collect and distribute information, resources, and energy in complex environments.

I commend to you three books that have been particularly helpful as I’ve explored the power of network as metaphor for collective knowledge and action. Barabasi, in Linked ( ), gives an articulate and accessible description of the nature of the dynamical, scale-free, massively entangled, unbounded networks. Goldsmith and Eggers, in Government by Network (, describe an adaptive infrastructure that contributes efficiently to the common good. Strogatz, in Sync ( ), demonstrates how networks explain the previously inexplicable in biological and physical systems.

Today, I met with a group of committed stakeholders in East Central Illinois who are concerned about the future of children and youth in their communities. Two years ago, under the guidance and with the support of the Lumpkin Family Foundation ( ) , a similar group hosted a summit meeting. Seventy-two professionals from nine disciplines and eight communities came together to explore opportunities for collective action. They left with the seeds of a network. Today, individuals and organizations work together in collaborations and partnerships—some formal and semi-permanent, others informal and ad hoc. The challenge for this new team is to design a second generation summit . Their goal is to build capacity, so that the emerging network is sustainable even in the current economic environment and the potentially much worse environment to come.

We talked about setting conditions to support development for the network through its constituent partnerships, organizations, youth, and adults across the region. We didn’t talk technically about self-organizing systems and the conditions that influence the speed, path, and outcomes of self-organizing processes. But we did identify the conditions that they believe will shape their network in the future. Based on the CDE Model for the conditions for self-organizing in human systems ( ), these practice conditions include:

•A focused time and place for engagement as well as a compelling vision that will draw people together and hold them in relationship long enough for meaningful collaborations to emerge. These will function as the container for the generative process— the C of CDE.

•A wide array of interests, resources, perspectives, and locales to inform innovation and productive collective action. These will function as the differences that make a difference—the D of CDE.

•Multiple opportunities before, during, and following the summit for individuals and groups to share resources—ideas, funding, insights, infrastructure. These will function as the exchanges—the E of CDE—that connect entities in meaningful and productive relationships and form the emergent, system-wide patterns of scale-free networks.

Embedded in the summit design, these conditions will establish the opportunity for new networks to form, emerging ones to be strengthened, and existing ones to become more adaptive. The twelve people in that room know, much better than our network scholars, what it means to thrive in a self-organizing system. The metaphor of scale-free networks converts their private, personality-driven knowing into shared, collective action.

At the end of the meeting, one woman made an insightful comment. “We are struggling to build this network in support of youth, but when they grow up, networks will be their native tongue. Might we be paving the way for a future for youth that we cannot even imagine? “

We can imagine it. It is a dynamical network.

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