We are in an era where the challenges of social justice and creating more resilient communities require us to embrace complexity. This complexity lives both in the way we think about systems that helps us craft solutions at scale and also in how we structure ourselves. To create this change, we need to think and act as nature would–as an ecosystem.
We believe that networks are the building blocks of movements that have and will continue to create the transformation we need.
Network Ecology is an approach that honors the increasing necessity and popularity of collaborative approaches, as we transition from an organizational to a collective mindset in addressing issues of racial, social, and environmental equity.
We are a just few of the many change makers and practitioners committed to working in more collaborative ways, and to encouraging learning and skill-building throughout the field. We believe that networks–rooted in building relationships and trust tied to a clear vision to achieve transformative change–can benefit from and must operate aligned with lessons emerging from our understanding of ecosystems.
Network principles are ecological principles. In order to achieve results, networks seeking to promote social change should explore ways in which they:
- CONNECT. In nature, there are both specialized and generalized relationships within and between ecosystems–a web of communication and interactions, rather than a single point of contact. Collective communication, meaningful redundancy, and a diversity of relationships make a network robust, long-lasting, and resilient.
- DIVERSIFY. Well-rooted ecosystems are inherently diverse – many different functions are required for its health. Similarly, truly resilient networks need to be representative of their visions they work to create from the beginning stages, otherwise they’ll miss out on wholly different ways of connecting, growing, and working together.
- CYCLE. At the same time, ecosystems conserve energy by ensuring that functions efficiently serve a larger whole: resources are cycled throughout the ecosystem repeated, not linearly. Wasted energy in an ecological context results in pollution–in a network, sharing resources for greatest impact is essential.
- PRODUCE. Systems create results. There is some benefit which emerges from every ecosystem–if not several. Networks balance relationships (process) and results (produce) in service to a vision. Without a system-level benefit of some kind, the justification and energy for a network approach vanishes.
- GROW. Ecosystems–and networks–grow in ways that increase richness of relationship, not necessarily size. Growth might look like more depth and complexity. Networks are responsive and can scale themselves appropriately given resources and need.
- EVOLVE. Networks evolve over time and move their resources (relationships, knowledge, impact) into other organizations and networks. A strong network continues contributing to the ecosystem of change during its lifetime and after it has disbanded or transitioned into a different form.
Quick Assessment: Is your network a network or a “network?” Consider the following questions and see how you can become more ecological.
- Is a sense of leadership distributed amongst the group? Do new people easily step into power?
- Are relationships draining to maintain or do they feel light, regenerative, and productive?
- Does your network evolve? Are there procedures in place to reflect upon, experiment with, and introduce new ways of working together?
- Does your network produce impact at the scale it envisions to?
- Do communications systems promote cycling of knowledge and other resources throughout the full network?
This introductory post has barely grazed the surface of the myriad connections between networks and ecosystems, but perhaps it has sparked some new thoughts. We’re very curious to know what you think and encourage comments, emails, sharing on social media, etc. Here are a few questions to get you started: What sits well with you? How do these things resonate with your work in networks? Do you use other ecological metaphors to move networks forward?
Stay tuned for upcoming posts around the definitions of networks, funding networks, network leadership, networks and inclusion and more.
We look forward to dialoguing with you!