- Envisioning a better world
- Principles of vision development
- Vision-development weekends
- Telling the story of the conversation
- Community-invitation weekends
- Weaving the threads of conversation
- Achieving self-organization
- The map is not the territory
- The means are the ends
Envisioning a better world
This project is motivated by the belief that a much better world is possible. A world where society is in balance with nature, rather than destroying nature. A world organized around what people need and want, rather than around creating wealth for the few. A world in harmony rather than a world plagued by conflict and war. A world where people have a real voice in how their societies operate.
This project is also motivated by the observation that the current systems of society cannot be fixed. A better world calls for a whole new way of organizing things, making decisions, allocating resources, dealing with economics, etc. We need a total transformation of society: a whole new operating system for Spaceship Earth.
This project is inspired by a process found in nature: the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. A butterfly is not a caterpillar that grows wings; it is a completely new creature, with a totally different biological operating system, created out of the raw materials of the old creature.
The creation of the butterfly is orchestrated by a relatively small number of special cells, imaginal cells. These special cells carry the blueprints for growing the new organs, and they carry the vision of the final butterfly form. Furthermore, they have the ability to gradually bring the rest of the cells into the process of building the butterfly.
The goal of this project is to create an analogue of imaginal cells: some kind of process that can develop the blueprints and vision of a better world, and which can gradually bring everyone (the 99%) into the process of transforming society.
A plan has been developed for pursuing this goal, based on the application of proven methods and principles. This plan can be carried out by a small project team, only a dozen or so people, with the right skills, and a great deal of commitment. The plan calls for the team to organize a series of events aimed at launching the process of blueprint development and better-world envisioning.
These are seed events, following a pattern that can be easily replicated, so that the ongoing process can become self-organizing. The project team is not seeking to organize the process of transformation; rather it seeks to sow the seeds of self-organizing transformation.
Principles of vision development
In developing a vision for a better world, there is certainly a role to be played by people with specialized knowledge. If we want to come up with a better bridge design, experienced bridge engineers clearly have a critical contribution to make. But perhaps we don’t want or need a bridge! The ultimate source for a vision of a better world is us ordinary people: What kind of world do we really want?
The first principle of vision development is that it needs to begin as a conversation between people with specialist knowledge on the one hand, and ordinary people on the other. A dialog, exploring the boundaries and overlaps between what can be done, and what is desired. The specialists can provide creative scenarios, of systems that could be developed and projects that could be carried out; the rest of us can say which scenarios we like and don’t like, which ones need to be explored further – and we can contribute our own creative ideas to the conversation as well.
In seeking to arrange such an ongoing conversation, there are three primary considerations to keep in mind. First, there is inclusiveness: we need to include the full spectrum of specialist thinking in the conversation, and we need to include the concerns of all the rest of us as well. Second, there is efficiency: it behooves us to approach the conversation in a way that minimizes overhead and maximizes rate of progress. Finally, there is quality: the individual conversations need to be structured in a way that enables everyone present to participate, and that taps into the full creative potential of the group.
In partial response to these considerations, the second principle of vision development is the principle of the representative microcosm. This is a principle that responds to all three of our primary considerations, and it is the same principle that lies behind the twelve-person jury system. Twelve randomly selected citizens, if they agree on a unanimous verdict, can be expected to reach the same verdict that the general population would have reached, if everyone had the time to sit through the trial and deliberate on the evidence.
A jury serves as a representative microcosm of the whole community. Long experience has shown that twelve is a small enough group that their deliberations tend to converge in a reasonable time. And experience has shown that when twelve people are selected randomly from a community, that brings into the deliberations most of the sentiments and concerns that prevail in that community. The requirement of unanimity ensures that all of those sentiments and concerns are taken into account in reaching a verdict.
The principle of the representative microcosm means that we can convene relatively small conversations, and those conversations can be inclusive of the concerns and thinking of a larger population. And if those conversations lead to unanimous conclusions, we can expect that the concerns and thinking of the larger population have been reasonably represented. The efficiency benefits provided by this principle are considerable, and the project plan makes heavy use of this approach.
There is more that is needed however, as regards both efficiency and quality. Assembling the right microcosm is the essential first step, and unanimity is an essential objective, but there remains the question of process. A conversation can be productive, or it can be unproductive, depending on the dynamics of the conversation. There are proven processes, facilitation methods, that can greatly enhance the quality of group conversations. Processes that make sure all concerns get taken into account, processes that tap into the full creative potential of the group, and processes that move the conversation efficiently along.
The third principle of vision development is appropriate process. For any given conversation, of any given size and duration, it is essential to make use of best-practice process methods, appropriate to that particular conversation. If people are investing their valuable time in these conversations, they will want their time to be used efficiently, and they will want their concerns to be taken into account. And if we want to make maximum progress with vision development, we will want to tap into the full creative potential of those who are assembled.
The project team will organize a series of weekend events, each event aimed at advancing the vision-development conversation. These events have two parts: a two-day council session (involving people with specialized knowledge), followed by an evening public meeting in the community where the council is being held. The council’s job is to come up with a practical future vision for some area of concern, and the public meeting is where the all-important conversation occurs, between ‘ordinary’ people and ‘special-knowledge’ people.
Each weekend is focused on a given question, something that needs to be better understood, so that the vision-development process can move forward. People are invited to the council who have knowledge and/or ideas to contribute to the given question, and the question is given a hypothetical framing.
For example, suppose the basic question is, “What is the best monetary system?” The question would be framed something like this: “If we were building an ideal world, what monetary system would you recommend for that world?” The idea is to focus on imagining the butterfly world, and not get stuck in the box of what might be a good solution today, in the caterpillar world. Almost anything we can imagine is probably doable: the task of a vision-development weekend is to imagine what we really want, guided by an understanding of what appears to be feasible.
The council session, lasting the better part of two days, uses a particular process, Dynamic Facilitation (DF). A council might have anywhere from 5-20 participants, and 12 would probably be the expected average. We need enough people to provide a representative microcosm of the knowledge and ideas that are relevant to the question under consideration. If there are a lot of distinct viewpoints, then we need a lot of participants.
The DF process is ideally suited to our purposes for such a session. DF is very good at getting everyone to fully express their diverse ideas and concerns, and DF is very good at getting people to work together, creating a new answer, a new approach, that finds the synergy among the ideas, and finds ways to deal with all the concerns.
DF is a powerful, proven process, that is able to tap into the full potential creativity of the council. The outcomes of DF sessions are typically characterized by participants as The map is not the territorysignificant breakthroughs’, and participants typically express considerable enthusiasm and energy around ‘their creation’. A feeling much stronger than mere unanimity-of-viewpoint.
Following the council session, there is a break for food and rest, and then the council participants show up at the public meeting. The meeting kicks off with talks from each of the participants, relating their experience of the session, and presenting what they came up with. Their enthusiasm typically shines through in such DF-council talks, and this tends to engage the audience, leading to energetic breakout conversations afterwards.
The people who come to the public meeting are hearing ideas that are hot off the press, from the folks who spent the weekend coming up with those ideas. These aren’t stale theories of experts, these are fresh ideas, developed during a weekend of conversation, and the conversation is still open – after the talks, it’s the public’s turn to join in. There are appropriate processes for this part of the weekend as well, perhaps World Cafe, or Open Space, or something else, depending on circumstances.
With the council, we’re bringing in a representative microcosm of creative thinking in a certain area; with the public meeting we’re bringing in a representative microcosm of the general population, perhaps with a bit of local-specific bias. The weekend is serving, more or less, as a representative microcosm of the whole society, proceeding with our ongoing conversation, involving people with specialist knowledge and the rest of us, as we continue to develop our vision of the world we really want.
Telling the story of the conversation
Each of our microcosm conversations is intended to be part of a larger, ongoing conversation, which is being carried out on behalf of the whole society. This means that a record needs to be made of each weekend event, so that future conversations can benefit from the work that has already been done. The record needs to show the conclusions that were reached, and the flow of ideas that led to those conclusions, and the record needs to be available online, so anyone can review it.
A raw, detailed record of each council conversation is created by the facilitator, who writes each person’s comments down on flipcharts, as part of the DF process. Flipcharts may or may not be used during the public meetings, but in any case some kind of notes will be taken, so that we’ll have a raw, detailed record of that part of the conversation as well.
This detailed record will then be summarized into a storyboard, telling the story of the flow of conversation, leading up to the conclusions reached. In a DF session, the facilitator sometimes creates such storyboards, as part of the session, so that participants can see the story of their conversation so far. Often some kind of diagram works well, or a dialog-map, where idea-bubbles are connected by arrows.
Here’s an example of a conversation record, from a DF session that was held in St-Imier, Switzerland, this past June. The first seven slides are a storyboard made afterwards by the facilitator, and the rest of the slides show the raw flipcharts from the session, in the order they were created, including a dialog-map summary that was made midway through the conversation:
If there is time available in a given weekend to take photos of the detailed notes and upload them, that would be worth doing, so that a detailed record of the conversation can be available for future reference. It is essential, however, that a storyboard summary always be created, so that the work can be carried forward to future conversations. For topics that are very complex, skilled artistry may be needed to create a storyboard that makes the topics clearly understandable to anyone who might be interested. Sometimes a clever cartoon does this best, or some kind of creative diagram.
Some people understand best by seeing, and others by hearing. So that the conversations can be most readily understood, each storyboard slide show will also be made available as a short video, with a narrator providing a clear verbal explanation of the material on each slide.
A project website will be maintained, where all of the conversation records will be freely available. There will be a description of what each conversation is about, along with links to the storyboard slide show, the video, and if available, the detailed notes. A meta-storyboard, and a narrated version, will also be maintained on the site – a storyboard that explains what the project is about, and that tells the story of the overall conversation so far, as it has flowed from one weekend to another.
Anyone who watches the narrated meta-storyboard will get a clear overview of the project, how the overall conversation has gone so far, and a clear overview of the evolving vision as it currently exists. Anyone can then delve into the weekend records to see more details about topics of interest.
When the vision begins to have a reasonable degree of coherence, the team will begin convening a second series of weekend events, in parallel with the first series. The second series of events are focused on bringing communities into the conversation. For this second kind of event, the council will be made up of citizens selected randomly from the community itself.
The facilitator will begin by telling the story of the conversation so far, by taking the council through the meta-storyboard slides, explaining them in her own words, and answering any questions that come up. The council will then be invited to join in the conversation, and where they go from there is entirely up to the folks in the council.
Certainly there are lots of people, in this time of crisis, corruption, and austerity, who are in some sense ‘ready for change’. We can see evidence of this in the Arab Spring uprisings, the global Occupy Movement, the austerity protests in the EU, etc. And because of the way the vision has been developed, by the representative-microcosm principle, some of those in the council are likely to resonate with the vision. At the same time, most people would probably be quite dismissive of the suggestion that ‘we can change the world’.
We can expect a wide range of views in the council, regarding the possibility of change, the desirability of change, the nature of the vision, etc. Such a diversity of views brings ‘juice’ – energy – to the DF process. The process leads people to dig down and identify the assumptions and concerns that underlie their thinking.
Eventually – and this is the proven ‘magic’ of DF – the council will begin to work as a team, seeking a perspective that takes all the concerns into account. For those unfamiliar with such processes it may be hard to believe, but the council will almost certainly emerge with a unanimous viewpoint on the evolving vision, and on the question of whether it would be worthwhile to participate in the ongoing conversation.
A lot of work is required, on the part of the council, to reach such a unanimous perspective. Work of a kind that would be very difficult for a larger group to engage in. But since the council has been selected locally and randomly, that unanimous perspective is very likely to resonate with the community generally, when the council members report to the public meeting, and explain the thinking they went through.
The council serves as a kind of ‘booster rocket’, taking the community to a level of engagement with the envisioning process that would probably have been impossible to achieve in a public meeting on its own, even if it lasted the whole weekend. When the weekend is over, we’ll have an in-depth understanding of how the community responds to the envisioning process, and we will have given it our best shot, as regards making a case for the process to the community.
As this second series of weekends gets underway, we will be getting the first reliable ‘market tests’ of the feasibility of our project. The first series is valuable in terms of advancing the vision, but due to its hypothetical framing, it doesn’t give us a reliable indication of whether people are ready to engage seriously in a change-seeking project.
A major turning point will be reached when some community embraces the ongoing conversation, and the people use their public meeting to continue the conversation – to bring their own concerns and ideas into the envisioning process. If we can’t succeed in reaching this turning point, then the project will need to be written off as yet another learning experience. If we do reach this turning point, then the project will have begun for real: the people would be starting to take ownership of the transformation project and of the envisioning process.
The storyboards of the community-invitation weekends will be an invaluable resource. If the project isn’t being accepted by communities, we’ll have a detailed account of the thinking and sentiments behind the rejection. From this we can make intelligent decisions about making the project more effective, about how we might achieve our major turning point.
If we do succeed in reaching the turning point, and communities do begin joining in the vision-development process, then their storyboards become the record of an ongoing public conversation, a conversation where the people themselves are creating the vision of the future they want to create.
Once some community has joined in, we’d begin to have other successes, at least in similar communities, who could be expected to respond similarly. As the number of participating communities grows, we’ll eventually include a representative-microcosm, meaning the concerns of the general society have been brought in. That will be a second major turning point, and after that we could expect the project to spread rapidly.
Weaving the threads of conversation
The first series of weekends are framed as hypothetical exercises in ‘imagining an ideal world’, and they are intended to be an efficient way to develop a coherent and inspired first-draft vision. The second series of weekends are framed as serious invitations to communities to join in the conversation, and how the project proceeds after that will be guided by how communities respond to the invitations.
If communities are not joining in, then the project team will be focusing its attention on trying to understand why, and on thinking of things they can try, that might overcome the reasons for rejection. Perhaps more progress needs to be made in the first series, to make the vision more concrete. Or perhaps the story of the project needs to be presented in some more inspiring way. The team can interview random people after the public meetings, and listen carefully to what they say about their response to the project.
The project lives or dies, based on whether the first turning point can be achieved, when some community accepts the invitation, and joins in the conversation. If that success is achieved, then the project team will be building on what’s worked, and as the conversation proceeds, they will be thinking about what kinds of events will most advance the transformational process.
The transformational process has a horizontal thread – bringing in more communities and more people in each community, and it has a vertical thread – the development of the vision and the blueprints. The community-invitation weekends are mostly – but not exclusively – about the horizontal thread, while the vision-development weekends are mostly – but not exclusively – about the vertical thread.
As regards horizontal growth, it would make sense, at first, to randomize and regionalize the selection of communities for the weekend events, regardless of what kind of event it is or what its focus is. This would be the fastest way to bring in a good representative microcosm of communities generally.
Once that is achieved, it would make sense to go to those communities that show the most interest in the project, and are most willing to support it, as in providing a venue for the event and accommodations for the team, and dealing with the local invitation and promotion process. The more work the team can offload locally, the greater the leverage of team effort relative to horizontal growth.
As regards vertical development – the evolution of the vision and blueprints – it makes sense to be guided by the question: What are we most in need of understanding better? At first, this will lead to questions about the vision: How will we handle X in our ideal world, and how will we make decisions about Y?
But as the vision begins to crystallize, we will be guided to questions about how to achieve the vision. If our vision is self-sufficiency via diversified and sustainable organic agriculture, for example, then how do we transition from current methods and crops, in a way that makes sense economically, keeps people employed, and keeps food on our tables at a price we can afford?
The guiding question helps us build a serviceable bridge from the world we have, to the butterfly world, and the building of the bridge proceeds from the butterfly end. Eventually we will get to the final question: How do we actually begin to cross the bridge – to begin implementing the blueprint that we all (the 99%) have agreed on? I suggest that a people united in this way, in quest of transformation, and knowing exactly what they want, will be able to find an answer to that final question.
As stated at the beginning of this document, the proposal is to pursue this project with a small team, a dozen or so. The role of the team is to launch the project, to get the first series of weekend events underway, and to make a start on the second series. While doing so, they will be evolving protocols / methods / procedures, for making contact with communities, organizing weekends, producing storyboards, organizing the work of the team itself, etc.
If the project is to grow beyond the pilot stage, and become a real movement, then sooner or later more people will need to be brought in, people who are willing to take an active role in moving the project forward. A small team can carry things only so far on its own.
If this project makes any sense at all – if there is latent support in the population for such a transformational project – then we should begin to see some energy and enthusiasm emerging among the people who have been participating in the launch weekends. If that happens, then presumably some of them would be enthusiastic and energetic enough to be open to making an active contribution to the project.
Assuming that people do become available to help move the project beyond the pilot stage, there remains the question of how it would be best for the project to grow. What we want ultimately is for the project to be self-organizing, to grow organically, without needing the prompting or guidance of any special leadership group.
Certainly training will be involved in growth: more people learning how to facilitate, how to organize one of the weekends, how to produce and upload storyboards, etc. In order to make this training into a self-organizing process, we could ask everyone who goes through the training to agree to train others at some later date, on a bro bono basis, for some agreed number of sessions.
When we achieve our turning point – when communities start joining in the conversation – we can make a similar deal with such communities. We can ask them to take responsibility for carrying the message of the project to one or two nearby communities, and getting those new communities to host a weekend session. In that way horizontal growth could become self-organizing.
When there are a sizable number of people with the various team skills, and when there are a sizable number of communities participating in the project, I suggest that the self-organizing process will evolve from there on its own energy.
As the backwards bridge is being built, communities will want to continue participating in the conversation, by hosting additional weekend events. And soon it will be obvious that a conference needs to be organized, where people from different communities do some envisioning together, with the help of appropriate processes. And so on, a dynamically evolving process will emerge.
The map is not the territory
It goes without saying that this project is very unlikely to unfold exactly as I have described it here. I’ve presented a sequence of scenarios about weekend events, council outcomes, public responses, vision development, etc. Each scenario is based on real-world experience with events and processes, but such scenarios can only be approximations, at best, of what will actually happen on the day. And the more scenarios we string together, the more uncertainty we bring into the overall project plan.
The value of the plan is that it gives reason to believe that the desired outcomes can be achieved. It provides concrete proposals for how to move the project forward at each anticipated stage of development. Without some credible hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel, there would be little motivation for people to join the project team, or for people to participate in the events.
In fact, the plan needs to be seen as a dynamic, evolving document. As the project proceeds, the scenarios will be tested. The very first weekend event will undoubtedly bring many surprises. Based on what actually happens, the scenarios will need to be updated and reorganized to reflect what we’ve learned. The plan gives us a map, enabling us to intelligently enter the territory of transformation. As we explore that territory, we’ll be revising the map to match the reality of what we encounter.
Similarly the ‘vision’ and ‘blueprints’, which the project is aimed at producing, need to be seen as dynamic, evolving documents. In fact the storyboards will be evolving from the very beginning, each weekend event adding its contributions. This evolving process will not stop when we-the-people are ready to begin following the path outlined in the storyboards.
Just as with this project, the path of transformation will bring surprises along the way. Unexpected problems and unforeseen opportunities will surely be encountered. The initial vision gives us a reason to embark on the path, and the initial blueprints show us where the path starts, but the storyboards will need to be updated, and our vision of the new world will evolve, as we pursue the dynamically unfolding path.
The means are the ends
In envisioning a better world, the most difficult problem is envisioning a workable system of governance that is based on the will of the people, and that can prevent would-be power seekers from gaining a foothold. History has clearly shown that the phrase ‘power corrupts’ is not just a cliché, but a proven principle in human affairs. Only an inclusive, participatory, democratic process can be relied upon to serve the interests of people generally.
Unfortunately, no one seems to know what a participatory democracy would look like, or how it would function. Some people refer to classical Athens as a direct-democracy model, but that was a slave-based society, governed by a minority of male property owners, not an example of an inclusive process. The deliberations of that minority are more comparable to a board of directors meeting than they are to a democratic process. Besides, the scale of that process was a single city-state, not a society on a modern scale.
Switzerland may be the closest approach we have today to a democratic society, and the Swiss themselves are generally confident that they’ve got the ‘real thing’. Theirs is however a representative system, where power is delegated, and there are hierarchical forces at work, principally the banking and pharmaceutical sectors, that have a strong influence on public affairs. The referendum and initiative processes in Switzerland are a mixed bag, from a democratic perspective, as special interests can and do make use of them for their own purposes. And it is questionable how long Switzerland will be able to retain the level of democracy it has achieved, as it is being increasingly pulled into an orbit of compliance with the very undemocratic European Union. Would-be power seekers have established clear footholds in the Swiss political landscape.
Participatory democracy is a ‘vision’ for which we have no ‘blueprint’. And it’s actually less than a vision, because we don’t have a clear vision of how it would work in practice – and we don’t even know if real democracy would be possible in a modern-day society. And yet, it is inclusive participatory democracy we must have, if we want a better world, a world “organized around what people need and want”, a world “where people have a real voice in how their societies operate”, and a world that can “prevent would-be power seekers from gaining a foothold”.
Participatory democracy, particularly for a large-scale society, is largely unexplored territory. We have no examples to look at, and there seems to be little available in terms of theoretical models. Indeed, I’d say that what we came up with in our St-Imier weekend session is pretty much state-of-the-art, as regards theories of participatory democratic processes.
In fact, we can count that St-Imier session as the first vision-development event of this project, on the topic of ‘envisioning real democracy’, and we already have a storyboard of that event available online for reference! In a very real sense, the project is already underway. An unexpected step into project territory came first, and a provisional map, this project plan, is only now being developed – after reflection on that microcosm experience in St-Imier.
Over time, the envisioning-real-democracy thread can be developed, but more important, I suggest, is the process of the project itself, particularly when it reaches the self-organizing stage. The project is aimed at facilitating the emergence of an inclusive, society-wide conversation. The weekend-event formula can hopefully get us started, but where that process will evolve cannot be predicted. However, if we end up with a self-organizing way of maintaining a coherent, inclusive, society-wide conversation, we will more or less have achieved a participatory democratic process. The means are the ends.
2 August 2012