Emergent Social Change

This commentary first appeared on Vermont Public Radio on October 20, 2011. 

As thousands of protesters occupy Wall Street and public spaces across the country, Americans are discussing how to fix our economy. Commentator Susan Clark is fascinated not just by the issues, but also the process that “Occupy Wall Street” is bringing into the public eye.

The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters have been roundly criticized for not being able to say what they want. But really? Come on. Everyone knows what they want. They’re not occupying the shoe store. They’re occupying Wall Street. Due to corporate greed, and flawed government regulation, 1% of Americans now have a wildly disproportional percentage of the wealth – and the protesters are calling themselves the other 99%. 

It's obvious what they want. What’s not obvious, at least not yet, is how they think they—or, statistically, we—should get it.

Traditional organizers worry that “Occupy Wall Street” is doing it upside down—first you define your demands, then you protest. But that might be because they aren’t part of the wiki generation.

Technology today transfers information at speeds, and in interconnected ways, unimaginable a few years ago. The new tools—Wikis! Blogs! Tweets!—aren’t only ubiquitous and effective. They’re also changing the way we think.

For today’s wiki-style organizers, every connection is an end in itself. The Millennial Generation, in particular, values simply fostering connections and watching where they go—confident that great new ideas will emerge.

“Emergence” is the term used by systems thinkers to describe the phenomenon when many local collaborations produce global patterns. The people occupying Wall Street—and more recently, about 50 cities and 80 college campuses on 3 continents—are all part of the same, emerging wave.

The same way that schools of fish or flocks of birds move in sync, these emerging meta-level patterns are naturally self-organized and not under any central control. There’s a reason that they’re hard to define: When people work together, our efforts aren’t simply the total of your work plus mine, but also the vibrant synergy created by the interaction. Aristotle said it first: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Researchers at Stanford call it “working wikily”: an emergent, bottom-up style of collaboration and decision-making named after wiki web sites (such as Wikipedia) where anyone can contribute or edit information.

The Wall Street protesters aren’t just picketing—although that’s a good old tool to grab a place at the table. The diverse participants are convening in consensus groups to determine their long-term goals. Consensus is time-consuming. They may not succeed before winter forces them to disperse. But keep an eye on where their energy takes them from here. It’s a look into our future.

Increasingly businesses, non-profits, and, slowly but surely, governments are switching to more decentralized, self-organized strategies that reward innovation and information sharing. This is where the new solutions will come from. Those who continue trying to hold all the power at the “command-and-control” center will be left behind.

In other words: get used to it. Maybe not the sign-waving and yelling, but the slow, unabashedly public process of saying “we have something in common. Let’s work together to find out how to move forward.” This is what a decentralized, network-based culture looks like. Or, in the words of the protesters: “This is what democracy looks like.”

You can listen to this radio commentary  here.