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Unified Progression: Beyond Fragmentation

April 30, 2013

“When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

~ Wendell Berry

In Sustainable Thoughts Part I: Reconstructing The 3 Pillars and Part II: Globally Fragmented Solutions, we ended with the potential solution of a globally fragmented conglomerate of local initiatives. What’s necessary among the fragments, however, is a sense of unification. Now we will address the shortcomings of improper fragmentation and how to overcome them.

Like to Problem Solve?

Nobody said solving problems was easy. Many enjoy the difficulty. Problems challenge our intellect and taunt our ability to devise and implement solutions. As humans, we naturally love this. Being able to conquer an issue is quite satisfying.

All problems allow us to exercise our minds, get creative and feel satisfaction and/or prolonged drive to find a solution. Some are complex problems as that have no definitive boundary, parameters are unstable and unpredictable, involve numerous stakeholders with conflicting viewpoints and interests, have no optimal, objective solution, are difficult to gauge success and offer vast alternative solutions.

Climate Change professor Mike Hulme calls problems of this nature ‘wicked.’ Further, Dr. Jeff Conklin, of the CogNexus Institute, is dedicated to providing information to best work with all wicked problems, defined by high levels of social complexity. He wrote Wicked Problems and Social Complexity (PDF) to highlight the creativity and resourcefulness groups and teams bring to collaborative problem solving. He highlights shared understanding and shared commitment as key components to dealing with wicked problems, presenting platforms such as dialogue mapping that integrate problem solvers into an accessible, shared dialogue for catalyzed breakthroughs. Writer, scientist and recent programmer, Michael Nielsen, wrote Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science to proliferate emerging data-driven intelligence, driven by the ability of varied groups to collaborate via the web.

Climate change, social and environmental degradation and food, water, energy and economic crises are all wicked problems shining a bright light of trouble throughout society. Myriad organizations, companies, working groups and businesses have been formed to address these problems in diverse fashion. Through their efforts, another problem arises: fragmentation. In Wicked Problems and Social Complexity, Dr. Conklin discusses forces of fragmentation that doom initiatives that would benefit from socially shared, collaborative cognition, where the concept of fragmentation represents pulling apart what is potentially whole and people see themselves as more separate than united, creating scattered and chaotic dispersal of information and knowledge. Culturally, collaborative attempts fall victim to reductionism and the market-economy, where a guiding principle to success is focusing on a specific problem so you can offer a specified product or service.

Reductionism on the Rise: Separated Fragmentation

Reductionism manifesting through fragmentation is stunting potential for change. Non-pejoratively speaking, initiatives like Shareable that focus on sharing-based lifestyles and worldviews by dispersing knowledge, inspiration and information through case studies and how-tos further display the massive scale of disoriented organizations. For instance, have a look at Shareable’s article 15 Sharing Nonprofits to Support Today and you’ll find a list of 15 entities, such as The Center for the New American Dream, The P2P Foundation, Sustainable Economies Law Center and Rebuild the Dream working separately toward the same ultimate goal.

Too many initiatives are segregated, striving toward similar goals and creating fragmented efforts to solve wicked problems based on integration and collaboration–which is exactly what they need to focus on. Competition exists in our current paradigm, but in a commons-based share economy–where we’re struggling to get–focus shouldn’t be on individual enterprise. Doing so wastes resources and stunts progress to an indefinite degree.

In a sense, individual organizations are continually studying their chosen area. Dr. Conklin discusses this natural, important tendency that results from complex, wicked problems, but highlights that study amounts to mere procrastination where objective data teaches little, but opportunity-driven actionable approaches requiring decisions, experiments, pilot projects and so on are essential. He recognizes it’s a Catch-22, where we can’t take action until we have enough information, but we can’t get more information unless someone takes action.

All Together Now

I’m not claiming like-minded organizations don’t collaborate or act, but aim to illuminate the potential success a synergistic unified collaboration utopia could offer. I intend to open the discourse and see if something can be devised and implemented, to offer perspective and ambition to all working toward similar ends to hold on to information they have, pause, and bring a new problem to the table–how to unify collective, collaborative efforts.

How can it be done? What is the potential? Can it be done within the current paradigm or will a major, risky shift need to be made in order to gather minds, organizations and entities of all walks to share their resources and skillsets in one, unified working environment?

If unifying common initiatives for collaborative pursuit can be materialized, throwing aside market-based parameters that create competition among those focused on sharing and segregate those focused on communing, then through the muck will rise an all-star ensemble of influential game-changers.

These issues are massively complex and socially integrated, where values, ethics, justice and behavior patters rule. What’s ideal is that a sustainable, communal-based social paradigm is increasingly taking shape. We’re reaching a point in history where we have gathered more than enough information and we need to stop what we’re doing and start experimenting and testing prototypes that breakdown barriers and unify efforts for change with real action. I can’t think of anything with greater synergistic potential than joining the multitude of segregated, venerable efforts currently plugging away in a fragmented framework of procrastination.

Triple-Pronged Case Study:

Let’s work through a brief example of three auspicious initiatives, each well organized, working in fragmented, independent fashion, while the ultimate goals they serve to meet overlap and would wholly benefit from unified collaboration.

  1. Ecocity Builders, battling finite space, climate change and endangered ecosystems–“life-threatening global environmental problems”–with an emphasis on transportation and sprawl. Their answer, building ecocities that shift “from cars, sprawl, paving and cheap energy infrastructure over to compact pedestrian oriented renewable energy and land, materials and energy conserving ecocities.” Recognizing the potential of their endeavors, they have yet fully implemented their approach.
  1. Transition Network, works in response to climate change, peak oil and economic hardship by inspiring, connecting, supporting and training individuals to initiate Transition Towns in their community operating to build resiliency and reduce CO2 emissions based on an energy descent plan. A wicked problem, followed with a well thought out and implemented crack at solving it that is spreading internationally. Creating local initiatives focused on collaboration, reduced energy use, connection, sharing, mutual responsibility, reciprocity, proximity and communal living, Transition Towns look to build happier, fairer, stronger, resilient, sustainable, independent and skilled communities.
  1.  On the Commons, a commons movement strategy center working to overcome the confines of individual ownership toward egalitarian, reciprocal relationships and respect for the natural world, where a new narrative, worldview and set of practices grow from deeply held beliefs about creating change. They embrace visions beyond market economy, exposure to new ideas, new customs, understandings, systems and structures and renewed forms of collaboration and connection. Through a Commons Work initiative, they encourage and initiate co-creative projects toward protecting our essential commons, and also produce Commons Magazine highlighting common-based thinking, action and problem solving worldwide. This fantastic organization does too much for me to present a comprehensive review and I encourage you to explore further.

Ecocity Builders wants to build cities ideal for Transition Towns and both proliferate the goals of On the Commons, where On the Commons is uniquely placed to initiate and co-create projects that bolster unified efforts. Clearly, these three organizations can work together to further their goals, share strategies and information, catalyze change and proliferate actionable solutions that just aren’t possible if their efforts remain fragmented. A Ecocity Builder representative informed me that Dr. Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Network, co-founder Transition Town Totnes and blogger of Transition Culture, accepted an invitation to speak at the Ecocity World Summit in Nantes, France September 2013 and they are aware of each other’s presence and goals, but until a form of collective consciousness, shared intelligence and collaborative action is taken, they are bound to their niche with limited potential.

All 3 are working against wicked problems, or as Ecocity Builders put it, life-threatening global environmental problems, with slightly varied, yet ultimately similar visions, working within their unique niche, while they would greatly benefit one another through unified effort. On the Commons may be the leading independent initiative focused on collaboration, offering amplitude of information, resources and connections toward unification. Nevertheless, efforts to create communal living rich with sharing, proximity and a mix of forgotten and newfound innovative practices for social and environmental benefit that would thrive in a Transition Town designed by Ecocity Builders remain encapsulated and fragmented by market-based hyper-individualism. These 3 examples represent just a subset, while the possibilities for unified collaboration are legion.

In Conclusion

The current status quo will continue producing game-changers like these with visions of a world that’s near unattainable operating within its parameters. Rules need to be broken, sharing needs to manifest beyond segregated market parameters and action needs to be taken. To enter the world innumerable people are striving to reach, we need to begin testing widespread unification and shared resources.

If this sounds like hocus-pocus to you, it should–it is confusing and visionary. Understanding these principles brings a sense of contradiction as it implies that organizations function within the confines they’re trying to break, where they need to break those confines–to practice what they preach–in order to reach results. Somewhere between tangible solutions and unified collaboration lies a mystery–a mystery we need to solve through collective, shared intelligence and action. Whether initial alliances of collaboration form regionally or beyond, something needs to get the ball rolling.

Moving past the status quo, past industrialism, competition, consumption and capitalism, really is a wicked, complex problem. This, however, is part of what makes it so elegant. Within the confusion an outstanding number of people worldwide have stepped up in the face of tradition and expectation to stand up for what they see is right. Through their actions countless groups have formed and we’ve seen the rise of historic growth in social and environmental consciousness manifest. As writer and marketing guru Seth Godin might put it, today working toward change in a fragmented fashion is the always and we need to do the never. Here, the never is breaking a pattern of segregated pursuit that has become the always initiative of change and stir things up to unify into one living, breathing system of change.

“It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.”

Arnold J. Toynbee

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