How might we scale presencing and strengthening of the social field

I had an intriguing and insightful conversation with some old friends from Flipping East, a social lab in Tāmaki that exists to support youth well being in the area. We were discussing the process of convening that lab which I was involved in last year, and at the same time I was sharing and reflecting on how there are a few different methods that exist in the social innovation space, and the effect they’d had on me as a practitioner and a person.

I was thinking about how I had experienced, learnt about, and used various methods, and how they could be mapped on to a U arc of my own personal development over the past few years. And how the methods that I had used, that had also worked on me, had a progressive deepening effect on me, causing me to question deeper levels of assumptions and issues in my own psyche.

Theory U’s coaching circles, the experience of working in a tight, high performing team to convene Flipping East, and practice of the Circle Way, led me to see my biggest blindspot, which was ultimately about a disconnection to myself, and an inability to trust that others cared for me. Addressing these fundamental issues has created a big shift in who I am and how I operate; I feel that I can now trust the process of any work that I am involved in, see diverse strengths in others and trust them to do things their way and really collaborate, without having to try and control everything.

I have been thinking about these different approaches to social innovation, and a spectrum between emphasis on changing exterior conditions in the world, measurement, and a scientific approach, vs. emphasis on interior transformation of individuals, and a looser, more artistic approach. While I think that both aspects of transformation are important, I’ve been noticing how important it is for deep, fundamental interior transformation to take place for individuals and groups, and how often this gets missed.

At the same time, I’m mindful of the increasing pace of exterior change in the world. In the 20th century, a business model could be expected to be effective for about 80 years; at present it can be expected to be useful for about seven. That means that whatever mode of value creation a business is currently using, it can expect to keep a holding pattern for about 3 and a half years before expecting to start to pivot. In “Design When Everybody Designs”, Manzini talks about the implications of “a connected world”:

Manzini goes on to say that more and more, and faster and faster, social innovation is required by ordinary people and organisations to keep up with the increasing rate of change.

But if one accepts Manzini’s hypothesis about increasing connectivity in society driving increasing levels of fluidity, this has some profound implications. I prescribe to the idea of accelerating technological change, which is hard to prove precisely but instinctively seems true; if you look at the shortening gap between significant inventions.

I am confident that we will see even greater levels of connectivity in the near future; look at future signals such as Neuralink, which is working on direct brain-computer connection. (if we think about the connectedness of the internet and social media, does this also imply brain to brain connection? An internet of brains? Hive mind? this feels like some sort of end game of “connectivity”)

What are the implications for people then, of accelerating sociotechnical change? Manzini emphasises the importance of design literacy for ordinary people to make sense of change and to adapt to it, Singularity University emphasises what I might call “exponential literacy”, an understanding of exponential technologies and capability to leverage them. I have an intuition that a fundamental internal transformation is required in all of us as people and as communities to prepare us for the time ahead.

When I was doing a practical course on The Circle Way, our teacher Tenneson Wolfe explained the following flip; normally meetings of people pay most attention to the content outputs: the knowledge created, the business outcomes that can be achieved. They use a certain process to get to this content output, and may or may not be aware of relationships between people that underpin the meeting, and a social field between the whole group that underpins that.

Tenneson explained that what the Circle Way proposes is to flip this model on its head; when we meet, first of all pay attention to the social field of relationships between all the people, then pay attention to relationships, then process, and finally content outputs are of the lowest priority, but higher quality content outputs will nonetheless be achieved. This is interesting to me, and seems to mirror a growing recognition in society about how social capital underpins the prosperity and well being of communities. In my conversation with the Flipping East crew, I started thinking about how a social lab might exist, whose aim was explicitly the strengthening of social field in a community.

At the same time, I’m interested in how exponential technologies could be leveraged to create opportunities for the strengthening of social fields. This seems paradoxical, since the strengthening of social field seems like such a small scale, inherently face to face activity. And yet when I think about the circle of friends that I am meeting with weekly to practice the Circle Way, and the way that we use Zoom to connect on video calls in locations across the world, and how impossible that would be without the enabling technology, I see a connection.

I think this is the question I’d like to explore further through my work; how can exponential technologies be leveraged to strengthen the social field that underpins our society?

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