Tag Archives: the movement

Dear Carrotmob: Tips on Social Movements for Social Entrepreneurs

Earlier today I gave a presentation to Steve Newcomb of Virgance and got a fascinating peek into his world. In amongst a wave of articulate critiques of a business plan I put together with some friends, he made an off the cuff comment that we should “start a social movement” to assist with our marketing efforts. Fascinating.

As the world of sustainable business puts more and more toes in the pool of collective social action I’m hearing the word social movement get thrown around more and more, generally with little regard for what it takes to actually get one going or the complicated ecosystems that make them tick. There’s well intentioned excitement about merging business and social organizing, but a widespread misconception that a social movement is basically just a  participatory values-based marketing campaign. As someone who’s actually started a social movement, I’d like to set the record straight.

Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because There’s A Good Cause– There are too many good causes in the world and people are too busy.

Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because People Get Fired Up- When people are fired up they do whatever action is in front of them then go home and talk to their friends about it. The action and the conversations are great, but they won’t come back.

Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because People Are Empowered To Make Change– Empower people to make change and they’ll do it, feel great and then wander off. They won’t build on the experience and self organize.

What makes social movements happen?

In my experience, social movements happen when people make friends impacting a cause that is related to a personal struggle. Feminism and the civil rights movement are fantastic for tapping into national and international struggles that mirror intrapersonal ones. There’s a reason it’s “Students for a Free Tibet” and not “Suburban Housewives for a Free Tibet”, Tibet is only a powerful personal metaphor for a certain demographic.

The “making friends” part is what gives movements their self-organizing properties. A movement has to be a way to work on yourself AND on your relationships AND a cause, otherwise people won’t consistently put in the time. Movements can evolve new tactics and strategies only when the process of evolving those tactics and strategies is also a way for people to do meaningful work on themselves and form stronger connections with their friends.

Carrotmob is a fascinating example of when social movements work and when they don’t. They’ve been wildly successful as a specific tactic and hit a wall trying to evolve into anything more.

As a tactic they’re all checkmarks. They’re pushing for sustainable business- a cause that’s personally relevant to anyone trying to reconcile their desire to live their values and their desire to have a financially successful career. Organizers essentially plan parties at local businesses that are going green, flooding them with business as a sustainability incentive.

It would be great if this could translate from targeting small, local businesses to targeting large ones (Steve Newcomb talks about Carrotmobbing Coke and Pepsi), but there’s a big problem. In order to do that you have to switch from a series of one-off tactics to a self-organizing social movement. All of those Carrotmob organizers in all of those cities will have to start sitting down and strategizing, hitting up conferences together and thinking about how to make that giant Carrotmob happen.

That means getting people who’ve been using Carrotmobs as a way to deepen their connections with their existing social networks to spend time away from those social networks making new friends on the internet. If MySpace proved anything, it’s that people generally aren’t in the market for new friends on the internet, especially  people who have enough offline friends to organize massive parties. You also lose the personal significance. Carrotmobbers are attracted to the idea of sustainable business because they want to save the world and get paid doing it, and they won’t spend time and energy organizing a sustainable business-oriented social movement unless there are sheckles down the line.

Dear Carrotmob,

Here’s what it would take to make that Pepsi/Coke Carrotmob a reality:

1. Make Relationships Between Organizers Attractive

Ask yourself: What can a Carrotmob organizer get from being online friends with another Carrotmob organizer that they can’t get from all of their offline friends? The big answer is respect and recognition from their peers. Their friends will congratulate them, but may not really get the work that went in to what they’ve accomplished.

The way that many communities do this is by creating a system to welcome and mentor new members. When a new carrotmobber comes on the scene, create a way for them to publicly voice their questions and insecurities. This will make some existing carrotmobbers feel wise and experienced, and will get them engaging online to address the questions. Once they begin to recognize and respect one another for the answers that they’re giving they’ll start discussing tactical issues, complimenting one another, and forming the relationships that will take things to the next level.

2. Show Them the Sustainable Money

In order to put serious time and energy into Carrotmob, organizers will have to feel like they’re saving the planet while advancing their own careers. They don’t have to get all of them jobs, they just have to know that whatever they’re doing is legit enough to get put on a resume.

A strategic partnership or two with big name marketing firms could deliver this sense of professional credibility. It’s an appealing play- edgy, sustainable and socially networked. Create an aspirational class of paid professionals (NOT on your staff, out in the “real world”) who get to live their values making Carrotmobs all day, and make them visible to organizers looking for a career path.

Now you’ve got an excuse for people to take time out of their lives for Carrotmob and a set of relationships where innovation can happen. The rest is just gardening. Listen to the community, give it what it needs and then help it evolve to fulfill that need itself. You may not wind up squaring off Pepsi and Coke, because that’s your idea and movements (like gardens) aren’t built to follow orders. But you’ll wind up going somewhere interesting.



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Social Capital:The Bottleneck for Biomimicry?

I’m still on my major social capital kick from last week. Watching Benyus and reading Worldwatch I kept asking myself: what factors control how quickly these ideas get explored and adopted? As excited as I am about the design ideas talked about in our reading, it seems like these ideas may be facing barriers to widespread adoption. Every time I hear biomimicry discussed it seems like the same examples come up: spider’s silk, eggshells, saltwater self assembly and a few others. With all of the exciting opportunities out there there should be a community of researchers developing new ideas every day and a community of engineers figuring out cool new applications, the relatively slow flow of new biomimicry anecdotes suggests that there isn’t. As Benyus said, “it’s not a lack of information, it’s for lack of integration.” The limiting factor isn’t resources or cool ideas, it’s relationships. The faster that Benyus and other biomimicrites can help people with design problems form relationships with solutions in the natural world (and with the silohed-off experts that understand them) the faster the principles of biomimicry can get turned into action.

This points to another interesting question: how do you effectively farm relationships? A little googling indicates that Benyus seems to be using two strategies. The first is broadcast- literally throwing seeds on to fertile-seeming earth and hoping that something edible grows. Through books and active lecture circuits she puts the idea of biomimicry out there, hoping that someone will get excited enough about it to go out and form the necessary relationships of their own accord. Benyus’ “Biomimicry Institute” seems to focus on this strategy- creating resources and disseminating them widely to the public. This is a great way to cover a lot of ground, but the yields tend to be very low and hard to find. Relationships take a lot more than exciting ideas to come to fruition, they take patience, dedication, community support, conceptual clarity, a bunch of other factors not available in a video or a book. There’s also no good mechanism for feedback- it’s difficult for Benyus to know what the relationship-building impact of her lectures have been so that she can tweak them. 

For this reason, Benyus appears to be doing something akin to hands-on agriculture. She’s partnering with companies like HOK to personally provide the patience, dedication, supportive environment and conceptual guidance necessary to build relationships that achieve results. When she’s there on the beach holding their hands, those wastewater engineers can get to their “aha” moment. Trouble is, there’s only one of her and she can only hold so many hands at a time. There’s a business model in there, which may be what she’s going for. She can hire a bunch of “relationship farmers,” train them and send them out into the world as paid consultants. Under this model her capacity to create change will grow steadily as her business grows, but she’ll be tied to serious financial limitations. The “Biomimicry Guild” mentioned on her website seems to take this strategy, offering hands-on services to businesses inspired by these ideas.

I’d be curious what it would look like to apply biomimicry to this “relationship farming” problem. How does nature quickly and efficiently create connections, and can those principles be applied here? Fungal systems distribute spores (ideas) that are designed to shoot out roots (actively seek connections) that find one another and interlock (build community). This might also be a a great opportunity for some of the sociomimicry that we talked about in class. How have cultures throughout the world and throughout history dealt with similar challenges? Looking at the way that social movements have leveraged personally empowering relationships to rapidly mobilize millions might also be interesting.

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Mapping the Movement

Andres Edward’s The Sustainability Revolution provided a fascinating portrait of the sustainability movement- not just it’s ideas, but of who is involved and of what they are doing. Each chapter featured a different group who crafted and purpose and used them in a different way. 

Sustainability and Community talked about coalitions who used principles to establish unity. These principles were coming out of weeklong workshops in international conferences, they’re the representation of common ground shared by diverse constituencies. They’re useful because they let people with radically different backgrounds and agendas envision a common goal and support one another. These coalitions let everyone else communicate and faciliate a broad cultural shift towards sustainable values.

Sustainability and Commerce, interestingly, featured few statements by actual commercial businesses. Instead it was a bunch of ideas from people who influence business: regulators, activists and consultants. Their principles seem like a way to create boundaries, with activists and regulators enforcing those boundaries while consultants make sure that businesses understand them.

Sustainability and Natural Resources was where the businesses started to come in. They are using principles as operating procedures, ways to do their thing while benefiting from the coalitions and avoiding the wrath of the influencers. 

Sustainability and Ecological Design was a bunch of creative types looking to principles for inspiration. (Except for LEED, which falls more in the industrial operating procedure camp.) These are the people that the businesses hire to come up with new designs and operating procedures. 

Sustainability and the Biosphere perplexed me a little bit. After all, no one has power over the way that humankind relates to our biosphere and no person, movement or single philosophy ever will. This section seemed to be about, well, shit-disturbers. I mean that in a completely good way- people who buzz around the rest of the movement questioning assumptions and maintaining the free flow of ideas. They used principles as meditations that they can lob around to open people’s minds and get them ready to receive new inspiration, adopt new operating procedures, envision new boundaries and build new coalitions. 

It’s a cool little web of relationships, but the book also hinted at some big holes. Executives who use principles to establish solid business cases weren’t really represented, which is evidence of how much the movement needs us Presidians! I was also a little worried that there weren’t scientists using principles to know what to study. It could just be the author, but I haven’t seen this group that well represented in the movement as a whole. On a basic level, it seems like this is a movement abotu respect for our human and natural environment. A big part of respect is listening and I just hope that somewhere in this revolution we’re making room for people who listen.

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Total Responsibility Management: Keeping Stakeholders Happy?

As someone with experience trying to influence corporate behavior, I found Total Responsibility Management (TRM) to be a fascinating model. Though TRM outlined an excellent model for maintaining responsible corporate practices, the business case for implementing those practices seemed to be entirely about avoiding outside pressure. Chapter 2 is a laundry list of sticks with few carrots: pressure from investors, rating agencies, the government and various citizen’s groups. It’s reassuring to hear that corporations consider themselves accountable to these external groups and are intersted in implementing systems like TRM to address those group’s concerns. The implication here is that responsible businesses require a range of external groups working to hold them accountable.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Socially responsible business becomes a lot harder if no one is around to turn socially irresponsible business into a liability. Even if a company has a strong moral compass it is impossible for them to comprehend all of the impacts that they’re work will have. Good communication with stakeholder groups seems vital, even when those groups use “unfriendly” tactics to generate leverage. A system of stakeholder accountability also has serious downsides. Companies risk becoming responsive rather than responsible, beholden to whichever stakeholder groups are best able to generate leverage against them. (Think about anti-gay groups targeting Disney.) 

This can be a complicated balancing act, as hinted at in Deloitte’s Trust-Building process. Deloitte puts good relationships with stakeholders at the center of the auditing process, emphasizing dialog with stakeholders and reporting geared at their interests. But even Deloitte’s model failed to recognize the complicated interplay between stakeholder groups working for leverage to create change and companies working to respond to that leverage as best they can. On page 161, Deloitte complains that “it is difficult initially to have stakeholders understand that, to the extent that they receive information [during trust-building exercised with companies], it is confidential.” This makes perfect sense: in order to enter in an open dialog with stakeholders, companies must be comfortable sharing confidential information. Unfortunately, getting stakeholders to respect that confidentiality may take more than achieving a clear understanding.

Say I’m a stakeholder group, and enter a conversation with a company where I learn in confidence that their products leak toxins into the groundwater if left out in the rain. I can ask them to change the practice, but the company is free to ignore that request. Betraying their confidence and leaking the information to the press may be the best way for me to get the company to change, even if it ruins our friendly relationship. When engaging stakeholder groups it is important to respect that those groups strike a complicated balance between working with companies and generating leverage to hold them accountable.

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“Act” is not a strategy

It seems like the tough think with climate change isn’t to convince people, it’s to engage them. Bill McKibben’s excellent cheese fry metaphor frames climate change as a choice. Either we can not act, or we can act. Either we can keep eating cheese fries, or we can pay attention to the extremely urgent warnings of our doctor and change our lifestyle. These arguments are effective for getting the point across, but as several people have pointed out they kind of leave you in a lurch. “Act” isn’t a strategy. Go looking for strategies, and it’s easy to get deluged. The ones that bubble to the top tend to be about individual impact (CFLs), donations (carbon offsets and NGOs) and activism (rallies and petitions.) These three are great, but by themselves they aren’t enough, and so long as people screw in CFLs, buy carbon credits and sign email petitions primarily out of guilt and fear their actions will be hard to build over the long term.

In order to build and maintain widespread change, people have to feel empowered. They have to feel that they are contributing something that is substantial and unique, they have to feel like their contribution is supported and respected. Fortunately there are plenty of substantial and unique niches to fill. “Fighting climate change” isn’t a single action, nor is it a short laundry list of CFLs, carbon credits and email lists. There is an entire economy’s worth of things to do, and most of them haven’t been thought up yet. Shoemakers need to figure out a new approach to shoemaking, dad’s need to figure out a new approach to raising daughters and DMVs need to find a new approach to driver’s licenses. I loved the PCAP article because it began to flesh out this economy, addressing the everyone from the insurance sector to city and county governments. It seems like one of the most important actions that people can take is envisioning their place in this new economy and talking about it with their coworkers, family and friends. 

We don’t just need a targeted message, we need targeted engagement. How can we get greasy spoon diner owners to start thinking about energy efficient deep fat friers and locally produced lard? How can we get them to feel like their friends, family and coworkers respect them for doing it? How can we get them to think up new solutions that us non-diner-owners never could and share them?

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Queer Politics and the Definition of Sustainability

During Friday’s class, Hunter mentioned extensive squabbling that occurs in the green community over the definition of sustainability. To me, this seems like a sort of inefficiency, the social equivalent of a factory not having its pipes laid out right. This is more than an issue of semantics — there is a lot of work to do, and if leaders in the sustainability movement constantly spend precious time trying to agree on semantics then it’s at least worth asking why the semantics matter.

Traditional thinking tells us that semantics do matter. If the word “sustainability” means one thing to me and a radically different thing to you, it would easily become difficult for us to communicate and frustrating for us to work together. By spending the hours it takes to hammer out a single definition that we both agree on, we’re establishing a common vision that we can both work towards.

In other words, the solution to the problem of miscommunication is to create a norm that everyone agrees on. It’s up to the group to then indoctrinate new members with these norms, and enforce the norms when they are violated. All of that indoctrination and enforcement can make the group somewhat hierarchical and confrontational. In order for the group to survive, the norm has to be constantly reaffirmed, and contrasting ideas become a threat to group cohesion.

Strongly norms-based thinking tends to make movements look a little like medieval Europe. Each norm is a fiefdom: complete with a king, a court of intellectuals and bloggers who trumpet the norm and enforce it when it is broken, and an army of rank and file believers who use the norm as their philosophy. When these norms meet they tend to clash just like medieval fiefdoms did, and the result can be epic semantic battles that last months and rip entire movements asunder.

Just to be clear — I’m NOT saying that this is how the sustainability movement works, but there are definitely traces. Rockstar intellectuals and clashes over semantics are symptomatic of this kind of thinking, and the sustainability movement has its fair share of both. Norms allow people to unify and create change, but they come at a cost.

There is an interesting alternative to norms-based thinking, one that is also present in the sustainability movement, one that I know best from queer politics. Queer politics emerged in response to the AIDs crisis as a way to challenging heteronormativity — the idea that straight, “normal” people are good, and queer, “abnormal” people are bad. The result was a movement that opposed almost ALL norms, including internal ones. Queer people don’t go to conferences and spend hours debating the definition of the word “queer” because it’s widely accepted that establishing such a common definition would be unhealthy. Instead they do what we’re doing: each come to terms with their own definition and their individual reasons for being there, then share those stories as a way to build relationships. It’s those relationships, not any unifying mission, which connect the movement and allow it to function.

The result looks less like an army and more like Burning Man- a bunch of small groups of friends working on their own projects and supporting one another wherever possible. Relationship-based movements integrate seamlessly with other causes (queer organizers have been on the frontline of everything from the WTO protests to healthcare access) and shy away from leaders or defining ideologies. It’s harder to measure the impact of these kinds of decentralized movements, but there are plenty of examples (the antinuclear movement, open source software, etc) of them being extremely effective.

I guess I just wanted to put these two visions of a sustainability movement out there for people to think about. Personally, I find relationship-based movements more sustainable than norms-based ones. All of those little groups are better able to listen and react to their environment, which makes it easier to treat that environment with respect. Participating in that kind of movement means focusing on the relationships that I form rather than the ideas that I follow, it means worrying less about people’s allegiances to causes or corporations and more about their passions that motivate them, less about power and more about empowerment.

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