What’s in the Center of Your Local Economy?

A local economy delivers needs such as food, water, energy, housing, etc., to those who reside within a specific neighborhood, community, or rural area. Like any social system, its function is predicated on what or who is in the center.

In the diagram below, those who produce goods and services are in the center. From there, the system distributes output across stages of processing, preparation, and retail into a market where people choose to purchase what is delivered from multiple competitive options. Such a design opens up the possibility to purchase needs delivered by providers in the global economy and far removed from the transactional boundaries of the local economy. With such choices comes a reduction in local business revenue, outsourcing of paid work, and leakage of expenditures to provisioners outside the area. Basically, this is the way the current global economy works. It is the antithesis to the intent of a sustainable local economy.

Production-Centered Local Economies

In contrast, people placed in the center of a local economy invite a very different dynamic as suggested in the graphic below. Members of the social system meet their needs as close to the point of consumption as possible. The retail “ring” represents the transactional space wherein people take delivery of a needed product or service after completing its value-added cycle.

People-Centered Local Economies

Since people within a given locality share the same basic needs, they, collectively, define a steady market. This stabile and consistent demand invites an interdependence among businesses in the locally-oriented preparation, processing, and production “rings”.

A local economy is, by definition, a needs economy (see At the Bottom of the Pyramid, It’s Looking Up!). The survival and sustainability of people as a social unit depend on whether they can meet their basic needs without interruption. This imperative places people at the center of their local economy. This gives them access to the assets and resources within their purview and grants them license to deploy those means in ways that assure their continuity and reasonable quality of life.

To have production in the center invites those who are not invested in the sustainability of the local system to have control over its destiny. That is not an enviable situation in which to be. What’s in the center of your local economy?

Originally posted to Sustainable Local Economic Development on Tumbler by Steve Bosserman on August 20, 2010

Food Systems, Economies, and Ecosystems

What We Are Doing

Over the past three months several of us have made presentations to various groups providing an overview about the recently awarded USDA-SCRI grant proposal and our general strategy for the ensuing program. Our primary purpose is to facilitate the continuing development of local and regional food systems as a viable and sustainable counterbalance to the predominate global food system. Ideally, local and regional food systems work seamlessly with the global food system to form a total food system that provides the overall advantages of price, variety, and quality while contributing to community health, vitality, and well-being.

Local and regional food systems, together with renewable energy and distributed manufacturing, are an integral part of local and regional economies. The interdependence of these three features prominently in the design of our strategy. While the mission of our USDA-SCRI initiative is focused on food systems, when seen in the bigger picture these systems become a platform by which local and regional economies are established, strengthened, and grown. Building local and regional economies is our broader agenda.

A local or regional economy is shaped by the social, political, cultural, and geographic context and conditions in which it exists. Such an economy is defined by complex webs of interwoven interrelationships and behavior patterns. Because of this characteristic, our understanding of them is benefited by adopting an ecological perspective or seeing them as part of ecosystems.

There are several types of ecosystems: natural, human, urban, etc. Each of them is characterized by several factors such as participants, source – sink dynamics and flow, and landscape patterns. Using these factors to inform an ecosystem health index and provide insight on how well an ecosystem is functioning is of particular interest.

Such an index is especially helpful when determining which course of action among several alternatives achieves the imperative at hand with the least amount of collateral damage and unintended consequences or side-effects. An obvious instance is with agriculture because of its pervasiveness and the degree of environmental impact its practice has on a local, regional, and global scale. Under the aegis of the USDA-SCRI grant there will be ample opportunities to apply the metrics of agroecosystem health in helping local and regional food systems become more efficient, effective, and less disruptive counterparts to the global food system.

The Business Ecosystem

Adopting an ecosystems view is also helpful within a business context. In the mid-1990’s, Jim Moore observed the dynamics of natural ecosystems and noted the similarities they have with those in a business setting. He coined the term business ecosystem to label the dense webs of interrelationships among suppliers, service providers, customers, competitors, communities within a social, political, and economic environment in which any given business starts, survives, and is sustained.

Moore’s “business ecosystems” thinking has led to a unique and powerful understanding about business strategy and in so doing significantly expanded the business development repertoire. It has also encouraged the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in several areas. Perhaps the greatest experimentation with this approach has been Europe where the European Commission (EC) linked Moore’s concept business ecosystems concept with Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to form digital business ecosystems. The primary purpose at the outset was to establish networks of connectivity among participants in SME ecosystems in order to stop the decline in the numbers of SMEs in several European countries. Early results show this strategy is successful as indicated by a reversal in the decline of SMEs complemented by signs of an increase in their numbers across the Continent.

Business Ecosystems in the Context of the USDA-SCRI Grant

Fundamentally, the strategy underscoring the USDA-SCRI grant proposal is the digital business ecosystems approach applied to local and regional food systems. The graphic below illustrates the flow dynamics among ecosystem participants in the interconnected regions across the upper-Midwest and mid-Atlantic states:

Social network facilitation, as part of the ICT backbone for the project, catalyzes regional networks and convenes leaders within them to prompt the formation of business ecosystems.

Business ecosystem particants conduct research, deliver education and training, and launch pilot projects directed toward building local food systems within given regions.

Local food systems development links with complementary efforts in renewable energy and distributed manufacturing systems to drive relocalization. This heightens participation at local levels which increases the experience base among players and drives changes in the formulae for land use practices, inclusion, workforce development, and government collaboration. The net effect is that the rules are rewritten so they facilitate the rise of functional and sustained local and regional economies.

Healthy, vibrant, adaptive, and innovative local and regional economies offer a constructive counterbalance to the global economy; they become attractors for new business start-ups and the expansion of existing businesses. Glocalization results as fully-functioning local and regional economies mitigate the downsides of the global economy and position the total economy for sustainable growth. Successful glocalization feeds larger regional networks of players and leadership of business ecosystems providing the wherewithal to fuel additional research, education, and pilot projects. This closed-loop cycling generates AND reinvests resources within the same local and regional economies which relieves the dependency on outside funding, like the USDA-SCRI grant, to spur local and regional economic sustainability and vitality.

A Broader Vision

The bottom line is that with thriving, interconnected business ecosytems, local and regional economies capable of maintaining themselves while spurring business growth and community well-being will result. Although the USDA-SCRI grant is directed toward social networks and local food systems, these are milestones along the path to a broader claim. Our vision is of capable local and regional economies operating in concert with the global economy to provide people with the means to enjoy a reasonable quality of life in communities assured of survival and sustainability. For us, this is the ultimate goal of the grant proposal. Thanks in advance for your participation over the next three years to make the vision a reality!

Originally posted to Local Food Systems by Steve Bosserman on December 27, 2008 17:04

Leadership 101

Last week was spent on the road checking in with clients and helping them manage changes within their organizations. Oftentimes, the causes for such changes are presented to me as breakdowns in communication, unrealized opportunities, performance problems, inadequate adaptation, and gaps in the flow of resources. The clients’ default reactions are hierarchical: someone needs to be contracted or hired, someone else is opting to retire, others need to be reassigned, and others still, let go. However, the reality is bigger and more complex than having a few people go and bringing in fresh blood. Change, in a flurry of what’s working, what’s not, and what could work better, first requires that these disparate conditions be placed within a framework. This is followed by convening people whose interactions have the potential to make a positive difference for their organization within that framework. Their interactions lead to more appropriate and measured actions through goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics.

As explored more fully in an earlier posting, organizations consist of sustained conversations – the basis of all human social behavior. If one wants to change an organization, change the conversations its members are having. On one level this is simple and straightforward. Matching forums with meaningful agendas is at the heart of what strategic framing and organization design are all about. People draw upon their power to convene within a social system to setup a wide range of conversations and sustain those that are deemed the most important. Of course, the point of these conversations when establishing or sustaining an organization is to gain alignment – the energy source for growth, progress, and success of any organization.

There is a clear association between those who have the power to convene for alignment and leadership. In fact, while there are hundreds of definitions for leadership, the one I use is “the exercising of power by an individual within a social system to produce alignment.” Productive, collective effort within a social system requires people to be pulling on the rope in the same direction. And through that alignment, motivation is stimulated.

Alignment occurs in three ways:

  1. Integrity. Just as an organization has integrity, so do people. Purpose: why am I here; principles: what do I stand for; intentions: what am I up to, constitute the foundation of institutional and personal integrity. When I feel that my integrity is held in the integrity expressed by others and, ultimately, their organization, I am motivated to participate in what they are doing to see how our collective efforts can be leveraged.
  2. Vision. Imagining a world where one’s purpose, principles, and intentions play out so that others can see it, too, and want to be part of making it happen is a powerful act of vision. Any vision is based first in personal experience. When it is presented to others such that they can shape it with their own dreams and create a shared view of what is possible, the vision becomes an engaging, motivating force.
  3. Fear – Greed. Visions cannot become reality without drawing upon the talents and skills of those who do not necessarily align with the values of integrity or share the same vision. Their motivation comes from a combination of “what’s in it for me” and “what will happen to me if I don’t participate.” The fear – greed continuum appeals to the baser instincts of people in areas where their absence of detachment affects their decisions. For the vast majority, it is easier to do what one is told, to do one’s job, to follow the rules. Alignment means playing along to enjoy the benefits and avoid the pitfalls. But it is a route that is susceptible to the corruptive forces of the hierarchy as explored in a previous posting.

Depending on the circumstances, leaders draw upon the energies available within each of the three types of alignment to advance the organizations they lead. Some have integrity so unquestionably solid it compels others to follow despite not having a clear picture of what the world would look like if everyone behaved according to these values or a hierarchical structure upon which to calculate the cost, risk, and benefit of participation. The most notable of such leaders represent particular spiritual or philosophical belief systems that became the cornerstones for the most persistent social systems in human history. Certainly the evidence is strong that there is much to be gained from fronting one’s core values as a key element in leadership. But, not everyone is ready to cast their lot with someone solely on values alone. This may garner alignment at the outset, but they need more to stay aligned.

Some leaders are able to describe through words and graphics how the world could look if a particular set of core values were adopted such that many others are immediately engaged by it, resonate with it, take it as their own, and start down the path toward making it reality; the vision of one becomes the vision of many. However, the more likely scenario is that one person’s vision matches the visions of others to one degree or another, but not completely. In this case, the effective leader introduces a process by which multiple visions are brought together into one shared vision that holds critical elements for all who want to pursue it. While a shared vision produces alignment, it commands the strongest buy-in only by those who were there when it was created. The leader must stay vigilant in continually representing the vision to those who are new to the organization and in some instances prompt further adaptation of the vision to hold others who come in later.

With both integrity and vision, the virtual or physical presence of and interaction with the leader is essential to maintain alignment. Collective efforts that have dependency on one leader are at risk to go astray unless a formal system is setup to manage the behavior of people in the organization. Formal systems provide boundaries that determine who is in and who is out of an organization, enable the formation of hierarchies, enact rules, regulations, policies, and procedures, and establish processes that manage the work of organizations. Within a formal system, the vision of the organization is translated into sets of actionable goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. Alignment is achieved when people work these plans. Some leaders are effective enforcing this type of alignment within the formal systems by encouraging them through the promise of reward should they accomplish what they are responsible to do and threatening them with undesirable consequences should they fail. It is the classic case of “carrot and stick” motivation. In other words, the fear – greed continuum is alive and well.

As mentioned earlier, my work with people in client organizations is about framing their circumstances so that an appropriate set of conversations are convened and the participants can make a positive difference in helping their organization adapt. The evolving design of the organization is based on the results of certain conversations that need to happen: does the organization need to recall its integrity – get back to its roots, so to speak; does it need to renew its vision – see itself in an entirely different way filled with more possibilities; does it need to redirect its formal system – become more consequent and disciplined. These questions require different conversations and depending on whether the organizational alignment is better derived from integrity, vision, or fear – greed determines the leadership skills required to make the conversations happen.

Therein lays the challenge of doing my work well – matching the skills of leaders with the circumstances where they will prompt alignment. And if there are no immediate leaders available with the requisite skills, I coach those who show talent and interest so they strengthen their “toolkits,” gain confidence in their capabilities, and embark upon leading in new ways under unfamiliar situations. And helping those people become more evolved, well-rounded, and flexible leaders is what makes doing this work worthwhile!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Affiliations: Cycles of Corruption and Renewal

Even though our thoughts are born in the private spaces of our minds, we humans do not live solitary existences with occluded thinking. At some point we express our private selves in the public arena whether that be a tight-knit circle of family and close friends or an expansive network of colleagues and associates of like-mindedness or dissimilarity.

Statements made about what we think impact others and, in turn, influence what they think.

Depending on how one resonates with the statements of another defines the type and degree of affiliation those two can have, if any. Sometimes what a person says is a statement of principle, ideal, or deeply-held belief that equates to a “universal truth.” Such statements, like motherhood and apple pie, are hard to contest – they just are. How we behave in relation to them, though, is another thing entirely. Many a vicious and deadly conflict across the panorama of human history has been fueled by behaviors in the name of spiritual principles and humanistic ideals like peace, justice, love, and freedom.

How could such noble and lofty ideals be at the heart of destructive behavior? The root cause is not the ideal but how a person chooses to put the ideal or principle into effect. Intangible abstractions like peace, justice, love, and freedom need an image to which people can relate in order for them to see what life would be like if society adhered to these concepts. The tool most commonly used is “vision,” an idealized extrapolation of what the world might be if human relationships, social institutions, and ecological responsiveness at all levels were based on these principles. Visions – no matter how well-articulated and beautiful the potentialities they describe – are nothing more than the well-considered opinions of a select group of people. Visions are not predictors of the future. Still, a common vision of what is possible and highly desired forms a powerful motivating force for the group that shares it. Unfortunately, there are many groups that have a multitude of visions based on the same set of principles and ideals, but pursue different outcomes. These differences have the potential to enrich the pool of possibilities among them, or to become the seeds of conflict and contentiousness. Too often, it is the latter.

Visions are both personal and social. Affiliations begin with principles and ideals expressed by one and shaped by many as a shared vision worth pursuing collectively. While one person can hold an ideal and front a vision with which others are aligned, visions require more than one person to make them a reality. Therefore, the more people become involved the greater the likelihood of success.

Oftentimes, there are not enough people compelled by a vision to carry it into fruition and sustain it over time. This is typical for organizations that begin in a spirited, entrepreneurial manner fueled by the creative energies and ideas of one or a handful of committed individuals. Initial success warrants more resources to feed growth. Not everyone is drawn by the vision or even the ideals that undergird it. Instead, they are attracted by what’s in it for them if they do or what they will miss or lose if they don’t. Once again, the continuum of fear and greed arises to capture the hearts and souls of the unwary and unsuspecting. Ironically, no matter how well-engrained the core values and heartfelt the vision of an organization in the founders and first generation of affiliates, every addition to their ranks who is driven more by fear and greed compromises the original sense of the organization.

People who are not in touch with the principles and ideals that drive them, lack vision, or whose visions are not shared by those with whom they seek to affiliate become complicit in the corruption of any organization they join. Similarly, people new to an organization do not have shared experiences with those who deeply honor its organizing principles and care for its guiding vision. As a result, people not closely aligned to the integrity of an organization, are at risk to undermine it.

This presents an organizational dilemma. No organization is sustainable over time without changing who is affiliated with it, what it does, and the manner with which it does it. Yet by definition these changes introduce other people into the organization who are not necessarily aligned with its founding beliefs. To protect itself in spite of all these variations in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, an organization converts its philosophical underpinnings into a formal system comprised of rules, regulations, policies, procedures, programs, processes, funding, resources, roles and relationships as a method of control. It becomes institutionalized as a way to preserve itself.

Granted, this institutionalizing of an organization serves to protect its basic integrity, but it does not guarantee long term success. The slide into corruption caused by those whose greed prompts illegal, unethical, and unjust behaviors is sharply reduced, but by penalty of adhering to tradition and adopting an unwieldy conservatism that is slow to adapt. While an organization can explode by paying inadequate attention to risks it is taking, an even more insidious condition is where the lack of appropriate responses to a changing context in which the organization exists causes the organization to implode. Either way, corruption unchecked inevitably leads to decline and, ultimately, destruction.

What, then, keeps an organization going over time – what makes it sustainable? History shows it is the ability of the organization to allow someone or several to restate the underlying principles and ideals upon which it was founded and reframe its vision such that its purpose becomes a revitalizing source of passion for those who are committed to those values; people are inspired and re-energized; the organization is reborn. Sustainability is a function of healthy, recurring life-cycles. They begin in the intellectually pristine space of universal principles and ideals and are followed by the unavoidable corruptive forces of unshared visions and divisive actions driven by individual or collective fear and greed. This prompts the resurrection of originating principles and ideals, renewal of visions of possibilities, and the realignment of integrity. Organizations that persist over time live, die, and are reborn. Their basic “genetic structure” is transferred from generation to generation while its mode of operation and relevance in the social environment that sustains it adapts. The key to long-term success for any organization is how well this cycle is triggered and honored. Sounds easy, but it is a challenge millions have failed to heed!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Thursday, January 19, 2006 and updated on Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Richer Concept of Ground Truth

In a previous post, I explored the role people play as “social sensors” in the generation of “ground truth.” A colleague of mine, Ross MacDonald, who is co-authoring a book with me about collective leadership in the non-profit sector, suggested that ground truth is a far richer concept than what I had explained in my posting. He offered to write a series of “articles” about ground truth that would provide different ways of seeing how this concept could be understood and applied in diverse social settings. Because ground truth is so essential to healthy adaptation in social systems and is integral to the design of successful frameworks for change, his offer could not have been more timely and appreciated. What follows is the posting of his first article. I thank you in advance for giving his ideas careful consideration. We both look forward to your comments! And now, Ross…

In his aforementioned blog posting, Steve Bosserman provides a brief but thoughtful definition of ground truth in a predominantly social context. This response is the first in a series of short articles exploring more fully the concept of ground truth. The entries are based on my work creating sustainable links within and among community groups, government entities, businesses, education, and individual – especially those people who have been historically ignored or poorly served. This first entry looks closely at the term “ground truth” in order to further sensitize our understanding of its applications to adaptive learning in social systems.

Ground truth refers to the information provided by people and instruments on site which assesses the accuracy and value of information and inferences derived from more removed sources, such as aerial photographs and satellite imagery. Consider for example that the French seem to be the first to use balloons for military aerial reconnaissance during a conflict with Austria in 1794. We will assume for the moment that a person making observations from a balloon constitutes remote sensing and imagine as well that civilian informants, reconnaissance patrols, and secret agents provided additional data on the ground. Taken together, observations from the scared soul in the balloon and additional reports from those on the ground enabled more effective strategic and tactical adjustments. This deliberate triangulation of information is the fundamental process for seeking ground truth.

Uses of the term ground truth are easily found today in a wide range of fields including agriculture, anthropology, biology, earth sciences, geography, landscape design, library sciences, medicine, music, physics, and zoology. A team of geologists, for example, might physically examine the ground at a specific site to confirm the nature and possible causes of temperature changes detected from satellite imaging. Should the team document a change in underground geothermal activity on site, then the remotely-detected temperature shift is better understood. As remote sensing technology has advanced, it has became less dependent on human operators / observers, leading to an increased demand for humans to do something on site to authenticate data and sharpen inferences. As a result the term ground truth is entering the public parlance.

So the term “ground truth” is both a label for a process and a label for a product. The process of ground truth is to have a person or persons at a given site with instruments so as to verify and sensitize remotely sensed phenomena. The product of ground truth is more accurate and reliable information.

The very label ground truth has appeal – but if understood superficially it is more of an appeal to shallow hubris than to good thinking. The term lays claims to “truth,” and truth, after all, connotes a definitive and irrefutable reality. How satisfying it is to capture the high ground by positioning one’s belief as truth! A famous scene from Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” illustrates. In this scene, Alvy (played by Allen) and his charming girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton) are waiting in line for a movie. Alvy becomes increasingly annoyed with what he believes are the empty and inaccurate pontifications of a pseudo-intellectual also in line. Alvie, convinced that the pedantic snob is completely mis-representing Marshall McLuhan, enacts an everyman fantasy when he pulls the real Marshall McLuhan (playing himself) from out of a billboard. McLuhan, at Alvie’s direction, beratingly refutes the veracity of the annoying snob, stating “You know nothing of my work!” – much to the satisfaction of Alvie and everyone else who has wished for such a moment.

Ahh, ground truth! However, as subsequent blog entries will explore, this level of truth is indeed elusive. As tempting as Alvie’s triumph is to all of us, we should be skeptical of such absolute truths whether seen in the fiction of a movie, proclaimed from intolerant political or religious pulpits, or announced in scientific press conferences. It is important to distinguish multiple truths and their small “t’s” from “The Truth” and its capital “T.” A future blog entry will reveal the higher value of multiple truths to understanding and improving human social systems over the misleading value of a claim to a single Truth.

The “ground” in the label ground truth also explicitly lays claim to a tempting position: the false pride of being on solid turf in one’s assertions. Being grounded stands in implied contrast to an ethereal disconnection from practical matters. As in Truth with a capital “T,” there is a temptation in the label of “ground” to validate one’s belief by simply planting a sign claiming one owns the Truth. Very familiar but counterproductive language often accompanies such hollow claims: “I’ve been doing this for thirty years and believe you me . . .” In this kind of claim, a person is essentially saying, “because I am more grounded than anyone else” (“thirty years doing this”), “my truth is The Truth” (“believe you me”). By falsely laying claim to the most solid ground, this kind of approach attempts to gain validity by rendering other truths invalid. Such a mixture of brute power with self-aggrandizing opinions is directly antithetical to the search for multiple perspectives and more sophisticated reasoning about them which characterizes ground truth inquiry.

An interesting case is Lloyd Bentson’s famous retort to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to John F. Kennedy during the October 1988 vice presidential debate. Bentsen’s ground truth about the comparison? “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen grounds his position by reminding us that he “served with”, “knew” and was friends with Kennedy. Although the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket suffered a landslide loss, Bentsen struck a public chord. Many people and certainly many democrats believed as well that Quayle paled in comparison to JFK. Bentsen’s remark aligned with the less dramatically staged opinions of many others, profoundly stigmatizing Quayle’s vice presidency. But we must remember that regardless of what one thinks of Quayle and regardless of how well Bentsen positioned his analysis; Bentsen’s statement was only one observation from one source. That so many agreed with it and that it had such a profound effect derives from the alignment of all those ground truths, not just from Bentsen’s moment on stage.

Ground truth refers to both a product and a process which, despite potential for prideful misappropriation, is of tremendous value for improving organized human activities.

At its best, ground truth labels a set of practices by which multiple sources yield better knowledge and so empower humans to adapt and improve their practices. This is the very work we do in my company, ground truth consulting. In my next entry, I will discuss particular ground truth processes and underlying ethical principle by discussing two specific projects: a Himalayan eco-tourism project in the north of India and an upcoming, collaboratively produced book on academic leadership.

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Adding Value and Receiving Fair Compensation

There are three ways to add value: make something others need / want; provide a service others value, but not enough to do it themselves; and, deliver a totally satisfying experience around a package of something(s) made and services provided.

When I entered the business world in the U.S. some forty-plus years ago, it was all about exploiting natural resources elsewhere and making things in highly, vertically-integrated production enterprises. Over the last 25 years, there has been a distinct split between making things and providing services others would rather not spend their time doing, vertically-integrated firms were decentralized and distributed, and U.S. businesses have “gone global” in an effort to exploit human resources elsewhere. During the last 10 years, there has been a significant uptick in melding a particular desired experience with things and services to provide an integrated, experiential package. The work I currently do with businesses and non-profit organizations focuses on helping them take advantage of this shift and get more efficient and effective at doing the integration and promoting the anticipated experience with customers.

The process Andrius Kulikauskas followed in the Chocolate Project to collect and compile information about the chocolate industry yielded a potential goldmine of business opportunities. These include:

  1. Making things – beans, nibs, cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, finished chocolate products ready for retail – up and down the value chain
  2. Providing services such as logistics, inventory management, quality assurance, traceability, trading, etc.
  3. Developing integrated, experiential packages using chocolate as the centerpiece -a posting from Idziak Waclaw outlined ways to think about such possibilities

For that matter, the process, tools, and techniques Andrius used for the project can be replicated in other projects where there is a similar opportunity to merge openness with the proprietary in ways that “do no harm.” Some of the approaches Andrius used in the Chocolate Project include the following:

  1. Working openly / working in parallel wiki where all the information gathered was categorized and posted for the world to look over the participants’ shoulders and see
  2. Focused moderation to keep collaborative energies and efforts in the spaces where the value would be greatest for the sponsor
  3. Direct correspondence with the sponsor to assure that proprietary boundaries are honored

No doubt there are more. The point isn’t to be exhaustively philosophical in what they are, but to apply the ones we can do elsewhere for broader benefit. As an example, currently, I am floating the concept of a wiki to a private sector client wherein key questions related to the business are posed by the moderator. The wiki is organized to “catch” the responses in ways that prompt more questions and accelerate the exploration of those strategic spaces where the client’s business will be heavily influenced over the next 5-10 years.

As another example, several colleagues and I are completing a grant proposal which will be submitted later this month that explores characteristics of leadership in institutional contexts where the key objective is to prompt a higher rate of adaptation and responsiveness within non-profit organizations. One of the major elements of the strategy we are proposing is the use of a moderated wiki a la the Chocolate Project. Our intent is to create an extensive library of information on the wiki about leadership that is open to all, yet we are able to extract and compile specific content into publications that target particular audiences within the non-profit arena.

The bottom line is that this approach can be leveraged / applied over and over again to generate an enormous amount of information on a particular subject, identify potential candidates to participate in a supportive broad-based network, and develop opportunities to add value. However, adding value is only half of the equation:

On New Year’s Day, there was a posting on the Yahoo! Group, Cyfranogi from Stephen DeMeulenaere, about the organization he represents – Complementary Currency Resource Center. It makes a strong connection between adding value and receiving fair compensation. When people are compensated, in part, with a complementary currency that remains in the local community where it was earned, its expenditure continuhttps://www.linkedin.com/in/stephendemeulenaere/es to benefit the community. The bulk of mainstream financial systems used to compensate people for value-add are extensions of hierarchical and global political / economic systems. They are organized to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few. As a result, when people are compensated solely by these global, federally-backed currencies their expenditures remove the purchasing power from the community to a place far afield from the point of value-add.

Unfortunately, there is no system we can devise that escapes this reality – inequalities among people drive inequalities in access to power and wealth. What we can do, though, is experiment with more locally-based, complementary currency systems that mitigate the forces of concentrating wealth on the global level from draining creativity, energy, and resources from local communities. Andrius’ approach to blending federally-backed compensation with home-grown complementary currency compensation on the Chocolate Project is a start. As this blending is pursued on other projects, the experience base will be broadened and the mettle of the emerging complementary currency systems tested so the combination between the two becomes more robust, scalable, and, ultimately, effective.

Projects born in a social network are only as good as there are participants representing a wide and comprehensive set of perspectives about the topics under consideration. People are attracted to these efforts within a social network by a variety of reasons: alignment on the values the project leader and other participants hold dear and readily espouse; affinity for and commitment to the cause being advanced by the project; recognition for performance which can be carried into other opportunities where more compensation is available; and, fair compensation for value-add. Obviously, the more of these a project offers the higher the likelihood of widespread participation. For this reason, if an alternative to federally-backed currencies can be offered which fairly compensates people for the value their contributions add then, the chances are substantially increased that the creative talent, skill, and expertise in the social network can be tapped. The challenge is to know that we are nowhere close to where we need to be and to keep trying!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Ground Truth and Social Sensors

Ground truth is the unfettered and unfiltered relating of people’s experiences within a human social system. It can be associated with a specific event at a particular point in time, such as personal interviews with survivors on December 26, 2004 in Sri Lanka shortly after the devastating tsunami struck. It can be the review of a series of experiences across a period of time such as follow-up interviews with those same Sri Lankans who were interviewed originally to understand how their circumstances are changing. It can be the stories told about how members of a social system, who experienced a catastrophe like the tsunami, adapted their social, political, and economic structures in response; namely, what worked, what didn’t, and what changes to make. Ground truth is given when people speak for themselves. It is the ONLY way a human social system knows what is REALLY going on.

People who deliver their ground truth are acting as well-functioning “social sensors” in a broader social system. They draw upon a wide range of information and communication technologies (ICT) e.g., websites, email, blogs, wikis, with land-line, cellular, and satellite connections from locations throughout the world, no matter how remote, to relate their experiences instantaneously and continuously. Social sensing parallels similar functions within mechanical and biological systems. In fact, there is a point of convergence between scientific and social sensor development paths that establishes the possibility of two working together in a highly interrelated manner that enables large, complex systems to be better managed.

Sensor technology, too, has it roots in ICT. The earliest application of ICT during its commercial development was data collection. People would make manual entries into databases of data they and others collected utilizing various measuring devices at certain points within factory or office operations. The computer would use programs to analyze those data and put them into an informational format that could help interpret what was occurring and develop responses to improve the processes or procedures.

One of the first areas where ICT quickly developed in the 1970s and 1980s was in sensor technology. With increased capability and reliability, sensor technology contributed significantly to the replacement of humans as the means through which data was collected and entered into databases. Further developments over the last 15-20 years greatly reduced the size and power requirements for sensors, and increased the sophistication and range of type and capability of sensor technology. Now, sensors are pervasive; they influence almost every aspect of our lives and endeavors. And they continue to displace people from those activities where consistency, repetitiveness, quality, and reliability are essential for effective and efficient operations.

Of particular significance in these developments and displacement is the degree of integration and compatibility between what is being sensed and what is doing the sensing. Today, extensive sensor networks are carefully nested within all manner of systems: mechanical, chemical, optical, biological, and social. Regardless of application, these sensor networks monitor and evaluate conditions which become feedback in larger, adaptive systems that devise corrective strategies and take appropriate actions in response. The key to their success is the accuracy and timeliness of their input as well as the pervasiveness and comprehensiveness of their coverage.

In many ways, the human body is a complex web of sensor networks. Millions of nerve receptors of different types and functions are distributed throughout the body and send continuous signals through the central nervous system to the brain where they are processed and given responses. And like any sensor network, the quality of the response is tied directly to the quality of the input.

Despite highly evolved and elaborate redundancies that function effectively the vast majority of the time, our senses can be fooled: hot can feel cold and vice-versa; we see mirages we believe are real; we hear sounds when there is silence; odors we smell and taste evoke memories that do not accurately reflect what we are experiencing in the moment. And as in the interplay between sensor networks and the larger systems they help regulate, there are different ways of analyzing and processing input with each eliciting different responses. Furthermore, we can ignore sensory input or respond in ways that override evidence suggesting a more appropriate course of action. So, regardless of how well-designed the system and how well-refined the processes, the arbitrariness and irrationality of our decision-making have the potential to bring it to naught.

Like the human body, human social systems are vast sensor networks. Each member of the system is a “sensor” who “reports” on conditions as they are experienced. The system – comprised of hierarchical political, economic, and social structures that operate according to sets of self-serving rules – sorts, aggregates, and analyzes data entries from sensory members in an effort to understand, interpret, determine response possibilities, consider alternatives, and decide on a course of action. Of course when considered on a global scale there are myriad social systems in play simultaneously. Members of one social system can concurrently be members of others. Interpretation of sensory input in one social system can elicit a different response compared to what happens in response by another social system. The key determinants are rank, status, and position in the formal structure and presence, voice, and passion in the informal structures.

Human social systems are analogous to the human body in other ways. There are over 6 million people in the world. The human body consists of billions of cells. Thousands of people die and thousands more are born every day. Millions of cells in the human body die daily and millions more are regenerated. Of the thousands who are born, live, and die each day, I have the opportunity to know only a handful. I know my body, in general, through its organization by function, role, and relationship of one part or system to another. Most of it I will never see and I don’t have to; I trust that it will do what it should without my deliberate attention if I follow simple rules of good health in terms of diet, nutrition, exercise, and rest. Similarly, most people in the world obey the rules of the social system to which they belong. These rules present choices and people decide in ways that permit them to adapt to current circumstances, but preserve the integrity of the system. Behavior is managed and people stick by the intent of their roles, responsibilities, and relationships.

What happens when taking care and following the rules is not enough? Even when we do our best to prevent it, inevitably, our bodies get sick. Sensory cells we seldom hear from send messages that indicate they or the systems to which they belong are in trouble. Depending on the nature of the condition they are signaling there is a wide array of prescriptive treatments from which we can select. These can be non-invasive wherein normal functions of the cells and systems are restored through medications; or invasive through the repair, removal, or replacement of tissue. The same phenomenon occurs in social systems. People in their “sensory roles” relate experiences wherein the system – no matter how well-designed the rules and how noble the principles and ideals that frame them – fails to respond within an acceptable range. Functions break down; remedies are required. In some instances a simple reinterpretation of an existing rule is all that is needed. Other times, though, more radical steps are in order such as rescinding laws and enacting new ones, closing operations and opening others, and eliminating products or canceling services and offering of others.

Oftentimes, we do not heed the early warning signals from our bodies indicating something is amiss and what was once easily restored must now be repaired, removed, or replaced. The sensory networks did not fail, but we chose through our heads or hearts to ignore the input, e.g., “I don’t feel any pain” or “I don’t see any bruises” or to not give the input appropriate attention, e.g., “It will go away” or It’s nothing.” Because the human body is marvelously adaptive, this approach works to some degree, but the performance of the whole and the cellular arrangement and functioning that comprise it are compromised. We live with it in a compromised state or we take more radical steps to correct or reverse the damage.

Again, there is a clear parallel within human social systems. Billions of people in the world have a nearly infinite variety of experiences daily. How do these experiences fit the frameworks of the social systems to which people are members? Where are there anomalies between expectations and experiences? Do these differentials drive responses? Is the system stretched beyond its limits to adequately respond and more deliberate and protracted strategies are needed to spur deeper adaptation? To know the answers requires being attentive to the “sensors.” It means getting to “ground truth” with people in the system about their circumstances.

Establishing ground truth is a three-step process:

  1. Ask people for the truth about their realities and encourage them to tell their stories openly
  2. Hear their truth, once offered, understand it; and commit to respond with appropriate action
  3. Follow-up afterward to confirm that the responses were, indeed, appropriate and that the current situation is corrected and steps are underway for longer term changes in the system preventing recurrence of the problems

Just as we do not heed messages within our bodies we do the same in social systems. To know what is really going on requires ground truth. To not ask, listen, comprehend, and take action are just as effective in shutting down responsiveness and adaptation in the social system as it is with our bodies. Much of time it is for the same reasons: “don’t confuse me with the facts” and “if I am ignorant I cannot be held accountable.” Typically, we do not like change even though circumstances warrant it. In addition, we do not like to know about circumstances where change is needed because we will be challenged to take action – in other words, make it happen. Either way we claim we will lose focus and be distracted from the mission we are locked into at the time.

Just as the health of our bodies is compromised when warning signals are ignored or overridden, social systems become corrupted when the ground truth of members is not heard or heeded. Social systems can continue to function, in general, despite certain levels of corruption, albeit their effectiveness and efficiency are significantly reduced depending on the type, degree, and pervasiveness of the corruption. Change is particularly problematic in established social systems. Power concentrates in the tops of the ruling hierarchies, corruption increases, and along with it an aversion to change that might disrupt the structure, grows. As a result, these hierarchies uphold tenets and “rules” that support the dominant culture remaining dominant.

Ruling minorities become increasingly distant from their ruled majorities. In so doing they become increasingly cut-off from what is really happening within the social systems they are charged to “protect and serve.” Ground truth exists in the heads, hearts, and souls of social system members whether it is sought after and cared for or not. People and their truth, like life itself, will find a way to express itself, even it means setting in motion disruptive patterns of behavior that threaten to totally transform the system in which they exist. David Brooks, in his editorial entitled, “Trade, Oppression, Revenge,” published in the NY Times on December 25, 2005, illustrates this point through a very recent example. The native Indian people of Bolivia, who comprise 65% of the population, dominated for years by a ruling white elite representing 3% of the population and controlling almost all of the resources in the country, used the democratic process to elect an Indian president. What is in store for the ruling minority of Bolivia and their repressive, exploitative policies? Something not nearly as pleasant as it could have been had the ground truth been spoken, heard, understood, heeded, and the outcomes confirmed.

Therein lays the challenge with respect to ground truth: some have to want to hear, some have to be willing to say, and others still have to respond to what the truth means about the design of the system and make changes accordingly. For any sensor to work effectively, regardless of type or application, its input signal must be captured, processed, and acted upon. This certainly pertains to people as social sensors in human social systems: their input is in the form of valuable stories to tell and their experiences constitute important feedback in regulating the function and adaptation of these same systems. Are you asking…and listening?

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, December 26, 2005