Emerging Transformation For Wise Whole-System Self-Governance: Life beyond left-right, liberal-conservative, representative-voter


By: Tom Atlee: VP and Research Director – Co-Intelligence Institute

In dozens of ways – from majoritarian voting and special interest manipulations to polarized extremism and disastrous social and environmental policies – current “democratic” governance systems reward part of the whole at the expense of the rest of the whole. More often than not it seems the whole society is cut off from meaningful participation.

However, it is also clear that in every domain of public life – food systems, health care, security, education, and all the rest – all the relevant players (sectors, stakeholders, etc.) are ALREADY participating in whatever happens next. Even when there are major centralized powers – usually governments or businesses – effectively controlling the directions things go, there are still dozens of other players mixed in and active.

In that reality some of us see emerging possibilities for new forms of governance – processes of direction-setting and implementing – that collectively are potentially a transformation on the scale of the shift from absolute monarchy to representative democracy.

What if it were possible to have all the existing players – “the whole system” – in each domain of public life working together consciously – intentionally coordinating, sharing information, developing shared understandings and collaborations. What if they could not only collaborate, but could work together effectively? If that could be successfully done, it would generate a new level of governance of, by and for that whole domain.

This is very different from top-down government because it involves all players. No one player is telling the others what to do. But the more we are habituated to top-down government and management, the harder it can be to imagine what “whole system governance” could possibly mean, to say nothing of what it would actually look like and how it would work.

But two parallel trends are making this remarkable phenomenon increasingly possible: (1) in every sector people are building their know-how and understanding about collaborative dynamics and methodologies and (2) in all domains more and more people are recognizing that the complexity of the issues and opportunities they face requires that diverse players – even erstwhile opponents – engage well together. They can’t just work on their different pieces of the puzzle. They need to cover the ground together in ways that make sense for everyone. So (2) is providing motivation for collaboration and (1) is providing the capacity. Not everywhere, but more and more.

This is not to say that all this is happening smoothly everywhere and utopia is right around the corner. No. All this is unfolding in a rough and tumble chaos of diverse initiatives. But one of the most remarkable – and almost ubiquitous – emerging dynamics is that these collaborations are showing up not only among diverse people and organizations, but among diverse NETWORKS. Most significantly we are finding various combinations of multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale, and cross-demographic networks experimenting with collaboration. Notable examples include efforts around each of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, around improving food systems, and around landscape conservation.

So we’re seeing a level of fine-grained, full-spectrum diversity being brought together with increasing levels of sophistication. And here and there theoreticians and social visionaries are beginning to notice that these trends effectively add up to the emergence of new forms of governance based on collaborating cross-boundary networks – i.e., governance based on conversations and shared efforts that increasingly involve the whole system in each of these major domains.

Intriguingly, this approach to governance does not replace government as we’ve known it. It does, however, contextualize government as one entity among many in a larger ecosystem of players, perspectives, capacities, etc. It is a form of governance that includes and transcends democratic republicanism, just as democratic republicanism included and transcended earlier hierarchical forms like monarchies and bureaucratic dictatorships.

Some of us in the US – myself included – are exploring ways to encourage and support it, especially in ways that (a) increase the collective self-awareness and responsibility of those involved as agents of actual governance AND (b) that increase their capacity to creatively engage all kinds of diversity, including the many-faceted collective voice, will, and potential wisdom of the sovereign People, the traditional focus of an ideal democratic state.

As we work on this, we’re realizing this catalytic effort has more dimensions than we imagined when we first stumbled on the vision, all requiring committed focus by change agents passionate about their particular perspectives or initiatives. Some of us are working on catalyzing a network of Emerging Network Governance Initiatives (ENGIs) in an effort to enable collaborations among diverse players organizing this domain – which we ironically realize is one more manifestation of what we’re trying to catalyze everywhere! Among the initiatives we’ve seen energy for are the following:

  • Creating more promotional and informational materials, from articles like this to PowerPoint presentations and videos.
  • Workshops for folks already involved in cross-boundary network collaborations, exploring the implications of their evolving into actual governance.
  • Convening major players in the “network governance ecosystem” for strategic conversations.
  • Fundraising for network governance projects.
  • Researching examples and case studies of multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale, trans-demographic network collaborations.
  • Helping key networks of networks work together more effectively to move this ahead more rapidly.
  • Introducing racial, gender, and other equity-generating approaches into the evolution of these network systems.
  • Introducing collective wisdom-generating know-how into any network collaborations consciously wanting to develop their governance capacities.

This is an unusual social movement in the extent to which cross-network collaborative activities are already widespread and rapidly developing worldwide, while at the same time only a few people recognize their implications for governance. This situation – this super-saturated solution of novel collaborations – is poised on a transformational edge, ready for catalytic change efforts, for strategically designed “butterfly flaps” that can reorient and upgrade this increasingly ubiquitous whole-system collaborative trend into a new form of whole-system governance that is more decentralized, more effective, and almost surely more wise than any we’ve ever had before.

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