Blogs >> Let's be performers rather than bystanders in the new economy - Jonathan Dawson

Let's be performers rather than bystanders in the new economy - Jonathan Dawson

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I spent last Friday up in Bristol at the 10th anniversary bash of our sister organisation and fellow member of the Schumacher Circle, the Schumacher Institute.  Lots of stimulating presentations and chat with friends old and new. 

One of the group exercises we were invited to participate in was an enquiry into how we can persuade people of the merits of systems and complexity thinking.  Immediately, the framing of the question felt awkward and unhelpful. 

It brought to mind a recent conversation I had with one of our economics Masters students who was trying to understand a puzzling conversation she had just had with a local entrepreneur she wants to work with on her dissertation research. 

Her puzzlement arose from the fact that in exploring how they might work together, the entrepreneur was engaged and excited until she started trying to explain concepts around complexity, at which point she experienced him as losing focus and interest. 

This set me thinking about the place of systems/complexity thinking and at what level we need to ‘get’ it. 

A few weeks back, the REconomy Centre in Totnes hosted its 7th annual Local Entrepreneurs’ Forum (LEF) https://reconomycentre.org/home/lef/, where local social entrepreneurs pitch their new ideas and proposed ventures to their community. 

All present are encouraged to see themselves as ‘investors’, whether that be in the form of financial investment, a sharing of skills and expertise, voluntary labour, child care……whatever.  All are valuable in building bonds of affection and connection within the new emerging social economy. 

This is the systems paradigm as experienced in an embodied way, as a lived reality, its resilience, connectivity and vitality tangible to all in the room.  It was among the most empowered and vibrant evenings I can remember

What rapidly became clear as the evening went on was the high degree of inter-connectivity that already existed between the social enterprises represented in the room, most of whom have pitched at previous LEFs.  Food grown by one was being served by a café run by another.  A micro-brewery was making beer from mushrooms grown by another.  Locally-grown grain was finding its way into locally-baked bread. 

A host of potential local marketing options were opened up to a recently formed wheat-grass cultivation enterprise.  And in parallel, multiple connections were being made by the social entrepreneurs and the many ‘investors’ pledging to support them in myriad ways.

This is the systems paradigm as experienced in an embodied way, as a lived reality, its resilience, connectivity and vitality tangible to all in the room.  It was among the most empowered and vibrant evenings I can remember. 

And yet, my guess is that few if any of those present had any familiarity with the theoretical framework and concepts of systems and complexity thinking.  (Nor, I imagine, would such familiarity have significantly improved the quality of the connections created.)

So, wherein, then, lies of power of these concepts…….and what is the role of the educator seeking to disseminate them?  It lies above all in providing a language – perhaps better still, a map – to enable those engaged in the new emerging social economy to make sense of their experiences. 

Shifting metaphors from the hierarchical and mechanical to the distributed and networked can help us re-locate ourselves within the networks of solidarity on which we need to draw.  It can serve to validate the significance of our little, local initiatives as interdependent nodes in an emergent pattern.

The challenge before us as educators is not to persuade people of a new philosophy called systems/complexity thinking.  It is rather to propose an alternative set of conceptual frames that may help us consciously re-engage as what JK Gibson-Graham describe as ‘performers’ rather than bystanders in the making of a qualitatively new economy: ‘“If to change ourselves is to change our worlds, and the relation is reciprocal, then the project of history making is never a distant one but always right here, on the borders of our sensing, thinking, feeling, moving bodies”.

Jonathan Dawson is coordinator and senior lecturer of the MA Economics for Transition which begins in September 2018.