Monthly Archives: December 2011

Reprint: “A leap into the unknown?”

Old fashioned poster encouraging people to grown their own food at homeIn something of a departure from what you’ll usually find here, I’m republishing a piece that I wrote quite a while ago. The article below appeared in the now defunct Political Review in mid-1993.

A photocopy of the article has been sitting near my computer ever since I became self-employed in 2007. I’ve been meaning to type in the story as I still think it’s relevant.

Talking over a wedge of cake at my son’s shared birthday party last Saturday has prompted me to do the typing. It didn’t take long after I started conversing with Sam to dig into permaculture, swapping garden surpluses, community organising and the like.

When Sam comes to dinner I’ll show him some of the books I’ve acquired over the years on different aspects of social ecology, over-consumption, reimagining cities and mending our ways generally. For now, this article will have to suffice as a sweeping introduction to some thinkers that have helped form my thoughts on ‘sustainability’.

If I decided to re-write this article today, many of the issues raised are still pertinent almost 20 years later. Taking just one example, on my reading list is a new take on Ted Trainor’s arguments: “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” (2011) by Richard Heinberg.

I’d be tempted to find out whether Ted Trainor is still so optimistic about neighbourhoods being the locus for social change. My limited involvement in the Brooklyn Transition Towns food group, a variety of organic food co-ops and sundry other practical projects, shows what hard work it takes to get people working together, and the rewards that are possible when things take-off.

I could go on at length, but you might not end up reading the actual article. So, without prolonging the preamble, here’s the full unexpurgated text of “A leap into the unknow?”

A leap into the unknown

A shift to Ted Trainor’s self-sufficient ‘radical conserver’ society requires a bold leap. But as Stephen Blyth discovers, it is not a vision that is completely unknown.

Ted Trainor, Australian social ecologist and activist, has a radical idea about the way we can live. It’s a vision that denies a central role to the market. Instead needs are met locally, people are not exploited nor is the environment. It’s a vision that requires that we “Abandon Affluence”, as the title of his 1985 book suggests.

Although a radical leap, Trainor’s ideas are grounded in values from the past. His vision relies on old time values of thrift and frugality. A more self-sufficient way of living. When Trainor spoke in Christchurch last October he suggested that many in the audience would remember a time of greater self-sufficiency. It was not that long ago.

Read the rest of the article

Photo credit: P J Chmiel

Don’t choose your online networking space(s) first

I invariably try to frame whatever I’m writing or talking about in a resolutely positive way. Turn the statements around. Glass half full. And all that.

As I feel strongly about this topic, I’m going to stick to a negative assertion that struck me as I was thinking about this blog post. If there is one that might stick it’s this: whatever you do, don’t choose the tools or spaces for an online network first.

It feels trite to say it’s necessary to begin by understanding the particular needs of each organisation (or amorphous network) and what people are seeking to do.

Isn’t this so, so obvious? Does it really need saying? Aren’t all online groups basically the same away?

For a number of reasons, we do need to reassert a fairly predictable starting point.

We’re bombarded with sales pitches, free ways to form groups at the drop of a button, and hear of countless others setting up groups on this or that platform. Why don’t we do the same?

Under pressure to do something, getting started is better than doing nothing.

I’m writing about this now after making just this point to the Comm2Comms network in Wellington last week. (See my “Choosing the right online spaces to support your unique network(s) presentation” notes.)

In brief, I recommended people think about practices and activities first, and then match these with online tools or spaces. In the end we didn’t directly address what can be a very long list of tools. But we certainly talked around the rationale for networks. (BTW: for a jumbled list of tools, take a look at my delicious links listing online networking and related applications.)

I am grateful for the work of community of practice luminaries Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D Smith who have given anyone wanting to successfully use technology to support learning networks some sound guidance in their book “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities” (2009).

Leaving aside the approach to technology acquisition, ongoing support and all that jazz, Wenger et al, offer a useful way for understanding the different foci of groups. There starting point is with what they call orientations. These are described as:

“a typical pattern of activities and connections through which members experience being a community”.

Orientations could be described as the things people actually do (or want to focus on) within a network. This could be: holding meetings, online or off; having open-ended conversations; running projects; accessing expertise; enabling individual participation; forming and maintaining relationships. This is by no means a definitive list, rather it’s offered as a starting point.

To get to the point, if you are clear on the orientation(s) then everything else will follow. Included in “Digital Habitats” are useful guides for each of the nine orientations. Each of these matches the types of things people want to do with the practices that will keep them alive, and, yes, the tools.

During the workshop I did say that anyone running a network shouldn’t expect people to be monogamous. Thinking people will loyally participate in just a single online space or place is unrealistic.

With the exploding demands for our attention every online network needs to be relevant. Even with a group different people with varying levels of technology nous will want to interact in different ways. Better to accept this than fight against the flow.

Somehow I’ve ended up saying much more than my heading. In hindsight, perhaps I should rename it “Setting up thriving online networks – where to start”.

Is this relevant to your organisation or network?

Below are the slides of my presentation, plus I’ve listed the links I referred to about online networking resources. I am available to repeat or customise this presentation for your unique network. Contact me.