Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together
244 pages, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
“The old ways of doing things are not up to the global challenges we are facing.” So begins Global Action Networks, a book that provides an outstanding framework for addressing today’s complex social and environmental issues. Author Steve Waddell cites globalization, system complexity, and the disruptive impact of new technology as factors that contribute to our inability to resolve today’s issues with traditional strategies and our need to find new approaches. By using whole systems thinking—the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole—and involving stakeholders from business, government, and the social sector, he argues that we can craft effective, locally applicable, and timely solutions to problems as diverse as climate change and community health.
What are global action networks? They are basically multi-stakeholder networks that span geographical, institutional, and sectoral boundaries to effect systemic change. Because they involve systems thinking and are designed to build connections and trust, Waddell argues that they lead to superior results. He says the networks help shift perspectives because they create a collective understanding of a problem, take into account impacts on multiple parties, and operate from a place of future possibilities. The solutions tend to be breakthroughs that change the rules of the game.
Examples of global action networks include the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which has increased access to effective treatments, saving 3.5 million lives; the Forest Stewardship Council, which has certified 300 million acres of forests and engaged 16,000 businesses in 100 countries to sell certified products; and the Principles for Responsible Investment, which is changing the logic of the global finance system through a set of principles supported by 850 signatories representing $20 trillion in assets.
Waddell both articulates the phenomenon of these networks, surveying more than 80 of them, and helps us understand how they are formed and develop. He shows how networks that embrace diversity, build trust, and foster entrepreneurial action are able to take action to a global level while responding to a wide range of local conditions. These networks go beyond “scaling up” to “scaling across” geographies and reconceiving systems, so that change is both meaningful and transformational.
Waddell’s focus is on the power of citizens to master collective change. He proposes four strategies that range from the individual to the collective and the interpersonal to the systemic, underscoring that for change to be lasting it must include personal and structural transformations. Waddell draws on the ideas of many systems change thinkers, including Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge, Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Wheatley, Ken Wilber, Barbara Bunker, David Bohm, and Bettye Pruitt, to demonstrate the power of a whole systems approach and what Scharmer calls “leading from the future as it emerges.” One of the most helpful chapters outlines eight competencies required for the success not only of global action networks but also of any leader working with complex issues, uncertainty, and change. They include knowledge, skills, and behaviors in leadership; network development; measuring impact; conflict and change; communications; learning systems; policy and advocacy; and resource mobilization.
Waddell’s model is part of a growing body of work that explores how social change can be implemented through net works that exist at the international, national, local, and individual levels. In the United States, the Interaction Institute for Social Change is probably the leading pioneer of this approach. Another is the United Nations Development Programme’s Leadership for Results Programme, which builds on-the- ground, multi-stakeholder partnerships and transformational leaders to work on global problems like HIV and climate change. Waddell’s book would have been even stronger had he shared his assessment of what these pioneers learned in the early stages of forging their networks. The book provides many remarkable success stories, but not enough analysis of the challenges that went into network creation.
Waddell asserts that global action networks represent a 21st-century global governance model that stems from two main sources: the positive impact of technology on how work and society are organized; and the weaknesses in post-World War II international institutions. Several authors have examined these issues. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s A New World Order shows how networks of professionals are sharing practices across national boundaries. Parag Khanna’s How to Run the World explores how to harness technological connectedness to create new multi-sectoral networks where “no one is in charge.” Jeff Howe shows how work is shifting in Crowdsourcing. And Manuel Castells describes a new historical paradigm equal in magnitude to the industrial revolution in The Rise of the Network Society.
Global Action Networks contributes to this articulation of what’s next in governance by showing how we can envision and work collaboratively to create a better future. With grounded examples and clear logic, Waddell presents a concise, effective, and useful model for local and global approaches to developing networks that are change agents. The book will help any social innovation practitioner assess her competencies, learn network approaches, and find new ways to discern and navigate our most complex problems.
Patrick McNamara is a consultant specializing in whole system change, breakthrough initiatives, and social innovation for government, NGOs, and United Nations’ clients.