Evolutionary work at the edge of social innovation

Op-Ed: The creation of sharing economies is an important step towards building a more just, sustainable, and flourishing world, but in order for it to fully realize its transformative potential we need to put it in a larger context. With all our resources, knowledge, and technology, we keep producing quick fixes and missing opportunities to address the root causes of our global and local issues.

Look at nonprofits that are harnessing simple and compelling success stories from the front lines which often covers a complex and persisting failure. Check out Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives that create disparities between rethorics and actual policies. Don't forget about social entrepreneurs who are boasting about how much free stuff they shipped to countries in need while ignoring the negative effects this model has on their stakeholders.

Tunnel vision, lack of collaboration, obsession with symptoms, and disregard of root causes — all these don’t work in isolation. Our cultural and institutional context encourages all that through short-term exit strategies of impact investors, solution-based grantmaking policies of foundations, predictive theories of change locked in reductionistic metrics, and other means. Try to challenge this context, and you risk suffering patronizing criticism, losing funding, and often having a hard time explaining to people around you what you are doing.

Fortunately, the shift towards more adequate approaches is underway. Foundations are experimenting with alternative funding structures delegating their decision-making power to those who do the work on the ground. Impact investors are exploring radical ideas of waiting for decades before expecting any returns. Leading universities are confirming the need for more systemic approaches in social innovation. These are just some of the growing signs of change in the institutions of influence, and yet the majority of social innovators are still taught, encouraged, and often forced to do the work in conventional ways that are inadequate in the face of complex, systemic, and urgent challenges of today.

As we work with participants of the Evolutionary Future Challenge we do our best to support those aspects of their work that are important for genuine systemic transformation but are generally not supported by the current cultures and institutions of influence. Here are five dimensions of evolutionary work that you might find of value:

Evolutionary purpose

Whatever seems to be helpful in the short term for one community or one region might not be the best thing for the long-term flourishing of our civilization. How does our work contribute to a more just, sustainable, and flourishing world? We shouldn’t be afraid of having this as a guiding question. It can help align efforts of a plethora of change agents in a way that transforms isolated actions into a global symphony of evolutionary work.

Context sensitivity

Worshiping laser focus and low-context scalability can be very dangerous in social innovation. Directing our attention and resources exclusively to one issue, one need, and one group of stakeholders limits our ability to make an intentional contribution at the systemic level and often leads to unintended negative consequences.

Looking for solutions that are easy to scale without bothering with nuances of local contexts confines us to a very limited set of cultural narratives and institutional structures that have achieved global domination and can often support such scaling only at the expense of the integrity of our work.

Connecting to the specific systemic context, sensing it as it changes over time, shifting away from expert-driven solutions and predictive strategies, embracing emergence, and evolving our work in close relationship with other actors — these are some of the qualities we are looking for in evolutionary work.

Depth of intervention

It is generally much easier to introduce a technical solution that fits existing cultural narratives and institutional structures than to reshape our institutions and transform deep motives behind stakeholders’ behavior.

Fitting into dominant cultures and institutions makes it easier to survive and prosper but harder to address systemic challenges created by those very cultures and institutions. Evolutionary work involves reshaping what we normally treat as givens, challenging the fundamentals of our social reality instead of trying to make it look prettier. Without redesigning our worldviews, our cultures, and our institutions, a fundamental systemic shift we need is hardly possible.

Inner work

Our cultures and institutions are not separate from us. When we seek to change them, we need to pay attention to our own worldview that inevitably creates assumptions and biases. Embracing paradoxes, letting go of the desire to always know the right answer, accepting the legitimacy of the other, effectively dealing with the emotional side of change, being able to step back and reconnect with the purpose, and the context in the moment of conceptual crisis — all that requires ongoing inner work and is necessary if we seek to transform our social realities.

Beauty

"To know if the work is evolutionary I look whether it is generative, life-giving: is it giving rise to a new flow of inspiration, inspiring us to see in new ways, enhancing our appreciation for Life and each other," says Anneloes Smitsman, one of our evolutionary judges. Another evolutionary judge Nora Bateson expresses this quality of evolutionary work through the concept of beauty: "Maybe one thing I would add is the question 'Is it beautiful?' There is something about when you see systemic work that is really in the pocket: You look at it and, you know, it's just beautiful. And it doesn't matter whether it's working with paralysis or the deepest darkest broken aspects of our world, that work when it hits that note, it's beautiful."

We use this to evaluate presentations of the Evolutionary Future Challenge finalists. These criteria evolve as we keep learning from the participants and reflecting on it with our growing community of evolutionary judges. It is very special for us to host a space where some of the most harmful assumptions of our dominant cultural narratives are suspended to give evolutionary leaders the freedom to talk about their work, co-create new stories and institutional structures, and grow them into new systems of influence.

If you feel called to share your evolutionary work, apply for the Evolutionary Future Challenge by Aug. 1. Missed the deadline? Apply next year or join our practice and learning community.

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