Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by user Kiwi Flickr

What Makes Generative Networks Tick?

A positive feedback loop. Photo by Jurgen Appelo, used under Creative Commons licensing. A positive feedback loop. Photo by Jurgen Appelo, used under Creative Commons licensing.

Reposted from the Connecting to Change the World blog with permission. Networks of individuals and organizations that aim to solve a difficult problem in the society by working together, adapting over time, and generating a sustained flow of activities and impacts: in Connecting to Change the World we call these generative social-impact networks. “Generative” because they are designed to be a platform for generating multiple, ongoing kinds of social impact, not just accomplishing a single outcome. It’s a unique and renewable capacity that is especially useful when taking on complex, unpredictable, large-scale problems like climate change, homelessness, or education-system performance, which won’t yield to a “silver-bullet” solution. In a generative network the members are deliberate about building, strengthening, and maintaining ties with each other. Over time they forge a renewable collaborative capacity that generates numerous activities simultaneously. Together, they innovate to create new products, services, and programs; learn which practices/policies work, then adopt and spread them; advocate for changes in public policies; coordinate provision of services; set up joint purchasing and branding; and organize to develop and use private, philanthropic, and public investment. Over the years, their networks become more robust and adaptive enough to maintain their effectiveness and steadily increase their impact. In such networks, decision-making is distributed among the members, not concentrated at the top or with the staff. The members are volunteers; they set the agenda and priorities and do most of the work. There are minimal formal rules and the structure is non-hierarchical. This “looseness” makes networks less stable but more nimbly adaptive than organizations. Networks do not automatically become generative and able to sustain a high level of member engagement, activity, adaptation, and impact. What’s the “secret sauce” that makes all of this possible? Generative networks combine powerful social dynamics—the basic human desire to connect, share, belong, and make a difference—with a decentralized structure that enables members. It sets two social forces into motion: the generosity with which members treat each other and the shared sense of identity they develop.
  • Generosity. Members give to each other, giving away their knowledge, skills, connections, and resources. It’s a “gift economy.” They give in the expectation that giving to others will be rewarded by getting from others, that mutual exchange—reciprocity between members—will occur in the network.
  • Shared Identity. When this member-to-member exchange happens, the network’s decentralized structure magnifies the value of the gifts, efficiently spreading the benefits to other members, who, in turn, enhance them and spread them even further. As a result, members don’t just bond with the members with whom they have engaged; they develop a feeling for, a loyalty toward, and a willingness to support the network as a whole. The network is a gift that keeps them giving.
When these member-to-member social dynamics exist, the network’s decentralized structure kicks in to magnify the value of the exchanges among members, efficiently spreading the benefit to other members who, in turn, enhance and spread it even further.