How Change Happens: the podcast

July 23, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

I spoke to Jo Howard from IDS about How Change Happens for their book podcast Between the Lines. Here it is:

With podcasts, I always try to provide a blog-length set of excerpts for people who prefer reading to listening, but I honestly couldn’t bear to listen to myself this time. So huge thanks to Maria Faciolince for taking the hit and coming up with these highlights:

On complexity in change processes: “I went all physicist at some points during the book, because what I realised was that we’d somehow acquired a terribly linear view of change: that if I do this, I will achieve this. And if I get results, I’ll be able to attribute it to my action. And the more I thought about that, the more absurd it seemed as a model for most kinds of change…So I started to realise that we had ended up somewhere very artificial and not terribly useful. Instead, we should be rethinking and saying, ‘Okay, suppose we are in these complex and unpredictable systems, what does that mean for activism? It doesn’t mean you give up, but it means you do activism differently.’ And that’s where I ended up.”

On power: “I see it as the underlying force field of social change and the role, or the most relevant skill, for an activist is to make power visible in some sense.”

On informal power and overcoming the narrow focus on policy:

“What strikes you about processes, whether they’re progressive or regressive, is the importance of underlying social norms; how these deep, deep-seated attitudes and beliefs have changed over time. But people who consider themselves activists have often ignored those, focused too much on policies, on specifics, on things you can point to and say, ‘I did that’.  You know, little, little wins in Westminster, for example, in the case of the UK. So, I think too much of a focus on policy, not enough on the underlying tides that have led to the rise of populism, for example.”

What do we do to keep looking forward?

“You can see many processes of change as a process of power shifting from one group to another, being renegotiated. There’s lots of different ways to make power visible, so that you can then act upon it consciously and design and think about change processes. I teach a bunch of tools to my LSE students about how to understand and look at power. And that’s both formal power, in terms of who controls Congress, or government, or the military, and informal power, in terms of social norms, what is considered natural, how women are treated, or whatever aspect of norms you’re talking about.

Then you have to go from that to thinking, ‘Okay, so what kind of strategies will I look for? What kind of allies might I be able to build alliances with? Who are the enemies that I need to either ignore or try and weaken?’ It’s quite a deliberate process, but what you have to realise is: however much you think about it and however smart you are, it’s very likely that the plan you come up with won’t work. And then the key question is: how good are you at spotting what is and isn’t working and adapting your plan?”

Here’s some ideas about ‘ways of being’ that we can all develop to be effective activists or agents of change:

“Being curious, actually being really interested in what’s changing in the world around you. Many activists are just too tired to be curious. They do ridiculous hours and they’ve stopped being curious. And I think that is a real problem.

Humility, you know, that ability to actually see the limitations on your own knowledge and still function. The readiness to work with people you disagree with. NGOs and civil society organisations, sometimes it looks like they’re creating a monoculture of people who think just like them, have the same views, the same politics. And that’s very bad news if you’re working in these complex systems, because diversity produces strength and resilience…You’ve got to work with people you disagree with, people you don’t understand, and that’s when the interesting stuff happens. I’m a great believer in multi-stakeholder initiatives, where the corporates sit down with the trade unions and the NGOs on a specific problem. I’m much less excited where everybody’s the same kind of person. So it’s how do you work in diversity and how do you keep your mind open to possibilities, which I think is really crucial.”

More on ‘evidence-based humility’:

“If you’re an activist, you’re passionate, you want to change the world and it’s very easy to flip from that to thinking you have to demonstrate complete certainty, so that people will believe you and follow you. And it’s very hard to ride that horse and at the same time think, ‘I probably don’t know what I’m talking about,’, which I think causes a lot of existential angst amongst activists. So there’s a whole bunch of structural and psychological issues that work against humility. But reality works for humility.

The trouble is, being humble is seen as being some very, sort of holy, saint-like individual. That’s not the humility I’m interested in. I’m interested in evidence-based humility, which is: in a situation where you genuinely don’t have the ability to predict and the ability to know what’s going to happen, it’s crucial that you’re humble enough to keep feedback in place, so you spot what works and what doesn’t and then react to it. That’s how you become an effective activist. So humility is a tool, if you like. It’s not some lovely, holy quality – it’s actually what you need to be a good activist.”

The power of making uneasy alliances:

“One of the lessons I’m constantly trying to drum home with my students is: never see monoliths, always look at an institution, be it a formal institution or an informal institution, and think, ‘Let’s get under the skin of it, let’s disaggregate, let’s see who are our potential allies.’ If it’s the fossil fuel industry, in terms of climate change, if it’s the finance sector, you will always find allies…So, on climate change, for example, I’m struck by how little there’s been a linkup between faith organisations and climate change activists. Faith organisations with a concern for stewardship, with a concern for future generations. Faith organisations think long-term, more than any other institution. You look at the Vatican – they understand long-term change and long-term resistance and the importance of thinking in those sort of generational terms. Natural allies. Yet many activists find that difficult, because they can’t bridge the normative abyss between a rationalist, environmentalist agenda and a faith-based agenda. So trying to get those people to talk to each other, I think, and find common ground, is really important.”