What can Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Matrix teach us about how change happens?

December 14, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Chatting to academics in the US last week, we swapped notes on the merits of
using shared cultural references to convey some of the key ideas around how change happens. They act as a short cut, allowing subtle, nuanced ideas to be discussed on the basis of a large pool of common knowledge. You need to avoid the pitfalls of cultural imperialism, of course (so religious texts are tricky), but thanks to social media and Hollywood, there are some pretty universal narratives to build on. I picked up a couple in the book, but failed to capitalise on some of the recent blockbusters – Game of Thrones, Hunger Games etc. Can you help?

The Power and Systems Approach (see summary, right) set out in the book talks about the kinds of people we need to be to work in complex systems, and the kinds of questions we need to ask. In terms of popular culture, I came up with the following (please note, not all of these are entirely serious):

In terms of ‘How we think/feel/work’, we have 3 out of 4:

Curiosity = The Wire: ‘Bunk, a dissolute but brilliant detective, advises a new recruit that the key to success is cultivating ‘soft eyes’, learning to spot the important clues that lie in your peripheral vision or that you weren’t looking for. Being a good observer is harder than it sounds. It’s easy to see what we are elf-liberation-frontlooking for, but much harder to notice and register the unexpected, or the evidence that contradicts our assumptions.’

Humility= Harry Potter (or the opposite of Hermione, anyway): ‘In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Hermione sets up an ‘Elf Liberation Front’ to free the house elves who serve the wizard community. The house elves are horrified—no-one had asked them if they wanted to be ‘liberated’, which to them looks very much like being unemployed. Hermione didn’t consult the elves; she merely assumed she knew what was right for them. She really needed a proper theory of change.’

Multiple perspectives, unusual suspects = Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is really a classic multi-stakeholder initiative in which the different

Multistakeholder Initiative, Middle Earth style

Multistakeholder Initiative, Middle Earth style

capacities and skillsets of the participants lead to a stronger overall entity.

So what’s the popular narrative that brings alive the importance of the one remaining element – reflexivity: awareness of our own personal impact on the system we are trying to describe and change?

The second part of the Power and Systems Approach is about ‘The questions we ask (and keep asking)’. I need a bit more help here, as I’ve only got one at the moment:

Power = The Matrix: Power is the underlying matrix of development. Making the-matrixpower visible so that we can think about how it can be redistributed more fairly is like Neo coming to see the Matrix and acquiring superpowers (ahem…)

Oddly, I never quoted West Wing in the book, perhaps because it applies to almost everything (as does South Park, it seems).

Now it’s your turn: what popular narratives can help with the remaining elements of the PSA?

  • The importance of changing norms as well as more tangible things like policies and spending
  • The value of successful precedents, both historical and current
  • The need for feedback loops and course corrections

Remember, the references have to be universally recognizable to a student age range, which probably means they have to be in TV/movie format as well as books.