How can we build networks of system innovators?

Sensemaking / How can we build networks of system innovators?

Anna Birney, head of the system innovation lab at Forum for the Future, shares her insights into collaboration with Jeanny Gering

By Jeanny Gering / 09 Jun 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Network Futures. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

At the end of 2015 we witnessed a historic moment. The United Nations conference on climate change in Paris saw world leaders, for the first time, commit to a target of keeping the rise in temperature below 2°C. The effects of greenhouse gas emissions on our planet have finally been recognised, by those in power, as a real threat to human existence.

The climate conference was a mammoth task. For two weeks, politicians, scientists, NGOs and climate activists were in Paris to discuss, influence and draft an agreement. However, this was just the first step. Now, states have to implement projects that limit the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and reduce them all together. The success of these projects will depend on close collaboration between states and corporations, and their citizens and employees. No single company or state can achieve this on its own.

What do we know about creating effective networks to change things at a systemic scale – transforming the very foundations of our lives?

That it’s not easy, says Anna Birney, Head of the System Innovation Lab at Forum for the Future, and passionate about understanding how people collaborate to bring about change. At the Lab, Anna and her team explore disruptive innovations to create sustainable solutions for networks of corporations and organisations.

“Often, it is easy to bring people to a table and talk about innovation and ideas”, she says, “but to turn those ideas into action and impact is the real challenge.”

Find the needs, then the glue

Where to begin? According to Anna, the first step in creating networks of system innovators is to identify stakeholders with shared needs and connect them as collaborators. Drawing on Forum for the Future’s experience of working with networks in diverse industries such as shipping, tea production and, most recently, the protein sector, she knows that every member of a network will have a different level of willingness, capability and resources to foster change. You have to find the glue that holds these different stakeholders together, and keep the momentum going, she says.

The Tea 2030 project, for example, led by Forum for the Future, forged a network of stakeholders to create a roadmap for a sustainable tea industry. The negative effects of climate change in tea-producing countries have created a shared need for tea producers and trade organisations to work together. Corporations traditionally in competition with one another, such as Unilever or Tata, collaborated to identify areas they could focus on together, to nurture a sustainable future for their product. Support for tea growers on the most relevant environmental and social issues, as well as raising awareness among consumers, were identified as key concerns. Most importantly, the Tea 2030 project established a CEO group, formed of leaders in the tea industry, in charge of giving the project a strategic direction. The CEO group is meant to be the glue that keeps stakeholders together to drive progress until 2030.

Sharing is only a stepping stone

The final stage in the process of building transformative networks is to know when a network is able to stand on its own feet. For Anna, this is an exciting area of research: “There is a huge trend for corporations and organisations to establish networks and seek collaboration. But we need more-sophisticated knowledge on how networks actually work within themselves.”

There is a key difference between networks that exchange information and those that are in action on the ground. It’s valuable for networks to exchange information, says Anna: “It’s kind of the first stepping stone. But you will only achieve transformation if the network is strong enough to actively apply their expertise.”

The climate conference shows that the sustainability movement has had a big impact. States are responding to their responsibility to global warming. Corporations realised that it is in their own economic and social interest to foster sustainability. “It’s a process of long-term engagement though”, says Anna. “It can’t just be about a networking event, it has to be about capitalising on everyone’s investment and taking decisions further.”

The agreement is a vital starting point: it means we’ve started to identify the stakeholders and their common needs. But to act upon it, to build networks that drive change at the very foundations of society, is another matter.

We may not yet fully understand every aspect that makes a network successful. But in light of the Paris agreement, we have new momentum to find out.

Image credit: Sérgio Rola / Unsplash

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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