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A food policy, an election & the efficacy of networks

NORBERT WIENER would have approved. So would have Marshall McLuhan. It was an example of how digital communications has amplified the capacity of small groups to take action and of how new communications media has changed our culture, just as McLuhan predicted it would.

The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliances‘ (AFSA) letter to politicians, delivered just prior to the 2010 federal election, was a demonstration of how systems can self-organise in pursuit of a clear goal. A self-organising system is one that emerges from its environment and that self-regulates through the types of feedback loops that Wiener had described  in his theory of cybernetics that he developed 70 years ago.

Production of the letter, a collaborative activity by nodes in the incipient AFSA network distributed in cities between Brisbane and Adelaide, was also a demonstration of the critical role of the connectors described by Malcolm Gladwell in his popular book, The Tipping Point. Connectors stimulate the multipath flow of information within and between networks. They sit astride the places where networks intersect — networks overlap through individuals.

We can think of networks as a web of relationships embedded in a context. Information flows through networks which then have the opportunity to adjust what they do in light of what they learn from that information. These can be thought of as feedback loops through which information is passed information back and forth about the performance of the network. This is how systems adjust to changes in their environment.

The letter

Production of the AFSA letter to politicians asked for representation of community-based, social enterprise, small food business and farmers in formulation of the national policy on food promised by Labor’s Minister for Agricutlture. The Minister’s statement about national food policy was the stimulus for the small number of people active in food issues and food systems, and it was triggered by the announcement of support for a policy by Woolworths. Other big organisations had made similarly supportive statement over the previous four months. The idea was clearly gaining traction. Our concern was that development of a policy would be the preserve of large food retailers and agribusiness and that the numerous small organisations and farmers would be excluded.

It started with a few emails between the nodes of that incipient network. Those nodes were active in organisations like Food Connect Foundation, Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, Plains to Plate Future of Food group in Adelaide and the Coffs Coast Local Food Alliance — a mix of educational and advocacy groups and community food distribution systems.

Those emails triggered a cascade of action that started with an exchange of ideas and quickly evolved into shared action. Things seemed to gather their own momentum and to accelerate… the letter to politicians was drafted and edited by all… a website was quickly developed… the letter was put online… signatories to the letter were sought and flooded in… all of this happening within a week of our starting it, all of it thanks to the rapidity of digital communications like email, the internet, Skype. It was almost, as Food Connect Foundation’s Robert Pekin said, that “… this thing might catch fire” it was moving so rapidly.

The value of weak ties

When information flows through networks and, through individuals at the intersection of networks into others, it could be imagined that what is happening is that those people who have strong ties are transmitting the information and pushing it into other networks they have contact with.

Certainly, there was an element of this, particularly when the thing started. But it soon became clear that it was less those people strongly connected who were moving the idea through a cascade of social networks and more those with weak connections. Why this should be so was because those loosely-connected people were connectors for their own networks, networks that would otherwise have been beyond the capacity of those with the strong ties to gain access to. Connectors grabbed the idea of the letter and sent it spinning into other networks they had access to, even if only peripherally. There, it lodged in fertile minds in the way that a dandelion seed blown by the wind lodges in a patch of soil, there to grow and reproduce.

Information, it became apparent, flows from place to place and is encountered by people who decide to act on it. It was those people, and the organisations thet represented, who became signatories of the letter.

The value of the intrepreneurial approach

The experience of the letter demonstrated something else, and that was to do with attitude, organisational structure and thinking.

It was this: a number of those who started this snowball of a letter to politicians idea and gave it its initial push of its downhill run work with food distribution systems of the social enterprise model (a social enterprise is a business or organisation with social goals rather then profit alone and that sometimes uses business methods as the means to achieve those goals). Others are active with community-based organisations that, like the food systems, value the social entrepreneurial approach to making things happen.

A social entrepreneur is a person who takes a proactive approach to achieving social goals using from a variety of approaches those most appropriate. They are capable of rapid response to change and often act without a detailed plan, a pragmatic approach and the seeking of information through feedback loops being used to adjust what they do to changing circumstances.

Fortunately, those who started the letter had adopted this mindset. It was the most effective mindset because there was not time for detailed planning — time was too short and there was much to do — and “keeping the main thing the main thing”, to quote Stephen Covey, was uppermost in mind. A big task lay ahead when the letter idea was born and there was no time for procedural niceties. Action was what the circumstances demanded… action and the trust of those signing the letter. And that happened.

Needed: time to review, talk, think, eat. drink

We haven’t had tome to sit down, log into Skype and talk about the learnings of this experience of rapid response to events. That will come, but even three days after the election, there’s still a trickle of people wanting to sign the letter to politicians. There’s certainly been a shift when it comes to thinking about our food future and the AFSA’s action in producing the letter to politicians has positioned it well to continue its advocacy work.

That suggests we continue to make use of the ideas in the letter to advocate for a democratic, national food policy. And if that doesn’t come about… what then?

One option would be to produce our own policy — a citizen’s national food policy — and to use that as an advocacy tool to for a fairer, sustainable and future-directed food system for this country.

There is much to do now… to review the experience in producing the letter and getting it out in time for the election… to establish (if this is wanted) an organisation that retains the capacity for rapid response and proactivity and that embeds within it the entrepreneurial approach to getting things done… working out what those who signed the letter think we should do and whether, and how, they would like involvement.

In doing this, we will continue to make use of the virtual tools that are the legacy of Norberg Wiener and Marshall McLuhan and, in doing so, help to bring into reality the food systems that truly complement the technological outcomes of the genius of those two.

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