In the age of communities, networks are vital infrastructures. As we are beginning to understand their potential, learning to build and harness connectivity is a powerful skill. Networks are as powerful as the change they enable.
What happens when five global and local networks host an open conversation about using networks for change? The Open Sourcing Change in Collaborative Networks event was born out of informal conversations among friends with many organizational hats about the value of the different networks they work through, crowd-sourcing the question of how networks deliver change seemed only natural.
This is why the Global Shapers Bucharest Hub opened up the conversation to the public and asked co-organizers EdgeRyders, Aspen Fellows Network and guests EduCab and Bucharest2021 to join a table at generous host BCR and get talking about what makes networked collaboration work. And what doesn’t.
Ciprian Stănescu, current curator of the Global Shapers Bucharest Hub, was first to present the local chapter of a global network of young leaders addressing local challenges by opening the floor with a statement-question: how do we do good? Global Shapers do good through more than 450 city-based hubs connected in a network of 5500+ people across the world. Locally autonomous but well connected to the global network through a clear governance scheme, mandate and internal platform, GS hubs target urgent city-specific needs through innovative solutions that have the potential to be scaled globally. GS hubs operate through partnerships with large businesses, start-ups, institutions and citizen stakeholders. Bucharest hub’s challenge? Growing its membership sustainably by getting members coming from very different sectors to engage equally in a voluntary network with no small goal: doing good.
An installment of the Global Shapers’ #ShapingConversations series, talks where pressing matters of the city get discussed alongside experts, the event moderated by previous curator Oana Țoiu was also an opportunity to discover the ECOC candidacy project București2021 from an insider’s perspective.
Bob Palmer, advisor to the process and Anca Ioniță, coordinator of the candidature application, presented București2021 as an opportunity for institutions, cultural agents and citizen stakeholders to work together in a city not used to doing so. What makes Bucharest so interesting, in Mr Palmer’s view, is that it’s a fragmented, messy city which allows for creativity at the intersections of its fractures. The way to cross those fractures is through networks. Designing a horizontal, network-inspired structure for the team was deliberate, a way to traverse disconnections between institutions and individuals, but also between individual egos with the instinct of protecting their work and the greater purpose of the interdisciplinary team: transforming the city through culture, the stake behind București2021 efforts.
EdgeRyders, a global community of radical change-makers connected over the Internet, is currently exploring local grassroots initiatives that, although under-resourced, have great potential to grow and affect change. Spot the Future is part of the wider consultation process powered by București2021 and an entry point for isolated change-makers to connect to a global network of people working, creating and living on the edges. Co-founder and community manager Noemi Salanțiu explained that through its distributed, radically open model of collaboration, crowd-sourcing resources, know-how and connections over the internet is how the network creates value for its users. While this model sets the cost of participation quite low, the challenge is how to balance the sharers or heavy contributors with the takers or freeriders so as to keep the network functional and fair.
EduCab, short for educational capacity building, is an inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional national framework working on building trust between partners who do not see themselves as such. As founder Mihai Lupu explained, EduCab mediates resources for community developmentnt by enhancing the capacity of public libraries to function as resource spaces for educational and community interventions. Currently extending to its seventh county, the platform’s challenge is to show the targeted institutions and citizens that activating libraries to address local needs is a shared effort and that getting involved simply means to ‘do what you are good at.’ Voicing a fact which all panelists resonated with, Mr Lupu revealed that, in building a network and hoping to get stakeholders involved and take ownership of the process, the end-goal keeps evolving, revealing much less control for the network facilitators, other than the drive to change communities for the better.
Aspen Fellows Network, a self-organized network of alumni of the Young Leaders Program at the Aspen Institute Romania, provided yet another model of networked collaboration. Their goal is, firstly, to keep individuals with a proven track record of leadership connected to each other past the year-long program and secondly, to become a network enabling collaborative projects that benefit the larger local community, beyond the alumni community itself. The challenge is designing AFN as a results-oriented, project-enabling network while under the constraints of being a self-organizing and voluntary network of highly successful people with tight agendas and priorities. Alex Ghiță, current AFN president, presented how the ongoing redesign of the network’s purpose is going, while confident that what keeps people in the network is a shared value its members already have, by virtue of having experienced the YLP: leadership implies sustained action through networked collaboration.
As interesting and honest as the panelists’ presentations were, the most fruitful exchanges happened, as expected, in the break-out sessions covering three major questions about how networked collaboration brings about change: how do you crowd-source solutions in an open network? How do you keep the balance between using the network and contributing to it? Governance: when is hierarchy a catalyst and when does it become a bottleneck?
It was rewarding to watch participants overstay, ask poignant questions and offer insightful experiences of their own work within networks. The admirable engagement might have come from the event being more of a practitioners’ meeting than one of spectators, as most of the 60+ participants were themselves builders or contributors to diverse networks.
Some insights glimmering from the sessions:
- Actionable goals keep networks thriving. Addressing a need perceived by many is what motivates people to participate in crowdsourcing solutions, even without a rewards scheme. Project-based calls for contribution work better than generic ‘come join our network’ calls.
- Cost of collaboration can be offset by recognition. In other words, sometimes all it takes to keep people engaged is to acknowledge their effort.
- Different goals make for different network design. Some networks aim at maintaining bonds created by previous common experience, some to certify reputational worth, some to connect global resources with local problems, some to represent marginal thinking etc.
- Networks should enable, not get in the way. If network governance gets too complicated, rigid or demanding, people walk away. Costs of participation should remain low and rewards can be very diverse, as long as rules apply equally and consistently.
- Change that can only come through collaboration, greatest selling point. As obvious as it is, people participate in networks to get done the things they can’t take care of individually.
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