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Max St John

Innovation on the fringes: how ecosystems use inclusion and difference

In the end, I believe that those who call forth the most collective intelligence and wisdom will be those who can manifest – and help others manifest – two vital capacities:

  1. the ability to include more of what is normally overlooked and excluded
  2. the ability to use diversity and disturbance creatively.

This quote from a fantastic and insightful article by Tom Atlee of the Collective Intelligence Institute in the US, which really struck a chord with me.

In our lives – our workplace, our communities and society – we tend to focus on exactly the opposite of these two capacities: what’s in front of us and finding agreement.

Even when we think we’re being open and inclusive, we often miss the non-obvious people, conversations or non-verbal communication, usually because we’re trying to get people to converge too quickly.

In nature the most powerful innovation happens at the fringes, where different ecosystems collide – and we are beginning to acknowledge more widely that life is like all ecosystems: “whole, complex, interconnected and always changing”.

In our world now, some of the most innovative solutions to highly complex problems like the financial crisis, stymied political systems, climate change are taking place on the fringes of society - Occupythe Pirate PartyTransition Towns (all open source, decentralised movements, much like ecosystems). These are all examples of people with a set of views and values very different to those of the system they come up against, finding new ways of organising and operating alongside or within it.

If we can start bringing more of the overlooked – marginalised people, unheard ideas – into how we solve problems, and find creative ways to celebrate and explore difference, we can go beyond just harvesting collective intelligence from the usual suspects (think public consultations, employee engagement etc).

It’s counter-intuitive and possibly uncomfortable, as it asks for people to invest more in the process. To slow down and spend time looking beyond words, to step outside of normal patterns of involvement and bring in unlikely participants, or to summon up the courage to focus on difference.

It’s these kinds of behaviours that will help us really create sustainable approaches to solving our complex problems, and we need more people that have the courage and patience to do it.


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