Community of Communities for Social Change

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne

Some of today's problems clearly require very wide-scale change. Yet people evolved over many millenia to be able to deal with social relationships on a fairly small scale. How can wide spread social change occur when we as humans seem fairly limited in our ability to recognize and respond appropriately only to a fairly small group, team, or community?


Problems of large scale and high degrees of complexity are difficult. Yet, some of these clearly need to be solved. The most complex problems cannot be easily partitioned into separate "pieces."


Large scale social change requires the activity and commitment of many people.

Smaller communities have more credibility and knowledge of what works for their own community.

People have a greater sense of ownership, responsibility, and hopefulness when they address a tractable problem whose solution is partly under their own control.


Pollution. World Hunger. The Digital Divide. Stated as such, these issues seem intractable to many people. They can often lead to the attitude, "Well, since I can't solve such a problem, I will simply ignore it." In fact, a common practice in business circles is to use "World Hunger" as an epithet for a problem so complex and diffuse that there is no point in addressing it.

Yet, clearly issues of this magnitude do need to be addressed. Typically, in the tradition of 19th and early 20th century science, the approach to a complex problem is to break it down into subproblems and then solve each of the subproblems. For example, one might break down the problem of world-wide pollution into problems of chromium pollution, lead pollution, etc. Such analytic techniques, however, do not work well for inter-related systems. In addition, such an approach still seems overwhelming to the individual. I would have to gain access to information about how to change my behavior with respect to lead, to chromium, etc. and then actually institute those changes in order to make a difference. This seems a daunting and lonely task.

The alternative proposed here (but certainly not invented here) is to leverage the power of Communities including geographic communities, communities of interest, and communities of practice. Many such communities already exist. They have developed mutual trust and a common ground. Leaders exist within these communities. They are already capable of dealing with systems problems.

A community of practice in psychology might not know much about nor have much directly on reducing chromium pollution. But what they do know about and can make a contribution to is using psychological principles to making people aware of the long-term consequences of behavior and of facilitating behavioral change. A community of practice of lawyers may not know much about, nor be much interested in lead pollution, but they might enjoy and be quite knowledgeable about legal remedies to encourage compliance to existing laws and they may also be knowledgeable about drafting and passing new legislation.

In solving complex systems problems by engaging a community of communities, the idea is not to construct some huge centralized plan that everyone must conform to (detailed centralized planning does not work as the Soviet experiment taught us). Rather each community within the community of communities needs to set its own goals, define its own issues to focus on, make use of the special knowledge and talent that exist within that community.

Representatives from each such community may nonetheless find it useful to inform each other of their plans, make suggestions, trade tips and so on. This can help increase the level of synergy among community plans and increase the effectiveness of each community as well.

Additional reviewers/editors: Alison Lee, Catalina Danis, David Ing, Ian Simmonds
Earth photo courtesty of: "Visual by".


Develop a ring of rings. People who are leaders in their individual communities also get together to form a larger community. The larger community of leaders agrees on basic principles and goals. The individual communities determine how to implement and actuate within their own community.

Example: Karl-Herik Robert began the "Natural Step" program in Sweden and grew it in this manner. (This is a program to lead Sweden to a sustainable economy).

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