Transition Culture

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25 Jan 2013

‘Social Change 2.0’: an interview with David Gershon. Part One


David Gershon‘s book ‘Social Change 2.0’ has been one that quite a few people involved in Transition have found useful and insightful, so I was delighted to be able to have a conversation with him recently.  My discussion with him will be spread over 2 posts, one today and the second part on Monday.

David, thank you very much for joining us.  I wondered if we could start by you just introducing yourself and saying a bit  about who you are and what you do?

I have been a change agent, I guess you would say, for at least 30 years.  My work has been around an idea called empowerment, in particular, ‘second order change’, which is another way of describing transformative social change.  I have engaged in a number of initiatives of different sizes and scales from the household and block level up to the global level, and I’ve also applied this to working with organisations that want to engage.

I have also applied this to corporate social engagement, as well as community based NGOs, as well as local governments, national governments, state governments, to just about any sphere of influence where there could be a platform for social change or in particular this special type of change which I call ‘transformative social change’.   This is based, by the way, on a whole framework of engaging people to adopt behaviour, so behaviour change is the hardest one, change from the bottom up.

How do you define the challenges of our times?  What is it that motivates the work that you do?

This is probably a good moment to build the larger framework that I see us facing as a planet and where I think that the work that I do might fit in. So, the big picture.  As we know, most of our social systems are in various states of breakdown, whether it’s our political system or economic system or our healthcare systems, or a variety of systems that are really unable to meet the great challenges that are being placed upon them.  When a system, a social system, reaches that type of stage in its evolution it becomes unstable, because it starts to oscillate.  You can watch the financial system as one example, in the UK and the US, but it’s in multiple places, just about everywhere you look.

When a system starts to oscillate or perturbate, it can either break down or go in to borderline functionality, or it can break through to a higher level of performance and social value.  If an intervention can enable that and in Systems Theory that’s called ‘second order change’ and ‘first order change’ or what I would call Social Change 1.0, is trying to do that through passing laws, trying to do that through financial incentives, or through protest.

If the order of magnitude of change is small, then those interventions can work, but if the order of magnitude of change is large, then you really do need transformative change, second order change if you will.  That’s what Social Change 2.0 is about. It’s a strategy to further that type of change.

That’s the context, that’s how I see the world.  One can lament depending upon how one views the world, the breakdowns, or one can also see it as an opportunity for large scale, large system transformation interventions.  Large system transformation could be at the scale of the city or the community as opposed to a nation or a planet, it’s a larger system than just the individual.

When you distinguish between Social Change 1.0 and 2.0, what are the differences, what are the characteristics of those two?

The main characteristics of Social Change 1.0, which is the traditional models of social change, the expectation generally is that there is a source of power, which is usually government, who has the ability to pass a law and can create command and control or who has the wherewithal to create financial incentives.  Either you try to force people to change or you pay them to change or you dis-incentivise them from doing something so you take money away from them.  I mean that’s the simple, unadulterated version of that.

Or you protest, and generally the protest is to get someone to do something different, usually it’s government to pass a law, or against corporations or something, and that’s 1.0, that’s our traditional model. Rarely do people think hard about that, they just assume that’s how change happens for the most part. A lot of the work that you’re doing [Transition] is really in the space of 2.0, which is really attempting to create change by empowering people to want to change, who see something larger that pulls them. so a key to second order change.  A key to our model of Social Change 2.0 is helping people to see a larger vision and empowering them with the tools and the skills to take that action and then learning how to build it to scale so you can have real impact on the issue that you’re addressing.

One of the lines I remember from your book is “the natural starting point for changing our world for the better is us”.  I gave a talk about a year or so ago and the first question this lady asked was ‘how do you get the confidence to do that?’ and it was a really interesting question and I actually thought, I have no idea quite where or how I got the confidence to do that.  It just sort of came out of a mixture of naivety and anger and passion and a willingness to risk looking like an idiot in public. Where, for you, does that kind of empowerment come from? Are leaders born or can they be bred or produced?

First of all I would agree with you, that seems to be the job description of my sense of myself as well.  I think that naivety is a key criteria by the way.  I see naivety actually as a strong suit of someone who is really willing to go to a new place.  If it was easy to get there and everyone thought it was possible then we would be there.  Some people have to say ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get there but I have an idea and I have some energy and I want to go forward and I’ll learn along the way’ and I think that’s a key ingredient.

Can that be cultivated in people? I think that there are people that have a more natural predisposition than others, but it is one of the goals of my book and a lot of my work.  I do trainings on transformative change called ‘The Craft of Transformative Leadership’, the full title is ‘Changing the Game’. In those trainings I attempt to cultivate people or attempt to assist them in building a vision that’s strong enough to pull them, and that’s the key part that’s usually missing, that people don’t have a compelling vision.  Once they have the vision, then it’s about giving them the tools and helping them with the support system to start moving it forward.

That has been a key strategy that I have worked with and I’ve successfully seen lots and lots of people move that kind of change forward. You know, that is by all means possible but it’s enabled if you can give people tools and you’re seeing that with your work, you’ve been able to achieve something quite remarkable in terms of enabling lots of  people to take action because you’ve got a map, and tools and a framework and people need that because not everyone is able to be what I call ‘social architects’ so you know, that really helps the process.

Those social architects are the people who are the early adopters if you like, who often sort of pick something like Transition up and run with it.  But in places where those people don’t automatically emerge, or don’t find a voice?  One of the criticisms of Transition is that they tend to, at least initially, mostly take root in white, middle class places where people have the time and the skills to do something like that.  Places where their life experience is that if you try and make change happen you can make change happen. In communities where people’s experience is exactly the opposite, where do those social architects come from? 

We do a lot of work in inner cities in the US and we do a lot of work in developing countries. We have a major project in Afghanistan and Sudan and Kenya and India, places with disenfranchised women for example, we call this project ‘Imagine’ and it’s called ‘A Global Initiative for the Empowerment of Women’.  What we have found in that place and in those projects and also in the work that I’ve done for example in inner city Philadelphia in the most disenfranchised neighbourhoods, is that the process is not very dissimilar.

It’s building a vision, helping them see a possibility, and then providing the tools. What I have found is that in environments where people are in various states of disenfranchisement or distress or dis-ease by virtue of their physical environment that’s either hostile or life threatening, whatever, some not nice thing, there is a huge desire for them to improve their conditions.  They just haven’t had the knowledge on how to do that and again I’m talking in generalities, I can get much more specific on what tools and strategies as we progress in the conversation.

However, I find that they are, in many ways, much more motivated, because they have much more need for the change. So yes, it’s absolutely doable. Most of the problem, in my experience, is not the lack of people’s desire to change, it’s the skill set of change agents. This is what I was lamenting for many years. People want to improve their lives and situations and given the right opportunities they will step in to that opportunity.  But more often than not, they don’t know how and they try the 1.0 tools and they’re frustrated that they can’t get change to happen that way.

They don’t know what else to do. So, again, that was part of what I was learning in all my leadership training and all my projects, because we would always be working from the bottom up and see these results.  We’d see so many frustrated people, so much money spent ineffectually, so again, that was part of the impetus of writing this book.  There are other ways and the other ways have a lot to do with building what I call transformative social innovations, so if you can’t pay someone to change, if you can’t force them to change, if you can’t protest as a way to get the system to change, you actually have to build a new strategy, a new platform, or what I would call a social innovation.

Then you have to learn how to prototype it, learn how to demonstrate it and you have to learn how to scale it. I’m probably describing the process that you went through.  It’s very iterative, and it requires perseverance and tenacity and being a good social partner so that you know how to learn from feedback.  The key to keeping someone on the path long enough so that they are willing to be an iterate and build a viable social innovation and take it through all those stages so that it can have real impact, is the power of the vision. That’s why I spend a lot of time helping people craft a compelling vision that starts from the inside out, so that they have the inner power, not just the anger, or guilt or fear to drive them but they have something inside of them that pulls them forward.

Where does the power of a vision lie do you think?

The power of a vision is that it has a factor that pulls people, it attracts people, it excites you, you want something, you see a possibility, it’s kinda the way human beings are wired, you know, if we can see a better way, we go toward it. I’ll give you two examples in very disenfranchised environments.  We’re doing a lot of work with disenfranchised women.  We’ve built a social innovation, if you will, called ‘The Empowerment Workshop’ as part of something called ‘Imagine’.

Its desire is to create an agency which is a missing piece in the whole development equation. What’s going on right now is that you have micro finance and you have literacy opportunities and you have health education, AIDS education, but if the interior of the person is not changed, they’re still stuck in all the enculturation, the lack of self esteem, the systematic cultural disenfranchisement, the gender inequality, and on and on.  It’s like we’re seeing in India right now, and many other places.

When you can help this woman, in this case, build a vision for her life, of how she would like her relationships to be, or feeling a sense of how she would like to be able to earn her own income,helping her build a dream when she’s never even had the belief that she could have a dream of a life that is better, and you give it to her through a tool like this, delivered by people in that country, we have seen absolutely remarkable, remarkable things happen.

We’ve seen the same thing in, for example, inner city Philadelphia, when we work on some of these most challenging blocks and neighbourhoods and we ask the question to the people on their block “what would you like your block to look like if it could be any way you wanted it and if we gave you the tools and support to make it happen”?  You get answers like, “no one’s ever asked me what I wanted”, “no one’s ever invited me to have a dream”, “wow – I would like it like this/like that..”

People are really accessible if again, they are given, not just the willingness to dream, because most people can’t do that if they feel they are going to be disappointed, if they feel it’s too hard to go there.  But if you can build the whole process, show them how, you can make this happen – here’s the tools, and here’s the programme to implement it, so that they feel there’s a safety net underneath their dreams then they are very willing to go there.  Not only willing to go there, they’re thrilled to go there and that’s how it happens, what I call social creativity.  For me, this is the X-Factor on how we’re going to build a better world, we have to invent that world, it’s not going to happen out of tweaking the current systems in my judgement.

This Sunday, January 27th, David Gershon will be delivering the first of 6 online ‘Masterclasses in Social Transformation’ through the Centre for Resilience, Happiness and Positive Change.  You can find out more here


Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Chris Johnstone
25 Jan 3:11pm

Hi Rob,

Great to see this post. The Masterclass that starts this Sunday (27th Jan) is a six part course, so if anyone is interested in joining, please get in touch as soon as possible.

All the sessions will be recorded and made available to people who miss them, and we’re also creating a learning community involving ‘buddy’ partners who you work with for about an hour by phone or Skype between each session. All participants get sent a free ebook version of David’s book Social Change 2.0, which we read together as part of doing the course.

Each session runs from 6 – 8pm UK time, 1pm – 3pm US EST on the following dates: 27th January, 24th Feb, 24th March, 14th April, 5th May and 19th May 2013.

We already have a diverse and rich learning community forming, so will be exciting to see how the masterclass develops.


Chris Johnstone
Course organiser,
The Centre for Resilience, Happiness and Positive Change

danielle grunberg
10 Mar 7:53pm

Absolutely awesome.
thank you Rob, Chis and of coure David Gershon.
I do hope it’s not too late to join in.