Power to the people

Fastcompany_4 An article in this months Fastcompany magazine shows that Malcolm Gladwell was wrong in his book ‘The Tipping Point’, about how trends emerge through a small group of super-influential individuals.

It describes the work of social network theorist Duncan Watts, now at Yahoo and on sabbatical from Columbia University, who has conducted some real and much larger scale experiments on how trends spread through a network. In his studies, the people who started different trends within his experiments were virtually entirely random throughout the network, not limited to minority of influencers.

This article and non-Gladwellian (!) phenomenon has been discussed intelligently elsewhere (here and here), but reading the article reminded me of one of my favourite quotes by the anthropologist Margaret Mead as follows:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

In this spirit, we are trying to tap into and enable this people power through some of our projects here at Nesta notably the Big Green Challenge and RSA Networks.


  1. Roland – the Duncan Watts argument about how trends can emerge from anywhere if levels of interests are right is convincing… in well-connected markets. But I think rather more is needed to turn socially innovative project ideas into collaborative action, as the RSA Networks experience is showing. People produced ideas at the November 22 event and later online, but they are not sweeping the network(s). I believe that is because it takes a lot of discussion, relationship-building, and resource to bring ideas to any state of action. That’s even more the case when those involved are volunteers (the Fellows), geographically dispersed, very varied in their enthusiasm for online working, and expected to do something for the benefit of others, not just themselves.
    What’s needed, I suspect, is far more pairing between staff, organisational resources, and Fellows, plus a LOT of time investment from collaboration co-ordinators as Shawn calls them in “Developing a collaboration capability requires more than wishful thinking”. http://tinyurl.com/2765g7
    Is there anything from NESTA experience or research that would be useful in this context?
    Should we concentrate in the social innovation field on fostering relationships before ideas, as Johnnie Moore argues http://tinyurl.com/2te5ur

  2. David,
    I think the bottom up approach often (if not always) doesn’t just happen totally by accident. I like the Jimmy Wales description of the ingredients required to make the apparently bottom up community of wikipedia such a success – summarised here: http://blogs.nesta.org.uk/connect/2007/11/the-5-habits-of.html
    I also agree with Johnnie that the relationships are more important than the ideas. The ideas are 10 a penny, but it’s the relationships we have or create that will make the happen somehow.
    Interesting to hear your view of how the RSA networks are panning out (or not). I don’t think I have the answer but I’m sure you are right that careful facilitation would be a big help.
    I guess it’s like helping your child to ride a bike. It takes a lot of patience, encouragement and support and there will be a few bruises along the way, but eventually (hopefully) they get it and zoom off on their own.

  3. I don’t think Gladwell is totally wrong but if I understand it correctly trends can start from anywhere if society is ready to embrace a trend – but if it isn’t, then almost no one can.
    There is a data collection point here that we find it difficult (if not impossible) to track all the trends that didn’t take off, rather we extrapolate backwards from those that did and end up with a small group that we call the influencers.
    However this theory suggests that targetting influencers is the way to start trends, but Watts says that it is hard, if not impossible to know who the influencers are ahead of time, as they are randomly distributed.
    Mark Earls has a good summary here. http://herd.typepad.com/herd_the_hidden_truth_abo/2008/01/influencers-the.html

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