toward an anarchistic model for social innovation

Posted on by tyler galloway

it's funny how things fall together slowly over time, how one piece you discover a year ago will sync up so nicely with another piece you just discovered a minute ago. i'm having a synthesis moment right now and don't want to lose it, so here goes...

two sets of ideas are being interplayed here:

  1. anarchists ethics & values that are borne out of my interest in radical politics & action
  2. design for social change, borne initially out of my love for creative communication and design but then influenced by my interest in the former subject. 

in reverse chronological order, here are the bits and pieces that have come together for me and then i'll explain the connections.

1. (infra)structure-focused techniques for creating change vs person- or behavior-focused techniques, as discussed in this article about food waste. 

2. this quote from bill drayton, founder of ashoka: "an organization that works along conventional hierarchic lines will not be able to function in this fast-changing world. it's an obsolete model." 

3. the young foundation's '06 definition of social innovation, which claims that society, through government and the market, is no longer succeeding in meeting significant aspects of people's needs.

4. fundamental anarchist principles such as full freedom [autonomy] and full equality [non-hierarchical relationships], balanced with mutual aid [voluntary associations] and fully-participatory institutions [workplace, federations for decision-making]. 

the food waste article states that it is much more effective to aim toward policy or infrastructure-level change because that is where the majority of the waste happens. it follows that if one wants to make the largest impact, one should work toward that end rather than focusing on individual behavior-based changes. that makes sense in probably more situations than this particular one but if one's goal is the demise of centralized infrastructure-producing institutions, then it makes sense to focus more on empowering people.

regarding item 2, i love the fact that an ordinary-seeming [but highly respected] guy recognizes the advantages of operating on a networked model rather than a hierarchic one, not only in terms of efficiency but in terms of equity and respect. 

the young foundation's definition of social innovation immediately struck a chord with me because of its acknowledgement that there are two primary modes of solving social problems and neither of them are working well. government is typically too unwieldy and slow and the market has its own agenda [i'll give you a hint, it's not "people first"]. 

if one starts – as i try to do – internally, with a set of values and ideas about how the world could operate, then that value set should flow outward into all of the experiences and work that is undertaken. it will also necessarily limit one's options in a positive way, sharpening the focus of the work overall. 

if the end goal is a society [or at least a community] that experiences full freedom, full equality, mutual aid, and solidarity, then the means to move them there [various social projects] ought to exhibit those same qualities. the means become an active living of the end goals. yes!

in short, this is four bits of evidence strung together to tighten my own focus of where and how i should be approaching my design projects. 


"co-creation flattens hierarchical orders, as participants both within and outside companies join in problem solving. ownership is often distributed across the project to everyone involved." from participate: designing with user generated content, p 43


yochai benkler's book the wealth of networks describes peer production as "a new modality of organized production: radically decentralized, collaborative, and non proprietary; based on shared resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate without relying on either market signals or managerial commands." synchs up very nicely with the principles described in #4 above. from participate: designing with user generated content, p 57