Deploying Social Trimtabs To Steer Systemic Change
Deploying Social Trimtabs To Steer Systemic Change
Earth's socioeconomic and environmental systems are in chaos. Inept governments and greedy corporations are mortgaging the future to satisfy insatiable appetites for political and financial power. Global ecosystem integrity is being compromised, increasing numbers of flora and fauna species are threatened with extinction and billions of people suffer from a lack of healthy food, clean water and adequate housing.
How can the relatively "powerless 99%" influence the course of events that seem both out of and beyond our control?
We have more options than conventional wisdom might lead us to believe.
"Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary—the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing on the edge of the rudder called a trim-tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim-tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim-tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether… the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said,“Call me Trimtab.”
R. Buckminster Fuller
Relating to the duties or activities of people in relation to their town, city, or local area.
The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.
Citizens are empowered when they realize that they can take some measure of control over meeting their basic needs in ways that also address socioeconomic and environmental justice concerns. The thoughtful application of whole systems-informed solutions can lead to a transformation of our current system from one that works for 1% of the population to one that works for everyone.
Every problem has multiple solutions
"The discovery that once a closed system is recognized as exclusively valid, the list of variables and degrees of freedom are closed and limited to six positive and six negative alternatives of action for each local transformation event in Universe."
R. Buckminster Fuller
An understanding of the structure and dynamics of whole systems can help individuals and communities identify points of leverage and the availability of tools (programs, policies, technologies, etc.) best suited to change the system to benefit the greatest number of people with the least amount of energy/resources and without compromising ecological integrity.
Families, communities, organizations, cities, states and nations are systems. Each is uniquely complex. However, the principles governing their structure and dynamic interdependencies are common to all. They are the same laws that operate throughout natural world, at every level from atoms to galaxies.
Moreover, every system has one or more key points of leverage where trimtab solutions can be applied that are capable of leading to systemic change.
Because we are often so focused on the particular problem at hand, the broader system changes triggered by our actions may go unnoticed. This is particularly true when the unanticipated system impacts are beneficial! The term unintended consequences usually refers to unwanted side effects. When beneficial spin-offs result from our actions they may go unnoticed or at least not be understood to have resulted from the local trimtab solution. Linear analysis is incapable of capturing the synergetic dynamics of whole systems.
Different industries, by rule, have different rates of incorporating innovation and new ideas. Buckminster Fuller observed that:
"Lag times in social acceptance of new artifacts is a function of a natural gestation rate associated with different technological arenas, e.g., novelty electronics proceed from drawing boards to end-users in a matter of years, whereas adoption of fundamental changes in household architecture is measured in decades. Some NEW IDEAS come with glacial-paced agendas that no amount of cleverness in strategy will accelerate beyond a top limit."
It is extremely helpful to know what the "gestation rate" of the particular sector you are trying to influence or change is. Having a sense of how long the process may take leads to a wiser choice of strategies and may minimize frustrations.
Trimtab solutions can leverage significant change, but they may not be able to accelerate the rate of change beyond a sector's cultural gestation period. Public education, financial incentives, political prioritization and other interventions might speed up the process.
"Design Science is the effective application of the principles of science to the conscious design of our total environment in order to make the Earth's finite resources meet the needs of all humanity without disrupting the ecological processes of the planet."
R. Buckminster Fuller
"In a changing world, everyone designs: each individual person and each collective subject, from enterprises to institutions, from communities to cities and regions, must define and enhance a life project."
The goal of design science is to produce so much life support per unit of resources invested as to be able to take care of all human needs in harmony with the natural world.
Until recently the impacts of design science went unnoticed. Today, innovations like permaculture, photovoltaics, offshore wind farms, farmers' markets, ecological design, community-supported agriculture, local currencies, open source manufacturing to name but a few are having widespread and significant impacts on communities, local economies and the natural systems that sustain us.
Organizing is key to developing a civic trimtab strategy designed to change the course of large, powerful socioeconomic systems guided by political and corporate agendas and fueled by their considerable resources.
This section will examine examples of initiatives employing the trimtab principle. Some will draw on past experiences while others are current. We will extract lessons and principles from history and use them to monitor, assess and understand efforts in progress.
Trimtabs are systemic game-changers. They take on a variety of forms including artifacts, technologies, policies, programs, even works of art. Trimtabs leverage positive impacts that affect large numbers of people with a proportionately small amount of energy/resource expenditure. They are transparent, strategic, transformative, efficient, replicable and synergetic.
They often emerge in times of crises but can also be the result of anticipatory design.
The following gallery highlights eight examples of civic trimtabs that I have been involved with: New Alchemy Institute; Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI); Massachusetts Farmers' Markets; Berkshares, Inc.; Cuba-U.S. Agroecology Network (CUSAN); CleBar Uggún Tractor Company; U.S. Offshore Wind Collaborative (USOWC) and Boston Urban Gardeners.
Click on each thumbnail to learn more.
Mainstream media has become a messenger of gloom and looming dystopia these days. However, even though there is certainly much to despair, there are also innumerable unreported or under-reported examples of positive systems-changing activities taking place throughout the world. Taken together, these examples offer an inspiring glimpse of a world that could truly work for everyone without compromising Earth's ecological integrity. This page will highlight as many of those stories as possible while occasionally reminding readers of the seemingly intractable problems they are attempting to address.
Instead of trying to use the hierarchical structures of parties and government in the usual ways to “represent” the people, the new local parties in Spain are trying to transform government itself and political norms. Inspired by Occupy-style movements working from the bottom up, local municipal parties want to make all governance more transparent, horizontal, and accessible to newcomers. They want to make politics less closed and proprietary, and more of an enactment of open source principles. It’s all about keeping it real.
Even as Wall Street deals like the one with Bayonne help financially desperate municipalities to make much-needed repairs, they can come with a hefty price tag — not just to pay for new pipes, but also to help the investors earn a nice return, a New York Times analysis has found. Often, these contracts guarantee a specific amount of revenue, The Times found, which can send water bills soaring.
Water rates in Bayonne have risen nearly 28 percent since Kohlberg Kravis Roberts — one of Wall Street’s most storied private equity firms — teamed up with another company to manage the city’s water system, the Times analysis shows. City officials also promised residents a four-year rate freeze that never materialized.
Bringing the political conversation back to the local level also has a particular advantage in the current context; the city provides a frame with which to challenge the rise of xenophobic nationalism. Cities are spaces in which we can talk about reclaiming popular sovereignty for a demos other than the nation, where we can reimagine identity and belonging based on participation in civic life rather than the passport we hold.
By working as a network, cities can turn what would have been isolated acts of resistance into a national movement with a multiplier effect
But mayors and governors — many of them in states that supported President-elect Donald J. Trump — say they are equally determined to continue the policies and plans they have already adopted to address climate change and related environmental damage, regardless of what they see from Washington.
“With a federal government that’s hostile to climate action, more and faster climate action work from cities, states and businesses will be required to stay anywhere near on track with our carbon pollution goals,” said Sam Adams, the former mayor of Portland, Ore., and current director of the World Resources Institute United States.
While there aren’t many food-systems planners in Canada, the words are appearing in municipal government job descriptions, and it is prevalent in the non-profit sector. “Food-systems planners are ahead of where the field is,” says Vancouver-based planning consultant Kimberley Hodgson, who’s also chair of the American Planning Association’s Food Systems Planning Interest Group. “You have to be creative and think outside the box in how you can either integrate these food components into a regular planning job, or work perhaps not in a regular planning job, but bring the planning piece to that job.”
When I entered the home I found his four brothers and sisters, between the ages of 5 and 12, in the kitchen, searching for food that wasn’t there. The boy asked me again, “Did you come to bring us food?” I asked the child where his mother was, and he pointed me to the living room, where I found the young mother, crying on the couch. She had been evicted, and the family had to leave the house that night. But she had no car, no phone to call anyone to help her, and no way to feed her children.
Just as the fourth industrial revolution in Australia will transform jobs, it will do the same for the welfare system. Universal basic income, targeted cash transfers, negative income tax and a family wage could be ways to guarantee living standards for ordinary people and keep the economy afloat
Throughout the city, the variables that best explained the pattern of mortality during the Chicago heat wave was what people in my discipline call social infrastructure. Places with active commercial corridors, a variety of public space, local institutions, decent sidewalks, and community organizations fared well in the disaster. More socially barren places did not.
Today, progressive thinking, reinforced by the undeniability of climate change, has overturned those ideas. Cities are being recognized increasingly as opportunities for economic and social progress, density as a response to environmental threats; the automobile as a big problem; slums as not just a blight but a potential template for organic urbanism. Young generations around the world, entering the tech economy and bound by the internet, are embracing urban ideals, including the common ground of public spaces, mass transit, streets and sidewalks.
Out of 250,000 manufacturing companies in the United States, only 3,700 had more than 500 workers. The vast majority employ fewer than 20.
Despite the candidates’ election-year promises, factories will never employ the masses of Americans they once did. Automation and foreign competition will not abate no matter who occupies the Oval Office. Over the last 20 years, industrial employment has dropped by nearly one-third. Only 12.3 million Americans work in the sector today, millions fewer than in leisure and hospitality, for instance, the category that includes frying chicken at Popeyes.
But small manufacturers like Marlin are vital if the United States is to narrow the nation’s class divide and build a society that offers greater opportunities for everyone — rich and poor, black and white, high school graduates and Ph.D.s.
In a pointed rebuke of the state's large wholesalers, the owners of Everett-based Night Shift Brewers are launching their own beer distribution company, promising to offer brewers friendlier contracts, more personal experiences and delivery of fresher beers..."There hasn't been anyone trying to reinvent the distribution side of the business"
According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men(25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.
For prime-age black men, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That's because a far higher fraction of black men - 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people - are institutionalized.
When driverless trucks are manufactured to scale, which will happen far sooner than many realize (as soon as five years), America's 3.5 million truck drivers will be dispensable. That doesn't mean the profession of truck driving will disappear overnight, but it will shrink considerably.
According to Morgan Stanley, autonomous technology will save the freight industry $168 billion annually, nearly half of which will come from staff reductions.
What is true of the freight industry will be true for many others. We will enter what the Atlantic's Derek Thompson called "an era of technological unemployment," in which machines render human labor useless and inefficient.
In Florida, homeowners have a propensity for landscaping. They take great pride in the green carpet of grass in front of their homes. But one Florida man is working on a project that's turning his neighbors' lawns into working farms.
Chris Castro has an obsession — turning the perfectly manicured lawns in his Orlando neighborhood into mini-farms.
"The amount of interest in Orlando is incredibly surprising," Castro says.
Two years after Detroit emerged from bankruptcy, its urban farming scene is flourishing, with some 1,400 farms and community gardens spread across the city's 139 square miles. Many local growers worry that they will be uprooted as the city woos development projects, and with them, much-needed taxes and jobs. But green spaces don't have to be at odds with revitalization, says Maurice Cox, the city's director of planning and development, who notes that farms and gardens are a key element of the Detroit Future City plan, a blueprint for diversifying local land use.
This page will feature resources that trimtab practitioners around the world have found helpful in their efforts to bring about positive systemic change including tools, technologies, books, music, performing and visual arts, workshops, films, videos , etc. Suggestions are welcomed.
A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History sketches the outlines of a renewed materialist philosophy of history in the tradition of Fernand Braudel, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, while also engaging the critical new understanding of material processes derived from the sciences of dynamics. Working against prevailing attitudes that see history as an arena of texts, discourses, ideologies, and metaphors, De Landa traces the concrete movements and interplays of matter and energy through human populations in the last millennium.De Landa attacks three domains that have given shape to human societies: economics, biology, and linguistics.
In the past decade, city leaders have raised the minimum wage, expanded social services and engaged in social welfare redistribution. These cities have not suffered capital flight. In fact, many are experiencing an economic renaissance.
City Power shows how cities can govern despite constitutional limitations - and why we should want them to. In an era of global capital, municipal power is more relevant than ever to citizen well-being. A dynamic vision of city politics for the new urban age, City Power demonstrates that the city should be at the very center of our economic, legal, and political thinking.
For two thousand years the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects of the organized state societies that surround them—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. This book, essentially an “anarchist history,” is the first-ever examination of the huge literature on state-making whose author evaluates why people would deliberately and reactively remain stateless. Among the strategies employed by the people of Zomia to remain stateless are physical dispersion in rugged terrain; agricultural practices that enhance mobility; pliable ethnic identities; devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders; and maintenance of a largely oral culture that allows them to reinvent their histories and genealogies as they move between and around states.
A system can describe what we see (the solar system), operate a computer (Windows 10), or be made on a page (the fourteen engineered lines of a sonnet). In this book, Clifford Siskin shows that system is best understood as a genre—a form that works physically in the world to mediate our efforts to understand it. Indeed, many Enlightenment authors published works they called “system” to compete with the essay and the treatise. Drawing on the history of system from Galileo’s “message from the stars” and Newton’s “system of the world” to today’s “computational universe,” Siskin illuminates the role that the genre of system has played in the shaping and reshaping of modern knowledge.
Launched in 2007, the Fuller Challenge has defined an emerging field of practice: the whole systems approach to understanding and intervening in complex and interrelated crises for wide-scale social and environmental impact. The entry criteria have established a new framework through which to identify and measure effective, enduring solutions to global sustainability’s most entrenched challenges. The rigorous selection process has set a unique standard, gaining renown as "Socially-Responsible Design's Highest Award."
I'm most interested in understanding cooperation, that is to say, why people are willing to act for the greater good rather than their narrow self-interest. In thinking about that question, there's both a scientific part of understanding how the selfish process of natural selection and strategic reasoning could give rise to this cooperative behavior, and also the practical question of what we can do to make people more cooperative in real-world settings.
BerkShares are a local currency for the Berkshire region of Massachusetts. Dubbed a "great economic experiment" by the New York Times, BerkShares are a tool for community empowerment, enabling merchants and consumers to plant the seeds for an alternative economic future for their communities. Launched in the fall of 2006, over seven million BerkShares have circulated in the Berkshire region. Federal currency is exchanged for BerkShares at eight branch offices of three local banks and spent at 400 locally owned participating businesses. The circulation of BerkShares encourages capital to remain within the region, building a greater affinity between the local business community and its citizens.
The Wholesome Wave Fruit and Vegetable Prescription (FVRx®) Program® helps healthcare providers give families innovative prescriptions that can be spent on fruits and vegetables at grocery stores, farmers markets, and other healthy food retailers. To view FVRx resources, like factsheets and reports, click here.
Greg Watson is a strategic organizer who has spent the past 45 years designing and implementing social trimtabs working primarily in the areas of food, energy, and community development.
Greg organized the first urban farmers' markets in the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area in 1978. He was the first executive director of the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust and co-founder of the U.S Offshore Wind Collaborative. During his tenure as director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, he helped guide the community's effort to build a 10,000 square-foot greenhouse - the cornerstone of one of the nation's first urban agriculture programs. He served two non-consecutive terms as Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture where he established one of the first statewide urban agriculture programs. Following a visit to Cuba in 2014 with the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, Greg created and founded the Cuba-U.S. Agroecology Network.
Do you have a trimtab example to share? Have questions or comments about the information on this site?
Contact me. Let's share information, experiences, stories, insights and resources. It's up to us to connect the dots and maximize the synergies.