The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Myth of Commoner Non-Sense

Last weeks blogpost discussed the myth of the expert.  This week looks at the corollary of that myth: the myth that common folk lack the knowledge necessary to make public decisions.

Throughout the world, public decision-making is dominated by political and industrial elites, by men and women (mostly, men) who represent the rich, the powerful, the successful or the famous.  If we stop to seriously consider the representativeness of such public decision-makers we are left with the unhappy discovery that most of us, the common folk, are woefully under-represented.

Furthermore, if we critically scrutinise the decisions that these elites make then, again, we make an unhappy discovery.  The decisions have led us to more warfare, international hatred, increasing climate change, greater gulfs between the rich and the poor, less agricultural diversity and high levels of mental illness.

But, the accepted understanding is that in order to solve these issues, those making the decisions need to be knowledgeable, they need to be experts.  Furthermore, the ideology goes, such public decision-makers need to be leaders of industry, of business or at least, have succeeded in some public arena (such as sport or movies or music).

That is all a myth.

Being successful, having a business or policy background, does not guarantee a stranglehold on good decision-making.  What is missing?

Wisdom – that’s what is missing.  Specifically, common wisdom, or even, common sense.  How does common wisdom arise?

The Wisdom of Crowds

In the first decade of the 20th Century an elderly British scientist, Francis Galton, stumbled upon an intriguing insight at the West England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition.  One of the exhibits was a competition in which punters could guess the weight of an ox.  Up until that time Galton had believed that in order for society to remain healthy it had to be run by the select, well-bred, few.  His belief was about to be shattered.

The competition was open to all-comers.  It included a number of butchers and farmers who, in Galton’s estimation, would be experts and so be able to guess the weight of the ox much more accurately than the common folk.  After the competition was over Galton analysed the results.  What he found staggered him.  When he averaged the guesses of the common folk he found that they had guessed 1,197 pounds, just one pound short of the true weight: 1,198 pounds.  The guesses of the “experts” however, were much wider of the mark.

Galton had discovered in people the equivalent of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Common folk could indeed have a collective knowledge that surpassed that of the experts.  As Harold Fleming has so succinctly put it:
“The wisdom of the community always exceeds the knowledge of the experts.”
But, tapping into this collective wisdom is not as simple as combining the sum of the individual votes in an election and declaring that the person with the greatest number of votes is the representative decision-maker.  That leads to folly.

The Folly of Crowds

Just as crowds can be wise, crowds can also be foolish.  Just think of mob hysteria or the mass mobilisation that charismatic, yet despotic, leaders can mastermind.  In the book The Power of Collective Wisdom1 the authors warn of two patterns that lead to collective folly.  One is where group members resist the ideas and input of others and accept only data that confirms their own beliefs.  The other is a move towards false agreement giving an appearance of unity.  This pattern relies on members choosing to conform.

How often do we see examples of these two patterns? 

Creating true Collective Wisdom

If it is possible for crowds to be wise and for crowds to be foolish, how do we facilitate the former and reduce the possibility of the latter?

Tom Atlee has written extensively on the power of collective decision-making.  He suggests that two capacities are needed to help make manifest the wisdom of crowds2:
  1. The ability to include more of what is normally overlooked and excluded.
  2. The ability to use diversity and disturbance creatively.
Briskin, Erickson, Ott and Callanan offer six principles3 upon which collective dialogue can be based allowing collective wisdom to emerge:
  1. Deep listening.
  2. Suspension of Certainty.
  3. Seeking whole systems, seeking diverse perspectives.
  4. Respect for others, group discernment.
  5. Welcoming all that is arising.
  6. Trust in the transcendent.
Yes, collective wisdom is possible.  It comes from ordinary people, from common folk.

One of the challenges for community development workers and others, is to enable people to recognise their collective wisdom and to find ways to allow that wisdom to emerge.  Note that the wisdom being discussed here is collective wisdom, not the wisdom of any one individual.  This is not to suggest that individuals are unable to become wise, rather it suggests that collectively we have a wisdom that far surpasses the expertise or wisdom of any one person.  It is that collective wisdom that we need to tap and allow to arise.

It is critical that we do so.

1. Briskin, Erickson, Ott & Callanan, The Power of Collective Wisdom and the trap of collective folly, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2009. 
2. Tom Atlee, Collective Wisdom at the Fringes.
3. Briskin et al., op.cit., pp35f

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Expert Myth

"Experts in their tower"
Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
(Creative Commons)
In Community Development work, as in other fields, there can sometimes be an over-reliance on experts.  They come in various guises: community health expert, education expert, city planning expert, even the community development expert.

In each case, the expert may have some useful expertise to offer, but that does not make them the best decision-maker in any community setting.  Indeed, an expert in a decision-making role can be disastrous.

A 2006 study found that the more power an individual has, or claims to have, then the more likely they are to over-value their own viewpoint and are less capable of considering another persons perspective1.  The same researcher, in 2012, noted that those with a sense of power were often over-confident in their decision-making2.

Remember too, that becoming an expert in a subject usually involves knowing more and more about a topic that is more and more specialised.  In short: knowing more and more about less and less.
Our world is a complex, inter-connected, diverse one.  We, and it, contain contradictions, anomalies and inconsistencies.  In such a world our decision-making processes must ensure that a wide variety of perspectives and ideas are taken into account.  The expert has a place in that, but only one place of many.

It is of little benefit if a decision made by an expert is the right one in their view, if it does not make sense to those on whom the decision is imposed.

Look around the world.  Often, where we see conflict, bitterness or hatred, we will also find that a decision has been imposed by someone (or a group) who have done so in the belief that theirs was the correct one to make.  That applies just as much to a local neighbourhood as it does to international conflict.

So, beware the expert, but do not ignore the expert.  They can have useful information or knowledge, but it does not make them the best decision-maker.

1.  Adam Galinsky et al.  Power and perspectives not taken, Psychological Science, 2006.
2.  Adam Galinsky et al.  Power and Overconfident decision making, Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Making Processes, March 2012.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Oil and Honey (A Review)

What a start to the year 2014: huge seas battering the UK coast, searing heat making parts of Australia almost unbearable, and much of the US frozen in a death grip.  Symptoms of climate change?  Very likely.

Timely then to review the latest book by one of the world’s leading climate change campaigners.  Bill McKibben is the founder of - the world-wide amalgamation of groups and individuals campaigning for action on climate change.  His latest book is Oil and Honey published in 2013.

The book is almost a diary of McKibben’s life over a period of two years beginning in 2011.  It chronicles his learning about bees and honey from a friend, and contrasts and compares this with his part in the effort to stop the Keystone pipeline1.  Hence, Oil and Honey.  It is an intriguing juxtaposition of the global and the local, the very large and the small.  Using these personal journeys Bill allows the reader to understand that all of us are up against a large global monster, but that the answers are small and local.

Yet, we cannot go straight to implementing answers, there are some huge changes to make first.  As McKibben so ably puts it:
“… it (is) time to stop changing lightbulbs and start changing systems.” (p.14/15)

McKibben’s association with bees allows for a couple of metaphors to be included in the book.  In one section he alludes to a book titled Honeybee Democracy, in which the author describes the democratic process in which bees decide on a location for their hive.  McKibben states that this process is “the exact opposite of how politics works in Washington” and thus, why “our elected officials have done nothing to make our earth more secure.” (p 79)

The basic reason for this inaction, according to McKibben, is because corporations won’t change.  They have a purpose, and only one purpose, so that all other considerations do not enter the thinking process.

Campaigning for Change

The book gives us an insiders glimpse of life on the campaign trail of one of the world’s leading campaigners for action on climate change.  McKibben and others travel by bus throughout the US speaking at rallies and meetings, sometimes with many thousands in attendance.  From half a world away from the US it is heartening to know that there are people like Bill McKibben pressing for change in that country, for, without the US undergoing massive change the rest of the planet does not have much chance.

For that reason alone, McKibben’s book is worth reading.  For activists around the world it is also worth reading for the campaign ideas that it mentions.

Finally, it is worth reading for one of the very last pieces of advice from McKibben’s beekeeper friend, Kirk Webster, who in a conversation between the two of them, makes the telling observation that:
“For us to survive now we really have to put other living things ahead of ourselves.” (p 244)
He’s right, we are all connected and the sooner we realise this, the better.  Bill McKibben is also right, the sooner “…we fight this fight in the world we live in, not the one we hope to build,” the better. (p 21)

Buy the book, become inspired, make the world better.

1.  The Keystone pipeline is proposed to be a huge pipeline carrying crude oil from oil sands in Alberta, Canada all the way across the US to the Texan coast refineries.  Massive opposition has come from environmentalists, scientists, indigenous peoples and farmers and landowners.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Community Development: Verb or Noun?

The term Community Development has been with us for decades.  Surely, by now we would have an idea of what it is then.  Is it a verb, or is it a noun?  A verb is a word (or words) that describe an action, whereas a noun is a word (or words) that give a name to something.

Many definitions of Community Development emphasise its process nature.  They define Community Development as involving a community actively seeking solutions to concerns that the community itself identifies, using resources and skills that the community already has or is prepared to obtain.  From this perspective, Community Development can easily be understood as a verb.

If, then, Community Development is simply a verb and describes a process, then the term can quite easily be re-worded to become development of a community.  This understanding says nothing about the nature of the community that is developing, nor that of the society within which that community is located.

Such an understanding of Community Development or, developing a community, is of little assistance to a Community Development practitioner.  It gives no indication as to what sort of community the practitioner should work in, nor does it clearly identify the goal towards which the community is being developed.

Understood as a noun, however, helps to overcome these limitations.  Community Development as a noun announces a situation, a state, or a vision.  The noun that is Community Development often mentions equity, social justice, fairness, equal opportunity, sustainability and harmony – all naming a vision of a society different from the one we have.

So, is Community Development a verb or a noun?  It should be obvious that it is both.  The more so when we realise that the means (verb) by which we do something is inextricably woven into the ends (noun) that we seek.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

War Is Over

2014.  One century on from the beginning of World War I – which had been touted as the war to end all wars.  It is fitting then to begin this years series of blogs with a review of War Is Over - Yoko Ono’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

Ono is no stranger to war.  As a 12 year old living in Japan she lived through the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It was during another war, the Vietnam War, in the 1960s that Ono produced some of her well-known anti-war art, some of which are installed in this exhibition.  The exhibition covers from that time through to some more recent pieces.

Much of her art is interactive.  One such piece is Play It By Trust in which viewers sit down at a chess board with their white pieces arrayed in front of them.  Another viewer sits on the opposite side of the board also with their chess pieces arrayed in front of them – also white.  Thus, as the game progresses it becomes difficult to tell which chess pieces belong to which player.
Ono describes Play It By Trust as
“lead(ing) to a shared understanding of (our) mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition.  Peace is then attained on a small scale.”
Another piece (Ono often puns the words piece and peace) designed to illicit our interconnections is Helmets – Pieces of the Sky.  A number of WW II helmets hang upside down in the gallery space, each containing dozens of jigsaw pieces of sky and clouds.  Viewers are invited to take a piece of jigsaw with them and reflect on the notion that we all hold a piece of the giant jigsaw that when assembled creates a beautiful skyscape.

The title of Ono’s exhibition is a reference to the campaign that she and her husband, John Lennon, organised between 1969 and 1971 to end war.  Today there are around 30 or more nations involved in some sort of war.  War has not ended.

With this in mind it is worth reading the fine print in the exhibition title.  Below the words War Is Over are four words in much smaller type: If you want it.

No matter what you think of Yoko Ono’s art – good, bad or indifference – it is important that a recognised artist like her is reminding us that peace is possible, if we want it.

In a recent interview1, Ono, at 80 years of age warned that
“the biggest threat to our planet is our pessimism, and giving up the work to bring peace to our society.  If we don’t allow change, that is death.”
One hundred years after the beginning of the war to end all wars, let’s take up Ono’s challenge and decide that war is over, if we want it.

1. Mindfood magazine, Jan/Feb 2014, p051