The sustainability crisis is above all a crisis of democracy, reflecting appropriation of national and EU politics by vested financial interests and consequent political disenfranchisement of the wider population. The rhetoric of ‘sustainable development’ evades attention to the roots causes of sustainability and marginalises meaningful approaches that question the status of GDP growth, emphasise the importance of the commons, promote regenerative solutions and mobilise social solidarity economy as a means to embed principles of sustainability and social justice in the everyday organisation of economic life. This is a symptom of deeper structural incompatibility between centralised and hierarchical allocation of decision-making power and the possibility of an inclusive and sustainable society.
Community-led initiatives model inclusive forms of governance that fully empower participants in relation to all decisions affecting their lives. More widely adopted at multiple scales, these can provide the basis for genuinely democratic systems that can first operate co-exist with, and ultimately replace, current political systems. One example is sociocracy, a system of governance that seeks to create harmonious social environments as well as productive organizations and businesses. It is distinguished by the use of consent rather than majority voting in decision-making, and decision-making following open discussion by people who know each other. It provides a coherent set of principles based on patterns for collaboration, to navigate complexity, adapt and evolve based on learning from experience and accommodation to changing circumstances, understandings and needs.
Transition Network, the coordination and support body for the international Transition movement, adopted a new shared governance model in 2018 following extensive consultation within the wider Transition movement aimed at clarifying its organisational purpose. The model, adopted in order to address that purpose and influenced sociocracy and related methods, is considered to be an ongoing experiment and anticipated to change as needed over time. It is based on uptake by people within the team of roles identified as necessary to fit agreed purposes, with defined responsibilities assigned to these roles. Roles are self-organised into circles that reflect their overlaps and interconnections, and in which each role exercises equivalent power guided by the purpose of the role, circle and organisation. Roles and circles are considered to have authority in their area of responsibility. Individuals within roles and circles are expected to seek out relevant information, advice and feedback, and to anticipate and transparently communicate ways in which their activities might impact others. Circle adjust the range and nature of their constituent roles, and identify and resolve tensions among them, at periodic meetings. Decision-making is primarily based on consent and other participatory methods, part of a dynamic overall steering process that seeks to maintain momentum through small incremental steps and rapid and pragmatic adjustment to changing circumstances, understandings and needs.
The governance model is supported by a set of explicit relational agreements designed to cultivate and healthy collaborative group culture. These agreements include accountability for actions taken and not undertaken, self-awareness of personal needs and impacts on others, cultivating and regularly expressing appreciation, communicating with respect and compassion for self and others, offering and receiving feedback in healthy ways, cultivating resilience to conflicts, becoming adequately resourced, materially and emotionally, for collaboration, and exercising sovereignty via agency, setting and respecting boundaries, saying ‘no’ when necessary, voicing reasonable objections, recognising and naming conflict, and honouring and expressing the diversity of experience within these processes.
The governance model and associated agreements aim to support dynamic and creative collaborations within which individuals are empowered to take action, which is recognised as the essence of Transition throughout the movement. They are designed to help explore effective ways or working that are responsive change while remaining faithful to organisational purpose, to mobilise collective intelligence and diverse perspectives to energise and inform action, to ensure visibility and distribution of power, to create a more resilient and agile overall working structure. Their overall result is that Transition Network is governed as a commons, in which staff and trustees agreeing on how best to mobilise material and immaterial resources and allocate associated responsibilities in fulfillment of its aims.
Based on broader upscaling and outscaling of similar principles, and also strongly influenced by sociocracy, Andy Goldring, Chief Executive of the Permaculture Association (Britain), has proposed an ‘EDGE governance’ model to enable more effective organisation of civil society organisations in order to bring about necessary change. The model consists of interconnected governance structures at multiple scales: collaborations between civil society organisations and government at local and regional scales, new collaborative structures sitting alongside and holding to account governments at national, continental and global scales, and thematic structures to provide strategic guidance at local and regional levels and ensure accountability at higher levels.
Governance nodes at the different levels within the structure operate semi-autonomously and are open to any stakeholders at the respective scale able to demonstrate a proven commitment to ecological and social well-being. Each operates as an EDGE: an Emergent Dynamic Governance Ecosystem. An EDGE is emergent because its properties can not be anticipated in advance of the collaboration, dynamic both because they seek to bring about change and themselves change in the process of doing so, governance systems because they seek to achieve defined collective goals, and ecosystems because they are composed of separate organisational structures in interrelationships consisting of material and informational exchange, Each EDGE is envisaged to act as an action learning unit, devising and testing solutions to identified problems and sharing learning within and across scales through multiple networks of communication.
The EDGE model seeks to activate the full potential of networked governance, fully harnessing the collaborative potential of communications technologies and adequate to finding collective solutions to current ecological crises. It represents a potential framework for socially and ecologically responsible governance at all levels, able to devise and implement economic models appropriate to ecological realities and societal needs and support management of commons for regenerative purposes, including appropriate forms of solidarity economy.