Social technologies

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Permaculture approaches recognise that effective responses to climate change require social as well as material change. They use a range of social technologies in order to locate physical interventions in communities of practice at all levels, and to embed these in their wider social contexts. Social Permaculture translates ecological principles to social situations in order to foster flexible and creative thought and action, nurturing the collective intelligence of groups such as local residents, stakeholders to a project, or in educational settings.1 Its applications are especially well developed in Transition and other movements for energy descent and economic localisation, in popular education, commons-based governance, and are an important feature of many cases of regenerative enterprise.

Social technologies can contribute to the design, maintenance and success of innovative, low-impact projects at local and regional levels. In order to ensure respectful, inclusive, constructive participation of all involved stakeholders, intervention processes need to be planned strategically and carefully, designed with attention to inclusion and participation, depending on the objective of the intervention, and seen through with skilled facilitation.

How the decisions in a community group are taken affects how people will feel in this group about how much or how little their voice is being heard. In an active shift from representative to participatory democracy, permaculture projects, ecovillages and the Transition movement have appropriated, developed and refined methods to include as many people as possible, keep processes moving, enable conflict transformation, use appropriate communication, create community contracts and ensure accountability, design and implement governance and decision-making processes, develop networks, and ensure cohesion through conviviality, creativity and fun. Social technologies have also been applied to healing existing divisions in communities: the Chikukwa Project in Zimbabwe has set up female empowerment groups, and village talking circles to address stigma against sufferers of HIV and AIDS.2

The Eco-Social Matrix (ESM) developed by permaculture teacher Robyn Francis explores the interplay of natural, social and infrastructural factors to assess how land use decisions impact the environment and people’s lives, particularly how they access and meet their needs.3 The matrix can be applied to an individual property, a neighbourhood, a bioregion or any larger scale. It has been especially useful in helping ecovillages and other permaculture projects that had been rather inward-looking integrate more successful and productively with neighbouring communities. The New South Wales Department of planning has adopted it as a ‘Catchment Planning Framework’ within its guidelines for rural residential development.4

Social technologies are fundamental to the work of the Centre for Ecological Learning Luxembourg (CELL), a national and regional hub for permaculture and Transition.5 CELL raises awareness and designs regenerative systems for changemakers and grassroots groups interested in bioregional resilience, in order to empower, nurture and catalyse connections between living beings and the places they inhabit. It uses a range of social technologies to ensure that all its activities embody its core values of mindfulness, coherence, authenticity, creativity and celebration.

CELL’s members worked collaboratively to elaborate an initial mission based on permaculture ethics and principles, and to devise operations that can support learning of the type necessary for constructive action on climate change adaptation. Governance employs Sociocracy, an established process for self-organisation, distributed authority and inclusive decision-making within a group.6 Ethics of inclusion and equality are designed into processes at all levels, including founding documents, strategy, meetings and trainings, project development, and collaboration with a wider constellation of stakeholders and organisations. All of these use methods that enable meaningful participation and expression of creativity. These methods include Systemic Consenting, a simple way for a community collectively to determine the least favourable among available options, 7 and Open Space technology, a method based around self-organisation and the principle that the stakeholders involved will build their own agenda according to their needs.8 Since its foundation in 2011, CELL has in this way fostered emergence of an ecology of interconnected groups, organisations, projects and initiatives that provide a powerful and basis for proactive and reactive responses to uncertain future impacts of climate change.