General Assembly (photo by Caroline Schiff)
One of the compelling attractions of Occupy is that it is modeling a possible socio-economic-political paradigm for how society can run. It is a model the whole world is beginning to watch. For those who come and participate in it, its a learning experience, a training in this new paradigm.
Occupy's general assemblies model a participatory democratic method. This method has been crucial in allowing people joining the movement to feel they have an integral part in it, and it has been key to not allowing one voice or agenda to take over the show. Without it, Occupy would probably be a much smaller movement. The general assembly has created a space where people can share many different worldviews and experiences, listen to each other, and learn how to move as a collective. It's a rich, informative, and educational experience for many who participate in it.
"What is a People's Assembly? It is a participatory decision-making body which works towards consensus. The Assembly looks for the best arguments to take a decision that reflects every opinion – not positions at odds with each other as what happens when votes are taken. It must be pacific [peaceful], respecting all opinions: prejudice and ideology must be left at home. An Assembly should not be centered around an ideological discourse; instead it should deal with practical questions: What do we need? How can we get it? The Assembly is based on free association – if you are not in agreement with what has been decided, you are not obliged to carry it out. Every person is free to do what they wish – the Assembly tries to produce collective intelligence, and shared lines of thought and action. It encourages dialogue and getting to know one another. (Author's note: a number of Occupy nodes are now using modified consensus and usually have working groups for food, medical, legal, art, etc.)
Occupy also uses a gift economy model as people share goods and services, and all sorts of donations flow into Occupy nodes. There is a sharing of food, clothing, bedding, bicycles and computers. Occupy is a small village self-organizing into being, with free workshops, talks, medical aid, libraries, solar-powered electricity, music, yoga, bodywork, media, and bike repair. Experiencing this sharing may be quite a beautiful experience. That a gift economy can be used to create and run these small villages may come as a surprise to those who are used to living in a social system that uses market-based incentives to motivate people.
The socio-economic-political processes Occupy uses could also be improved, though, as we are sure most of the participants would agree. The general assembly method is sometimes a little too slow and runs into bottlenecks, and different voices can have a hard time getting heard because of time issues, because it can be too scary to speak in front of large groups or because of a variety of other issues.
There are also ways that distribution of goods and services at Occupy nodes could be improved. Some specific examples of difficulties and inefficiencies that have arisen:
How well Occupy grows depends in part on the effectiveness of the basic political and economic processes it borrows or develops, the ability of these governance processes to be both inclusive and efficient, and the way its internal economic process can shift resources and skills to areas where needed, avoiding bottlenecks. Below are some suggestions (some of which are already being tried out at a few Occupy locales) for things that can improve the Occupy movement's socio-economic-political processes:
1. Run Open Space Technology facilitation processes. These processes are helpful when the issue is complex, there are many different voices to be heard, and the solution comes from a synthesis of a variety of aspects of the issue. The process allows for both self-expression and collaboration. Its self-organizing nature allows for solutions to emerge out of the collective intelligence. Its been used for groups strategizing to save the eco-system, applied by people from poor urban neighbourhoods to solve their homelessness problems, used by a wide variety of stakeholders to come together to work out health care transformation initiatives, and utilized by the Canadian native peoples and the Canadian government to work out their issues.
One question on which Open Space Technology can be used is one facing many Occupy locales - what to do when it gets cold. This question has many facets and factors that influence it - health issues, whether older people can stay long times in the cold, outdoor heating technology, what kind of structures might be able to be erected, the permissibility of these structures, relations and dialogue with police and city, visibility of the movement, ways to use indigenous tribal ways of surviving in the cold, how the movement is growing, what are the goals of the movement, what is required to achieve these goals, the amount of money flowing in, the evolving public perception of what is going, neighbourhood relations, etc. In Open Space Technology there are multiple sessions one after each other. At the beginning anyone can stand up and announce a topic for discussion or action - in this example it would be related to the cold issue. A whole set of topics is then created. In a session everyone breaks off into smaller topic circles. People are free to walk from one circle to another sharing and cross-fertilizing what they are learning in different groups. In the next session people move to a new set of topics around this issue. Different viewpoints get a chance to be heard and integrated into the deeper patterns emerging out of the multiple dialogues. At the end of multiple sessions the group can come back together and synthesize all that has been discussed. Often there is a lot more clarity on the topic; new possibilities, solutions, and actions emerge from the collective intelligence.
Other examples of topics Open Space Technology could be used for discussing include: what actions to take against the banks, safety and health issues inside camp, how to make Occupy more accessible to mainstream people etc. The circles that are called within the process can be also used for initiating actions.
Open Space Technology can rapidly speed up projects. The design of a new pavillion for the Atlanta Olympics was expected to take months with usual planning processes. With Open Space Technology most of that design was done in 2 days.
The reason Open Space Technology is so much more efficient is that it taps into the ability of the collective to self organize. It allows for the passions and creativity of individuals to synergize with others to emerge new patterns, insights and ways to work together. As thus, it can provide a basis for a new type of horizontal, non-hierarchical governance structure, a new type of politics that values both individuality and collective synergy.
At Occupy a combination of both General Assembly and Open Space Technology would be very fruitful.
2. Run World Café processes. World Cafe is a conversation process that allows for deeper themes and patterns to emerge from the multiple voices. One of the aspects of Occupy is that it is a commons space where people can gather to have conversations that matter. The World Cafe provides a facilitated structure for this. It offers a way both for people who are there longer term, and for the many people who are visiting Occupy but not yet sure how to engage, to have an important dialogue about what it is that is unfolding. The World Café organizes around questions that matter. At Occupy an example of a question would be "What are the causes of the economic crisis and what are possible solutions?" The process works with the collective breaking into groups of 4 or 5 to discuss a topic. After a set amount of time e.g. 10 min people switch groups, share what happened in the previous group, and then continue the conversation. This cross-fertilization of voices allows for deeper themes to emerge. The process of switching groups continues multiple times. At the end people speak to the collective about the viewpoints emerging from each group. These viewpoints can be summarized and added to the internet as part of a larger global conversation about our economy.
A sister to this process called the Forum is run at Oakland Occupy . In a recent Forum people broke into small groups to discuss the question of how we can respect ourselves and each other. Then for the rest of the hour there was an open mic for people to share with the larger group.
3. Run Appreciative Inquiry, Theory U, and Future Search facilitation processes. These facilitation techniques help a group develop a vision, look at what works and how to expand it, project possible future scenarios, and tap into inner knowing for guidance. Theory U in particular allows a collective to tap into higher consciousness, source, spirit, or whatever you would like to call it, to sense into better paths to take. Its been been used by different parties to figure out how to look at food sustainability and by the United Religions Initiative to bring different religious groups together to vision how they can work together. These facilitation processes could be useful for Occupy to figure out collectively where it is going, what its vision is.
4. Run gift circles. A gift circle is where people sit in a circle and share what their needs and gifts are so they can find ways to help each other. Others can then offer to help with needs, or receive the gifts offered. For instance people can express a need for a ride, a cell phone, a massage, babysitting, people to carry water supplies to camp, a sewing machine to make Occupy t-shirts, trash cans for Occupy, etc. Others can then offer to help. People can also offer gifts they have e.g. putting up a website, connections with certain groups, vehicles people can borrow, etc. This helps the flow of resources and builds community at Occupy nodes. The gift circles can also allow projects to birth in a bottom-up way. By expressing their project into the circle the resources to make that project may flow in. This process allows both people who are situated longer and those who who are just stopping by to contribute to different projects. To further the gift economy flow multiple gift circles can be happening throughout the day. Different working groups at Occupy can also use the gift circles as a way to crowd source help. For instance the sanitation working group can announce in the gift circle that they need help with certain tasks. Used in this way the gift circles exemplifies an approach to flattening hierarchies and dissolving some of the departmental boundaries in our governance structures by tapping into networked, peer-to-peer structures. The gift processes circles can also be extended to include people not at the physical Occupy site and they can be integrated with online tools for gifting like Giftflow.org to create virtual gift circles. The many gift circles, physical and virtual can overlap, share information, form circles of circles, and multiply out in a networked manner out into the world to create a larger gift economy beyond the Occupy encampments.
A gift currency can also be developed. People can write on note cards their needs or gifts along with a description of who or where they are so people can come find them. These note cards can be passed from person to person in the Occupy locale til somebody is able to help with that need, or wants that gift. That person then finds the original person to offer or receive the service or good.
5. Run a variety of facilitated circles that shift consciousness and sense of community, e.g. heart circles. These circles can allow people to reflect and become aware of what is happening inside, and allow for a space where emotions to be expressed safely. When this kind of safe space is created it allows for economic and political processes to flow more easily because emotions are less likely to boil over. Circles can use meditation techniques to help people center in a deeper state of being. They can help participants reflect on their internal motivations, see if they are really coming from a heart centered place in their actions, and if not it can provide processes to help people source themselves from love. Opening up to a deeper presence can also allow intuitions to flow about what actions to take, and about what directions Occupy can go.
6. If needed integrate Agile-based Scrum and Bioteams project management techniques into how processes work at Occupy. These project management techniques allow people to self-organize in the horizontal, non-hierarchical, non-command & control way that is part of the Occupy ethos. In these processes people can autonomously choose what they would like to work on while coordinating their actions with others. For the many projects that are already working in this self-organizational way at Occupy these techniques may offer nuances of how to make things more efficient. For the situations when projects get bogged down and bottlenecked the application of these project management methods may offer much needed guidance.
The Occupy network is a set of socio-economic-political experiments in many different locales. Each node or locale can test out different techniques, ideas, and facilitation processes. The best practices can then spread to other locales, The whole nodal network is thus tapping into its distributed collective intelligence to evolve new socio-economic-political systems that are more horizontal, self-organizing, participatory, democratic, and sharing based.
In addition, to more internal uses of these facilitation techniques there is also another usage of them which leads to a certain strategic direction for Occupy. Such dialogue and visioning processes as discussed above can also be used to create community dialogues with people who have so far have had more ideological differences with the Occupy movement. This would begin to seed for the larger whole a new political system based on facilitation and dialogue amongst the populace. Inclusive facilitation methods have been hailed by some as having enabled the multiple demographics of South Africa to work together to end apartheid. Can inclusive facilitation processes at Occupy be a participatory democratic process that allows even more diverse demographics to work together to navigate us towards a future more palatable to all?
Dispatches from Occupy: about what the organizing and facilitating is like
Experiences in the processes at Occupy: in n+1 gazette
Are the #OccupyWallSt working groups functioning optimally? by Pham Binh
Conflict amongst occupiers by Craig Kanalley
Emergent Leadership by Sharif Abdullah
How to cook a pacific revolution: organizing notes from Spanish movement that Occupy based its processes on
Consensus video on General Assembly process
The demand is a process video on General Assembly process
1. The networked gift circle mesh forms a semi-lattice structure. A circle of circles approach to growing the gift circles would be a tree. See the article by Christopher Alexander "A city is not a tree" for more info on semi-lattices and trees http://www.rudi.net/pages/8755 . This semi-lattice can help form the gift economic basis of our society.
Alpha Lo is co-editor and co-author of the Open Collaboration Encyclopedia. He also helped to found the Gift Circle Network