How Change Happens: A Threefold Strategy

This is part of a series of blogs based on excerpts adapted from the 2nd edition of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. I wrote Agenda to spur a national conversation on economic policy issues and options that are otherwise largely ignored. This blog series is intended to contribute to that conversation. —DK

As explained in my New Economy 2.0 blog on “The Story of a New Economy,” the power of authentic culture stories gives civil society the ultimate advantage in the contest for the human future. Stories alone will not, of course, bring down the institutions of Empire. Nor should we welcome the inevitable chaos that the collapse of Empire will bring if we have not first laid a foundation of the new rules, relationships, and institutions of a New Economy.

Social systems self-organize around ideas and relationships. They are living, complex, dynamic, and constantly evolving as they and their members learn from shared experience. The organism, not the machine, provides the appropriate metaphor. The relevant knowledge resides not with outside experts but with the people who populate the system. The challenge for those who strive to be agents of transformational change is to help members of their group, community, or society recognize, organize, and use that knowledge in ever more effective ways.

Through the dynamics of societal scale social learning processes, people innovate, create, and learn to relate in new ways that enhance their shared well-being. Individual learning translates into community learning that translates into species learning.

The overall process has three primary elements that frame a powerful societal-scale change strategy.

  1. Change the defining stories of the mainstream culture. My previous New Economy 2.0 blog made the case that “Every Great Social Movement” begins with an idea carried forward through conversations that challenge and ultimately displace a prevailing cultural story. The civil rights movement is changing the cultural story on race. The women’s movement is changing the story on gender. The environmental movement is changing the story on the human relationship to nature. Through public presentations, books, magazines, talk shows, and the Internet’s many communications tools, millions of people are now spreading stories of the possibilities of a New Economy.
  2. Create a new economic reality from the bottom up. Many of those who have been inspired by some aspect of the New Economy story are already engaged in initiatives that are building the foundation of strong local living economies. They are establishing and supporting locally owned human-scale businesses and family farms that create regional self-reliance in food, energy, and other basic essentials. They are moving their money to local banks and credit unions, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, and changing land-use policies to favor compact communities, reduce auto dependence, and reclaim agricultural and forest lands. By creating a new reality on the ground their actions open opportunities for new personal choices, demonstrate the possibilities of the new story, and build a base for effective political action.
  3. Change the rules to support the values and institutions of the emergent new reality. The rules put in place by Wall Street lobbyists put the economic rights of global financiers and corporations ahead of the economic rights of ordinary people, place-based communities, and even nations. As we change the story and build appropriate institutions from the bottom up, we gain the political traction needed to change the rules to support democratic self-determination at the lowest feasible level of systems organization.

Successful social movements are emergent, evolving, radically self-organizing, and involve the dedicated efforts of many people, each finding the role that best uses his or her gifts and passions.

My life path has led to a somewhat unusual interconnected engagement with all three strategic elements. I participated in founding YES! Magazine to communicate the stories of human the future it is ours to create and serve as its board chair. I am a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, which supports communities across the United States and Canada in growing the New Economy from the bottom up. And I co-chair the New Economy Working Group, which is framing and advancing a New Economy policy agenda.

Social systems self-organize around ideas and relationships. They are living, complex, dynamic, and constantly evolving as they and their members learn from shared experience.

Social movements grow and evolve, not through top-down direction, but around framing ideas and mutually supportive relationships. New ideas gain traction or not depending on their inherent appeal and utility. As individual groups find one another, new alliances may emerge or not, depending on what works for those involved in the moment. Some alliances are fleeting; others endure.

As social movements develop, multiple sources of leadership are essential. There are many individuals and organizations whose work incrementally influences the whole. Any individual or group, however that presumes to be the leader of the whole or aspires to organize a central coordinating body to impose order on the chaos does not understand the process. Self-organizing chaos is integral to the movement building process and essential to its success.

David Korten ( is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine and co-chair of the New Economy Working Group. This Agenda for a New Economy blog series is co-sponsored by and based on excerpts from Agenda for a New Economy, 2nd edition.