The Messy Middle: Exploring the intersections of Systems Transformation and Web3

To lose one’s way does not necessarily mean that one is lost.

One of my favourite philosophers, Dr Bayo Akokomafe, has an elegant way with words when it comes to articulating the value of ‘wander and lostness’. In one of his pieces, he offers a reflection on what might become possible when we allow ourselves to be indistinguishable from one another or from our environment/surroundings. In a world where exclusivity, polarization, and either/or perspectives are deeply and subtly embedded in our logos, ethos, and relationships, it can be challenging to choose to stay in the place of tension. That is, to voluntarily “sit with the trouble” and to “straddle the line of tension” could feel unfathomable. Quite literally, to consciously direct one’s energy into actively examining, thinking, and being in the space of “both/and '' could feel like pulling apart at our own structural integrity; tearing our own seams.

At the same time, we must consider that it is the simplicity of singularity and appeal of single-story narratives that have contributed to pathology, extractive economic models, systemic racism, sexism, ableism, extinction, and genocide. If we are to be active participants in sustaining our lives, lineages, and all relations across Seven Generations – as shared by the Haudenosaunee People – then we must locate ourselves as intrinsically connected with what is both within and around us. Indeed, it is healthy to individuate, but we must steer clear of separatism.

Therefore, to create sustainable systemic transformation we will need both our individuated selves, and one another. Right here, in the possibility of ‘both/and’ lies the opportunity to deepen our curiosity, to innovate, to unlearn, and to linger in the liminal space as we fervently and collectively work towards building communities and spaces that align with our shared values of care, sustainability, relational connectedness, and equity.

With that said, I invite you to allow yourself to get lost as we journey together through a review of the most recent 4-week learning series hosted by SuperBenefit DAO and Crypto, Culture & Society DAO UnSemester.

Before we hit the road, here’s a short description of the 4-week learning series to help you orient yourself: The emerging technologies of web3 enable new ways to collaborate, create, and share value and authority. Today, we collectively have an opportunity to harness these technologies to design and create systems and institutions that are inherently better for people and the planet. What do we mean by “systems transformation”? What’s its role in creating better futures? What challenges might hold us back? What are some web3 examples demonstrating the potential of systems transformation?

Rest stop 1 → web3 for better futures: transforming systems, sectors and institutions

Speakers: @Michael Lewkowitz - Krause House

In this session, we began by asking ourselves two foundational questions:

  • “What does the word ‘systems’ mean?”

  • “What is our definition of ‘systems transformation’?”

What came forward as the discussion picked up is that there is no single, clear-cut definition that seamlessly integrates all opinions, thoughts, and experiences. What was apparent, however, is that the people in the session shared a commitment to “staying with the trouble”, making meaning together, and building with a unified purpose towards desired outcomes of equity, sovereignty, and connectedness. These three outcomes/impacts served as the anchor to our mutating and, sometimes, nebulous discussions. To bridge together two vast and constantly shifting explorations, i.e. systems transformation and web3, requires a depth of curiosity, a willingness to lose one’s way, and solid ground to land on when the pace of work feels overwhelming.

This is how Krause House DAO was built – around a shared passion for basketball and a commitment to creating a dedicated space for fans to own and govern an NBA team. WILD, RIGHT? Well, it is happening! As Michael Lewkowitz (a Steward at Krause House) shared, the world of sports is itself going through a systems transformation in terms of media and marketing, revenue generation, access, governance, etc. Creating a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) with a bold mission to bring the first fan-governed team to the NBA is not only a response to the tectonic shifts taking place in the world of sports, but also an opportunity to experiment with the applications of Web3 to generate mass social benefit through decentralisation, enhanced transparency using blockchain, and reimagined ownership/governance models through DAOs.

And that’s just our first rest stop in the journey of exploring what is possible at the intersections of systems transformation and web3.

For more about the systems transformation journey at Krause House, check out their Hypepaper (Why?) and Flightpaper (How?)

Related resources:

Rest stop 2 → systems transformation and governance

Speakers: @Rowan Yeoman and @Alex Hannant

In this session, we oriented ourselves around these three questions:

  • How can we differentiate between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’? And why does this distinction matter when speaking about systems transformation and governance?

  • What governance models in our current systems can we build upon, and which are redundant/obsolete for the futures we are seeking to create?

  • What opportunities do DAOs offer us in reimagining governance? What challenges still exist?

Alex Hannant, a Professor of Practice and Co-Director of the Yunus Centre at Griffith University started off by sharing a case study of what it might look like to design for transformation. Speaking about the work coming out of the Yunus Center, Alex highlighted one of the current projects titled, ‘Shaping Innovation Futures’ which seeks to respond to the question, “how can we create innovation infrastructures that are equal to the complex challenges we face, at an appropriate level of scale, and which can adapt to ever-changing demands?”

Much like our first session, this question and the guiding principles of ‘systems transformation and governance’ are intended to point us towards building from the ‘both/and’ space. To create new governance frameworks, it may be easy and somewhat tempting to imagine a brand new landscape that is devoid of current structures or systems - where our financial and educational institutions, economic models, and social media tools are upended and completely replaced. While there is excitement and thrill drawing us towards new utopias, we must also be cautious and discerning in our process of design/innovation, iteration, and creation. This means, when exploring transformation of governance through Web3, it is particularly important to take note of the web-like nature of systems, i.e., change at any scale has the potential to ripple out across micro and macro aspects of the entire system.

Following up on this, Rowan Yeoman offered a framework for ‘network thinking’ and the ‘network economy’. As an example of network economies within Web3, we reflected on the value of DAOs as networks. According to Rowan, the rejection of ‘entity thinking’ to create room for ‘network thinking’ offers an opportunity to understand the value of negotiation, iteration, and fractal experimentation in shaping futures.

This is also where the concept of ‘permissionlessness’ comes into play as we consider how our varied, individual contributions can mix and merge to create the larger, desired whole. When viewed this way, in the world of Web3, governance then is not about power-wielding through tools of hierarchy and domination. Rather, governance is an organic, evolving process that seeks to create transparent pathways to power and consensus that are distributed across contexts, geographies, etc., which aim to produce equitable, regenerative outcomes.

Related resources:

#Web3for2030: How can Web3 help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
Poetic Harvest (audio) and Poetic Harvest (written)

Pack up your snacks, maps, and water as we head to our next rest stop!

Rest stop 3 → web3 systems transformation and equity

Speakers: @cult_leader_en

Coming into this discussion, participants were invited to reflect on the fundamentals of being in relationship with one another. To think about the ways that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion underpin connections, access, and opportunities within and across the organisations and systems we are part of. This is where we are asked to be cautious of viewing Web3 as the “shiny new tool that fixes everything”.

While Web3 opens up new doors for the kinds of value, relationships, and outcomes that are possible because of revamped structures of the internet, it is still a tool that is created, modified, and directed by human beings (you and me). As such, this session focused on examining the ways that we can move with more intentionality and mindfulness to ensure that we do not replicate patterns of inequity within web3 communities or in systems transformation work.

According to En, “Web3 has taught me that free and fluid human coordination is the ultimate public good and value creator. Us collectively being socially and economically unlocked via the internet (web2 + web3) is going to create the new ideas that usher in true societal innovation.” The opportunity for this free and fluid human coordination is made possible by being in a web space that is psychologically safe, inclusive, insisting on diversity, and with guaranteed equitable outcomes/rewards. To operate with these guiding principles, En highlights the importance of perceiving the digital world as a material world – one where we can all come together to design and build towards the kinds of futures that are representative of our diversity.

To foster a space where diversity, inclusion, and equity are embraced, we can link back to how this piece of writing began. That is, a recognition that we are connected to one another and our environments. Therefore, it serves our individual and collective well-being and sustenance to approach systems transformation through strengths-based approaches that are context-aware, historically informed, and open to evaluation and feedback. Connected to this, when speaking about DAOs in relation to systems transformation, En shared the following: “It can be easy for us to get stuck in a thought process where we map old concepts onto innovative technologies.”

Questions to further ponder on as we move on to our final rest stop:

  • What does equity mean to you?

  • Why do the concepts and practices of equity, diversity, and inclusion matter?

  • What is the difference between local and global equity?

Related resources:

Poetic Harvest (written)

Rest stop 4 → web3 and systems that work

Speakers: Peter Gulka and Suzanne Bowles

A key part of systemic change and transformation is planting seeds for our hopes and dreams while knowing that we may not live long enough to experience these seeds sprout and take root. This does not mean that we are working in futility. Rather, it is an admission and acknowledgement that our work is for the long haul; taking a long-term perspective. To build something that is good and lasting, it is beneficial to position ourselves as committed learners. Humble enough to acknowledge that we are one piece of the whole, but also wise enough to know that our seemingly small individual actions/decisions compound in the long term and can lead to significant shifts at a systems scale.

This is why the wisdom and knowledge of Elders is a prerequisite to the work of systems transformation. In particular, part of moving forward in a good way involves us recognizing the practices, policies, and systems that got us to where we are – the good, bad, and downright ugly. Tools like web3 and phrases like ‘Systems Transformation’ can sometimes fill us with an insatiable thrill and adrenaline rush. Yes, there is a risk here that we jump into learning all about this and run out of steam much faster than is desired. The bigger risk, however, is that we fail to seek counsel from Elders and people with lived experiences of the systems we are working to transform, and consequently, our actions perpetuate egregious harms and reproduce unintended negative impacts.

There is wisdom in turning towards Elders, in taking a sacred pause, and in sitting with the trouble. As Peter and Suzanne shared, there is wisdom in moving with humility and acknowledging the Indigenous wisdoms and traditions that are rooted and present around us. Claiming that we are successfully working towards systems transformation without simultaneously addressing the reality and impacts of ongoing colonisation and anti-Indigenous racism is a lie – and one with horrific consequences.

As people who purposely seek nuance, embrace complexity, welcome discomfort, and centre collaborative approaches to design, imagination, and futurism, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves some key questions:

  • In what aspects of your own life have you been on the "margin" and how has this positionality given you an advantage/disadvantage?

  • How are you intentionally using your positionality and privilege to advance systems transformation?

  • How can Truth and Reconciliation inform and guide efforts of systems transformation? And how does Web3 factor into this?

Related resources:

Poetic Harvest (written)
Video Recording

Thank you for journeying with us. We hope you never find your way back! Stay lost, stay curious.

The Messy Middle Has An End Too

It’s been a fantastical, meandering path to reflect and write this piece out. As someone who is early on in their Web3 learning and practice journey, I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to not only contribute to the discussions in the 4-week learning series, but to also give back to the people who curated, facilitated, and hosted each session. My writing is my offer of gratitude, but also my commitment to stay curious about what doors these technologies are opening for the kinds of futures we seek to create.

Systems transformation is a long-time practice – I hope you give yourself the chance to stay present, to ask good questions, to be nimble and agile, and most importantly to devote yourself to wander as you lose your way.

Written by Njoki Mbũrũ

Over four sessions, so much learning and fun

But our journey together has just begun

Let this be our springboard

My friends, see you in Discord.

~ Poetic Harvest by Heenal Rajani

These four sessions took place between Nov 23-Dec 13, 2022

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