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This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Tipping Point at 21

I’ve now finished Damon Centola’sChange – how to make Big Things Happen” and am trying to understand how it relates to the huge literature which exploded in the 1990s on “change management” – something which the author himself sadly fails to do. Perhaps he feels that the arrival of social media has so revolutionised the world as to make that literature old hat and not even worthy of mention??

More than 20 years ago I took the opportunity of what was euphemistically called “resting” between gigs to to summarise the key messages of that literature (in a chapter of In Transit – notes on Good Governance pp177-202) That gives a useful sense of what the debate was like in those days – but didn’t include the writings of my favourite Robert Quinn whose “Change the World” (2000) was published too late for inclusion (I really need to update “In Transit”) 

I’m not a fan of strongly-marketed books which describe experiments conducted by psychologists and data-scientists – particularly when they trumpet how these dismantle myths that have apparently long held us in their grip - perhaps I’m overly suspicious that such experiments have not been properly peer-reviewed. Rutger Bregman’s recent Humankind did a great hatchet-job on many such experiments – so much so that I set them all out in a table you can find hereBut, as I said in the last post, Centola’s book raises important questions about the process of social change – even if some of the examples he uses seem a bit trivial - with a bit too much use, for my liking, of trending on Twitter and Facebook. The way, however, he uses real-life examples of health-care in Africa; the Manhatten. Apollo and Genome projects; the “Black Lives Matter” campaign; and solar energy uptake to develop ideas about what approaches to social change work – and why – is thought-provoking.

The new element, of course, which the data-scientists bring to bear to the subject is the number-crunching power which cheaper computers now bring to bear on Big DataThe field of change management is dominated by a famous book published in 2000 - The Tipping Point  in which essayist Malcolm Gladwell argued that the point at which something – a product or idea – tips into fashion requires  the confluence of a number of influential types of people - not just a single "leader". Many trends are ushered into popularity by small groups of individuals that he classified as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

Connectors are individuals who have ties in many different realms and act as conduits between them, helping to engender connections, relationships, and “cross-fertilization” that otherwise might not have ever occurred.
Mavens are people who have a strong compulsion to help other consumers by helping them make informed decisions.
Salesmen are people whose unusual charisma allows them to be extremely persuasive in inducing others to take decisions and change their behaviour.

“Stickiness” is an important concept for these discussions - the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea. Stickiness is hard to define, and its presence or absence often depends heavily on context. Often, the way that it is generated is unconventional, unexpected, and contrary to received wisdom. Context is enormously important in determining whether a particular phenomenon will tip into widespread popularity. Even minute changes in the environment can play a major factor in the propensity of a given concept attaining the tipping point.

I’m not sure if Centola’s new book actually adds all that much to the discussion although his opening point is clearly an important one – that the spreading of ideas is NOT like a virus (in which loose, casual connectors are crucial to the spreading of disease). To change behaviour (or norms) - as social campaigns attempt – requires a very different approach – one which depends on mutual support

His work suggests that the process of change can be quantified – and that the “tipping point” for change is when 25% of a relevant population starts to adjust its behaviour.

But otherwise his reference to “relevance” is not all that different from Gladwell’s rather vague use of “context” - although I did enjoy the metaphors Centola uses for different strategies – “shotgun”, “silver bullet” and “snowball” – with his suggestion that the latter is generally the most successful in maximising the concentrated force of related people.

His concluding chapter tried to leave us with 7 strategies but is very weak – you rather feel he ran out of energy,

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