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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 04/12/2013

Someone contacted me recently to ask me to write a few suggestions for policy change for a book he was putting together. I was on holiday and so the timing wasn’t good but I was also stumped. I don’t go around thinking in these terms very often. Following my attendance at a conference in Cologne in October I’m not apologetic about this fact. Indeed since I run a charity it may well be something to feel proud of.  Here’s why.
The Cologne event was held by an organisation based in Germany called Smart Civil Society Organisations (SmartCSOs) which aims to help bring about what they (and others) call  ‘the Great Transition’. This assumes that life as we know it is no longer sustainable and that radical change is  required not just for environmental sustainability but fairness and justice. Smart CSOs’ stated ‘core purpose’ is to: 
… learn about and improve our system change …  strategies to overcome our inequitable growth-obsessed global economic system as well as the globally spreading culture of consumerism and marketization of nearly every sphere of life; and promote the transition to an economic system based on the principle of ecological limits, solidarity, human wellbeing and intergenerational justice … .
This is clearly a huge, idealistic objective but it is one which this Centre shares. The point of Smart CSOs work is to fathom how this Great Transition can be brought about. Around 80 people, mainly from Europe, were invited to attend the three day conference to learn and discuss. I was the only person there from Scotland.  Lots of the participants were from large NGOs working in the development and environmental sectors. I was the only person there with a background in well-being.
Micha Narberhaus, the main thinker and organiser involved in Smart CSOs, wrote a paper outlining a model to help underpin our discussions at the event and I found it very illuminating.
The model sets out three important levels of change:
Culture – ‘The Culture level represents the dominant world views, values and mental frames that underpin the goals and success factors of the system as a whole, and its constituent parts.’  Change at this level means changing people’s ‘values and frames’ (how they see the world) thus making real transformation much more likely.
Regimes – ‘The Regimes level includes the dominant infrastractures  and technologies, as well as the current political, economic and social institutions and the regulatory frameworks. Together these constitute the basis of our economic system.' Regimes have a remarkable capacity to ‘self-stabilize round the status quo and reject any tendencies for system change.’
Niches – ‘This is where the seeds of the new eco-solidarity economy (innovative models of sustainable life styles, business, political and societal institutions, technology etc.) are being developed and experimented with. ‘

Essentially the paper argues that many apparently progressive or even radical organisations  (think Oxfam, Action Aid, Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace) are doing nothing, or at least little, to bring about Cultural change or to support Niches. Their focus is very much on  influencing  Regimes by being advocates or lobbyists for policy change. To do this they have to become very tactical and speak in the language the Regime understands.  In short, they become ‘locked in’ to the system’s wider objectives and their main concern is about ameliorating, rather than attacking and critiquing the status quo.
By focusing on changes in immediate policy and practice civil society organisations do not tend to advance arguments in favour of Cultural transformation.  And by failing to present alternative values or ways of looking at things, they end up unwittingly supporting and reinforcing the system.
What’s more most civil society organisations do not make ‘meaningful links with the radical innovators experimenting with the seeds of the new system.’ In short, they don’t support the Niches and so these remain too weak to challenge the Regime level.

As you can imagine we had some fascinating discussions over the three days on these ideas.  It was most interesting  to learn that those present from these types of organisations agreed with this analysis. Many could see how their current ways of working were shoring up the system rather than undermining it. And this is deeply frustrating for them as many of them are in these organisations as they genuinely want to make a difference and really do want to see radical change.
This paper and event ultimately reinforced my confidence that as a civil society organisation we are on the right track. Over the past few years our work has been largely focused on Cultural transformation –  trying to get people to be more aware of their values and to shift them from those which support materialism and narcissistic individualism towards those which are more conducive to well-being and ultimately to a ‘eco-solidarity economy’.  Indeed this is the focus of the first two books in our Postcards from Scotland series – AfterNow by Phil Hanlon and The Great Takeover: how materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives which I’ve written. I also gave a TEDx talk called 'Enlightenment in the Age of Materiallism' and we have tons of relevant resources on our wesbite. We have also been supporting Niches. This is something I’ll outline in more depth in a future blog.
Of course, as a Centre we've made lots of mistakes and we've not done everything right but I'm glad that advocating policy changes to the Regime hasn’t been top of my agenda.

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Download Smart CSOs paper How to Break Out of the System Trap? A model to support conversations for a more strategic activism

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