Wednesday, November 23, 2011

#occupy Montreal, our first big crisis

Occupiers in Montreal, Canada are now going through their first serious crisis. This is unfolding under tremendous pressures from local city officials, and under a climate of total insecurity, with other #occupy encampments in different cities all over Canada and the US getting shot down by their local authorities.

We see a mix of infightings, power-struggles, a few cases of burnout, and other interpersonal problems. In my opinion, these are only manifestations, symptoms of deeper issues.

One of the problems is an overload created by a large number of problematic individuals who are not participating directly to the movement but consume the camp's resources, who abuse of illicit substances, and some times exhibit a violent behavior. In other words, the city's problems are concentrating within the encampment because word got around that there one can find food, shelter, and tolerant and respectful people. This puts a lot of pressure on the security and the sanitation teams, and exposes the movement to harsh, but unjust criticism, adding even more stress to the mix.

But in my opinion there are other problems even deeper that that, which are of informational and economical nature. First, let's remember the Facebook thread of Nina "An adress to Occupy Montreal and reason why I left the camp", who, among other things, complains about having to work too much. Others like Nina complained about poor involvement/active participation, saying that members of the camp could show more initiative and do more. I see two problems here.

1) Poor communication of needs to camp members and even to the general population.
Some individuals might be willing to help but they aren't aware that help is needed. During a meeting I made a survey and I realized that there were enough individuals present who did not have an accurate understanding of our problems.
2) Lack of formal economical processes.
Without a formal value, reputation, and role system in place to capture who's doing what, how and how much, there is no visibility into the system, there are no powerful incentives to participate...
The unfortunate results are that some compassionate members of the movement with initiative find themselves taking on too much load and get burned out. This causes all sorts of social problems, which can in fact destabilize the entire micro-society we are building.

But there is more than that. We also have problems arising from cultural differences. In fact, not everyone in the camp realizes that we are in fact building an open society. Not everyone understands the grammar within such society. If we put a lot of good willing individuals together in one place, in harsh conditions, they will NOT necessarily spontaneously self-organize into a perfect society! In order to have self-organization within an open and decentralized setting the group needs to follow a certain set of rules, to adopt a specific collective behavior. Culture is an important factor. The inspiration comes from the open source movement, we need to go back to these sources and try to understand what it really means to evolve within an open society. And, as we saw above, it goes beyond culture. Formal processes and tools are needed in order to scale this society. One needs sound reputation, role, and value systems which are based on the same principles of openness, transparency, equipotentiality, etc.

The conflict around the press release and the third phase arises from cultural misalignment. Actions need to be planed in the open. We need to be inclusive.

This whole crisis was to be expected even without the environmental pressure. After the honeymoon, the level of excitment decreases and everyone defaults to his/her normal state, which is, on average, to get as much as possible for as little as possible, or at least not to make great efforts to figure out how to contribute if that information doesn't miraculously come by itself. Only a minority of individuals will actually have the initiative to drive processes, and if they don't communicate well, if they don't ask for help, or delegate, they will eventually burn themselves out. I also heard around the camp that some individuals were specifically asked to participate and in the end they found ways to avoid responsibilities. Therefore, we need mechanisms in place to regulate behavior, to incentivize involvement. At its roots most camp's problems are economical in nature.

Once formal systems are in place, one still needs to understand the rules underlying an open society, which is to share and to collaborate rather than compete, to plan things in the open, to facilitate rather than lead, to attract rather than constrain and force, to politely ask for help rather than give commands, to seek to be respected/appreciated rather then be feared by others, etc...

We are learning, and this post is an effort to help the process. Every one of these crisis if it doesn't destroy the movement it will make it stronger, because during these periods members will put in place more structure and will better integrate the open culture needed to harmonize the group, much needed to place this micro-society into a more stable dynamic equilibrium.

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