The Science behind Triggering Tipping Points to Social Change

New Orleans     I’m not sure any of you are ready for this, but we’re going to review today why it is worth keeping your shoulder to the wheel to push forward towards social change no matter the odds as long as you and your associates are committed and can count your base as growing.  A bunch of social scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London came together in an article in Science magazine to try and figure where the tipping point to social changes might be triggered in mass populations and why it happens.

They claim it can be “well explained by the theory of critical mass as posited by evolutionary game theory” which might be pushing you to put your head in your hands, but thankfully they then helpfully translate that into English saying, “This theory argues that when a committed minority reaches a critical group size – commonly referred to as a “critical mass” – the social system crosses a tipping point.  Once the tipping point is reached, the actions of a minority group trigger a cascade of behavior change that rapidly increases the acceptance of a minority view.”  Get that?  For some it might mean simply that there’s a marriage between Lenin and Mao, as Lenin’s determined cadre combines with Mao’s mass base to make change.  For most of us it means that if we keep working and growing, we will eventually get there, no matter how long the odds, as along as we don’t stop fighting – and growing.

For decades I have argued that if an organization truly represented at least ten percent of the people in a specific constituency whether workers or communities in a city, that the organization could effectively speak for the whole.  My argument was based on experience and seat-of-the-pants advocacy.  Reading the Science piece, it seems that this “crucial mass dynamics” thing spends a lot of time trying to establish whether in fact you can make social change once you can move 10% of the people or whether you need 30 or 40% to trigger the tipping point.

Admittedly, the social scientists are talking about “social conventions” like gender roles, smoking less, toking more, long hair, short skirts, and things of this nature, but social change politically is within this same spectrum.  I’ll spare you a deep dive into the meat of their report and how they conducted various experiments to test out these theories, but I’ll share an observation they make which is an encouraging and frightening application of these principles.  They argue that these ideas “might be usefully applied…[by] organizations and governments to use confederate actors within online spaces to influence conventional behaviors and beliefs.”  As an example they cite the fact that the 50 Cent Party in China “has argued that the Chinese government has incentivized small groups of motivated individuals to anonymously infiltrate social media communities…with the intention of subtly shifting the tone of the collective dialogue to focus on topics that celebrate national pride and distract from collective grievances.”

Worth remembering that though these studies show a path for our team, other teams that would oppose social change, including governments, may jump down these roads even faster and more effectively, so we need to learn these lessons and adapt quickly.


Bricks and Sticks are Important, but Different than Social Change

view of the grounds and neighborhood from the terrace on 4th floor

Bratislava       We had an interesting set of meetings scheduled at a new enterprise launched during the last year in Bratislava that involved creating cultural and community spaces in an experimental building.  After hearing about community centers of various sorts and sizes throughout Slovakia, we were finally going to get to see the urban version on steroids.

The backstory told to us by several of the four founding members and their staff was fascinating.  It had begun as an effort to try and take over an old textile mill at the outskirts of town, but that effort had faltered when a big-time developer outbid our heroes with a well-financed plan to build high-end, luxury apartments.  Instead, a more realistic search for an equivalent space enlisted the municipal government and after much negotiation and some luck in financing, an abandoned school building connected to a dormitory building was acquired by four partners with a half-million-euro loan to rehab and a 25-year lease from the city.

principal member of four owners of building space

The progress made in just one year was impressive.  There were a wide variety of tenants, the manager told us there were now some seventy rent payers at 6.50 euros per square meter per month for space that averaged about 80 meters.  Walking through the building we saw spaces rented by artists, a performance area, a film area, a bakery, photo and print shop, clothing and toy stores, a café, day care center, co-working center, and a kitchen that served lunch inexpensively to the community of 200 to 300 that were in the building at any one time.  The dormitory will eventually offer housing for about 80 small units.  Much work still needs to be done, but it’s an impressive complex, garnering a lot of interest.  For example, their first open house was attended by 7000!

tenants,  co-working space

One of our delegation asked the staff how they saw the building creating social change.  It turned out to be a surprisingly difficult question for the core team to answer easily.  They didn’t want to see themselves and their internal group or “community” as fixed in a landlord-tenant relationship, but the more they talked the more it seemed they were caught in a box between the four partners and the burden of paying off the bank loans, and their hopes that the building would be successful and supported by the community.  One woman was the sole voice for social change when she spoke of creating models and access for affordable housing.  Most of the rest, whose hearts were pure as goal and intentions lofty, were focused on the role of the building for the community of tenants, rather than the role of the community around the building.


I was reminded of advice I had gotten almost a decade ago now about having to make the decision about what was important, “bricks-and-sticks” or power and people.  They have an interesting operation, and the principal partner told me about a network of similar projects, and I had visited one building in an old armory not long ago in Hamburg, Germany that seemed very similar, but there’s a tension in the goals and objectives when one gets to the bottom line.  Social change is not just a building.  Common space is important, but it doesn’t equal change, and is a long way from building power.