Social Intrapreneurship and the Multicellular Leap

by Niall Fahy and Dr Jimi Wollumbin


Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires … the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Blame it on the…

Many have wondered about who might be to blame for the morass of crises that modern civilisation appears to be hurtling towards, social, ecological or otherwise.

No shortage of culprits have been suggested. Some say politicians. Some say the banking system. It could be the fault of all those bleeding-heart lefties, or the hard-line conservatives. There are those who accuse corporations, or the poor, or (that old favourite) foreigners.

The psychological urge to look outwards for a scapegoat is as time worn as it is unsurprising. Let’s consider something different for a moment; what if the true culprit is – shock horror – all of us? What if it’s you and I who are simultaneously the cause of, and solution to, many of the major problems that menace the human race in the 21st century?

Because we all consume, and we all take part to some extent or another in the system that we perceive to be perpetuating these problems. It is individual people who make up the institutions, structures, businesses and organisations that comprise our culture. It is these individuals who that dictate our future, for better or worse.

Identifying the culprit

In truth, the fundamental cause of any significant issue is a rather tricky thing to accurately ascribe. Especially when speaking of a predicament as complex as this.

But solutions – now there’s something worth talking about.

If you’ve read this far, it’s a safe enough bet that you’d agree that good old homo sapiens could do with experiencing something of an increase in values like justice, compassion, and common sense. Most likely you’d be keen to see businesses and governments and all sorts of institutions operating in a far more ethical and sustainable way than they currently do.

Worthy and noble desires these, no doubt.

These values we speak of – worthy and noble as they may be – exist only when they are tangibly enacted. And they can be enacted only by people. People like you and I.

It’s self-evident that positive change in the institutions that govern and service society can most effectively be brought about by the individual human beings who are the components of those structures. So in this sense, the basic unit of positive global transformation is the engaged citizen.

None other than you or I.

So, what should do about it?

Now this all sounds nice (though perhaps in a vaguely unsettling kind of a way), but how does it actually relate to my life and yours?

Well, predictably enough, it means that we have to think and act beyond the scope of our day-to-day needs as individuals. Part of our task as conscientious human beings is to work towards the reformation of existing institutions and social structures, or to create new ones that are fairer and more ethically driven.

Faced with a systematic emergency as we increasingly seem to be, simply paying taxes and voting is no longer adequate. We need to significantly expand our collective conception of civic duty. Investing money in social causes, reducing our ecological footprints, volunteering with local organisations, sharing positive sentiments on social media, buying fair-trade, etcetera etcetera etcetera; these are all highly commendable actions. But there’s a ‘but’ – ultimately, aiming to live as a responsible individual is not in itself wholly sufficient if it occurs without regard to the broader context of the social order and the structures that we’re all embedded in. To do so is to give your tacit endorsement a system you otherwise perceive as unjust / unsustainable / in need of reform / fundamentally unsound / (fill in your own opinion here).

Thankfully, there’s a happy alternative: we can actively take part in the rehabilitation of existing institutions and/or the creation of new ones.

This means that if you’re employed by, say, a company that makes landmines, then you need to seriously rethink what you’re doing with your life. Or to give a less prosaic (and hopefully more relevant) example; if you work in any sort of business or organisation, you have a duty to advocate at every available opportunity for it to operate in an ethical and integral way. This is nowadays called ‘social intrapreneurship’. It can be as straightforward as suggesting an office sustainability program to your boss, or as complex as founding your own community organisation or NGO or social enterprise.

A new equation

The reason that systematic change within institutions is important is because these are structures that usually don’t have humane values woven into their cores by default. There’s very frequently a self-preserving agenda at work within them which can end up operating like a ‘selfish gene’ (or a selfish meme), often to the eventual detriment of people and/or the planet. So, unless these institutions are being populated and driven by engaged human beings they can become very dangerous indeed – a bit like that enchanted broom in Disney’s tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

We exist in an age where corporations enjoy the rights of individuals but are constrained by few of the concurrent responsibilities. Where “profit is privatised while risk is socialised”, and where democracy is representative rather than participatory. We’ve arrived at a self-perpetuating social formula which reads something like this:

Disengaged individuals + Dehumanised institutions = Inhumane social structures

I think it’s fair to say that most of us would prefer to move away from this way of doing things – we feel impelled to endeavour towards a more ethical culture. For this to become a reality, the DNA of any such culture must be suffused with humane values. This is why individuals who enact these values in their daily lives are the building blocks of participatory institutions. How about we enact an alternative equation:

Engaged global citizens + Participatory institutions = Humane social structures

What’s this about a “multicellular leap”?

In the most far-reaching terms, what we’re talking about here is a radical change in the very nature of social institutions and how we collectively organise ourselves. It’s a societal multicellular leap, an evolutionary advance. We see this taking place across the globe as individuals come together to create social structures of a higher order of complexity than the comparatively simple bureaucratic structures that emerged in the industrial era.

This is like the difference between a layer of pond scum and a Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish – the former structure is an ecology of individual beings carving out their own little niche in a life of ooze, whilst the latter is an ecology of individual cells that are organised into a higher-order cooperative whole.

These kind of structures all pass through a radical transformation at a critical point in their evolution – generally precipitated by a crisis – called a ‘phase-shift’; it’s water, it’s water, it’s water, and poof! It’s steam. An interesting insight that has come out of complexity theory is that the change happens due to a dynamic two-directional interaction between the whole and its parts.

What this means in relation to society is that individuals create collective structures, those collective structures influence the individuals within them, and then (this is the bit we are up to now) those individuals react to the influence of the collective in a way that changes the structure once again. And so it goes round and round.

The structure can thereby be said to be becoming self-reflective, insofar as that in addition to its relationship with the outside world it has significant internal stimulus. Thus we see the emerging recognition of concepts like p2p, crowd wisdom, horizontalisation of networks, and ‘rhizomatic’ social structures.

In terms of human organisations, these kinds of ‘self reflective meta-structures’ not only have huge power to influence their constituent ‘human cells’, but imagine the ripple-effect that results from a small group of individuals as they push the structure’s development towards a more ethical, sustainable and participatory footing. Like the urban greening movement, there is a parallel movement that is humanising our social institutions (businesses, governments, banks, churches and NGO’s), and it is all the result of engaged individuals like you and I.

Pretty cool huh?

What do you want out of life?

The answer to that question is unique for every human being. But there is an aspect of it which is shared by an untold number of us – it is the yearning to participate in bringing about something good. To leave at least our own corners of the world a little better than we found them.

What a noble thing to work for.

What a beautiful thing to share with others.

The 5th and final action of One Health Global Citizens is participation in something of a larger nature than any individual endeavour; i.e. to start, join, or modify an existing organisation or structure or institution.

We want to empower you to be a part of the solution.