A Tale of Two Systems: How a collaborative society can be different

Wes Hinckes
14 min readJul 21, 2022

Post in progress — Working out loud.

I’m very interested in the potential that exists at the community level to effect social, environmental and economic change.

If you read the reports or follow the organisations and projects which work in this area then you’ll see the same language and terms being used even though they’re often connected to different intentions and effects.

I’m going to attempt to explain why it may be important to create some separation.

Last year, I attended a Community Journalism & Media webinar and I felt that there were two very different types of Community Journalism being presented on the day as examples.

The first form of Community Journalism largely reproduced a type of local journalism that we previously found in our town newspapers.

It took this old model and made some tweaks to the editorial, ethical, social, moral, and ownership aspects. It was by and large identical but with some improvements and modifications.

The other type of Community Journalism took the skills and concepts within journalism/media and then applied these to resolving local needs, creating possibilities, and engaging local people, groups and communities.

This Community Journalism wasn’t a reproduction.

The people, projects and organisations involved were starting from a distinct position, perspective and set of needs (social/local context?) and could see that local engagement was key to ultimately affecting some kind of positive change or result.

They were innovating (hacking?) journalistic skills and knowledges outside of the traditional space to get things done for themselves.

Here’s a tidied version of my notes.

The observation I made was that there were two inter-connected but distinct things being discussed.

I suggested that Community Journalism, the term, had two directionalities.

One direction was about raising awareness of societal and community issues so that people would be concerned and take some form of political action i.e. change their future allegiances, sympathies or beliefs.

It was the business of news with a social agenda. But it was still the Old News model which sets out to change your mind about something.

In this it could be seen to be about ‘exerting influence’ through media channels and it can be perceived as being propaganda like, dogmatic or paternalistic.

It may also not be the most genuine of relationships to say the least. It’s possible to see a similar type of nature in some charity campaigns and probably most forms of advertising. There should be no surprise in any of this and I hope to draw your attention to something as I progress.

The other direction to Community Journalism appeared to be about developing agency and potential.

It was about people coming together, creating relationships and effecting change for themselves without being directed.

It is this that I would suggest is something more recent and directionally different.

It isn’t telling people what to think or do. It isn’t deliberately influencing people’s decisions, manipulating emotions or putting a spin on things.

It is much more relationally considered/situated and is probably the result of the people driving it and their priorities. They may be less a part of the old world, and more rooted in something new, and the ability to create genuine and mutually respectful relationships is something that may be extremely important to them.

It’s a different mindset and it could be being driven by multiple social and environmental factors and further enabled by low-cost technology and network access.

It could also be a response to the old world of advertising, messaging and campaigning. Why would you use those tools if you’re sick of the cynical and patronising use of them and through them the reduction of other human beings to a campaign statistic or their perception as dumb vessels requiring steering in the right direction

It may also signal a shift in how we could do things in the future.

You can guess which side I’m on.

To complete this section, I would just like to suggest that all of the terms that get used with community in front of them. All of these may also have this two-sided nature and directionality to them.

One of them is very much about reproducing things from our past with some improvements.

It can often be about Power and Projection and it may take its lead from political organising and advertising. It’s about getting people to do things ‘you want’.

The other side is about creating the future.

It’s about Relationality and Agency and collaborating (networks of purpose?) to directly change something tangible and local.

It’s possibly a form of post-political organising which deserves a new term.

It’s about doing things together as equals.

It’s about getting on with it without the usual intermediaries doing it for you.

Personal Opinion

I’ve been involved in the past with Citizens UK locally as well as Unite Community and I have great respect for both organisations. But I feel that they are both representative of an old understanding of power and organising.

If you look at the history of either organisation this isn’t going to be surprising to anyone. Their roots are entirely political — organising within communities (workplace or neighbourhood).

This is termed ‘community organising’ but belongs in the ‘political organising’ direction.

This type of ‘community organising’ may be right for certain things and certain situations.

But it may not be right for developing; community agency, capacity or peaceful relations.

Saul Alinsky’s iron rule that “one should never do for others what they can do for themselves” makes sense in political ‘right vs might’ situations. For otherwise the community will always need someone lead them and to fight their battles and thus they remain powerless and defenceless in perpetuity.

It makes much less sense when developing local capacity and agency or where citizen engagement around social or environmental projects would lead to improvements in local lives and conditions.

For this you may need something much more patient, understanding and developmental.

Here there is no Iron Rule as context becomes our guiding principle.

You see I think we may need some kind of Community Organising 1.0 (Power Relations & Politics) and 2.0 (Agency and Relational) to help us categorise and communicate the difference between these contexts.

Maybe we just need to be more aware and clearer and especially sensitive to context and nuance?

I’m going to try to elaborate by looking at a real-world example.

Nesta Report — Democratising Innovation Policy: How community organising can help build a more inclusive economy

Nesta do some great work and I’ve followed much of it for many years.

They did and do quite a lot around participation in society which basically means opening up government, institutions, organisations, activity and decision-making to the public so that they become active participants in their society as opposed to passive recipients or voters with an occasional and rather nebulous ability to meaningfully affect future outcomes.

Participation is another term with 2 directions.

It is also a spectrum of diverse approaches, opinions and practices which range from the reform of governmental decision-making processes (it is here we see old models undergoing improvement) through to complete rethinking about what is possible and beneficial to society (agency, involvement and future creating).

What I’m going to try and show is that we may need a better way to communicate some of the ideas and effects that we see are seeing and reading about.

My feeling is that there are two different types of community organising and that it’s important not to confuse them with each other.

If we confuse things then we may remain quite stuck in old forms or conceptions of power and organising because we will accidentally mix them both up and mistake them for being the same.

But if we can more accurately describe what we are seeing and what is occurring then we might just be able to make a break in a different direction and towards a different kind of future.

It’s the difference between what mass-participation and collaboration in society could actually mean and the rather paler possibilities presented by applying old concepts of power and organising to reforming society and building the future. The result being that we repeat exactly the processes of thinking and organising which brought us to our current future, whereas we need to do something entirely fresh and inventive to continuously arrive at a different one.

I feel the Nesta reports are confusing some of what is happening.

It appears to me that some of the effects being described are the result of the organising of a community and the creating of connections and relationships (relationality and network) that then enables co-benefits or additional benefits to become possible which can then be seen in the reports.


If you look at the methodology of the report writers we can see where the confusion may be coming from. Its researchers ‘deep dive’ into the activities of Citizen’s UK and thus seem to base a number of assumptions and declarations on the whole of ‘community organising’ based upon a single organisation’s conceptions and practice.

This leads to a number of statements which are incorrect in the wider sense of community organising.

For example;

  • The goal of community organising is to take citizens directly to meet power-holders.
  • As the aim of community organising is to enable citizens, including those from migrant micro-enterprises, to directly speak truth to power, it focuses on the development of civic leadership.


Community organising methodology aims to answer five questions:

  • Who are our people?
  • What are our issues?
  • Who are the players that can deliver the change we want to see?
  • What public social action can you take to get a reaction?
  • Are we willing and able to negotiate for change?

These statements are only true from the political perspective, practice and intents of Citizens UK the organisation and their local chapters or other organisations operating in the political space. They are not necessarily true for a community that organises to buy their local pub who may not give two hoots about power or politics. The context and intent are important factor to what kind of community organising is occurring.

Citizen’s UK’s work *is, on a day-to-day basis, political organising in the community.

*We may be seeing some change to this as the activities in the reports demonstrate (diversification into community organising services?) but there is a real need to clear up all of the language being used.

But there is a whole other side to community organising which is of interest to me.

It isn’t that there isn’t a great deal of overlap but I’m sure that we are seeing 2 different forms of community organising and practice being mixed up.

This is important to me as I’m not interested in reproducing politics or participating in the ‘contested space’.

I’m interested in agency and purpose and this doesn’t need politics and power taking the lead. It needs politics and power to remain at a distance where they can do less harm to community relations and solidarity.

It isn’t about ‘contest’ it is about ‘collaboration’.

I feel that Citizen’s UK’s work in relation to these reports and the resulting activities and actions performed by and with the ‘organised community’ go through a number of stages that might be better described using the language of networks, systems and ecosystems.

Network Weaving — https://www.creativeclimateleadership.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Intro-To-Network-Weaving-1-1.pdf

Again, I remind you that I am no expert and I am blundering through this without enough research or any kind of solid foundation.

I am placing it here as a possibility for now and something to return to should the opportunity arise.

It also creates the contrast and separation required for me to suggest an alternative.

Understanding System A (contested) and System B (collaborative)

The society and the economy we have today arose from basic conditions. A community or tribe were self-sufficient and within their group were able to meet all of their needs — economic and social.

Progress from this point involved the creation of… intermediaries (organisations and systems) which enabled new ways of doing things or enabled (enclosed) the complex and complicated.

As society and the economy progressed with greater and greater knowledge and complexity, more intermediaries were introduced allowing new types of operation, organisation and economic activity.

These intermediaries today can be placed within either Civil Society, The State or Business.

These are the 3 pillars.

The next section is copied from a previous post.

A Mechanical Understanding of Society

Society can be understood as consisting of 3 pillars.

Civil Society, The State and Business.

Each of these fulfils distinct roles for the society of which they are a part.

Civil Society acts as an independent function operating in the space where The State and Business do not.

The State is your democracy, the government and those services and functions which are within their remit or under their control.

Business gets on with the job of providing things and making money.

They can be seen as separate but interdependent. In addition to their primary role, they provide a self-regulating function that exists within each pillar (their accepted behaviour and actions) and as an interrelated whole (in that they serve to regulate each other’s behaviours and actions).

For the purposes of illustration, you could imagine them as 3 pistons in a radial engine.

Pick up a newspaper or watch the news and this could be what you are seeing.

If Government moves too far in one direction, then there will be push back from one of the other pillars.

If Business goes too far then Civil Society can respond, react, lobby, protest and campaign and Government can decide to regulate or legislate.

If Civil Society goes too far then I’m not actually sure what would happen. It does seem to be a little underpowered and outmanoeuvred at times. I think something good probably would happen but we may never actually get to find out and the point is to reach a balance.

And this marvel is your modern society.

As society and the economy have progressed, we have moved from the community/tribe where social and economic needs could be easily resolved to a complex society and economy where due to isolation between the pillars, problems and imbalances are liable to accrue or become accepted as normality.

As a society we have moved from ‘collaborative space’ into ‘contested space’.

A Relational Understanding of Society

The introduction of intermediaries into society and the economy created a system of separateness and distance. Over time and through the effects of scale, this separateness and distance gradually increased; between people, between the intermediaries, and between the pillars.

There was no need to question this as long as everything worked reasonably well.

The 21st century sees this system of separation and distance begin to break down. It is unable to resolve its own problems by continuing the same actions but it is destined by its perspective, operation, understanding and previous behaviours to repeat those same actions.

Something different is required to break out of this.

Modern communications technology, platforms in particular allow to do something potentially very interesting.

Using platforms we can bring the isolated parts of today’s system back together again into something which more closely resembles the collaborative spaces which communities and tribes had access to.

The problematic distance and separation can be removed and something new, more intelligent and responsive can begin to form in its place.

These 2 spaces or systems are very different in their operation, tools and intents.

If you introduce the concept of ‘Community Organising’ into this picture or understanding it becomes easier to see how it becomes utilised for different ends.

In the ‘contested space’ it organises for the purpose of winning power, influence or resources.

In the ‘collaborative space’ it organises to resolve problems or create opportunities.

The same goes for ‘Community Journalism’ and possibly everything else.

When you look at their operation and effect in the ‘contested space’ you see something directionally opposite to their operation and effect in the ‘collaborative space’.

This is what I’ve been trying to explain.

This is the directionality I’m trying to convey.


The reason I’m communicating this is because I do not wish for Socially Enterprising to confuse these 2 systems as being a single complete system i.e. it all gets pulled into the platform both the good and the bad.

Instead, I want to ensure that the ‘contested space’ remains outside of the platform and with it all of the negatives that are associated with it.

I want the charities but I don’t want the campaigns.

I want the businesses but I don’t want the advertising, branding or muscling in.

I want the state but I don’t want the politics.

I want the communities but I don’t want the immaturities, pettiness or fallouts that can get in the way of getting things done.

I want peaceful, effective and rewarding collaboration that produces positive effects and minimises harms.

I feel that as a society we need to develop an alterative system as a compliment to the current system that we may need to recognise as ill-suited for tackling our modern social, economic and environmental challenges.

To do this we must be able to see the differences, the reasonings and the effects.

We should recognise that in the old world we always had to organise and use power (to win a contest) in order to effect change that would be eventually also be shaped and implemented by intermediaries and not ourselves.

In the new world the intermediaries can lose some importance. We are able to organise and effect change for ourselves through organising and collaboration.

This is where the real potential for community agency and future possibilities exists.


Collaboration requires good facilitation and peacebuilding. Power and politics can get in the way of this.

Some of this is also Game A / Game B thinking.

A world of power, campaigning, influence and manipulation and telling people what to do.


A world which does things; honestly, intimately, fairly, intelligently, much more effectively and with far less harm.

Connect with previous post

In my previous post I suggest that there is a natural world and an artificial world.

In this post I suggest that the ‘collaborative space’ is closer in ideal to the natural world and that the ‘contested space’ is entirely artificial.

The way we bring this more natural world into being is by bringing the right processes into play.

The contested space, advertising and truth

As an aside when you look at identity politics what we may be seeing is an expansion of the ‘contested space’ into new territory (deep into the fabric of social relationships and ideas of self and belonging). Social media businesses (+ economic interests) and platforms fuel the expansion as they generate profits from the deepening and widening contest.

The contest becomes further normalised through ‘likes and clicks’, mass-participation in platforms and the ability of the public (yet another territory of expansion) to generate revenue (+ power or influence) by participating in the contest.

All of this is only a continuing expansion of business and politics into the spheres of public life and culture. A process that has been well underway for over a hundred years.

Aspects of the public sector become opened up to new markets for private interests and our private lives are now following suit.

If you have the money and resources you can advertise, campaign and lobby for anything. You pay to create the truth you want today and for a different truth tomorrow.

The tools and techniques involved have become so accepted as normal that they are no longer questioned.

In fact civil society and charity now utilise the same methods as business and politics. They are all contesting with everything else.

We have

Fission / Fusion

This probably belongs somewhere separate but…

Please remember some of the visualisations that I try to communicate are not meant to be accurate. I use them as place holders to inter-connect ideas.

One way that you could look at the activity in the ‘contested space’ is like nuclear fission.

Our current way of doing things in our economy is to take ‘natural resources’ and utilise them to generate economic activity (energy) in a seemingly never-ending chain reaction of transactions. The unfortunate by-product of this process is a depletion of natural resources (environmental disaster), the generation of excess heat (climate change) and multiple other negative externalities (invisible unless measured).

The ‘collaborative space’ on the other hand works more like ‘nuclear fusion’.

It brings resources and elements together in such a way that they generate abundant clean energy (or economic activity). It is relational in its operation and able to generate multiple forms of social value and positive economic effects.



Wes Hinckes

Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.