Working the Attractors

Imagine a boat navigating a vast sea. How would that boat most efficiently reach its destination? By finding the areas with smooth current and avoiding those areas with rough waters. The same logic applies to a concept discussed in both “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World” which appeared in the spring issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review and in a Stanford Social Innovation Review webinar this fall – working the attractors. When thinking about working the attractors, just imagine a boat navigating a vast sea, where the smooth currents are positive attractors and the turbulent areas are negative attractors. In the social sector, attractors may take on many forms. For example, an attractor could be a foundation, policy, social movement, innovative technology, pivotal event, or even a person.

During the webinar, Zia Khan, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Vice President for Initiatives and Strategy, shared a real life example of how the foundation’s Smart Power for Environmentally-Sound Economic Development (SPEED) initiative, which aims to address the basic electrical needs of rural India while spurring economic development. The strategic goal of the initiative was to encourage energy service companies to invest in building decentralized renewable energy power plants in rural areas. However, energy service companies did not see sufficient economic value in investing in these plants, let alone in rural areas.

To make the business case to energy service companies, SPEED took an innovative approach of identifying major consumers of electricity, thus ensuring a sustainable revenue stream for the energy service companies. This consumer came in the form of India’s rapidly expanding mobile network, which had grown from 6.4M in 2002 to 752M in 2010. The cell phone towers, which were at the time powered by diesel, had the potential to become major consumers of electricity. Immediately, the foundation and partners launched a pilot to help convert cell phone towers from diesel to renewable energy. With cell phone towers switching to renewable energy, energy service companies instantly recognized the growing demand and began to build decentralized renewable energy power plants. Beyond powering the cell phone towers, the plants generated enough excess energy to provide electricity for multiple rural communities, helping Rockefeller reach its social goal. By recognizing the expansion of mobile networks as a positive attractor within the system they were trying to influence, the Rockefeller Foundation adjusted its strategy to harness the attractor’s energy to accelerate SPEED’s goal. 

Attractors are nothing new to the social world, but oftentimes, attractors are not labeled as such. Recently, I was reminded of this fact while reading The Power of Habit, in which there is a chapter discussing the dynamics of the Civil Rights Movement leading up to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1955, Edgar Daniel Nixon, former head of the Montgomery NAACP, and Clifford Durr, a prominent lawyer, sought to eliminate Jim Crow laws. At the same time, Martin Luther King Jr. was still trying to understand his role in the community. All three men had the same goal in mind – equality – but there was no catalyst to spur people into action. They needed an accelerant, which came when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat. Rosa Park’s arrest brought community outrage and mobilization. The trio was able to harness that energy in a constructive, focused, and coordinated manner which ultimately led to the organization of the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott, a momentous and pivotal event of the Civil Rights Movement. In this instance, outrage from Rosa Park’s arrest was an attractor and accelerated the trio’s goal for civil equality.

These examples and many others demonstrate the power that arises from social change agents keeping an ear to the ground and identifying and acting on attractors in their communities. While things are often easier said than done, social change agents should ask themselves:

How does my organization stay informed about the community we are trying to influence? How do we sense trends and potential new sources of momentum?
When we do sense potential positive or negative attractors, how does my organization act on this knowledge? How do we balance a deliberate, rigorous approach with the flexibility to adapt and respond to new attractors?

We are constantly looking for more examples of how foundations and nonprofits have successfully identified and acted upon positive and negative attractors, thus leading to more effective and efficient social change. Reach out and let us know YOUR story!

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