Adam in Uncategorized on May 25, 2011
Recently, I joined a number of researchers and practitioners at the International Sustainable Development Research Conference in New York at the Earth Institute of Columbia University. After a few hours of big name panels on stage, I went into a smaller session on local planning and policy–which zoomed into the smaller scale. As the moderator quickly explained, this parallel panel would get away from the top down and instead get into the bottom up. In international development and environmental programs, even social change in general, there is a lot of talk about the top and the bottom. Yet there is not a lot of discussion about what happens in between the two.
Top down, be it an approach to climate change or poverty alleviation, suggests the blanket of policies and strategies from a centralized and formalized system at the top–perhaps a government or large-scale development organization.
Bottom up on the other hand is the idea that working directly with people and individuals on a local level can grow into a larger and more sustainable change.
These are two logical, directional, strategies–but as things move up and down, there is something in between. These two roads pass through something: the top-bottom frontier of sorts. So what is this unmentioned middle? How does it change the normal discussion of development and how do we engage, design for, and research it?
The middle isn’t some alternative to top down and bottom up. You can’t just advertise that you have a ‘middle out’ strategy to this or that problem and suddenly have the major breakthrough in sustainable development. The middle isn’t a real place nor is it a consumer or client–its not an end or a direction in the same way that top down and bottom up can be. The middle is instead where scales intersect and change–it is where groups of people and social structures and networks are privileged over the individual people, structures, or interventions at either end. It’s the continuum between the individuals and locals on the bottom and the largest societal structures on the top (government for example). The middle is where the formal and the informal interact to develop new hybrid models of development and innovation that can be both sustainable and scalable.
Thinking about the middle is about thinking about the hybrid. It’s where local efforts organize and grow into effective interventions and where bigger policies relate to leaders and communities. Discussing the middle means discussing where the top down and the bottom up meet–and how inbetween, they can spur innovation, organization, and lead to discussion, collaboration, and sustainable impact.
Today we are living in a world where the ‘middle’ is coming up more and more. Dynamic technology, which is allowing complex, emergent, and global organization, is an enabler to discuss the dynamic middle directly. New technology can break barriers in scale and direction, both via application and through discussion, in new and powerful ways. At the same time the innovation and creativity in both policy and development are leading to bottom up and top down approaches which certainly engage this middle cultural level.
The abstract though important ‘middle’, which every successful top down and bottom up policy, strategy and approach passes through, does not need to be a mystery, never to be discussed while its neighbors the top and bottom get all the limelight. Instead, the middle can be the crucial source of reaching scale and sustained impact. Discussion about sustainable development requires discussing how culture and organization, both formal and informal systems, will take an intervention and a policy and transform them into change for people. Talking middle can activate and maintain-or reinvigorate–the entire discussion of sustainable development. Ideas and discussion can be compared and linked together. When we test or critique a strategy we need to ask about this taboo middle–where approaches, communities, and ideas intersect and change scale–and where real impact and change lingers.