My social media timelines are filled with news about cities in Europe that are currently banning straws and other useless plastic utensils. This renewed force and motivation to fight against plastic waste comes after China decided it will not be taking foreign rubbish anymore.

In 2016 alone, China took 95% of Ireland’s plastic scrap, alongside the 1.6 million tons of plastic garbage from Europe. Their ban on the import of 24 categories of rubbish is forcing Europe to re-think its behaviour.

Sitting with friends over lunch, plastic waste has been a daily topic. While people confront the western world’s waste problem, I am in awe of the power of networks in reshaping society.

Less than 6 months ago, very few people owned Keep Cups or cared about non-bio-degradable packaging in takeaways. Today, I sat at a bar and watched someone complain to the manager because the bartender gave them two straws with their drink.

This rapid change is an example of how effective networks can be at changing behaviour at scale. Looking at how government agencies are using social media for this plastic waste campaign, I see the three main drivers of behavioural change:

  • The showcase of desired behaviour: Showing what “influencers” do to encourage others to follow and reenact those actions. Exploiting their networks also means that messages can be spread far and wide, independently of segment or demographic.
  • The harvesting of siloed relationships: As algorithms create echo chambers, people become more deeply embedded in their network. Exposure to the action of similar people encourages collective behaviours.
  • The use of commitment devices: Social marketing actions such as the “Ice Bucket Challenge” encourage users to voluntarily ‘lock themselves’ into positive behaviours.

The same principles observed here can be applied in any change initiative aiming to reach national or global scale. A study performed with 68 change initiatives in the NHS showed that all successful projects leveraged the power of networks.

Exploiting existing networks isn’t the final answer. Designing the network position and type is also very important.

When driving change, our instinct directs us to socially cohesive networks (those where the people you are connected to, are connected to different people), as this configuration tends to maximise the reach of information due to viral sharing effects.

Although, when trying to create divergent change – the type that requires a dramatic shift in beliefs, values and practices – understanding and embracing the message is more important, so exploiting bridging networks is usually more effective.

Bridging networks look more like nodes than networks, as most people are connected to a handful of central individuals, but are not connected to one another. This structure maximises not the reach, but the effectiveness of messages. It enables key influencers to tailor their message to maximise the understanding and relevance to their groups.

In the plastic waste campaign that we are seeing on social media today, you can see the power of bridging networks in practice. Their message is tailored to appeal to many perspectives (environment, fossil fuels, monetary, etc), and people are listening. This is the type of change that can drive the societal change that campaigns like Repeal the 8th need to drive in order to succeed.

In midst of so many bad behaviours emerging from the use of social networks, it is refreshing to see the power of networks in reshaping the world for the better.


Are you part of a bridging network? Have you spread the idea of a better world there today?


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