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What Forests Teach Us About Networks

As Arukah Network grows, we're thinking deeply about how good 'networking' can shape our future. Our co-leader ELIZABETH WAINWRIGHT has turned to nature for guidance and ideas. She shares more here.

When I tell people I help lead a network, sometimes their reaction is one of scepticism or indifference. Perhaps they think of networking simply as swapping business cards, chatting over a buffet, or having an excuse to go to international conferences. I sometimes wonder whether people hear ‘networking’ and think ‘notworking’? But this isn’t what I think of. To me, a network can bring people together and create space for meaningful encounters. It can lead to powerful, dynamic and creative collaborations. It can nurture adaptive, responsive, complex and resilient connections and solutions. And it can create a supportive web of people, ideas, strengths, love and resource. It can – and should – be a ‘net’ that ‘works’. This is why I believe that networks are not just valuable – they are essential. If we want to learn from each other locally and globally, if we want to translate diversity into strength, and if we want to achieve concrete, ambitious aims like the Sustainable Development Goals, then we need to reclaim the power of networking. And I think that Arukah Network can be at the forefront of this movement. Taking inspiration from nature Albert Einstein said: “Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better”. A good example of this can be found in a Ted talk I watched recently by the scientist Suzanne Simard. It’s called ‘Nature’s Internet: How Trees Talk to Each Other in a Healthy Forest’. In it, Simard explains that a healthy forest is not just a collection of individual trees, but that each tree is connected via an underground web of fungus. This fungus allows trees to send important nutrients and signals to one another. In effect, the trees talk to each other. It might sound silly, but it’s true. Through the web, even trees of different species can warn each other of dangerous pathogens that they encounter; antibiotic-producing bacteria can be sent to trees that are at threat of disease; and nutrition can be channelled to trees that are injured or young. And some act as ‘mother trees’ that nurture younger trees, with research finding that if a mother tree is cut down, many nearby trees will die as well. And so in a forest, this web – or network – creates resilience, health and more.

That’s all very interesting, but so what? I think these forest facts can teach us a lot about how to be a strong network. I want to highlight three lessons. Firstly, it shows how crucial connections are to wellbeing. When connections are strong, the network is strong. When connections break down, nourishment ceases to flow. For trees this nourishment is bacteria and nutrients. For a human network, this nourishment might be encouragement, information, influence, resource, wisdom and love. A healthy network is a series of connections. Secondly, the forest shows us that a healthy network relies not on hierarchy, but on reciprocity and mutual respect. Even the ‘mother trees’ do not dictate - rather they direct nutrients and learning. In a human network, a ‘mother tree’ could take the form of a mentor, curator or facilitator – a person with particular skill or wisdom that they can use to help nourish those around them. Thirdly, in a forest, complexity and adaptability can help to build resilience and sustainability. Different species are interwoven and interconnected via food webs, symbiotic relationships and ecosystems. For a healthy human network, this shows us that each part should be able to rely on the other, in a holistic series of complex webs and layers. This could mean community members learning from other community members who have different strengths and skills to their own. It could mean identity and uniqueness being seen as a strength, and being expressed with integrity for the good of the wider community ‘ecosystem’. What could this mean for Arukah Network? Arukah Network already mirrors nature in many ways. For example, in nature a tiny snail shell has the same pattern as the enormous spiral of a galaxy. Likewise, the pattern of connections and support within a local Cluster reflect the pattern of connections and support within the wider Arukah Network.

But I think the forest model shows some ways for Arukah Network to be even better at supporting its Clusters and their goals. It gives us ideas for how to enable a greater flow of ‘nutrients’ (i.e. connections, information, influence) and providing better support for the emergence of more self-managing and self-replicating Clusters. We are working on this at the moment. In practice, we think it could involve the more experienced Clusters, Cluster Members and Facilitators taking on the role of a ‘mother tree’, whereby they walk alongside and coach new and emerging Cluster and Cluster members. It might also involve identifying and supporting ‘Network Curators’: people with a specialist skill which others value (e.g. mental health, physical health, environmental health), who can work to increase the flow of their nourishing knowledge around our network. And it might also involve publishing and freely sharing a ‘Cluster Handbook’ – a step by step guide for those who wish to start a Cluster of their own, or who simply wish to improve collaboration where they live or work.

By modelling the structure of a forest, Arukah Network can grow and replicate without reliance on our very small UK team. We can strengthen the ability for Clusters to self-manage and call on the nourishment of coaching and facilitation when needed. And we can create stronger inter-Cluster connections, and therefore greater opportunity for cross-cultural peer learning and mentoring. Through all this, we would like to reclaim the meaning of ‘network’, by role modelling what effective and sustainable networking can look like. We want to role model a living, interconnected network of relationship, skill, purpose, opportunity and more, ultimately using this foundation to collaboratively improve health, wellbeing and happiness. What do you think? We’ll be sharing more about our ‘forest networking’ model very soon. Interested in being a part of this? Sign up to our mailing list, or get in touch to explore getting more actively involved.


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