By Robert Hickson 06/07/2020

 I like Andrew Curry’s succinct and insightful futures blog The Next Wave.

His most recent post is about social change. In particular, the decadal-long periods usually required for changes in values.

He highlights a 2016 paper by Inglehart and Norris, who examined whether economic insecurity or a “cultural backlash” are behind the recent political shifts towards populism. They looked at social surveys from Europe and found that:

“all of the five cultural value scales proved consistent predictors of voting support for populist parties”

They propose a cultural shift from “modern” to “post-materialist” values. The former they define as being about conformity, hierarchy and authority. The latter places greater emphasis on issues such as environmental protection, increased acceptance of gender and racial equality, and social tolerance for different lifestyles and beliefs.

These cultural shifts often lead to greater social tolerance of diverse lifestyles and cultures, protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights, greater international cooperation, and democratic governance.

This in turn leads to resistance from those who see their values, customs and power being lost.

Curry points out that the “post-materialist values” have been a long time coming. Starting perhaps back in the 1950s. He discusses the lead times for gay rights, gender equality & equity, and the Black Lives Matter movements to achieve meaningful change, or at least gain broad support. We can add to this the growing respect and support for Maori culture and customs, as well as recognition of the socio-economic inequities they face.

The slow change aspect has also been highlighted by Rebecca Solnit. She used the metaphors of a river and a waterfall, to contrast with the “bonfire” metaphor that is often used to describe apparently sudden events and movements.

Curry references Graham Molitor’s model of change  – the now classic S-curve model of emerging issues. It has four key stages, which may play out over decades:

  •  framing the issues

  • advancing consideration of it (gathering support & champions, overcoming resistance)

  • resolving the public policy aspects of it (eg, through legislation, voluntary practices)

  • and sometimes finally reversal and retrenchment.

 The model can be a bit misleading because it implies an inevitable and smooth trend. Often, social and other, issues are a meandering river, with slack water pools and dams.

Another weakness of futures thinking is the tendency to lump many things into a few boxes; “social”, “technology”, “economics”, etc. This can have the effect that you treat everything in the box as having a similar influence. In an earlier post Curry noted the need to separate demographics from values when thinking about the future.

Values and cultural change aren’t just a by-product of demographics.  Recent marches and protests here and elsewhere have involved young and old, different ethnicities and cultures, and different socio-economic groups. Economic factors, the political environment, technologies and other influences also form parts of the shift.

Molitor’s model can help you see where along the river of change you may be. But predicting when and how a cultural shift happens is like predicting pandemics. A fool’s game.


Now’s a period of many protests, but will it lead to change?

A 2008 paper by Stephan & Chenoweth looked at over 300 cases of political protest and change around the world between 1900 and 2006. They concluded that large nonviolent protests were successful in changing political regimes 53% of the time, compared to 26% when violent resistance was used.

They also came up with a “3.5% rule.” Based on the cases they studied if more than 3.5% of the population participated in nonviolent protests, then change was certain. In NZ 3.5% is about 175,000 people.

Their paper was subsequently expanded into a book called “Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict.”

I see that “rule” as indicative rather than deterministic. It only applied to changing who was in power. It doesn’t necessarily apply to protests intended to change policies and practices rather than governments. It also focuses attention on the end rather than examining the factors leading up to large scale protests.

Chenoweth and colleagues have more recently noted that the past decade saw more mass movements demanding change than seems to have occurred since the second world war.

During the pandemic they have also counted over 100 non-violent physical and/or online protests.

But protests don’t necessarily lead to change. Sheri Berman comments in Foreign Policy that crises are common, transformations rare. What’s needed apart from boots on the street, or views on the web, Berman suggests is a common plan.

Too many competing philosophies can lead to in-fighting, a la in The life of Brian:


And if there is no clear plan, as seen with the Occupy movement after the global financial crisis, change is less likely. Also required, suggests Berman, are champions in positions of influence or power that can help implement the plan.

So mass protests may set the mood and will for change, but those with the better prepared, or articulated vision or plan, and influential supporters can seize the day.

Hoping for change isn’t the same as planning for change.


Photo by NASA on Unsplash