My NELIS journey in Japan (I): co-designing a networked organization

This is the first part of my NELIS journey in Japan and it concerns itself with the specific group work we did in Karuizawa (closed sessions following the global summit in Tokyo) on organization design. The second part, reflecting on people and leadership in NELIS, is here.

Photo from the Meiji Jingu Shrine by the lovely Katie Conlon <3

I spent the last couple of weeks in a deep immersion into the NELIS network of sustainability leaders who meet yearly in a global summit which caters to young people, mostly young corporates and students. In the days following the summit, the group retreats outside of the city to spend time and strategize together.

I am joining NELIS at a time when those who’ve been in it for the past two years wish to grow into an efficient structure. This bubbling energy is something I’ve seen before: struggling with meta-questions (“how do we organize ourselves”, “what is the container?”) and downright ambiguities (“who do we ask about branding?” “do we need permission?” “Which online channels do we use?”). Co-designing an organization is a brave step, and it’s not easy to reconcile it with the need for action. “We need to be deliberate about membership formalization, but not over-design”, Caitlin was saying. @Shravan and I found ourselves agreeing that consensus decision making doesn’t work because it is time consuming and doesn’t scale well i.e. when more people are involved.

NELIS is special because it considers local action the centerpiece of the global network. The model is: distributed local chapters and projects, connected by a critical mass of leaders. There is a need for risk management and distinctions between members and non-members, a lot farther from how I am used to building a community. And I remember distinctly Meelan’s remark that the hard distinction between global and local can be handicapping. In a session I led ad-hoc during the private retreat following the summit in Tokyo, I argued that finding a structure for the organization has to do with growing a culture of working together. I made the case for openness and inclusiveness, as well the design focus on small, incremental wins and less on failure points at this early stage (documentation is available here). The feedback was very positive!

I’m sharing here some near future steps I’m encouraging in an Edgeryders - NELIS partnership or a more informal collaboration:

  • Integrate local-to-global into a web platform: a NELIS web home, one that allows for autonomous local work but where people can communicate easily about local progress in a way that is generative: their communication, if public, becomes great storytelling for the network without additional work.

  • Make the platform open: several in the group have voiced the need to easily onboard new members i.e. volunteering for festivals (the Americas Festival). An open, interactive workspace allows training them in a very social way and point them to orderly historic documentation. My offer is a whitelabeled version of the platform (example). NELIS could have such a platform, with the added benefit of network mapping tools.

  • Don’t invest in communication, invest in community management: in addition to collecting information from members and sharing it across, community management is about actively nudging people to share and collaborate with each other, find overlaps in their work and connect more, both online and offline.


Really interesting, thanks!

If that is the case, they can probably get away with “blackboxing” local chapters (“you guys set up your own rules for how you do things locally”), and focusing on a protocol of interaction between chapters. This should be relatively lightweight because it’s not where most of the action is. It would be the NELIS equivalent of Edgeryders’s project sovereignty: a few rules to make sure the brand (seen as a common good) is not abused, and to help people stay within line of sight of each other, but other than that the local chapter is trusted to get it more or less right. It looks like this trust is there, anyway, so it does not look like too much of a stretch. Correct?


@noemi this is really well captured and chronicled, though I’ve now come to expect that from you now :slight_smile:

@alberto we did speak about setting up the local chapters in that context but did not get into the modalities in the way you have outlined. The black boxing and project sovereignty approach looks like a useful way to go about it that we at NELIS should explore (noemi’s session covered the key points mentioned in the project sovereignty approach)

My two cents on the white labeled approach (I don’t speak for NELIS), I do not know the details involved in doing this, but I was pretty blown away by the tech built by Edgeryders and how it is deployed. I will elaborate my thoughts on this in the other introductory past on NELIS.

At the basic level it is the ability to get quality insights, an example of what @alberto had shared above on the point of effecting decentralized local chapters and projects. Coupled with the use case of the tech, I do think a white labeled approach for NELIS with what edgeryders has to offer, would be great. Admittedly though there will likely be a bit of inertia to overcome to get adoption amongst the members, but I really liked what I saw and heard.


Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence @shravan. In Edgeryders we always struggle with process adoption. This is because we cannot stomach the idea of actually trying to manage operations from a center, even at this modest scale, and let alone the one we are trying to achieve. So, the only way to go is decentralize, and if you are decentralized you cannot enforce an information or workflow. The nodes of the network will only invest in linking if they can see a very clear benefit from doing so. This has made us technological minimalists, and conservative when it comes to adopting any shiny new tool.

In many cases, unfortunately, the benefits of doing something only materialize if a critical mass of nodes in the network coordinate in doing it. Those cases are where a few people unwilling to adopt can jeopardize the whole scheme simply by doing nothing. In those cases, @matthias and I try and look for a subset of participants for which adoption makes sense regardless of what anyone else does. If we find it, we are more willing to take the risk, because those people can break the waiting game of “I’ll do it if you do, and you’ll do it if I do it”. I find this paper quite useful to think about these things: the math is overkill for our small efforts, but the language of minimal sufficient networks, local mobilization and efficient seeding does suggest ways to go about adoption of processes and tools when no cohercion is possible.

Thanks for the valuable summary! What would be the best way to learn about the work and time required for either 1) a local-to-global web infrastructure or 2) an open platform such as a whitelabeled version of Would you see these as potentially complementary or redundant of each other? How would you assess the disadvantages / advantages of these options - are there questions that you suggest NELIS answer to determine its top needs/priorities in order to design from there? Looking forward to your thoughts!

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Hey @Caitlin, super happy you joined!

  1. and 2) involve the same web platform - I edited the text now, sorry if it wasn’t clear enough.

The main advantage, the way I see it, is having better communication and feedback loops between local groups. The risk is not having enough people coordinating to use it and champion it in the beginning, like Alberto says above. There’s a learning curve where we learn how to become proficient collaborators using the medium. Some, like me and I suspect Shravan find it easier. Others, like Mariana, would probably see the need to get everyone in the same place. For others it’s important to feel motivated by looking at what NELIS members are doing and follow in the steps.
Hm, top needs and priorities: I think the group needs to assess how much we would benefit from more organic contact between us and the work everyone is doing. Looking at the future and growth of the network, would people be able to communicate effectively using the existing modus operandi or do we need a more scalable channel?

I would interrogate this also looking at all the things that are not visible at the moment: would we do better collectively by understanding where others face challenges to fulfill the commitments made? This is just an example since commitment was a problem. I think we need more understanding of where things break and why people risk falling behind.

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Thank you @noemi for crystallizing the thoughts of your session and its takeaways. I am glad we have you on board for this part of the NELIS story where we answer structural questions of designing the organisation. I’m sure we will benefit from your experience with edgeryders and otherwise.

For me, there are three main threads that I pick up from your post and @alberto comment, and what were touched upon during the sessions at Karuizawa. First, not managing NELIS from the centre and allowing for autonomy; second, replacing that with community management, and third, showcasing incremental wins. If we focus on these three, then we will accelerate our progress.

@shravan rightly points out the threat of inertia, which is something that we have faced regardless of the medium we have used in the past. Perhaps this can be the role of someone at the ‘secretariat’, at least to begin with, to spur the conversation and instigate the connections. @noemi what are your thoughts on this being a more formal role? Do you think this is a role that you could mentor? Perhaps under the more immediate guidance of @shravan who is coordinating.

But even with this in place, it is extremely important for those at the local level to spur and instigate action in their own ecosystem as this is key to NELIS’ success. And this is where showcasing incremental wins, however minor, is important. Because when one of us wins, all of us do, and it helps move everyone collectively forward. I shall make a start with such a post myself, and hope others will too.


Hei @rynseq thanks and welcome to edgeryders. Let’s make it for the long haul!

I am definitely up for mentoring or supporting the work - ideally by bringing in Edgeryders as a partner. Most of the experience and network connections I have have been birthed here, so it’s only fair to give back. My preferred scenario now is that we (Edgeryders) host a coordination platform for NELIS, as I mentioned in the post - NELIS branded, and for all the global/local discussions.

That said, learning to coordinate with others is something people in a global network learn to do - to report back on what they’re doing; to engage in offering feedback to others; even learning to ask for help from others takes an effort… so we need some patience and handholding. But what kind of information sharing we focus on is a choice to make: if our goal is to see more local chapters being formed, we need to gauge where the roadblocks are for people.
We could start with documenting the process of building an LC - not just the legal aspects, but also what motivated local NELIS leaders to do that, how the LC will ensure livelihood- be sustainable and rewarding for those putting in the effort. Where would the financing come? If we understand how 1 LC manages to integrate these, we’re a step farther…

Then how we recruit and engage others is the next I think… because the weight of carrying NELIS activities locally cannot fall on the same shoulders. It was said that an achievable goal is for each local team to recruit 3 more people - but they need to come on board in an environment which feels fun and full of sustainability stories. So then coordination becomes more work,… And so on. Hope this helps? :wink:


Agree. In my experience, the most difficult part of fostering these dynamics is finding the “first mover” entrepreneurial person in the periphery of the network, and helping them along. You need a poster child, someone to inspire the other people in your network. If people look at NELIS and perceive a strong central leadership (the secretariat or whatever), the best people will be inspired to join the center. If they see a swarming of cool, locally impactful initiatives they will be inspired to act in their locale. We are primates: monkey see monkey do explains quite a bit of human behavior.

So, you want to find the best people out there, and focus on “pimping up” their results, by actually helping them to the best of your abilities, and then showing them to everyone else as the heroes, the people that we all aspire to being. If your community is large enough, you can almost always find a few!


I am curious what Peter @PDP thinks about a poster child LC and a story well told… For example with some members joining the Boot Camp in Nigeria to support, and learn. And so we are designing away :slight_smile:
By the way, a really warm welcome on board and thank you for enabling these kinds of exchanges… In Japan and cross culturally.

Hello! What I think about Local Chapters is “simple in principle, but (of course) not so easy in practice.” For NELIS to work the way it was originally intended to do, we need to create a powerful, nourishing, exciting fromat for regular face-to-face meetings of local NELIS members (probably at city level). This will probably include some “killer app” (actually was Zilong’s wording) - some practice/exchange/ritual/exercise conducted by NELIS members with and for each other. NELIS members in any city commit to meeting at least, say, once a month - of course more if they like to. But to make people come back, we have to have this “killer app” thing (I am NOT talking of an IT tool) - and we should have discussed this at the Closed Sessions in Japan (my fault). NELIS needs to be face-to-face in local setting + of course virtual/online for most other interactions.
Creating a model LC somewhere would be great. The Nigerians are already inviting people to come to a “Zonal Coordinators meeting” on July 21st (from different Nigerian States), so, as you wrote @Noemi, Nigeria might be a good place to start. But could be elsewhere, too!

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This is an excellent thread of conversation, full of good advice and insight. I can’t add much to it, but I would point out that Noemi and I last winter worked with/gave a webinar to a group that has, from what I can tell, very excellent in-person annual and other gatherings. And in the weeks after, their Facebook page and their own website had a lot of glowing memories of their great and meaningful time together, but not long after it all pretty much tapered off into very little if anything - until their next gathering, I imagine. They too have a central steering group. I think, upon reflection of this and the comments Noemi and Alberto have made here, that it is not a coincidence that they have an overly centralized managing structure and not enough social or project energy and activity at the edges to keep meaningful online conversation going. Or, maybe they do and just have not implemented any good way for those people to pursue the connections, ideas and relationships formed and strengthened at their gatherings.
Maybe they have fixed it, I’m not sure, but I rather doubt it.

I think Noemi is right about needing community management and I agree with Alberto about identifying and highlighting interesting and provocative projects and activities of smart, energized people more out “at the edges” who are not so invested in the core. A good community manager helps fan those flames and assist in growing relationships among those who find it worthwhile to make remarks and feed the conversation.

We believe strongly in a hybrid where in-person activity meshes with an ongoing online conversation where each feeds the other. So, this is all my way of encouraging that you do pursue making that hybrid, whether we host it for you or you do it somewhere else. Of course we would be delighted if you worked with us…