The power of networks

Distributed networks provide a powerful means of bringing people together around a common purpose. Ray Svitla, from our Belarus Diaspora Fellowship Programme, explains how John Smith Fellows are putting this concept into action.

I was among a group of John Smith Fellows who joined a ‘Strategy in Action’ session last month, with Marc Ventresca from the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

Marc spoke about distributed networks, which form when parts of a system communicate independently with each other without going through a central point. The term comes from computer science but also applies to social and organisational structures.

There are obvious parallels with how the John Smith Trust network functions. Over the last 25 years, it has grown to include 500 changemakers and leaders from diverse backgrounds and sectors across 12 countries. This community of like-minded professionals has built networks within networks, that cross borders, connect different fields of expertise and transcend politics.

Grassroots empowerment

As a John Smith Fellow, my vision for a decentralised, inclusive future for Belarus, as detailed in the project on the Belarus Network State, also aligns with the principles Marc discussed.

The project focuses on leveraging technology and innovative governance models to empower the Belarusian diaspora who fled the country since 2020. This mirrors the distributed network’s advantages of resilience, adaptability and grassroots empowerment.

It’s an approach that not only offers a pathway to preserving Belarusian identity but also showcases the transformative potential of distributed networks in redefining governance and societal engagement on a global scale.

Stop thinking in monoliths

During his talk, Marc gave examples of successful distributed networks – from the Ukrainian railroads to tech giants like Google. He urged Fellows to “take these ideas and bring them to your own issues.” He added: “I believe when you stop thinking of the monoliths and think about distributed networks you get a lot of insight and value.”

The first example he cited was from a paper he wrote with Daniel Armanios and Oxford University alumni from Ukraine. This argues that a distributed network has enabled Ukraine to keep its railroads running during the conflict. A decentralised structure, with supplies, expertise and materials distributed around the country, allows for rapid decisions and repair at a local level.

Relationships create common ground

Another example was the international effort to tackle sea pollution in the Mediterranean in the 1980s, which was damaging the fishing and tourism industries. A group of stakeholders with conflicting interests met several times over three years. The first time, they couldn’t find a basis for conversation. The second time, they started to talk and build personal relationships. The third time, they began to find ways of working together.

“If you bring people together face to face it reduces the overt hostility and it creates a basis for finding common ground,” said Marc. I couldn’t agree more.

The success of the networks created by John Smith Fellows is based on personal relationships, sometimes between people from countries and groups that are in conflict. Personal relationships provide opportunities to understand alternative perspectives, which is one of the things that makes our network so valuable. And because John Smith Fellows work at a high level in their societies, they can use their networks to bring about change and multiply their impact. That is why I am so excited to be part of this community.

Beyond traditional structures

Offering another contemporary example, Marc talked about how Google operates through a process of constantly reorganising working groups into new combinations. This prevents the expansion of a single, powerful silo and ensures groups share expertise. Marc said: “I see social network concepts, tools, and analysis as a critical source of insight and intervention for ‘distributed’ worlds of activity.”

Marc’s insights perfectly capture the innovative ethos of the Belarus Network State initiative. His emphasis on relationship-building, decentralised collaboration, and thinking beyond traditional structures mirrors our approach. By leveraging technologies to empower the global Belarusian diaspora who have a different vision for the future of our country, we can make a governance leapfrog. Just as startups in Silicon Valley disrupt industries, we aim to pioneer new systems that distribute agency directly to citizens.

We are thrilled that Marc’s parallels reinforce we are on the right track. His advice to “stop thinking in monoliths” will guide our efforts to transform rigid governance in Belarus into a flexible, distributed network. This enables meaningful change.