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Citizen networks – what can we learn from the science of epigenetics?

Not all that long ago, the scientific community was justifiably ecstatic about having achieved mapping of the human genome – The Human Genome project. The promise was that by understanding genetic mapping we could find cures for disease, disability, and perhaps enhance longevity. http://tinyurl.com/2vu2z

But an interesting development has occurred. Scientists are now learning that understanding of human genetics goes far beyond mapping genes. Two people – for instance identical twins – can have identical DNA sequences– but can nonetheless experience very different health. Why?

This is where the science of epigenetics comes in. It seems that the environment, life conditions, our experiences, and perhaps the experiences of our ancestors can all affect how our genes express themselves. Epigenetics, a combination of proteins and markers affected by environmental conditions and life experience, can turn genes on and off. So even though two people have identical DNA they can still live very different lives. http://tinyurl.com/ycaes7z

So what does epigenetics have to do with citizen networks? Assume that two governmental agencies have similar networks – a similar number of members, compelling content, and exchange between citizens and agency. Assume also that we support the networks with similar component technologies. Why would we experience different results – different levels of citizen participation?

Because in the same way that pre-disposition to human health is affected not only by DNA, but its expression through epigenetics, network health, and the value that networks create, are dependent upon much more than members, content, and exchange. Results are also dependent upon the way in which technologies are experienced by members, leadership of the network,trust, expectation setting, and in some cases simply luck through the coincidence of events.

The point is that networks are not what we build, but the conditions that we create. And success in leveraging citizen networks is dependent on both.

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John Bordeaux

Excellent post. Yet another area of study that questions the reductionist analytic approach to complex systems, and overall reinforces the tenets of complexity – unpredictable, non-linear effects, emergent properties, etc. What does this portend for the ‘best practice’ movement? One caution: The environments you reference above also include elements outside of your control – and remember that conditions you create develop quickly in ways that cannot be controlled by classic management mechanisms.

Gary Berg-Cross

This is a very interesting topic and I hope that you get lots of discussion on the role of experience on citizen nertwroks.

As background the term “epigenetics” was first proposed by Conrad Waddington to designate the study of the processes by which the network of genetic information of an organism, defined as genotype, interacts with the environmental network in order to produce its observed traits, defined as phenotype. From the biological side we get a sense of the vast complexity of epigenetic regulation and developmental dynamics. This ranges from single genes to the folding of whole chromosomes in the nucleus to what infant environments are to the larger social environment.

So it is a complex topic but we can leverage some ideas from the biological realm to serve as tools to understand the developmental dynamics of social networks.


I like the concept that citizen networks and engagement is non-linear. It’s not simply more or less. Different types and uses of citizen engagement/networks. It’s very different for a citizen to fill out a required government form, to reporting a crime or pothole, to attend an in-person forum, to vote online.