This lecture was delivered by Tim Costello AO in the theatre of the National Library of Australia on Thursday, 6 October 2005.

Thanks and acknowledge traditional owners, the Ngunnawal people

Why do things change?

This is one of humanity’s oldest questions. It has given birth to the major sciences whose texts fill the world’s libraries. Economists seek to understand the flows and growth in economies. Business managers seek to harness the power of change to maximize value for their shareholders. Marketers seek to understand what prompts one to change from Coke to Pepsi, Nike to Adidas. Psychiatrists and psychologists have developed thousands upon thousands of theories on what practices and drugs can bring us wholeness and happiness. And social reformers seek to understand what brings real change in people and communities.

This evening I would like to talk about some of those factors which bring about such changes – from the mind shifts which spread throughout society or the small and tipping points that can change history.

I have subtitled this address “Serendipity and Social Movements”. This may seem like a clever alliteration – and I do not intend to make a tight academic case for the role of serendipity in social movements. Nevertheless, I will examine the way surprising and unexpected breakthroughs can revolutionise social reform. The enormous global challenges of our day, from 40 million people infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, the 30,000 children who die each day from preventable diseases, a world where 3 billion people live on around $2 a day . . . the problems can seem so staggering that if we were only to work for a solution in proportion to the problem, many of us would be tempted to despair.

Serendipity is generally defined as the capacity of making profound discoveries by accident. The word was originally coined by the English novelist and politician Horace Walpole in 1754. Walpole derived the term from the ancient Persian tale of three princes of Sri Lanka , which was then known as Serendip, whose adventures were caricatured by their ability to make profound but accidental discoveries. [1]

In the 1950s, sociologist Robert Merton was researching what he termed the “ unanticipated consequences of social action” in the history of science. The young sociologist was browsing through his 13-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and came upon this odd noun “serendipity” . He began researching its uses as part of a work he would title The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. At the time, the Merton could only record 135 uses of the word since Horace Walpole. Today, Google will give you around 6 million; Yahoo 7.5 million.

Merton believed the history of science represented what one could call countless serendipitous events which led to radical discoveries.

Isaac Newton's experience of the apple falling on his head and the development of his Second Law may well have been apocryphal, but it provided a template for other similar events.

  • Archimedes Eureka moment in the bath
  • Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity after unwittingly tossing uranium salts into a drawer with photographic materials.
  • Edward Jenner’s creation of the smallpox vaccine after a chance conversation with a milkmaid who avoided the smallpox illness in the barnyard
  • Fleming's naming of the annoying “penicillin” mould that got into his staphylococcus culture and destroyed the bacteria.

Science has a term for Fleming’s discovery, which is “the Principle of Limited Sloppiness”, to describe such fortuitous or accidental discoveries. But I think serendipity captures the breadth of accidents best, not just those events which are careless but those which are sublime coincidences or a particularly powerful intersection between talent, passion, creativity and vision.

Tipping points

The best-selling author and New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell, wrote The Tipping Point some years back. Subtitled “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”, Gladwell examined a variety of products, social trends and movements that were profoundly successful and spread in “epidemic proportions”.

Gladwell’s theory of “The Tipping Point”, how three types of people called “connectors”, “mavens”, and “salesmen” can produce exponential growth of an idea, product or message captivated readers and propelled the book to 28 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and more than two years on the best-seller list of Business Week[2] Gladwell strung together such disparate phenomena as trends in sneaker sales, the spread of sexual diseases in communities and the horseback ride of American legend Paul Revere to examine the factors which create an epidemic spread of messages and products.

Gladwell examined the growth in Hush Puppies, the classic brush-suede shoe that had almost died out with only 30,000 sales in 1994. But in the following year something changed. The shoe became cool among a set group of hip young things in Soho and East Village , New York . Soon, fashion designers were wearing them and asking to use them in their spring collections. In 1995 430,000 pairs were sold. In 1996 it sold four times that number and won best accessory at the Council of Fashion Designers award, the company President sharing the stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. [3]

It was an award which the company President would admit, according to Gladwell, that he “had almost nothing to do with”.[4] The rise of Hush Puppies, wrote Gladwell, was a textbook example of an epidemic in action, a clear example:

“of contagious behaviour. No one took out an advertisement and told people that the traditional Hush Puppies were cool and they should start wearing them. Those kids simply wore the shoes when they went to clubs or cafes or walked the streets of downtown New York , and in so doing exposed other people to their fashion sense. They infected them with the Hush Puppies ‘virus’.” [5]

Gladwell also mined the background to that key American story, the ride of Paul Revere with the message that “the British are coming!”, as another example of the viral spread of a message and, more importantly, the reception and acting upon such a message.

On 18 April 1775 , a young stable boy overheard a British Army officer say to another that there would be “hell to pay tomorrow”. The boy ran with the news to tell a silversmith by the name of Paul Revere, who had heard a similar rumour that day of British officers gathering on Boston ’s Long Wharf . Revere become convinced the British were about to march toward Lexington , northwest of Boston , arrest colonial leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and then move on to Concord to seize the colonial militia’s stores of guns and ammunition.

Revere ’s midnight ride rests within the American national psyche as one of the key moments in the defeat of the British Army who, to their astonishment, met fierce and organised resistance and were soundly defeated in Concord the next day. “Paul Revere’s ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word of mouth epidemic”, [6] wrote Gladwell. But what is interesting is that he compares this success to the ride of a tanner by the name of William Dawes, who carried the same message to a similar number of towns in the path of the British Army.

No one remembers Dawes, and the towns he passed through offered little or no resistance. Some historians, Gladwell notes, concluded that such towns must have been sympathetic to the British. Gladwell suggests that they were not; rather, that Revere provides an example of his “Law of the Few”, those people who fit into three categories:

connectors, thosewho have an above average networks of friends and associates;

the ‘real’ experts, (or as Gladwell calls them maven) are those whom we intuitively trust in regard to their advice on ideas, products or service — the sorts of people who really do know something about everything; and

salesman, are, well, those who can convince us that something really is worth doing.

Such viral spreads require a mix these three types of people to connect, validate and sell.

An idea whose time has come

One of those lines that circulate the internet under someone’s signature, is imprinted on fridge magnets and tear-off calendars is that of Victor Hugo’s: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come”. The history of social change has focussed more on how ideas move people, rather than how people move ideas.

As David Bornstein writes in How to Change the World: Social entrepreneurs and the power of new ideas, “The problem with this statement is that it gives too much to ideas. It fails to account for the fact that ideas compete for attention and legitimacy and the ones that gain ascendance do not win the day on their merits alone.” [7]

And one doesn’t have to look at the long struggles in history around slavery, the civil rights movement, disability rights, apartheid, global poverty or the environment to realise that, my goodness, the power of a good idea certainly needs creative, committed and dedicated foot soldiers. “Progress is a nice word”, Bobby Kennedy once said. “But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.” In fact, James O’Toole, author of Leading Change: The argument for values-based leadership, comments that “groups resist change with all the vigour of antibodies attacking an intruding virus”. [8]

Consider William Wilberforce’s role in the fight against slavery. From the day he first presented evidence to a committee of the Privy Council in 1788 at the age of 29 it took another arduous 45 years until the final commons reading on 26 July 1833 abolishing slavery in all the British colonies. Wilberforce died three days later, on 29 July 1833 aged 73.

However, in other circumstances, the seeds of change found more fertile ground. Forty five years before Wilberforce first took up the struggle against slavery in Britain , a tailor and part-time Quaker preacher named John Woolman, one day found that he could no longer assist his employer in the sale of a slave. Convinced of the evils of slavery, he set out from his home in Mount Holly , New Jersey , to Quaker meetings across the colonies to convince them of the evils of the practice. Woolman was no firebrand, but a softly spoken man who travelled by foot and only wore undyed cloth — as dyes came from plantations in the West Indies [9]— “yet by 1770, a century before the [American] Civil War, not one Quaker owned a slave”. [10]

The Journal of John Woolman [11] is so unprepossessing as to provide few clues as to his phenomenal success. Woolman’s ability to so successfully appeal to the deepest humanity and religious sensibilities of his audience requires a far deeper archetype of change-maker which I will dwell on later. But what I do want to draw from his story is the fact that such a revolutionary change among his Quaker brethren would surely have seemed impossible to almost any one of his compatriots in his day.

Ideas which take form

Any study of religious or political history will reveal that when ideas take on a way of living or a way of struggle (such as in communism), they are much more easily spread. Gandhi’s ethics, which were not grounded in rules so much as empathy, nevertheless thought and wrote deeply on strategy, how to build institutions and communities, and how to communicate the essence of his teachings.

But after proclaiming the Declaration of Independence of India on 26 January 1930, Gandhi was at an impasse. He describes an “inner voice” as guiding him during this crucial period leading up to his decision to enact the Salt March to Dandi. The British controlled the distribution of salt through a tax and declared collecting it an illegal act. But somehow Gandhi came upon the ingenious plan to walk the 385 km from Sabarmati to Dandi and collect the salt which occurred naturally in the low lying coastal areas.

The decision crossed class barriers, as salt was essential to all Indians, most of whom lived in the immense heat and humidity where sweating was profuse. On 12 March 1930, Gandhi set off with approximately 78 male co-workers from his Ashram. By the time he had reached Dandi o n April 6 , Gandhi was accompanied by a procession winding back two miles. H e picked up a lump of mud and salt. Some have said it was just a pinch. He then boiled it in seawater to make the commodity which no Indian could legally produce. And there the British made a fateful decision. They began, often brutally, arresting his followers, then finally Gandhi himself. They had arrested 60,000 people before the t he next stage of the campaign.

The march to try and take over the salt works at Dharasana is vividly captured in the eponymous film. As the protesters marched towards the salt works, the police violently beat them to the ground. The gaols must have been full to bursting, but the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, continued to arrest them in the thousands, until he decided it was a stalemate. Irwin held talks with Gandhi, which resulted in reform of the Salt Acts and an agreement that Gandhi represent the Congress Party at the 1931 Round Table Conference in London .

Louis Fischer wrote in The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, “ India was now free. Technically, however, nothing had changed legally [but] those living in England now realised that Europe had lost all of its moral prestige”. [12] While it took another 17 years for India to gain independence, the combination of the idea of the Salt March and the British response started the unravelling of occupation—and provided a powerful visual demonstration across the world’s media of Gandhi’s principles of non-violence at work, principles which would profoundly influence the Civil Rights movement in the United States and across the globe.

Alternate Histories

History takes on a certain inevitability when viewed in retrospect. The end of British rule in India and the success of the Civil Rights movement can seem to our modern sensibility so self-evidently “ideas whose time has come” that we easily can take for granted their assumed destiny. Exciting new beginnings can become a Prague Spring, Oslo can become the Second Intifada, released democracy leaders can be re-imprisoned and the Generals can say, “Well, enough of that democracy experiment! Fuel up the tanks.”

We remember well the memorable lines from Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, the images of the crowds in the hundreds of thousands and its role in winning the war of ideas of the Civil Rights movement. Yet it may not have ended so well. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was organised by Bayard Rustin, who decided that King should speak last (a matter the Southern Christian Leadership Conference complained about bitterly). Tensions between the civil rights leaders simmered just below the surface. And a speech to be given by John Lewis, the leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was to call for civil rights activists to march through the South, like the Union Army's General Sherman — the man who burned down Atlanta. [13] A White House administration official managed to have that reference removed.

But the intention to have King speak last was because the “leaders of other civil rights groups figured they had out-manoeuvred King”. They figured that television “cameramen would depart by mid-afternoon to prepare for their nightly newscasts”. [14] It was not to be.

But perhaps more worthy of remembering is the efforts that went into making the day the peaceful protest it was. Rustin organised the transportation and the non-violent coordination for the day. A quarter of a million people were to be pressed up against one another for up to ten hours. But Rustin assigned captains for each of the 1,500 buses and 21 trains. He organised unarmed civilian marshals who were specially trained by a New York police sergeant. And he made sure there was plenty of water, toilets, food and first aid available.

Rustin was both a homosexual and a former member of the Communist Party, so he kept a low profile during the march. His biographer, Jervis Anderson, quotes a confidant of Rustin’s saying: “Dr King will go down in history as Lincoln did after the Gettysburg address. But if there had been violence that day the media would have seized upon it, and King’s great speech would have been drowned out. Bayard’s masterful planning of the march made King’s speech both possible and meaningful.” [15]

The Civil Rights movement was no doubt a force to be reckoned with, but which way it would have gone had there been violence that day, let alone combined with John Lewis’s reference to General Sherman, had that made it into day’s addresses? Certainly, the movement would have suffered cruel delays, if not a fragmenting of the coalitions and an even more violent response south of the Mason Dixon Line.

Anatomy of a Miracle

I alluded before to alternative histories, how the what-might-have-beens can inform our understanding of what ended up happening. And that is why examining South Africa ’s transition from Apartheid to democracy is what the former Johannesburg bureau chief for the Financial Times, Patti Waldmeir calls the Anatomy of a Miracle, in her book of the same name.

No doubt the commanding moral presence of a figure such as Nelson Mandela played a huge role in this stunning transition. But I would like to dwell for a moment on an event where many of the key players in what was then the ‘future South Africa’ had an opportunity to really think about what alternative future they really wanted. In 1991, a year after Mandela had been released from gaol, the competing interests in South Africa had to somehow coordinate a peaceful transition from authoritarian apartheid to racially egalitarian democracy. As Adam Kahane details inSolving Tough Problems, Pieter le Roux from the left-wing, black University of the Western Cape wanted to use corporate planning methodology for “the world’s first scenario planning exercise from the left”. [16]

Kahane was the head of scenarios planning for Royal Dutch/Shell, and was described by Trevor Manual of the ANC’s Economics Department as “a representative of International Capital”. [17] Kahane was to provide advice on scenario planning for the gathering to be held at the Mont Fleur Conference Centre.

In a bold move, le Roux had invited leaders from all the main groups across the left-wing opposition, as well as their long-time adversaries from the white business community and academia—“a microcosm of the future South Africa”. [18] This was the first time Kahane had ever conducted scenario planning for a country, not a corporation, but he stuck to his conventions of getting mixed groups to break up and discuss not what each of them wanted to happen but what could happen

“The team found this scenario game to be fabulously liberating”, Kahane recalls. “They told stories of left-wing revolution, right-wing revolts, and free market utopias.” As the Apartheid restrictions on social interactions had recently been lifted, teams were able to work across white-black and establishment-opposition lines.

Initially, the sessions produced 30 stories, which were narrowed down to nine, then four. The groups were asked to take these stories covering complete social, economic, political and international dimensions back to their constituencies. The groups reconvened at Mont Fleur some months later. They were then asked to turn their scenarios into a transition process. There were four very detailed scenarios, which developed the cheeky nicknames:

Ostrich , where the white government sticks its head in the sand to avoids a negotiated settlement with the black majority;

Lame Duck, where there is a prolonged transitionwhich purports to respond to all but satisfies none;

Flight of the flamingos, where all of the building blocks are put in place and everyone in society rises slowly together; and

Icarus, where radical left-wing economic policies gradually bankrupt the economy.

After much internal debate over the Icarus scenario, the Pan African Congress decided to abandon their armed struggle and join constitutional negations and Joe Slovo (chairperson of the South African Communist Party) “cited his personal experience with failed socialist programs in the Soviet Union and elsewhere” and managed to convince the ANC leadership that it was a scenario which needed to be taken seriously. [19]

History reveals that for all its current faults, South Africa most closely followed the “flight of the flamingos” scenario. Yet Kahane his since tried a form of replicating a similar process between Basque separatists and the Spanish Governments, in Columbia among the government, terrorists and drug barons, and among Israeli and Palestinians. Talks have broken down through mistrust and fear.

But as Howard Gabriels of the left-wing black National Union of Mineworkers recalled, at Mont Fleur no one acted quite as he expected.

Thinking about the future in that way was extremely frightening. All of a sudden you are no longer in your comfort zone. You are looking into the future and you begin to argue the capitalist case and the free market case and the social democracy case. And all those paradigms begin to fall away. Those people that I thought were quite conservative were articulating very radical futures. [20]

One person attending Mont Fleur was Johann Liebenberg, who was the white executive of the Chamber of Mines. In 1987 Gabriels took 340,000 of his mine workers out on strike. Fifteen were killed and 300 not just beaten but “terribly injured”, he recalls.

Yet somehow he managed, with as he recalled, “those bruises still raw” to work with and trust Liebenberg in planning a better future for South Africa . Gabriels said that “Mont Fleur allowed him [Liebenberg] to see the world from my point of view and it allowed me to see the world from his point of view”. In fact, the two even ended up becoming friends.


As you now begin to see, I am broadening the definition of serendipity from the purely accidental. William Beveridge, author of The Art of Scientific Investigation claimed:

Probably the majority of discoveries in biology and medicine have been come upon unexpectedly, or at least had an element of chance in them, especially the most important and revolutionary ones. It is scarcely possible to foresee a discovery that breaks really new ground, because it is often not in accord with current beliefs.

Charles Nicolle, Director of the Pasteur Institute in Tunis , said “chance favours only those who know how to court her”, [21] and Louis Pasteur himself believed that, “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind”. [22]

So . . . in the field of social change, serendipity is I believe the particularly powerful and surprising intersection between talent, passion, creativity and vision. Social change entails challenging current beliefs, world views and prejudices when they damage people or the environment. And social reformers need to know how to court the winds of change with the prepared mind.

Making Poverty History

Much current awareness of the needs of the world’s poor, especially in Africa , can be traced to the Ethiopian famine in 1984. Certainly, that is when many aid agencies managed to find the ability to raise a critical awareness of poverty issues. Yet according to the Economist the story came about as part of a commercial rivalry between the BBC and ITV, to try to find some edge in the news coverage. [23] London ’s Sun tabloid in fact showed no interest in the famine until it saw the public response to the BBC broadcast. It refused a full set of pictures from the BBC of the forthcoming broadcast with the line: “We’re actually not interested in famine”. Afterwards, it responded by headlining the story. In that fine spirit of media rivalry, The Mirror, then organised mercy flights.

But there is no doubt that the powerful intersection between talent, passion, creativity and vision of Bob Geldof raised consciousness in a way aid and development agencies would have found almost impossible.

In the lead up to Live8, Nelson Mandela spoke said at an anti-poverty rally in London ’s Trafalgar Square :

“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural”, he said. “It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings....Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity; it is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

In the battle against poverty and injustice, just like those discoveries in science, serendipitous breakthroughs come when one is searching, seeking and driven by a desire to understand and thereby change the world—not always from where on expects it, but it is through talent, passion, creativity and vision which opens up new discoveries and new opportunities.

Adam Kahane continued trying to facilitate to help countries solve those “tough problems”. In Guatemala , a country where 200,000 people “vanished” at the hands of right wing death squads, he held a workshop entitled Vision Guatemala beside Lake Atitlan in the shadow of the Toliman volcano in 1998. A peace accord had been signed two years earlier. But could they evidence some of the experiences in South Africa ? The military and human rights and church groups were all present.

The same distrust and fear he had seen in unsuccessful workshops was there until a man named Ronalth Ocheata asked to speak. Ocheata was director of the Guatemalan Archdiocese Human Rights Office, which was documenting the atrocities of the civil war. Ocheata recounted visiting a mass grave in a Mayan village, and when the earth was removed, he noticed many very small bones. He asked the forensic team if people had had their bones broken during the massacre. No, the man replied, the grave contained the corpses of women who had been pregnant and the bones belonged to their foetuses. [24]

Years later the attendees at this workshop all think back to that haunting story and the minutes of silence which followed it, and point to it as a moment of communion, a breakthrough. A year later, in 1999, General Efrain Rios Montt, who had been the dictator during the worst years of the genocide, won the election and violence and repression returned. But in 2003, the Vision Guatemala attendees who had maintained their connections from the time beside Lake Atitlan saw the defeat of Montt. “When the new government was formed in the beginning of 2004, one-third of the cabinet ministers were members of the [Vision Guatemala ] team.” [25]

In his Memoirs , Jean Monnet, the architect of European unification, commented on the selflessness needed to bring about profound social change. One cannot, he said, “concentrate on an objective and oneself at the same time”. [26] To Monnet, there were those people who wanted to be something and those who wanted to do something, and it was the latter who made the difference.

As I mentioned about John Wolman, who saw the end of slavery among Quaker communities 100 years before the American Civil War and Wilberforce’s first piece of evidence to a committee of the Privy Council . . . social change in history requires more than the characters Malcolm Gladwell identified. It requires a selfless commitment to a vision, which may seem impossibly idealistic. And it is the creativity of such visionaries to both see and leverage serendipitous moments for their movements . . . and for the common good.



1. Beveridge, William, 1957, The Art of Scientific Investigation, W. W. Norton, New York , p. 31. cited in Fine, Gary & Deegan, James, 1996, “Three Principles Of Serendip: Insight, Chance, And Discovery In Qualitative Research”, paper presented to the qualitative Research Conference, Waterloo, Ontario, May, 1994, and, to a colloquium at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

2. Sacks, Danielle, 2005, “The Accidental Guru”, Fast Company, January, Issue 90, p. 64.

3. Gladwell, Malcolm, 2000, The Tipping Point, Little Brown and Co. London , p. 19.

4. Ibid . P. 4.

5. Ibid . p. 7.

6. Ibid . p. 32

7. Bornstein, David, 2004, How to Change the World: Social entrepreneurs and the power of new ideas, Oxford University Press, New York , p. 91.

8. O’Toole, James, 1996, Leading Change: The argument for values-based leadership, Ballantine Books, 1996, p. 248, cited in Bornstein 2004.

9. Bornstein, 2004, p. 93.

10. Quinn, Robert E. 1996, Deep Change: Discovering the leader within, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco , p. 218. Cited in Post, Stephen G., 2003,Unlimited Love: Altruism, compassion and service, Templeton Foundation Press, Radnor , Pennsylvania , p. 23.

11. Available online at:

12. Fischer, Louis, 1950, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Harper & Row, 1950, cited at

13. National Public Radio, 2003, “Behind the March on Washington : A 40th Anniversary Look at the Struggles to Stage the Event”, Aug. 22. Transcript online:

14. Ibid .

15. Anderson, Jervis, 1998, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve seen, University of California Press , Berkeley , p. 264. Cited in Bornstein, 2004, p. 296.

16. Kahane, Adam, 2005, Solving Tough Problems: An open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, p. 19.

17. Ibid , p. 20.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid , p. 24.

20. Kahane, op. cit. p. 81.

21. Quoted in Beveridge, W. I. B. 1957, The Art of Scientific Investigation, W. W. Norton, New York , p. 27.

22. Cited Ibid., p. 34.

23. Cited in Chester , Tim, 1993, Awakening To A World Of Need, IVP, London , p. 224.

24. Kahane, p. 116.

25. Ibid . p. 122

26. Cited in Bornstein, op. cit. p. 238