Sprouting self-organized collaborative governance

People without special authority but with real interest in their community and larger social issues are working together to do what’s needed – with and without government – often right in their home communities. That this is an emerging form of governance – a new (albeit ancient) way of handling our collective affairs – is often missed by modern observers. But it is an important trend, and paints a different and more hopeful picture compared to the national developments that discourage so many of us. I see the fact that leading mainstream columnist Thomas Friedman is noticing and highlighting this as, itself, a significant development. There’s definitely something interesting going on here….

When we think of governance we usually think of formal institutions: The Government. But governANCE is simply the function of managing our collective affairs. GovernMENT is just one way of doing that.

It turns out that quite a lot of on-the-ground governance is being done by other entities – businesses, community leaders and organizations, nonprofit groups, philanthropists, educators, faith communities, activists, social entrepreneurs and investors, volunteers, formal and informal associations – and personal, interest and professional networks that cross over all these categories.

Sometimes some of these entities work together to address a particular public domain, challenge or problem or to organize their community to develop and pursue a shared vision or simply to build bridges and pull people together. We find conversations, relationships and trust – and sometimes even food and fun – making it all possible. Sometimes elected officials, public servants, or government agencies play a role in all this – but sometimes they don’t. Government is often part of the mix, but not as the only player – or even the main one.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about how multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, and multi-scale networks are here and there collaborating to shape what happens on the ground in public domains that concern them. I noted that this phenomenon is emerging as a form of governance, and that it could conceivably evolve into our primary means of organizing our collective affairs – one that includes and transcends government as we know it. And that, from a historical perspective – as Steve Waddell has pointed out – could be considered an evolutionary development as important as the shift from monarchy to representative democracy.

I’ve been exploring this realm since then as part of a loose-knit, self-organizing network of Emerging Network Governance Initiatives (ENGIs). We’ve found few examples that embrace ALL of our original vision of multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, AND multi-scale networks collaborating together, but we’ve run across a wide range of examples of various combinations that fit somewhere in this framework, as well as people studying this phenomenon, like the University Network for Collaborative Governance.

In addition, we’ve found many collaborative efforts that reach across demographic boundaries – multicultural, multiracial, interfaith, transpartisan, etc. – and also noted that personal, professional, and interest networks interweave among all these, often through electronic social networking platforms. The closer we look, the denser the weave of all types of networks – and the more challenging the efforts to bridge across their divides to nurture a “partnership culture”.

This brings us to the topic of social capital. The term “social capital” refers to the density of cordial, functional relationships in a community or society. Relationships WITHIN various tribes or groupings are considered “bonding capital”. Relationships BETWEEN diverse tribes are considered “bridging capital”. The combination of bonding and bridging capital creates the woof and warp of the “fabric of society”.

But more than that: It is CAPITAL. Social capital can be understood as a resource which – like all forms of capital – can be “invested” – that is, consciously applied back into the social system to generate more of itself or of other forms of capital – social, financial, human, natural, physical, intellectual, spiritual, etc. (We can only wonder what “capital-ism” would be like if it involved consciously inter-investing all these forms of capital to enhance all of them, instead of just money – a dynamic that would generate true commonwealth. And that aspect of our social evolution blends with efforts to birth a “new economy” which is more about relationships and quality of life than money and stuff – about sharing, gifting, simplicity, and the immaterial wonders of life – spirit, learning, creativity, love, beauty, vitality, and so on… which generates a different kind of “political economy”, for sure!)

I’ve been immersed in this exploration on the margins for years, so I was delighted to stumble upon the remarkable article excerpted below by the mainstream commentator Thomas Friedman. In it – and I recommend the whole articleFriedman introduces the idea of “complex adaptive coalitions” – very much along the same lines as the kind of collaborative governance mentioned in the initial paragraphs above. Constrained by traditional assumptions about government, however, Friedman doesn’t notice that this phenomenon is, in fact, an emerging form of governance, with government being just one player, and not necessarily the central one. But it IS that, nevertheless. What he does notice is that these complex adaptive coalitions are emerging all over the world. How this emergence will co-evolve with the growing dysfunctions and tyrannical tendencies of so many national governments and our intensely polarized national cultures remains to be seen, but it is definitely a welcome counter-trend.

Finally, I find it significant that Friedman uses the term “complex adaptive coalitions”. This is clearly a variant of the systems science term “complex adaptive systems”.  Systems that are complex and adaptive have many interdependent parts and relationships that self-organize in response to changes and challenges in and around them. They are decidedly not hierarchical. They range in type from natural systems like climate and rainforests to human systems like economies and the internet. I like Friedman’s introduction of this well-researched and fascinating field into the realm of governance because that’s what my Wise Democracy Project is all about. We can consciously self-organize adaptive, wise governance.

It seems some good things are coming together on this Immense Journey we’re all part of…!


PS: The Friedman article crossing my desk yesterday interfered with my completion of the next two posts in my “Finding our way together” series. Its appearance coincided with the appearance of another remarkable article – about the transformative power of truly curious journalism! I will be sending that one to you shortly. Then hopefully I will feel free to finish the “Finding our way together” posts that talk about upscaling our conversational powers to embrace whole communities and nations.

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Excerpts from

Where American Politics Can Still Work: From the Bottom Up
Civic coalitions are succeeding at revitalizing old towns where governmental efforts have failed.

By Thomas L. Friedman
The New York Times
July 3, 2018

The current cliché is that [the U.S. is] a country divided by two coasts, two coasts that are supposedly diversifying, pluralizing, modernizing and globalizing, while in flyover [Middle] America everyone is high on opioids, cheering for President Trump and waiting for 1950 to return. That’s totally wrong.

Our country is actually a checkerboard of cities and communities — some that are forming what I call “complex adaptive coalitions” and are thriving from the bottom up, and others that can’t build such adaptive coalitions and are rapidly deteriorating. You can find both on the coasts and both in the interior — and you can find both in just one little corner of south-central Pennsylvania.

I was invited in April to give a paid book talk here in Lancaster [Pennsylvania], and I was so blown away by the societal innovation the town’s leaders had employed to rebuild their once-struggling city and county that I decided to return with my reporter’s notebook and interview them.

[In 1997] the city of Lancaster was a crime-ridden ghost town at night where people were afraid to venture and when the county’s dominant industrial employer, Armstrong World Industries, was withering. Some of the leading citizens…realized that the only way they could…re-energize the downtown was…by throwing partisan politics out the window and forming a complex adaptive coalition in which business leaders, educators, philanthropists, social innovators and the local government would work together to unleash entrepreneurship and forge whatever compromises were necessary to fix the city…. [Furthermore,] I’ve since seen such coalitions popping up all over the world — from Knoxville, Tenn., to Sheridan, Wyo.; from Broward County, Fla., to Birmingham, Ala.; and from Mexicali, Mexico, to the Western Galilee in Israel.

One of the most successful is [the Lancaster coalition], which defined its mission as being a “trusted source for information, innovative ideas and insights that will help stakeholders, elected officials and voters make more informed and enlightened decisions” to advance the community. In these dark days of our national politics, these emerging coalitions are a real source of optimism….

I was reminded of the business philosopher Dov Seidman’s dictum that “trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug.” And I recalled Israeli societal innovator Gidi Grinstein’s dictum that what is saving so many communities today is “leadership without authority — so many people stepping up to lead beyond their formal authority.”….

Ray D’Agostino, president of the Lancaster Housing & Opportunity Partnership, [is] one of myriad young societal entrepreneurs I met here. His nonprofit mobilizes citizens to contribute time and resources to build and repair affordable housing.

“There is big P politics — party politics — and small P politics,” said D’Agostino. “We check the big P at the door and just worry about solving the issues — not worrying about what Republicans or Democrats think about it. It [became] ingrained in us. We still [individually] look at things in a conservative or liberal way, but I can work with my liberal friends because we agree on what needs to be done — and it has to get done. I won’t vote for them, but I will work with them. And you are talking to a guy who is the chairman of the Republican Party for our local school district!”….

[Various community] groups provided funds so public officials and the private sector could learn from the best experts in the world on how to lift their city and businesses. These included bringing in the mayor of Charleston, S.C., Joseph Riley, to explain how to build a thriving downtown; Edward Deming to teach quality improvement strategies; and an urban development expert from Brookings, Christopher Leinberger, to help create a long-term growth vision for the city and county. They’ve even looked to Denmark for insights.

I found the hunger for best practices profound. “There is an awareness that all good ideas don’t start here,” said Susan Eckert, president of the Lancaster Partnership for Health. “Who is the best small-city mayor? Let’s call ’em. Who is the best urban planner? Call ’em. Who are the education transformers? Call ’em. Who is doing the most interesting stuff in public health? Call ’em. No one is bowling alone here. The civic life and engagement are as rich and dense as anything I have ever seen.”

By February 2018… Lancaster was named by Forbes as one of the “10 Coolest U.S. Cities to Visit,” saying this “newly hip Victorian city — just three hours from New York City — is still one of the U.S.’s best kept secrets.” It “boasts a bustling food scene and is quickly becoming a cultural hotbed. The architecture is the real star, so explore the alleys and cobblestone streets by foot, checking out the many repurposed old warehouses that house thriving businesses.”….

This is not nirvana. What differentiates Lancaster from its neighbors is the degree to which it built a complex adaptive coalition to save the city from terminal decline, the resources this has created to try to bridge its still tough economic and racial divides — and the sheer number of people here who want to get caught trying.

You name a challenge and someone here has started a nonprofit — the Lancaster Coalition for XYZ — to fix it. For instance, it was the Lancaster County Lead Coalition that brought the City Council’s attention to the horrors of lead poisoning in impoverished neighborhood rental properties, which led to a new set of safety ordinances. How many counties have a lead coalition?….

The Amish and Mennonites are not just a tourist attraction around here. These faith communities, with their strong family values, work ethic and openness to refugees — they came to this region to flee religious persecution themselves — are one of the unique attributes and competitive advantages of Lancaster.

“We have a refugee inflow 20 times the national average,” said [2006-2018 mayor J. Richard] Gray, “and we say, ’I don’t care where you’re from, you are welcome here.’” Local churches, synagogues and mosques have all been active in resettlement, as has business….

[There are] common features that all of these successful coalitions share:

1. They are mostly started and inspired by civic leaders with no formal authority, and not by politicians, and are driven not by party ideology or affiliation but by a relentless “what-works attitude.”

2. They all begin with a vision, strategy and benchmarks for rebuilding their community, which enable them “to harness each element of the community and mobilize their unique resources, and societal innovations, behind this vision. … We call this ‘extending the yoke.’ The longer yoke you have, the more horses you can have pulling the wagon — and in a community, the ‘yoke’ is the inspiring vision and the ‘horses’ are the business leaders, social entrepreneurs, local colleges, philanthropies, nonprofits and faith-based institutions.”

3. They understand that there are no quick fixes for regenerating a community, which is why civic leadership is so crucial — “because civic leaders can adopt a long-term view that transcends political tenures.”

And I would add one more: Not a single community leader I spoke to in Lancaster said the progress was due to technology — to microchips. They all said it was due to relationships — relationships born not of tribal solidarity but of putting aside tribal differences to do big hard things together in their collective interest….

[To read the whole story of how all this unfolded, go to

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I was on the 1986 Great Peace March with Tom Atlee, but it was not until I came across his writings years later that I actually began to get to know him. I read his story about our March’s process of edging back into some cohesion one stormy day after a period of chaos (“It All Began in a Fertilizer Factory”) and started to follow his co-hearted writings on democracy. In their fervent and brilliant devotion to creative nonviolence, I found mind-opening ideas and experiments. “We didn’t make decisions. We’d just talked until we knew” – that’s how he described the revival of The March. I find his writings hopeful in their very essence, as far from impractical as they can be, and lights in the darkness in which we find ourselves – lights by which we are sure, no matter the tribulation, to see our way more and more clearly – together. 

— Ellen Murphy

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