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by Neil Richardson & Rick Smyre

Note:  After several months walking around with ideas germinating from the Kauffman Foundation’s ESHIP Summit, we are more convinced than ever that cities and leaders seeking to make catalytic change need to embrace unpredictability, diversity and understand that change in the future will require a different kind of thinking.  Leaders need to see networks and seed ecosystems.  While ecosystems and their supporting networks are key to accelerating change each node is potentially the strongest or weakest connection.  To ensure an ecosystem’s vitality each node needs to incorporate master capacities allowing leaders and participants at all levels to have the skills to thrive in the constantly emerging present and future.  Connect to our book Preparing For A World That Doesn’t Exist-Yet .


My favorite short definition of an ecosystem is “a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment.” However, there is far more to complex systems that are constantly adapting, and we would add that ecosystems are catalyzed by micro networks that spark creativity in environments ripe for change. Centralized command and control strategic planning and traditional leadership styles are not well suited to a world that is increasingly fast paced, interconnected, interdependent and complex. Governance (we could just as easily have used corporate or educational hierarchies as examples too) in the last five decades has mutated from a small group of insider influencers to a near anarchic collection of single issue constituencies that can be influenced and manipulated by “fake news”, “false truth” and big money advertising. If our democracy was at one time filled with more wisdom of the people (whenever that may have been), most of us can agree, we are far away from that lofty past. Out of the present chaos that is full of myriad challenges and emerging dangers barely identified and understood, we see a faint light that is getting brighter.

Political Chaos

Few aspects of society are in such tumult as our political system. In the United States, we have, since the Civil War experienced relative stability in our public systems. Even in times of stress, there has been a fundamental belief that our democratic practices, systems and leaders were for the most part functioning and trustworthy. The last couple of decades (at least) have seen an erosion of trust in government and correspondingly our leaders have become less interested in finding common ground and more interested in uncompromising policy positions based on opinions that there are singular, standard truths. Both the left and the right, have an array of un-compromising litmus tests from guns, to abortion to marriage. Grandstanding for media coverage has become an ugly art form. Half of the country is split between either conservative or liberal sensibilities and the other half has mostly dropped out of public life altogether. Many of our neighbors are indeed in Future Shock and do not know what to make of a world that is fast paced, interdependent and increasingly complex.

Open Society

Woman looking at graph of her social networkKarl Popper wrote “it is easier to falsify the content of our best theory-there can be no real prediction” and he was right. Popper also believed that an “open” society was the best possible way to solve practical problems in society. Transparency and criticism are not to be thought of as negative sensibilities; instead they are empowering, indeed-enlightening. An environment of transparency and diversity is the medium in which imagination emerges. A society where dissent is allowed can transform and even encouraged can transform itself as the need for constant innovation increases. Accurate prediction may be out but weak signals and trends analysis can create communities that are both nimble and adaptive in the massive changes occurring in society. Communities that thrive need citizens who have access to quality information and understand that information is context dependent; this being the case, the more diversity, insures a “futures context” thus insuring emergent truths that cannot be predicted.

How did we get here and where do we go?

The Industrial Age that transformed Western Civilization was made possible by the rock-hard foundation that Newtonian science provided. From the moment the proverbial apple dropped out of the tree bonking him on the head, Sir Isaac Newton had seemingly provided humans with one indisputable truth upon which to build a system based on certainty and predictability. For nearly 200 years, science was considered to be completely reliable until Albert Einstein smashed all pretense of certainty with his General Theory of Relativity published in 1915. The validation of knowledge and the whole of science was nothing more than a social construction; we went from “truth” to “truths”. We have been wrestling over the meaning of “truths” for the last hundred years from the sexual freedom of the flappers to the acceptance of psychoanalysis and “our own” personal search for truth and meaning to the Beat Generation and Hippies to Yippies to punks to hip hop to hook ups to sharing and even creating a Seventh Sense  in which we sense connection in such a way that we are compelled to act in a world that is deeply connected.


It has been said that history goes through a series of cycles, this is not exactly true. History is contextual and construction of the historical narrative is nearly impossible to fully capture with all the holism it needs; much less deserves. Objective history is more akin to holding onto water. Make no mistake, narrative can be important in making sense of cycles but only in retrospect and partially. More accurately, history resembles a biological system or even more specifically, a spinning spiral that represents depth, span, mutation and adaptation. The evolution of history is the story of constant transformation recreating and re-conceptualizing meaning as reality that exists is more deeply understood, and newly emerging reality is created as new skills of intuition, insight, imagination and innovation are identified and applied in processes of co-creation. History is constantly re-creating meaning. Politically, our narrative in the United States has found itself telling two different versions of what “America” is either…independent and pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps like John Wayne and Horatio Alger or interdependent and communal like Barn Raising in the settlement of the West or vast programs like the Lyndon Johnson era Great Society programs. In truth, our nation is both, the distinction between one or the other or how much of each is defined and required by each of us.

Public Voice, Something We Can All Agree On

The most important emerging weak signal politically is the desire by citizens to have a more direct voice in policy making. As divided as the United States may be, there is a commonality of belief between people on both the right and the left that elected representatives are doing a poor job leading the country. In one sense, people wanting to get active and have their voices heard has become louder than a far-away signal and is indeed an early trend. This emerging trend, doesn’t yet have a process to fulfill people’s intention; thus, we offer – Mobile Collaborative Governance. Mobile Collaborative Governance is set in context to a larger emergent concept of democracy described below.

Polycentric Democracy

Polycentric is a concept describing a community or system with multiple centers. Mobile Collaborative Governance is akin to a tool in polycentric systems whereby citizens and community leaders can collaborate together to be co-creative and transformative that leads to innovating policy making aligned with the needs and opportunities of a new type of society and economy that has been in the process of emerging.  It is suited particularly well for use in rural and neglected urban areas often neglected; local leadership can catalyze efforts to both update and transform their communities. In an intentional polycentric system multiple and diverse communities would find common purposes. Usually, the first sense is that the community is being left behind (while other parts of the community thrive) and cannot keep up with the changes occurring in society and the economy. In its purest form, concerned residents can gather to identify pressing and emerging issues and “demand” elected officials implement and/or consider the recommendations. A defining characteristic of polycentric democracy is the prevailing notion that there can be unity in diversity…unity defined as a dynamic, emerging system. Participatory budget and planning processes are one example of ways that power, authority and control can be shared from both the top down and bottom up.


At a global level, localization will continue in developed societies. Access to information, calls for increased governmental transparency and more “Wiki Leaks” type scenarios will provide citizens with an opportunity to support, inform and check government. It has been said that the fourth estate is journalism…we may experience a fifth estate that is people, not media driven; a radical and transformational direct intervention by citizens who are not content with “representative” government. The fifth estate, may be self-organizing groups of residents getting together to offer policy ideas and influence public policy. Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in their new book The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism write that:

“Power is shifting in the world: downward from national governments and states to cities and metropolitan communities; horizontally from the public sector to networks of public, private and civic actors; and globally along circuits of capital, trade, and innovation.

This new locus of power—this new localism—is emerging by necessity to solve the grand challenges characteristic of modern societies: economic competitiveness, social inclusion and opportunity; a renewed public life; the challenge of diversity; and the imperative of environmental sustainability. Where rising populism on the right and the left exploits the grievances of those left behind in the global economy, new localism has developed as a mechanism to address them head on.”

Localization will also create opportunities for micro networks to spread and develop. As nations, embroiled in traditional and outmoded either/or politics pull out of treaties ranging from Brexit to NAFTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership we sense that communities, cities and states will begin to negotiate separately from the federal or state government. Catalonia is just one example internationally of a unique region seeking to reclaim its own identity, we can think of many others particularly in areas of the world that Europeans divided by conquest and map. Photo of American flag painted on a brick wallCalifornia and other states are currently considering this in context to the Paris Climate Change issue. We could also see communities negotiate their own terms for products- imagine Portland, Kansas City or Atlanta ordering products like steel, solar panels or gasoline directly from companies that are not dependent or legally bound by treaties negotiated by the federal government, maybe even using a new version of Amazon? We could also experience the rise of the micro community creating partnerships with other local communities to buy at greater discounts. It is easy to imagine likeminded regions developing their own crypto-currencies with other trade partners. The fundamental and seismic shift toward localism may indeed create a new wave of population and demographic shifts not seen since the Great Migration…as people seek out places that are seen as creative, have solid infrastructure including IT and of course, job growth. We have already seen the beginning of this in Chattanooga, Nashville, Austin and Kansas City where high speed, open internet has drawn entrepreneurs, sustained businesses and created incentives for families with young children to stay in place. The challenge will be to nurture a localism that is not parochial and fragmented. Master capacity leaders can seed a localism based on integral values that intentionally seeks to find greater connection and wholeness.

A Weak Signal… “Revitalizing the Spirit of America” Requires Seeding Ecosystems

We cannot go it alone. Despite that millions of Americans appear to believe the myth that we can control our own destiny without support, the tide of history and more so, reality suggests something drastically different. Most of us cannot operate our mobile phone without an array of support from the nearest teenager or call center operator in Bangalore, much less have command over the complex adaptive systems of politics, markets, weather, health care, the human brain and more. Nearly every single item in any big box retail store will be filled by products made in one place and assembled in another and rarely in the United States. Never before in human history has the predominant society on the planet been so interconnected to the outside world in fundamental ways. Healthy complex adaptive systems are filled with networks that are combusting with emergent energy, ideas, innovation. Likely the only thing, one can predict accurately in a complex system is that change will not be linear and/but eventually some amount of self-organization will occur. Complex adaptive systems are literally full of agents that are evolving and mutating constantly.

For our politics to improve and for America to quicken its step for its best hopes and aspirations to come true the concept of leadership needs to be consistent with the type of society that is emerging. The most significant changes in leadership reflect the transformation that are occurring in society – a society that is evolving from a structure of hierarchies, standard answers and predictability, to one that is based on interlocking, multiple outcomes, and a comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty. Of most importance, society will be constantly changing, interactive, interdependent and increasingly complex.

A key challenge in today’s world of constant change is to realize that traditional leadership concepts and methods, while appropriate for current projects that have defined outcomes, are often counter-productive for the kind of transformational capacity building that will be necessary for the future vitality of communities. 21st century leadership will require more than just shifting from tasks to processes, or from linear thinking to systemic thinking. It will require the rethinking the very nature of the overall leadership experience. The terrain for the foreseeable future will be tricky and filled with multiple dangerous consequences if not approached in a way that is open and adaptable. We can get there if we can access and speak the truth, deeply connect and believe that we can create a better future – together.