Thursday, May 14th, 2009

The Rise of the New Grass Roots – Part 2: The Applications

This is a follow-up to my first post discussing the rise of the new grass roots, and the phenomena of new platforms for new voices, network bridging, and open source economic development. This entry discusses how cities might be able to leverage this for civic improvement.

So what does civic leadership need to do to take advantage of this? Partially, the beautiful answer is Nothing. The great part of a bottoms up movement is that it doesn’t require anything from the top. The types of networks of networks that are being created will generate their own value. Indeed they are formed because they provide value to the people who participate.

In the new economy, growth is going to depend on a constellation of smaller firms, not a handful of megaliths. These small, nimble businesses leverage services from their network and so need to have one to survive. The idea flow in the globalized economy is faster than ever. Cities need to be able to tap into the global conversation and extended networks are how it happens. And in an era of rapid change and an uncertain future, you need to have a lot of diverse irons in the fire to have a successful cities. All of these argue for the rich tapestry and diversity of extended networks and open source approaches enabled by the new social media and interconnectivity we enjoy today in the digital age.

So while cities don’t need to do anything to exploit these networks, they should certainly be encouraging them to form. If these types of robust blogs, locally oriented social networks, and open source support organizations aren’t forming, that’s a big point of concern. On the other hand, civic leadership should take care not to smother them with too much unwanted or unneeded “help”. Sometimes the best policy is hands off.

But I do think there is opportunity for active collaboration between the establishment, or what we might think of as top-down leadership, and the new grass roots, or what we might call the bottoms up world.

There are lots of different theories out there about the best way to drive change. Some people think you need top down leadership, some a bottoms up movement. I happen to think that often the most powerful approach is a combination of both.

Now, there is an inevitable tension between these two approaches. In fact, some of it is healthy tension. But often in a civic space where there are lots of only loosely related people with many diverse points of views and goals, this tension can devolve into suspicion, contempt, or other very dysfunctional states. I think there are barriers on both sides to dealing with the other constructively, and self-awareness of that is a big part of how to start making it better.

First, let’s consider the grass roots/bottoms up crowd. Why does any such movement or organization start? Often it is because of some dissatisfaction with community leadership or the status quo. Thus right from the get go grass roots people tend to define themselves in opposition to the establishment. Other than by exerting political pressure by obtain a sizable constituency, this can limit what can be accomplished.

So many blogs are started by people with an axe to grind. Various organization out there get started because there is a perceived gap or disagreement with policy. This could be an anti-tax movement, a pro-transit movement, etc. While I think there is very much scope to advocate for change, people need to be aware that you attract more flies with honey than vinegar.

Also, this highlights that often grass roots type advocates and people are focused on a single issue of particular importance to them. But political and civic leadership are faced with large numbers of issues and large numbers of groups with positions on them. Communities are diverse, and the people who live in them have diverse goals, dreams, aspirations, politics, and policy preferences. While the things we all are passionate about might seem self-evident to us, they may not to others, and there are always, always trade-offs to be made in balancing the multiple, and often conflicting goals and objectives we have as communities.

And lastly, I’ve noticed that many grass roots type people do not have experience in large organizations or with trying to get thing done inside of a political process with numerous stakeholders who don’t always agree. I frequently see a lot of frustration regarding an inability to get things done and contempt for leadership that seems feckless. Sometimes I share this frustration and there are definitely leaders who are not good and communities with generally poor leadership. On the other hand, we need to be realistic about what can be achieved over what time scales, and also value the skills and experiences that leadership types bring to the table and the processes that get to results. One man’s “power broker” is another man’s “person who can get things done”. The ability to get things done at all in a high complex, high friction environment should not be discounted. Communities aren’t dictatorships where some king just gets to say, “Let it be done.”

For leadership people, I think there are also new attitudes that need to be put in place to add the ability to work with non-traditional, emerging stakeholders to their repertoire. When I think of civic leadership or the establishment, I think of people who have longstanding personal and professional relationships, often characterized by high trust and extensive personal knowledge of the other parties. They are also used to interacting in person and keeping deliberations face to face and not out in a public setting. The open source processes of open debate in a public, virtual forum is a foreign one, and one with which many people are not comfortable.

The new economy networked mindset is more about loose networks of people who are open and sharing. Trust is not often as high, put people tend to extend a provisional trust to others fairly readily. And the nature of the network means that a person’s reputation rapidly spreads. So people to want to retain a good reputation to retain access to the network, and that is often obtained by active participation and giving to others in order to build up a reputational bank account balance.

There is actually a lot of goodness in this. Again I would refer to my post on the importance of social structures to urban success for further information. A lot of the reason Silicon Valley triumphed over Route 128 was is willingness to embrace this more open culture vs. the traditional establishment culture of Boston.

Leadership cultures also value having everyone on board with the solution. There is no doubt this is powerful and grass roots types should recognize that refighting yesterday’s battles over and over gets us nowhere. On the other hand, in the world we are in, where adapting to rapid change and diverse bets are critical to a winning hand, the establishment needs to be more tolerant of messier processes and less of a unifed front. As they used to say about internet standards, it was about “rough consensus and running code”.

And lastly the leadership culture needs to be open to new ideas from new sources. If the civic leadership community believes it has all the answers, that’s a very dangerous attitude.

So assuming these two groups learn to collaborate, where is the value to be found? I’ll suggest a few areas.

You may remember my recent post “They’re Not Current” discussing that while civic leadership people often have excellent political, business, organizational, financial, and other skills, they are often not as plugged into the latest and greatest thinking. Heck, nobody can be as fast as the world is changing. But by keeping a close relationship with these new voices, new networks, and new organizations, they can get access to a pipeline of ideas that could have big benefits for the city.

I’ll give one example. I heard this second hand, so it might not be fully accurate. So keep that in mind. But Indianapolis recently was awarded the 2012 Super Bowl. As part of preparing the bid, the team leading basically sent out a call for people to “come on down” and bring their ideas. Supposedly two of the ideas that were key to the winning bid: putting canopies over the downtown streets to create a “Super Bowl Village” effect and the legacy project on the near East Side, were both suggested by people who would not normally have been involved in the bid at all. Being able to tap into a wider pool of knowledge and ideas and really helped improve a major civic effort. There are potentially huge benefits here.

Obviously the economic development angle can be big. Much of this is accomplished by staying out of the way. But by keeping engaged with these open networks, civic leadership can identify things that are obstacles to small and medium sized businesses, to innovative businesses, etc. and can use their power and clout to help get them changed and to create the environment that will help them thrive. If you aren’t actually out talking and interacting with the people running startups, then you are only speculating about what types of policies those companies might want.

And also there is the power of outsiders. This is more true of an organization than a larger framework like civic leadership, but when you are on the inside, you are constrained. You can’t go out writing a blog post or a message board entry saying something that is contrary to the party line. If you are involved in local economic development, for example, how likely is it that you can say something critical of local econdev efforts? Not very likely. Similarly, if you are an architect in a city, you probably aren’t going to be going on record criticizing one of your fellows across town. The risk is just too high.

But if you are an outsider, you are free to say what you think. This is a great power and often a useful service. Sometimes a blogger such as myself can say things that other people might wish they could say, but can’t. That doesn’t mean, let me quickly add, that I’m a mouthpiece for anyone else. I’m my own man here. (At work, it is quite a different story. There, I am part of the team – and when I’m on the team, I’m on the team). But new voices and social networks, etc. can give voice to important things and hopefully be useful to the leadership community in understanding what a community wants, and in generating ammunition they can use in helping to make a city a better place.

Again, these are some observations and speculations. We’ve long had neighborhood groups and single issue activist groups, etc. But those were reliant on traditional communications approaches for a long time. This meant that they required very dedicated leadership that often dominated the group and/or needed big funding. Today, as with startup companies, the price of admission is lower than ever. Anyone can start a blog, for example. This explosion of new voices, new platforms, new networks, and new organizations is just now making itself felt. I can’t say exactly what it will end up doing, but I do believe that the places where it works “right” are going to be among those that are successful in the 21st century.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture

9 Responses to “The Rise of the New Grass Roots – Part 2: The Applications”

  1. thundermutt says:

    “grass roots types should recognize that refighting yesterday’s battles over and over gets us nowhere”

    This is why I’ve expressed some reservations about the grass roots on the prior blog post.

    If the new networks simply become another way to flex the NIMBY muscles of entrenched “grass roots” leaders, they fail.

    If the new networks really bring different people into the debate with good ideas, they succeed.

    Another dimension is civic commitment (a la “Bowling Alone”). People don’t commit so much any more to belonging to an association that represents an area…which allows the entrenchment of the NIMBYs with time on their hands.

    What kind of civic engagement and commitment will replace the garden club and the block club and the neighborhood association in the new paradigm? Who will lead, and how?

    This seems to me the proper nexus of engagement for the big-time civic leaders and local elected officials, because some of it inevitably must be done face-to-face in public meetings. Or in the new age, “virtual” face to face: on blogs, message boards, and social networking sites.

    “You can’t go out writing a blog post or a message board entry saying something that is contrary to the party line. If you are involved in local economic development, for example, how likely is it that you can say something critical of local econdev efforts?”

    This is why some of us might have adopted a nom de plume not widely associated with a real face and a real name when commenting in issue areas or physical areas where we live and work.

    Being Hoosiers, I suppose we can liken it to the most effective basketball players having both an inside game and an outside game: block my passing lanes or my route to the hoop, and I’ll spot up and shoot a jumper over your head.

    Aaron, I appreciate the opportunity you provide for thinking people (even contrarians like me) to participate in a “place” which features thoughtful analysis and elevated discourse.

  2. thundermutt says:

    I also appreciate that you don’t blow my cover. :)

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    thunder, I think it would be interesting to know the identities of a number of those “Anonymous” commenters. As long as people basically behave themselves, I’m inclined to maintain a liberal comment policy to encourage that sort of contribution. And I definitely appreciate all that you’ve contributed in the last couple of years.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Academic bloggers have had to contend with issues of what they’re allowed to say and what they’re not for years. Around 2005 there was a big online firestorm over an anonymous blogger, Phantom Prof, who complained about abuse of employees at her institution, and was subsequently outed by her employer and had her contract not renewed. Consensus in that part of the blogosphere is that it’s very hard to keep anonymity. A different but related story from around that time was of a science blogger who got scooped after talking about his research on his blog.

  5. Joe says:


    It was good to meet you at SND Chicago on Saturday! I’m enjoying your blog. This post, particularly, resonated with me. One of the goals of our new Open Government Chicago meetup is to bridge the gap between grass-roots folks and “insiders”, along the lines of what happened at Transparency Camp 2009. (Still working on finding the insiders to join the group, I’ll admit…)

  6. JG says:

    This post took me awhile to formulate anything worth adding. The conflict between civic leadership and grassroot community organizations is apparant and inevitable, and I agree that new ways of communication are thus coming about.

    I consult for a law firm and was struck when I first started reviewing and advising on cases that the goal was always to drive the toward mediation, not trial. Possibly this is an approach local governments should take with grassroots groups (and/or the other way around.)

    For example, our host could be hired to mediate problems on light rail. A civic group desperately wants light rail, the city does not want to pay off the bonds for the next 30 years, and both want to relieve congestion on the roads and highways and improve access to the city core. I suspect from reading his blog the solution would be rapid bus transit or something along those lines.

    Point being, as stated in the original post, outside opinions can be given honestly without reprecussions and without passions – and very well reflect a “truth” based on fact, analysis, and reason.

    Truly in such cases both sides must be willing to concede, but a good mediator should be one to not just offer a solution but appeal to the better nature of both sides to move forward toward the goal. Remember from my example, the goal was not to build a light rail line, but to relieve congestion and improve access.

    Is anyone aware of a process like this that exists? I suspect it does and mine is not an original idea, though maybe should become more of the norm.

  7. Joe says:


    Are you familiar with “Deliberative Democracy”? I am not deeply experienced with it, but it sounds like it has some in common with what you describe.

  8. JG says:

    JOE: Thanks for the link. This is very cool, but defintely out of my league to comment too much on. I did appreciate in the description the goal to “generate ideal conditions of impartiality, rationality and knowledge on relevent facts;” as well as documenting dissent, and trying to predict future consequences of actions.

    I am a scientist and this is stikingly similar to the concepts of the scientific method, the ideas of peer-reviewed publishing, and certainly the prinicples of Descartes’ principles – the philosophy starts with observation, and not that the philosophy influences observations.

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    Joe, thanks for the comments and the links. The Open Gov Chicago project sounds interesting. I’m actually in Indy on June 1st so won’t be able to attend but will definitely be checking out your list.

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