Megacommunities: The next big idea

Cybersecurity, climate change and other complex challenges require a new kind of thinking, two consultants say

Some problems now facing the federal government are so complex that they defy conventional solutions. More money, no matter how big the bucket, and new legislation, no matter how sweeping, will never be enough to tackle challenges such as climate change, terrorism and cybersecurity.

Megacommunity building blocks

Megacommunities are made up of five critical elements:

The first two elements, trisector engagement and overlapping vital interest, can be thought of as preconditions, and the last three — convergence, structure and adaptability — are features.

Trisector engagement requires making sure that everyone with an interest in an issue is included, represented and involved. In this way, each will have an overlapping vital interest in the same issue.

Operating in a megacommunity is not a zero-sum game. The megacommunity is structured in a way that benefits everyone and allows adaptability in response to changes as participants work toward an agreed-upon outcome.

The business and nonprofit sectors also have a stake in solving these problems, but they do not have enough resources either. Solving these problems requires a new mind-set and even a new vocabulary.

One such solution is the megacommunity.

The concept of a megacommunity goes far beyond such well-meaning unisector approaches, such as corporate social responsibility or sustainable development. But it also far exceeds the scope of typical public/private partnerships, which tend toward limited alliances and usually focus on relatively narrow purposes. And it is not another international or intergovernmental forum, such as the World Economic Forum, or a big collection of like-minded actors acting in a community of interest.

Instead, it is a community of organizations whose leaders and members have deliberately come together across national, organizational and sector boundaries to reach goals they cannot achieve alone, interacting according to their common interests, while maintaining their unique priorities.

Needless to say, this is no small matter.

Making a megacommunity work

A megacommunity can be thought of as a large, multifaceted, ever-changing organism. But unlike the elegant, complex and self-sustaining networks of nature, large-scale human-run networks require intense management.

A case in point: Cybersecurity

A megacommunity is taking shape as the federal government works with industry and civil society to tackle the problem of cybersecurity, one of the most serious economic and national security challenges of the 21st century.

A growing array of state and nonstate actors are exploiting U.S. government and private-sector networks and information on an unprecedented scale. The government has come to understand that cybersecurity is simply too large and complex for any one authority to solve alone. A solution to this problem will take form after initiating several key steps to building a cybersecurity megacommunity.

The first step must entail creating awareness of the urgency and interconnectedness of government, business and civil society to address the shared risks and opportunities inherent in cybersecurity.

Next, it will be critical to identify activities that will enable the public and private sectors and other elements of civil society to work together to identify new solutions for assuring the resilience of our cyber infrastructure.

Additionally, there must be a shared vision of the responsibilities and investment strategies, including the talent, technology, money and leadership that will be required across government, business and civil society to meet future cybersecurity and resilience issues.

It’s essential to form a new degree of connectedness among components and a new set of mechanisms to manage those connections. Megacommunity members must develop of a new set of institutional capabilities that foster coordination, understanding and education.

At its heart, the megacommunity is an optimization opportunity, in which the entire system benefits, as opposed to a maximization of profits or power on the part of one sector. The ongoing balancing of tensions among corporations, governments and civil society is a critical component in any megacommunity’s success. Members can realize its positive effects by collectively seeking a degree of operating order within any situation before differences harden into conflicting interests.

Although any organization in any sector might initiate a megacommunity, it is important that the government sector takes a pivotal, if not leading, role.

Clearly, many megacommunity goals could never be reached without government involvement and support. When the underlying issue comes tightly wrapped in regulatory oversight and law, the government becomes the ideal initiator.

Also, the government is the one sector with access to a bully pulpit. The government might be the only possible initiator when an issue is simply too huge and immediate for any other entity to handle.

That's what happened in Florida in the wake of 2004's hurricane season, when the state was battered by numerous major hurricanes and tropical storms. Florida's local government response agencies drew together a group of national and local government leaders, nonprofit groups, and Florida-based corporations — including insurance and logistics companies. In turn, that group developed an approach for rapidly responding to future natural disasters.

That’s not to say that forming a megacommunity is a simple task for government. It takes hard work, innovative thinking and the best intentions to figure out how to reach across sectors and sector-specific interests to find overlapping vital interest.

Megacommunity organizers

It also takes leadership, but not the kind of command-and-control power exercised in traditional business or government environments.

In the decentralized, interconnected structure of the megacommunity, where no one has the title or power of chief executive officer, leaders exercise their authority through negotiation and facilitation, not imperial rule.

A great megacommunity leader needs to embrace, not just accept, the challenge of working in a larger, more complex sphere of influence. For this reason, the most successful leaders of the future might be those with career paths that meander through business, government, and civil sectors or those who serve on boards of organizations in other sectors.

A multisector career path gives integrative leaders the ability to come in contact with a diverse group of people and facilitate cooperation among them. With a career path weaving through all three sectors, integrative leaders also have the opportunity to develop a wider array of specific skills and tools: business acumen, a keen sense of civic issues and a balanced view of bureaucracy.

That shift echoes the attitudes of twenty-somethings who have already developed a drive toward collaborative, networked decision-making rather than standard hierarchies.

This networking aspect of a megacommunity is well-aligned with the manner in which today’s young people have been socialized through Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and the Internet. In many ways, today’s plugged-in, multitasking young leaders are already accustomed to existing in what we would call a megacommunity.

Via technology, megacommunity participants are in a great position to recognize the material and psychological benefits of developing true empathy for the problems their partners face in a rapidly globalizing world. Perhaps the ultimate in inclusive leadership is the ability to identify new partners, or new combinations of partners, and bring them into the megacommunity fold.

Untying the Gordian knots

The concept of megacommunities is a big idea. But in an age of complexity brought on by globalization’s inevitable drive for greater integration and interdependency, smaller piecemeal attempts at solving problems are woefully inadequate.

Big issues, such as terrorism, pandemics, the environment and cybersecurity are the Gordian knots of our time — towering problems that at times seem too big for a coordinated solution.

Given the nature of these 21st-century problems, the development of a big idea like megacommunities and the new type of integrative leadership it fosters might provide the only solutions.

About the Authors

Mark Gerencser is a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, a strategy and technology consulting firm based in McLean, Va. Gerencser serves clients in defense, intelligence, homeland security and civil government agencies and ministries in the United States, Europe, Asia and other geographic regions. Previously, he played a major role in building the firm's national security, homeland security and commercial enterprise resilience-related businesses.

Christopher Kelly is a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, a strategy and technology consulting firm based in McLean, Va. Kelly is a member of the firm’s U.S. Security Market effort, leading teams of professionals who deliver services to law enforcement clients that include the Justice Department, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Department, financial institutions and international governments.


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