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Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

The Megacommunity Manifesto

Soon after the project began, environmental activists published a paper highlighting its danger to the health and security of the local population. The paper triggered a much larger protest, amplified by the local press into a broad and persistent national issue. In October 2003, a civil petition with more than 10,000 signatures brought the first official halt to the project. In July 2005, more than 8,000 protesters took to the streets, shouting, “We must save Brindisi!” A few weeks later, construction was entirely shut down. Although Italy’s Supreme Court stepped in and construction began again four months later, Enel felt the need to withdraw from the venture, selling its 50 percent investment back to BG.

Although this episode is not yet concluded and BG still hopes to build the terminal, the outcome leaves Enel and BG still dangerously dependent on Russian and North African natural gas pipelines, which rely on oil cartels for supply. In addition, the two companies are less cost competitive, the shareholders get lower returns, customers pay higher prices for natural gas, and those 250 new jobs are in jeopardy.

What could Enel and BG have done differently? They could have explicitly assessed the overall socioeconomic and cultural environment in which they were about to operate. Rather than letting the government stand in for them in addressing the misgivings of the public, they could have engaged the local government and civil society, and made a proactive case in both arenas for the common goals and benefits of Brindisi development. This, in turn, could have had a transforming effect on the region.

In short, they could have taken the kinds of megacommunity measures that Enel is beginning to put into practice in the projects it initiates today.

Control-Free Zones
Potential megacommunities exist in many arenas, including just about any involving health care, transportation, public safety, or the environment. When enough leaders and organizations become conscious of their interdependence and reach out to one another accordingly, then something shifts in the capabilities of the community. Instead of continuing to fight each other or to cede authority to some governmental or quasi-governmental body, leaders come together as equals to develop a plan of action. It is as if, like a stone rolling down a hill, the community has converted its potential energy into kinetic motion.

Experience suggests that the critical factor in getting a megacommunity to move is the quality of the thinking and action of the involved organizations’ leaders. An observer might reasonably wonder why a comfortable chief executive or head of a government agency or NGO would be interested in operating in a “control-free zone” in the first place. There are two basic reasons. The first is concern: Leaders see that they and other organizations are involved together, often unintentionally, in a way that compounds the risks for each of them separately. The second is aspiration: Leaders also see that the interconnectedness in their operating environment can be converted from a liability to an asset. No individual organization may be able to jump-start a megacommunity unilaterally, but leaders of different organizations can engage one another to create one together.

One such example is the Harlem Small Business Initiative. In late 2001, a series of large chain retailers announced plans to open stores in New York neighborhoods. A number of Harlem small business owners, fearing the impact of this kind of competition on their long-standing customer base, approached President Clinton, who had recently set up offices for his new William J. Clinton Foundation in this uptown Manhattan locale, known globally as a center of African-American culture. Sifting through the different types of help the store owners might need, President Clinton suggested that they make the existing Harlem businesses more competitive and capable. To foster this, he suggested that the owners should create a new kind of partnership with not-for-profit status, calling on a wide range of organizations to help.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, 2005): Megacommunity-oriented methodology.
  2. Amitai Etzioni, From Empire to Community: A New Approach to Industrial Relations (Palgrave, 2004): The founder of communitarianism posits a global society with megacommunity-like qualities.
  3. William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (Currency Doubleday, 1999): Theory and practice for conversations across boundaries.
  4. Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (Random House, 1992): Why political (guardian) and business (trader) leaders routinely misunderstand each other.
  5. Art Kleiner, “Daniel Yankelovich: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Fall 2005: Illuminates the corporate role in broader engagement and the value of dialogue. Click here.
  6. Art Kleiner, “The Dilemma Doctors,” s+b, Second Quarter 2001: Profile of cultural researchers Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner includes a more complete explanation of “universalism.” Click here.
  7. Beth Kytle and John G. Ruggie, “Corporate Social Responsibility as Risk Management,” Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative Working Paper no. 4, March 2005: Strategies for managing the “social risk” that is possible when corporations and civil society meet. Click here.
  8. John Larkin, Ellen Knebel, and Joshua Trevino, “How MNCs Can Fight the War on HIV/AIDS,” s+b, Winter 2004: Corporate role and rationale for getting involved in a highly complex problem. Click here.
  9. George Lodge and Craig Wilson, A Corporate Solution to Global Poverty: How Multinationals Can Help the Poor and Invigorate Their Own Legitimacy (Princeton University Press, 2006): Harvard professor and International Finance Corporation economist propose a “World Development Corporation” to bring the three sectors together on poverty reduction — in effect, through megacommunities.
  10. “Urban Enterprise Initiative” Web page, William J. Clinton Foundation: Site for the former Harlem Small Business Initiative. Click here.
  11. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds. Click here.
 
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