Cybersecurity. Hunger. Energy. Education. These are challenges for civilization that can seem overwhelming. They are deep-rooted and highly complex. They have global reach and global repercussions. And they call for game-changing strides in policy and innovation. Many organizations in many sectors have been working diligently on each of these challenges for years, or decades; many others know they should be.
But in most cases, even the most well-intentioned and capable organizations, when working separately, eventually hit a wall limiting their effectiveness. Consider a large and sophisticated company such as Poste Italiane SpA — which functions as Italy’s postal service and also as a bank and a communications company, providing credit cards and mobile phones. The leaders of Poste Italiane found that despite their state-of-the-art cybersecurity operation, they needed to engage with a suite of partners outside the company to deal pro actively with rising security threats. Or consider the World Food Programme (WFP), a voluntarily funded agency in the United Nations system that since the 1960s has fought to reduce hunger. Despite dramatic progress in lowering the percentage of the world’s hungry (it has been reduced by half since the program’s inception), the WFP is now seeing the absolute number of those living in hunger rise as world population increases — and, as a result, it has begun to employ a strategy of working with other organizations to do more. Finally, consider Enel SpA, the world’s second-largest energy company, headquartered in Italy. Enel struggled in the last decade to locate and build new energy infrastructure to keep pace with growing energy demand, while still satisfying environmental and local land-use concerns. The company found that it needed to reach out and work with other organizations and constituencies to achieve its goals.
These organizations have boldly embraced the megacommunity approach — which calls for companies, governments, and NGOs to reach out across sectors (private, government, and civil society) and join together to take action on compelling issues of mutual importance, following a set of practices and principles that will make it easier for them to achieve results. Like any business environment, a megacommunity contains organizations that sometimes compete and sometimes collaborate. And like any business organization, it requires structure, communication, and governance. It’s an approach that admits that certain crucial problems can be solved only by a combination of organizations (a network of networks, if you will) that can bring many different capacities and points of view to bear.
The concept of the megacommunity (explained in detail in Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business, and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together, by Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano, and Christopher Kelly [Palgrave Macmillan, 2008]) has engendered substantial interest on the part of policymakers, business leaders, and others. But because it is a new idea, it must also prove itself in practice. Many questions persist as to how — and how well — the approach might work; what type of leadership it might demand; and how it might change an organization, a company, or an area of public policy. Since 2008, successful megacommunity efforts have begun to demonstrate the ways the approach can succeed, including the three mentioned above: Poste Italiane, the World Food Programme, and Enel. Interestingly, these efforts have all taken root in Rome, which is becoming a laboratory for megacommunity initiatives among major European cities and between Europe and the United States.
The megacommunity projects being implemented by these Rome-based organizations revolve around the massive global challenges of cybersecurity, hunger, and energy. In addition, some of the organizations involved in these three initiatives have come together to form a fourth megacommunity to address challenges in education. (See “The Fulbright BEST Scholarship,” at the end of this article.) Their experiences can teach others much about how megacommunities are formed and how they function. Companies that have become involved in the projects are discovering that the megacommunity model leads to both good policy and good business. They are also finding that mainstream business advantages result from taking a leadership position. And from these examples, we can begin to perceive a true practical outline of the megacommunity suite of benefits.