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strategy and business
 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Megacommunity Approach to Tackling the World’s Toughest Problems

Ultimately, the vital interests of different sectors may not be exactly the same. But that does not have to be a barrier to getting the job done. Like the business sector, the government and civil society sectors need to become more comfortable with the idea of merging capabilities. All three need to put aside their prejudices toward one another. As Massimo Sarmi says, “The biggest obstacle — the basic one — is the ability [to integrate] with different people, different companies, different mentalities.”

The integration of diverse points of view has been a hallmark, in fact, of the first major megacommunity launched by a large corporation: Enel’s energy-related megacommunity initiative.

Enel and Energy

In the early 2000s, Enel was frustrated in its attempts to build new energy plants in various parts of Italy. It frequently found itself pitted against local interests, both government interests and those of civil society. Often the conflicts grew out of simple misinformation or a lack of understanding on all sides. Enel decided that a new tactic was needed. So the company adopted a megacommunity approach. “Before the megacommunity,” says Gianluca Comin, executive vice president for external relations, “the time to garner authorization or to build a plant was very long.” By contrast, “In these last two years, 12 new projects have been initiated.”

The concept worked so well for Enel that it created an official megacommunity department within its organization. In Rome, the rest of Italy, and the company’s outposts abroad, about 175 employees work in that department, but the initiative also involves other parts of the company, from the marketing division to the security division. Altogether, 400 to 500 people within Enel are involved in the megacommunity project.

Whereas the World Food Programme has centered its first megacommunity efforts on fund-raising and Poste Italiane on connectivity, Enel has focused on communication and information. According to Comin, “When we began the project two years ago, we started with an analysis, and we used this model to understand better the context in which we are working. The first step was to identify all the people who needed to be in volved in the project: the different stakeholders and their different points of view. We did this through our colleagues in the company, and by using media and Internet analysis. Then we put that information on a map.”

Once the stakeholders were identified, Enel worked to reach out to them to make them partners in the megacommunity. For each new energy project, Enel used in-house representatives with different specializations, including communications, public relations, media relations, and sponsorships. These representatives both explained Enel’s plans and position and collected information on potential problems and needs within specific communities that might be affected.

The interaction with stakeholders helped information flow in both directions. Enel was now in the position to clear up misconceptions and point out potential gains for all involved. Meanwhile, the other stakeholders could make their issues known, and the company could see that appropriate action was taken to address them. As Comin explains, “It’s a flexible mechanism. You must change because the context changes.”

For example, when Enel proposed a coal plant in the Veneto region, the University of Venice was concerned about the flow of water going back into the Po River. It feared that the water would damage both the fish population and the vegetation. So a technical assessment was conducted with participation from the University of Venice, and the issue was resolved.

Comin — and Enel — found these kinds of studies, developed with a neutral university rather than with organizations that had started as friends of the company, to be very productive. As a result, Enel’s plans now receive strong regional support. Comin is determined to prevent the work of his megacommunity from being seen as propagandistic in any way. “The point is to involve the people,” he says. “This model is not static. You learn every day how you implement it, how to adjust to different conditions, in different situations, in time and in geography. It’s very interesting because [in other projects] you have a platform and a model, and you proceed in a very straight line, making sure all your people work with this view. With a megacommunity, you need to change and continue studying the application to adapt to reality. Reality changes very, very fast.”

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  1. Michael Delurey, David Sulek, and Lawrence Frascella, “Convenors of Capability,” s+b, Spring 2008: How a community center founded in Hurricane Katrina’s wake helped bring people the help they needed to rebuild.
  2. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: Why public, private, and civil leaders should confront together the problems that none can solve alone.
  3. Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano, and Christopher Kelly, Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business, and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008): The origins, development, and methodologies of the megacommunity concept.
  4. Art Kleiner, “Fulvio Conti: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Autumn 2008: The CEO of the world’s second-largest utility explains how energy companies must reach out to other entities to adapt in a fast-changing global marketplace.
  5. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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