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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Defining Features of a Megacommunity

A primer for creating successful multipartite initiatives to solve critical problems that embraces the talents of government, business, and civil society.

Today, issues that significantly affect global and national security, economic well-being, and the health and safety of citizens around the world have become key challenges to decision makers in the public sector, private sector, and civil society. These are large-scale issues of unprecedented complexity: confronting global climate change, rebuilding urban infrastructure, combating water scarcity, preparing for pandemics, dealing with aging populations, preventing terrorist attack, and maintaining quality of life in the face of globalization. At first glance, these problems seem intractable. But in an era of expanding global networks and interdependence, they cannot be ignored.

Such problems cannot be solved by government, business, or civil society alone. It takes a megacommunity. Leaders of many organizations must work together toward common goals, without any one of them being in control of the whole system. A megacommunity initiative therefore combines focused conversation, deliberate development of leadership capabilities, and results-oriented action in an open-ended network of leaders from multiple organizations. During the last few years, conducting this kind of work in a variety of settings in Europe, North America, and Asia, we have identified five critical elements. Two of them, three-sector engagement and an overlap of vital interests, can be thought of as preconditions. If they can be found in the social soil of an area, then a megacommunity can grow there.

The other three elements, convergence, structure, and adaptability, are critical features of the megacommunity design. An initiative that takes them into account has a far greater chance of success than an initiative that ignores them. These three features are not necessarily obvious; they require conscious attention. That’s why it is so important to spell them out, as we do here.

Three-sector engagement. The megacommunity concept goes far beyond such well-meaning single-sector approaches as sustainable development or corporate social responsibility, both of which often represent an ongoing obligation or duty rather than a collective movement toward a mutual aim. Unlike public–private partnerships, which typically focus on relatively narrow purposes and tend toward limited alliances (in other words, they operate only as long as their formal agreements stay in effect), megacommunities take on much larger goals. They are ongoing and mutable over time, and they demand a highly engaged orientation from the leaders, and many of the members, of the various organizations involved.

Megacommunities are also different from public–private partnerships. Traditionally, such partnerships are struck between governments (or intergovernmental organizations such as the U.N. or NATO) and companies. Although public–private partnerships work in certain circumscribed, contract-bound situations, their dual-sector nature is a common limitation. They rarely develop the capabilities needed, for example, to address the new, seemingly boundless, and ever-evolving issues of sustainable globalization.

Among other things, a megacommunity’s triple-sector nature addresses the fact that civil society is often left out of the public–private equation. As shown by the case of Enel SpA described in “The Megacommunity Manifesto” (by Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, s+b, Summer 2006) — in which a large utility company regained its legitimacy by engaging the citizens of the Veneto region of Italy — increased transparency and speed of information makes the civil society component ever more significant and vital to success. It becomes a bigger, stronger player.

But that’s not the whole story. The three-sector approach also provides leverage for retention of local identity alongside creation of a viable middle class and competitiveness on the global playing field. It represents a movement in which contact with the outside world, instead of draining jobs and making a local system vulnerable, strengthens the quality of life, economic vitality, and community health so important to our global future.

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  1. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, 2005): A methodology of megacommunities. Click here.
  2. Viren Doshi, Gary Schulman, and Daniel Gabaldon, “Lights! Water! Motion!” s+b, Spring 2007: How to reinvigorate our electricity, water, and transportation systems by integrating finance, governance, technology, and design. Click here.
  3. 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. Click here.
  4. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: The authors make the argument that great leaders understand how to influence others in megacommunities that they are unable to control. Click here.
  5. Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (Random House, 1992): The celebrated urban planner on why political and business leaders routinely misunderstand each other. Click here.
  6. Reggie Van Lee, Lisa Fabish, and Nancy McGaw, “The Value of Corporate Values,” s+b, Summer 2005: Corporate values as the foundation for organizations that want to play a bigger role in solving global problems. Click here.
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