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Published: June 12, 2007


The Defining Features of a Megacommunity

by Chris Kelly, Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee

Examples of the three-sector approach in practice range from planetwide systems, such as the community of corporations, governments, and NGOs concerned with rain forest management and conservation, to local enterprise-related environments, such as the Harlem Small Business Initiative (also described in “The Megacommunity Manifesto”).

The Harlem Initiative example begins to clarify the specific benefits that each sector brings to the table. Business — the private sector — brings a resource base, an action agenda, depth in problem solving, and capital. Government — the public sector — brings the rule of law, the promise of long-term stability, sovereignty, a tax base, and natural resources. The civil sector brings accountability, sensitivity to how the issues at play might affect the individual and the environment, and credibility in arenas where business and government fall short.

Involvement in a megacommunity allows any participating part of any sector to use the abilities, the understanding, and even the prejudices of the other sectors. When these sectors work together, there is the potential for a kind of “swarm intelligence” to emerge, one that allows community members to generate innovative ideas, create new energy around the topic, and identify different ways of approaching the issue. It also means that more participants are available to do what needs to be done.

At the same time, and on the most individual level, megacommunity participation keeps anyone from being shut out.

An overlap of vital interests. One of the surprising aspects of megacommunities is that, most likely, you are already part of one without realizing it. In fact, you may be part of several. Although formal megacommunities are consciously developed, they usually grow out of the latent megacommunities that surround us. Before the involvement of the William J. Clinton Foundation, for example, Harlem’s small business environment was a latent megacommunity. Latent megacommunities almost always exist when the following features are present:

1. A shared issue: Members of a megacommunity do not necessarily need to have the same objectives, but they must have a mutual concern, such as global warming or the threat of terrorism; a mutual resource in their care, such as oil, water, or the Amazon rain forest; or a mutual aspiration, such as education, health care, or enhanced business interaction. Everything starts with a shared issue — which is why we say that, given a common mission or interrelated operations, all organizations are de facto members of the megacommunities in which they are engaged. In fact, organizations cannot opt out of a megacommunity unless they change their mission. As long as you are engaged in fighting AIDS in Africa you are automatically part of that megacommunity, even if you don’t participate directly in it. You will be drawn in through the network that connects all organizations engaged in that endeavor.

2. A shared sense of local impact: A megacommunity forms not only around a problem but also around those areas where the impact is felt, and that impact can come from the inside or outside. Some examples, such as Enel in Veneto and the Harlem Initiative, are geographically specific. But whereas the Harlem megacommunity grew around a preexisting need in the community at large, the Enel example demonstrates something different about the geographic dynamic. When a new business attempts to move into a new area, a latent megacommunity can be tapped for the benefit of all the stakeholders in the region.

Shared geography is not always a prerequisite for megacommunity impact. Because technology has allowed the instantaneous transfer of money, images, and ideas around the world, along with far higher levels of human mobility than in the past, “local” communities are neither constrained nor protected by age-old boundaries of geography and demography. A vendor in a remote village in Costa Rica or India is bound, through communication, trade, and an increasing number of common interests, to an urban resident of Paris or Hong Kong. Although Enel’s effort in Veneto is a geographically specific case, Enel’s effort in general can be seen as part of a much larger latent megacommunity — one focused on worldwide energy issues. Keeping this in mind, all latent megacommunities, no matter how global, can be perceived as having formed around issues that are “local” or have localized impact.

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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.