Mesh Networks, Leadership, and Democracy’s Promise


The TakeAway: This election season and Veterans Day provide a great time to reflect on the state of our democracy, which is ailing badly. It’s also time to think about ways of healing it, while achieving sustainable peace and prosperity. Here are two pathways to strengthen democracy’s promise:  (1) use interactive digital tools to strengthen the power of social and technological “mesh networks” to foster better citizen involvement and governance, and (2) develop the kind of leadership—both central and distributed—that knows how to cultivate community, especially when to step forward, and when to step back. Three recent examples for your consideration: the Belfast gathering of the Forum for Cities in Transition, the brainchild of Padraig O’Malley and a project of the John J. Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation at UMass Boston; the launch of a new book on civic engagement and “data-smart governance” called The Responsive City by Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith; and the passing of Boston’s longest-serving mayor, Thomas M. Menino, often called “Mayor for Life” and the “urban mechanic”.

Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless. That is because they are intrinsically systems problems—undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.
Obvious. Yet subversive.  An old way of seeing. Yet somehow new. Comforting, in that the solutions are in our hands. Disturbing, because we must do things, or at least see things and think about things, in a different way.
—Donella H. Meadows
Thinking in Systems: A Primer, 1993[1]

My father, who served in World War II but also was a businessman as well as elected and appointed official, was proudest of his military service. “I’m a Marine!” he’d declare, after solving some particularly difficult problem. I think that’s because being a Marine (or a member of any branch of the armed services, but Dad thought Marines were superior) is more about selflessness, whereas politics—especially these days—is more about self. As popular as he was, Dad was not a limelight-seeker. He was a congenial, good man, one who cared deeply about honor and duty. His pride did not get in the way of his humility. Both he and my Mom served our country well, until a still-unresolved family tragedy caused them to withdraw from public life. Continue reading

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Smart Cities and Sustainable Development: Where Hope and History Meet

The Question: “How can cities contribute to the advancement of sustainable development and address issues including water, energy and waste?”

The task of the coming city is not essentially different:  its mission is to put the highest concerns of man at the center of all his activities:  to unite the scattered fragments of the human personality, turning artificially dismembered men-bureaucrats, specialists, ‘experts’, depersonalized agents—into complete human beings, repairing the damage that has been done by vocational separation, by social segregation, by the over-cultivation of a favored function, by tribalisms and nationalisms, by the absence of organic partnerships and ideal purposes.

Before modern man can gain control over the forces that now threaten his very existence, he must resume possession of himself.  This sets the chief mission for the city of the future:  that of creating a visible regional and civic structure, designed to make man at home with his deeper self and his larger world, attached to images of human nurture and love.

—Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961


God picks up the reed-flute world and blows. Each note is a need coming through one of us, a passion, a longing-pain. Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated, and let your note be clear. Don’t try to end it. Be your note. I’ll show you how it’s enough. Go up on the roof at night in this city of the soul. Let everyone climb on their roofs and sing their notes! Sing loud!

—Jelaluddin Rumi, The Essential Rumi, 1993

The Promise

Some people view cities as congeries of people, noise, transit, commerce, and buildings. Others see a cut-glass mirror, reflecting the intersection of history and hope. The idea of the City is as important as its bricks and mortar, perhaps even more so. Cities draw people in, offering promise and protection in the cloak of anonymity, a place to make dreams come true. Be it Jerusalem or Detroit, the City is a living thing, in constant transformation. It has a soul. It has a history. The old and the new live alongside each other, as do growth and decline.

On top of this, the City faces never-ending challenges to maintain unfettered flows of people (both immigrant and indigenous), commerce, energy, information, and ideas. If it’s inhospitable to these flows, the City shrivels and dies.

Masdar City’s current emphasis on “Smart Cities and Sustainable Development” is, at its core, about supporting and strengthening the stock and flow of what we now call “multiple capitals”: human, social, financial, natural, and built environment. It’s also about the stock and flow of intellect and spirit. Without them, the other flows become impoverished.

Masdar City’s current emphasis also draws on a rich heritage of urbanism, with many lessons and insights. Chief among them: You cannot focus on one piece—for example, architectural design, environmental stewardship, social welfare, economic development, crime reduction—to the exclusion of others. They all interact, like notes in a symphony.

Nor can you ignore the importance of executing sensitively and at scale. Key here is a “polycentric” approach, advocated by the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and her husband, Vincent Ostrom. That means a mix of multiple activities on multiple fronts (public, private, civic) and levels (national, regional, local). As the eminent urbanist Paul Ylvisaker once said, “That scale may not always be massive, but it can never be mean.”[i]

The Problems

Narrow vision and “meanness” are among many ghosts on the urban landscape, haunting our efforts to thrive. The dark shadow of the slum continues to thwart the dreams of countless youth. In divided societies, sectarian violence claims land and lives. Extreme weather events wipe out neighborhoods and clans. Corruption corrodes even the best-laid plans, sucking the air out of prosperity, resilience, and growth. Financial pressures and deteriorating revenue bases continue to block progress. Short-sightedness and narrow thinking serve as reminders that human fallibility continues to plague even the best of intentions, where implementation falls victim to petty behaviors, and “winning” becomes more important than performance in the public interest.

These are modern problems, but the themes are familiar, part of a melody that spans centuries. The music may have faded, but the rhythm remains and the beat goes on.

Masdar City’s grand experiment echoes efforts in America and Brazil in the 1970s, before “sustainability”, “ESG” or “corporate responsibility” were taglines. Back then the goal was to create a place of self-conscious beauty, offering hope and opportunity. The means for tackling the multifaceted urban challenge: Build “New Towns” or “New Towns In-Town”. These were noble policy aspirations that ultimately ran afoul of implementation, due to intergroup antagonisms and local politics, as well as racism and classism.[ii] No matter how promising the innovation, the temptation always exists for one group to improve its situation at another’s expense. That destroys faith upon which the City is built, faith in the promise that those who enter can lay claim to more in life than “the raw Darwinian war of survival.”

Now, the rest of the world can learn from Masdar City. But Masdar City can learn a few things, too.

The Legacy and Lessons Learned

From the American perspective, three major 20th century initiatives stand out, reflected now in Masdar’s “Smart Cities / Sustainable Development” approach. Despite their Yankee provenance, they hold relevance to other urban experiments, now occurring under the rubric of “sustainability”.

Beginning after World War II and later supported and broadened by the Ford Foundation, many of the pioneering urban initiatives of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s featured elements similar to what Masdar City embodies today: A systems approach. Design thinking. Innovation and a willingness to fail. Application of new materials and technology. Excellence. Research-based evidence.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, Cambridge-based The Architects Collaborative (TAC) was invited to Abu Dhabi, to bring its Bauhaus-inspired design integrity of function and form to desert development. Change was in the air, and the UAE wanted to take lead, drawing on American professionals and academics for inspiration.

These various projects yield valuable lessons of what worked, what didn’t (and why) that are relevant in 2014: Rebuilding community is the core ethos. Don’t focus excessively on structure, technology, and efficiency. Metrics aren’t the answer. Beware of generalizations and single solutions.  Sustainable development—especially in divided societies—is a broad umbrella, not just about water, energy, and waste.[iii]

Here are some of the characteristics and lessons learned as policymakers, professionals, academics, and practitioners confronted an assortment of puzzles posed by rapid urbanization and increased stress on resources.

1. A holistic, systemic, and collaborative approach: The mid-20th century push for metropolitan planning and government was premised on how a deliberate approach to city planning could address economic, social, and governance needs. It eventually dissipated due to intense opposition by the defenders of grassroots democracy and localism. More recently, a resurgence in “metro” revives interest in collaborative solutions to region-wide problems, where limits on resources can drive innovation. That’s a hallmark of sustainability: it can foster creative thinking and action.[iv] But it needs to have allies, which is why wider community awareness, engagement, and support are so crucial.

2. Address economic, human, and social needs via participation and representation: Long before the term “stakeholder engagement” was coined, the Gray Areas Program set the stage. Launched in the early 1960s by the Ford Foundation, its purpose was “to mount a coordinated attack on all aspects of deprivation, including jobs, education, housing, planning, and recreation.” According to Paul Ylvisaker, its founder and overseer, this neighborhood orientation was part of a movement toward making grants “within range of the municipal firing line” to “help correct the basic conditions which have led to the protest, and to develop the latent potential of the human beings now being crowded and often crushed at the bottom of the community’s totem pole.” [v] The Gray Areas Program served as the template for the subsequent War on Poverty, and growth of Community Development Corporations (CDCs).[vi]

Unfortunately, the Gray Areas Program, along with other urban social innovations, became politicized, both by local officials and citizens groups that were unprepared for their leadership role. But as Ylvisaker once said, “We shouldn’t curse the bridge that took us across the raging torrent.”

3. Innovation and entrepreneurship: Similarly, the Model Cities program, the brainchild of Robert C. Wood,[vii] sought to provide an alternative to  incremental progress and “desperate, self-help urban renewal”. Essentially a series of urban laboratories, Model Cities sought to unleash human energies and spirit by creating partnerships between the Federal government and mayors. Yet Model Cities, too, ran afoul of short-termism and “quick fix” expectations. Open-ended measures could not be sustained politically, and risked demise or backlash. Although it began as a selective program, it soon lost this quality and became more universal. Every Congressman wanted to get into the act. Rather than focused on rebuilding communities, it evolved into a cash-infusion program governed by political favoritism more than local need. On the plus side, activists were given tools and became more sophisticated; rather than operating as “outsiders”, they were brought into the system to help make it work.

Smart Cities and Sustainable Development: What Future?

The City is a reflection of our deepest yearnings and aspirations. As such, it’s governed far more by a moral imperative than by adherence to good governance and management practices, or sustainability standards and metrics.

This moral imperative liberates the spirit and, as Rumi said, enables us to go up on the roof at night and sing our note loud, not only in the city of the soul, but the City of our earthly presence.

If this dimension is not recognized, where hope and history meet, then whatever the energy innovations and architectural wonders, the City will be just another pretty place, devoid of soul and substance.


Editors Note: A shorter version of this post was submitted to the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week  2014 (#ADSW) blogging contest.[viii] Until January 7th, you can view and vote on this and other submissions here.

[i] Paul Ylvisaker, “New Towns, Old Cities”, Speech to the Institute of Urban America, Columbia University, 23 January 1968.

[ii] For insight into why these urban experiments failed, see Martha Derthick’s classic essay, New Towns In-Town: Why a Federal program failed (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 1972).

[iii] Sustainable development must occur on a relatively stable foundation of peace, which is the focus of the Forum for Cities in Transition. The premise of the Forum is that cities in transition in societies divided by conflict are in the best position to help other cities experiencing the same thing. They have common problems and flashpoints. Through sharing and collaboration, they can reinforce constructive change. Over the past 4 years, the Forum and one of its member cities have hosted an annual conference involving cities such as Belfast, Baghdad, Kaduna, Kirkuk, Jerusalem, Derry / Londonderry, Haifa, Berlin, Ramallah, and Mitrovica. The Forum for Cities in Transition is the brainchild of Padraig O’Malley, Moakley Chair for Peace and Reconciliation, University of Massachusetts, Boston.

[iv] See especially the work of Bruce Katz, whose book, co-authored by Jennifer Bradley, is The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2013). Katz currently is vice president and founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, and helped launch the Global Cities Initiative, a joint effort with JPMorgan Chase. He also leads the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation. Katz was influenced by the scholarship and work of Robert C. Wood and Paul Ylvisaker, and is well-aware of how the legacy of earlier urbanists now finds expression in American cities.

[v] American Community Development: Preliminary Reports by Directors of Projects Assisted by the Ford Foundation in Four Cities and a State (New York: The Ford Foundation, 1 October 1963).

[vi] So-named to avoid using the term “ghetto” during a time of grantmaker aversion to the problem of race relations, the Gray Areas Program focused on those parts of the city where “neither mice nor men dared to tread,” Ylvisaker used to say years later. For more, see Karen Mossberger, “From Gray Areas to New Communities: Lessons and Issues from Comprehensive U.S. Neighborhood Initiatives,” Working Paper (Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, 2010).

[vii] Wood, like Ylvisaker, was one of that vanishing breed of academic practitioners with numerous luminary accomplishments. Both became friends during their doctoral studies at Harvard. From 1965 to 1969, Wood served as Undersecretary and then Secretary of the newly-formed U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A prolific author and public administrator, he’s the author of Surburbia: Its People and Their Politics (Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1958).

[viii] Hosted by Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) is a global platform that addresses the interconnected challenges that affect the widespread acceleration and adoption of sustainable development and renewable energy. To seriously address the global energy challenge, the relationships between economic development, poverty eradication, energy security, water scarcity and climate change cannot be overlooked. The largest gathering on sustainability in the history of the Middle East, ADSW encourages actionable outcomes to carve a pathway toward sustainability worldwide. For more information, please visit




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2013 Memorable Moments and Values

Part 1 of 3

The TakeAway: It was a year of breakthroughs, tempered by loss. But as we look back on 2013, four memorable moments stand out. I’ve a personal connection to each, but they embody universal values worth amplifying in 2014: Empathy and Resilience. Liberty and Justice. Humor and Hope. My reflections on what we can learn from the Boston Marathon bombings, and the lives of Nelson Mandela, Gary David Goldberg, and Seamus Heaney.

I love end-of-year reviews, and marvel at how easily one can forget that twelve months can hold so much. Grace and grief lived alongside each other, as our fragile sense of community continued to be challenged by forces both human and scientific.

We all celebrated birthdays and holidays, and mourned the loss of loved ones. Continue reading

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Walter White and LBJ: Personality Plus, To What End?

The TakeAway: Two drama, Breaking Bad and All the Way, provide insights into complex characters, and lessons for our times.

Time collapsed earlier this week, as volcanoes from the past and present erupted and converged in a manner that only great art can produce. On Sunday, I watched the highly acclaimed AMC series Breaking Bad air its penultimate, gut-punching episode, “Ozymandias”, the third to last episode that ranks as the highest in TV history.

(For those like me who didn’t know, “Ozymandias” is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1818, and portrays the fleeting absurdity of great power. Go read it. Now.)

On Tuesday, I watched the now sold-out play called All the Way, at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (I saw the fourth stage presentation, while it was still in previews; Opening Night is tonight, and the play runs through October 13th.)

Breaking Bad chronicles roughly one year in the life of a fictional character named Walter White, who morphs from being a brow-beaten, cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher (whose moment of glory was eclipsed by family responsibilities and a competitive partner), only to become an accidental drug kingpin, mixing high-grade quantities of crystal blue methamphetamine.

All the Way chronicles one year in the life of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who morphs from being a Southern political kingpin (whose moment of glory was eclipsed by his allegiance to Southern opposition to racial equity and a charismatic competitor named John F. Kennedy), only to become an “accidental president” mixing high grade quantities of political persuasion, high ambition, and social responsibility.

In Breaking Bad, last week’s episode featured a gruesome knife fight between the main characters, all of whom we’ve come to love and the last thing we’d come to expect.

In All the Way, LBJ bellows, “There’s no place for ‘nice’ in a knife fight”—referring to Washington’s main characters, very few of whom we’ve come to love and the first thing we’ve come to expect.

(LBJ was referring to Washington’s hardball politics and the limited clout of his running mate, Hubert H. Humphrey—or anyone else unwilling to pull out all stops to get a bill passed. My longtime mentor Bob Wood, who worked for LBJ, among other things, as Undersecretary and Secretary of HUD, used to refer to Washington, D.C. as “the land of long knives“.) Continue reading

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To Bomb or Not to Bomb—Which Rationality? Whose Debate?

The TakeAway: The swirl of action surrounding whether or not to intervene militarily in Syria tends to overlook opportunities, beyond polling, for average people to weigh in. That’s bad for deliberative democracy—especially when military power is involved. As a “prismatic case”—e.g., one both immediate (“To bomb or not to bomb?”) and long-term (“What is our moral obligation in the world?”) such questions demand broader citizen engagement rather than remain dominated by pols, pundits, and policy wonks.

In nooks and crannies, some of that is happening via social media platforms such as Facebook, or the “comments” sections of digital media outlets. Our challenge, as citizens, is to use them more, to listen to and learn from each other, and help restore deliberative democracy to its proper place. Here’s a glimpse into three citizens who refuse to let others do all the talking, and crowd out the rest of us.

President Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday night about intervening in Syria answered some questions, but raised more. While most Americans are weary of yet another war and oppose intervention, there are compelling moral, political, economic, and environmental issues embedded in this “wicked problem”—“wicked” both literally (the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the atrocities inflicted) and figuratively (a highly complex tangle of multiple issues, involving life and death). Looming over it all: the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), adopted unanimously at the U.N. World Summit in 2005.

Most of the debate has occurred behind closed doors until, on August 31st, the President said that even though he believed he had the authority to carry out military action without specific congressional authorization, he was going to “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress…I  know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.  We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”

That was a welcome move by many who believe that Congress should play a role in these things, even though technically the President doesn’t need to. What’s at stake is an international commitment forged in the aftermath of World War II with the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You don’t need Congress to ratify what’s already been endorsed. Throughout, the President seems to be “thinking out loud”—a laudable stance in this era of “world disorders“, given multiple actors, possible outcomes, and high stakes. Continue reading

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The Power of Two, Plus You! OpenLetter2013

The Takeaway: Two friends from Boston, increasingly alarmed by the dearth of meaningful action on climate change, decided to take matters into their own hands. The pair are crowdfunding a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal calling out the world’s most influential people for their non-action on climate change. The ad is an open letter, the main theme of which is the slow-moving tragedy of one generation handing the next an increasingly damaged planet.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I often get requests for this or that, and usually turn them down. But this one is irresistible, and so good, so good.

The other day my friend, tech guru, and MurnPost technical strategy adviser Joshua Gay had an idea. Josh suggested to his friend Deb Nicholson that I might be interested in helping her promote a climate change awareness/justice campaign through indiegogo, an independent worldwide funding platform.  The effort, undertaken by Jordyn Bonds and Mike Gintz, began as an Open Letter that Jordyn intended to post to her blog, Skybondsor.

Jordyn wrote it “during a particularly despairing moment” but after showing it to her friend Mike, decided to place it in a major newspaper as a full-page ad, because that was the best way of making it stand out. Mike also suggested tapping crowd-funding resources, so that like-minded people might have a chance to get involved, too.

As Mike wrote me a little while ago, they’re both “superpals. Jordyn lives with her husband in Brighton and I and my girlfriend live in Somerville. Jordyn and I both lived in the area for over a decade, and met via playing music in the local rock scene. She’s originally from Arkansas; I’m originally from New Hampshire. We both work in the web industry – she’s freelance and I work at an agency in Davis Square, Somerville.”

I think they’re adorable because they represent the power of two people who burn to make a difference. They don’t have an organization behind them, or big funders, or a flashy event. They’re simply trying to send a message, and spending a heckuva lot of energy devoted to doing so.

I hope you consider helping their campaign to make powerful people understand, as Willy Loman said, that “attention must be paid”. Theirs is a compelling argument, and I figured, What better way than to show the multiplier effect of the Power of Two than to get You involved, as well?

Please consider making a contribution, and spreading the word to your friends and colleagues.

Climate countsand so do the efforts of each and every one of us, to do what we can, when we can, how best we can. If you go to Jordyn and Mike’s website, you also can suggest powerful people you think need to see this letter, too.

Let’s make some noise, people!! Jordyn and Mike have a little over 3 weeks to meet their funding goal, and they’re off to a good start: they’ve already raised more than $26,000 toward their $161,000 goal. You can read more about Jordyn and Mike’s ambitious plan at Watch their video here:

Here’s a piece of what they wrote, followed by some Qs and As:

This letter is addressed to you because you are influential, you have children, and you are not taking sufficient action on climate change.

Climate change has presented all of us with an enormous moral challenge, but the level of our personal responsibility is commensurate with the sphere of our influence. You have the resources to make a huge impact, and nothing less than a huge impact will be able to change the course we’re on. The rest of us can only hope to use our meager influence to influence you.

This letter is not going to make the case for the reality of climate change. Whatever you might say in public, you clearly accept its reality; your governments, organizations, and companies are already strategizing around how to cope with it. The purpose of this letter is to express moral outrage… Continue reading

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Let’s Bend the Arc of Money and Power Toward Justice

Sixth in a Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provides the opportunity to reflect on what truths we hold to be self evident, what falsehoods we reject, and to discern how best to advance liberty, equality, and justice for all. Two friends, one black and one white, reflect on their efforts to promote racial justice 49 years ago when they were young girls, and what they’d like to do now to make the Dream come alive. With help from Baby Boomers who have time and energy to give, that happens through bending the arc of money and power toward justice—and building multiracial, diverse citizen involvement in the sustainability movement, which is far too homogenous for its own good. My proposal: a Civic Stewardship League, which helps assure that fiduciary power is directed toward to the public interest and involves concerned citizens in the process.

On Wednesday I called my lifetime friend Linda Hunter Williams shortly before the Presidents spoke at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I wanted to talk with Linda so we could reflect on the last 5 decades and the fact that, 49 years ago at the age of 14, she and I joined so many thousands working for racial justice across the land—“to lay claim to the promise made at our founding”, as President Barack Obama later put it in his speech.

I also wanted to enlist her in a cause I’m starting, one that I hope helps reboot our local economies and make The Dream come alive, once again. And—this is very important—adds some color and diversity to a 21st century sustainability movement that’s way too male and pale for its own good, and has “crowded out” behaviors and sentiments of average people. Continue reading

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Trustees Are Not Thermometers

Fifth in a  Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: In the United States, key to our political form of representative self-governance is the idea of good trusteeship, of stewardship, of wise statecraft. The same holds for corporate governance. Being a director means the ability to think big and long-term, as well as focus on the here-and-now, to balance multiple and competing interests with good judgment and an ethical outlook. The fiduciary challenge, then, for trustees and directors (similar to that confronting judges, because “judgement” is core) is to make public decisions that fulfill both the immediate obligations contained in a charter or mission statement, and the broader public interest obligations attendant to human health and well-being.

The primary assumptions governing the role of trusteeship and directorship became neutered within the past 100 years as a result of the rise of the modern bureaucratic state and the corporate form, the ascension of scientific management and neoclassical economic theory, and the professionalization and technological transformation of financial services.

Yet being a trustee carries with it representative responsibilities to “the other” or “others,” so the threshold question becomes: Which “others” are we talking about, and whose interests are being protected and advanced?1

Continue reading

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Civic Virtue as the Animating Ideal

Fourth in a Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: Despite the great strides made toward incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into economic decision making, these ideas are untethered from a moral paradigm or ethos or set of big ideas that can help us internalize a vision to help inspire, guide, and assess our actions.  For centuries—especially with the civil rights movement (as we near the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington)—religious, theological, and ethical convictions served as the primary driving spirit, which continue to this day.  Time for broadening and deepening those convictions in more inclusive ways, in the name of civic virtue and the democratic ideal.

Previously, in “Time to Talk About the Public Interest”: Notions of justice, liberty and fairness; of pluralism and diversity; of equity, “standing” and trust; of independence, vision and innovation; of freedom, self-governance and self-determination; of political stability, safety and security, were embedded in our social, cultural and political life. These virtues helped define integrity—meaning, both literally and figuratively, their integration into the fabric of community, institutional and individual life. They served as building blocks for our constitutional system of representative governance, enlivened by participation and public accountability. They were predicates, too, for our economic arrangements, because business was essentially about community.


In the latter part of the 20th century, the echoes of these beliefs animated early shareholder activists, whether they knew it or not. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Saul Alinsky and FIGHT Kodak,1 Campaign GM,2 Dow Chemical’s production of Agent Orange3 and the Episcopal Church,4 there were enormous social pressures on companies and institutional investors to eliminate discriminatory practices and promote equal opportunity for all. In 1971, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) was formed, now comprising 275 faith-based institutional investors.5

Borrowing from the civil rights movement, the public actions taken during this 1970s and 1980s were accompanied by appeals to a civic moral consciousness that radiated Judeo-Christian religious themes, but were not restricted to them. They included beliefs that: Continue reading

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Back to the Future: Apocalypse Now

Image made by Mary Naber King

Third in a Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: In a society saturated with market values, we need to recoup the idea of civic virtue, and the civic moral obligations of wealth. This has philosophical and practical significance for any discussion of sustainability, responsible investing, and the 21st century fiduciary—something well beyond the loose canons of Modern Portfolio Theory that have led us astray.

As Steve Lydenberg has argued [in his award-winning paper Reason, Rationality, and Fiduciary Duty], the corporate responsibility and ethical investing movements have much to contribute [in altering our idea of fiduciary duty]. So, too, does the dynamic field of corporate governance, and the relatively new field of Islamic finance, the basis of the important work of the Harvard Islamic Finance Project. These various efforts shed light on the civic moral purpose of capitalism, of values in public life, because they stem from a shared set of guiding concepts and vocabulary having civic moral meaning—even if these concepts and vocabulary remain veiled. Continue reading

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