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.

In our family, these ideas of honor, duty, excellence, empathy, and service were strong. We grew up in a mid-Michigan household that knew the worlds to the Marine Corps Hymn (and the University of Michigan Fight song) as well as the National Anthem and “God Bless America”. That ethos, of Semper Fi, of “protect and defend”, of productive politics and community service, formed the backbone of our lives, extending through several generations. My grandfather was a civic leader, public intellectual, and prominent attorney; my great-grandfather a country doctor and state senator. My mother, a pioneering journalist, was very active numerous voluntary associations; although she gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mom, both she and Dad were constantly involved in charitable activities, as well as national, state, and local “Rockefeller Republican” politics.

And it wasn’t about “sectors”—public, private, nonprofit—that divvied up responsibility for community well-being. Everyone pitched in to make things work better, donating their talents, treasure, and (as eminent sociologist Bob Bellah and company described it), “habits of the heart”. That’s what self-governance and a good society are about: collective action in the public interest, while balancing individual liberties and rights.

These social and civic networks functioned as multiparty decentralized systems, resistant to outside control and resilient in the face of change. They were anchored by individual and institutional “nodes”—a community’s esteemed citizens; the go-to folks who seemed to know everyone and were at the center of information flows; churches, synagogues, and mosques; schools; social clubs; voluntary associations; businesses—that were steeped in a moral ethic, provided places to assemble, and became the connective tissue for the body politic. Operating as fluid decentralized systems with overlapping parts, they functioned as sentinels and service-makers, as intermediaries and monitors, as sources of identity, validation, inspiration, and co-creation.

Social and civic webs never anticipated the advent of the World Wide Web, but were “mesh networks” in their own right. As such, they were nurtured by generations of old-timers and newcomers. Yes, there were conflicts and sometimes discriminatory practices, but there also was a belief in the enduring validity of democracy’s promise and the unfolding American experiment. Once peace and stability were secured, buttressed by the Bill of Rights, we set about the process of building communities in a constant process of adaptation and regeneration.

So as we celebrate our Veterans and their families, and reflect upon the mid-term elections, I think of those who served from earlier generations, in the military, their community, and public life. Theirs was a 24/7 kind of service, where things like “character” and “honor” and “conscience” were cherished, and “citizenship” was a verb as well as a noun. It was the way we lived, and I’m very glad I’m old enough to remember. And I’m not alone.

Others of my Baby Boomer generation remember, too, and are primed to get back into the fray. It’s time for us to dust off the ideals that led us as we marched on Washington for civil rights, peace, environmental protection, the War on Poverty, women’s liberation, and so much more. It’s time for us to get crackin’, because we Baby Boomers inherited the gifts our parents, grandparents, and other ancestors prepared, sacrificing their blood, sweat, and tears to make this country safe, to build a society where equal opportunity was a cornerstone, not a pebble. Immigrants all, they came to these shores seeking freedom and a better life, and knew darn well that they would have to keep working at it, that it was not a permanent state of affairs. The dangers of tyranny and greed were always around the corner, part and parcel of human nature.

Distributed Leadership and a New *Alliance for Progress*

I think of these things because, just as longtime New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes, we have lost our way, and are paying the price. This was a depressing election, marked more by negativity than new ideas. No wonder two-thirds of voters stayed at home—turning out in numbers that were lower than World War II.

Today we celebrate Veterans Day, but, for most Americans, military service is an abstraction. We pay tribute by dutifully bowing our heads and clapping our hands, but we’ve really no idea what it’s like to put our lives on the line. We’ve no idea what it means to feel part of something bigger where everything’s at stake, then return to a civilian life that often feels small and petty. We’ve no sense of how it feels to carry the trauma of war every day, and try and push it aside to live forward with dignity. We’ve no sense of how veterans and their families feel, of what it means to be treated shabbily save for the occasional “Thank you for your service”.

We should be ashamed.

The responsibilities for protecting and defending our country fall on a few, just as the responsibilities of public life fall on those wealthy enough to run for office. We’ve lost, somehow, the “big tent” of civic and military engagement (and in the process firsthand experience with the essence of active citizenship), along with accountability to the public interest—the pillars of democracy’s promise.

Yet as bad as things might seem—we’ve huge economic inequalities, yet more money was spent in the midterm elections than at any other time in history; we’re sending 1,500 troops back to Iraq to fight ISIS militants who use social media to recruit right under our noses; the Middle East remains a mess; Afghanistan continues to simmer in spite of troop withdrawal; climate change continues to threaten our way of life—there are reasons for hope.

The place to look is on the ground, in cities and large communities, where democracy’s promise is being fulfilled. That’s where the potent powers of social and technology-enabled mesh networks, “new urban mechanics”, and new styles of leadership and communication are making real differences, one block, one neighborhood, one community, one region at a time.

Speaking of leadership and communication, these urban mechanics—call them the “New Pioneers”—exhibit a distributed brand of leadership that invites people in, rather than pushing them aside. Instead of command-and-control, it’s interactive, and relies on dialogue, collaboration, and co-creation for mutually beneficial solutions. It’s leadership that’s flexible and adaptive, not rigid and impervious to change.

Many of these New Pioneers are both bold and humble: they know when to step forward and proclaim, and when to step back and listen. They work as enablers, as coaches, as prophets who, unlike most prophets, cultivate a vision of a better world in which anyone can take part.

That’s the beauty of the digital world and social media, which most people fail to grasp: a lot of the time, the old structures don’t work anymore, nor do systems of centralized authority that seek to unilaterally “push” messages and policy out onto a faceless public, expecting them to oblige.

This 21st century brand of leadership, with its focus on interactivity and mutual engagement, reminds me of what the great 20th century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams called “the prophethood of all believers”. The prophet, Adams wrote in 1947, is “one who stands at the edge of a community’s experience and tradition, under the Great Taskmaker’s eye, viewing human life from a piercing perspective and bringing an imperative sense of the perennial and inescapable struggle of good against evil, of justice against injustice. In the name of the Holy One the prophet shakes us out of our pride and calls for a change of heart and mind and action. With fear and trembling the prophet announces crisis and demands ethical decision, here and now.”[2]

Prophetic leaders, Adams writes, are predictors who read the signs of the times and foresee the future, the coming of a new epoch. The founders of our nation were these kind of prophets, struggling against tyrannical forces to bring a new epoch into being. Much like Michael Walzer’s “connected critic,” prophets stand between times, “between the epochs”.

Kind of like where we are now.

But Adams didn’t view “prophethood” as exclusionary.  He described the prophethood of all believers—as he did the priesthood of all believers—as open to those who “think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith, to make explicit through discussion the epochal thinking the times demand…Only through the prophetism of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways.

Hope is a virtue, but only when it is accompanied by prediction and by the daring venture of new decisions, only when the prophethood of all believers creates epochal thinking. If this foresight and epochal thinking do not emerge from the churches, they will have to come from outside the churches. [Emphasis added][3]

Nowadays, foresight and epochal thinking emanate from a variety of places, typically—before Pope Francis came along—outside organized religion. Indeed, the emergence of  “predictive analytics” make it possible for anyone with access to big data and processing power to be a prophet AND a better manager, says Harvard’s Stephen Goldsmith.

Three Examples Inspiring Hope

Here are three examples that illustrate this many-layered process of distributed leadership and epochal thinking, of interaction mediated by technology and informed by the promise of sustainable peace and prosperity. What’s striking is that they represent a kind of ex parte politics, outside of the mainstream of our current system, off the radar of “dark money” and lobbying pressures. There are, of course, many obstacles. Preference for the comfort of the status quo is a big one. But as Dana Meadows wrote 21 years ago, we need “to do things, or at least see things and think about things, in a different way.” Otherwise, we’re cooked.

1. Social Mesh Networks: FCT 2014 and The Power of Peer Collaboration

This year, the Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT) held its 5th annual gathering during 27th-30th October in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Eighty delegates from 15 “divided cities” addressed the theme of “Promoting Reconciliation through Resilience”. FCT member cities represented at the four-day event included Baghdad; Belfast; Craigavon (Northern Ireland); Derry/Londonderry (Northern Ireland); Haifa; Jerusalem; Kaduna (Nigeria); Kirkuk (Iraq); Mitrovica (Kosovo); Mitte (Berlin); Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina); Ramallah (Palestine); Sarajevo; Srebrenica (Bosnia and Herzegovina); and Tripoli.

Delegates concentrated on four topics in a variety of venues. Topics included: (1) Reconciliation, including key questions such as how far have we come, and how far do we need to go? (2) Victims and Survivors, including the matter of appropriate services and representation; (3) Community Leadership; and (3) City Leadership.

The Forum and its reconciliation model is the brainchild—and draws inspiration from the life work—of noted author and activist Padraig O’Malley, who occupies the John Joseph Moakley Chair for Peace and Reconciliation at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston. O’Malley has spent decades working in conflict zones and has developed a theory of change that’s grounded in peer-engagement and support, and relies on the model of addiction to understand patterns of behavior and resistance.

Much like the peer-to-peer, self-help approach taken by Alcoholics Anonymous, or the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and ’70s women’s movement, the idea is that people in divided societies are in the best position—rather than “normal” societies, special delgations, ad-hoc interventions, or international institutions—to help other people in divided societies. That’s because they share certain behavioral, social, political, and psychological habits and traits not exhibited by those in so-called “normal” societies. Via an iterative process of learning, sharing, and reflective action, a “social mesh network” is created that enables communities previously riven by conflict—and are transitioning to peace and stability—help other cities that are still struggling.

Following its formation at UMassBoston in 2009, each year for the past 5 years the Forum has been hosted by a member city (Mitrovica in 2010; Derry/Londonderry in 2011; Kirkuk in 2012; and Kaduna in 2013), thus providing the opportunity for all to explore where they once were, where they hopes to be, and problems and breakthroughs along the way. In addition to program activities, each city is expected to design and commit to a project, and report back results at the next convening. A Youth Forum was organized in 2013, and a Women’s Forum and Business Forum are under development, following on this year’s Belfast meeting.

The Forum thus far has been managed by a Secretariat based in Boston and Belfast, and like every new initiative, is experiencing growing pains. One chief challenge: develop the technical acuity that integrates digital tools and social media into its operations and process of collaborative community-building.

For more on the Belfast gathering, follow the Twitter hashtag #FCT2014. Also follow the Moakley Chair on Twitter, @MoakleyChairUMB, and Facebook. The Forum’s Twitter account is @ForumCities; it also has a Facebook page.


2. Technology-Enabled Mesh Networks: The Responsive City and Data-Smart Governance

Speaking of technology and mesh networks, there’s a lot going on at the local level worth noting. Last month’s release of The Responsive City tells us about some of the many-layered innovations that are occurring throughout the country to make government—and democracy—work better. The book—co-written by Stanford law professor (who was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School this year) and telecommunications expert Susan Crawford and Harvard Kennedy School professor and director of the Data-Smart City Solutions project Stephen Goldsmithprovides examples of how technology can foster more efficient and effective collaboration, breaking through the walls of bureaucracy and petty politics and connecting citizens more directly with their government.

Just yesterday, the infrastructure underlying The Responsive City—fiber optic and wireless networks—received a big boost from President Obama, who announced his support of so-called “net neutrality”. In a surprise move, he issued a statement (and a video) calling for a free and open Internet—for both wired and wireless networks—and  for the Internet to be reclassified as a utility, under the provisions of Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (The FCC already has received almost 4 million comments on net neutrality.) Among other benefits, this will help bridge the digital divide between urban and rural communities.

These developments are part of a broader movement throughout the country involving the use of digital media to generate transparency, accountability, and co-creation via “open government”, “open knowledge”, “civic technology”, “data visualization”, and, of course, “net neutrality”. They offer us a 21st century version of “networked citizenship”, an extension of the purely human kind that many of us oldsters recall.

While the focus remains on the basics—clean streets, garbage pickup, public transportation—they provide a solid basis from which to tackle the more complicated issues such as those confronted by the Forum for Cities in Transition. The key: how best to use technology as a force for good, enhancing the benefits of peer-sharing and face-to-face contact.

For more on The Resilient City, follow the Twitter hashtag #TheResilient City. Susan Crawford‘s Twitter handle is @scrawford; Stephen Goldsmith‘s work can be followed at @GoldsmithOnGov and @DataSmartCities.


3. Leadership Matters: Tom Menino, Boston’s Big-Hearted “Urban Mechanic”

They called Tommy Menino Mayor for Life,” and for good reason. No one served Boston longer or, many believe, with a bigger heart. With five terms as mayor, and five terms before that as a city councilor, Menino was Boston’s first Italian-American mayor, one whose reach extended to all communities at a time when Boston was, and still is, emerging from the crucible of racial division—not just due to school desegregation but also the influx of immigrants. When he died on October 30th, President Obama called him “bold”, “big-hearted”, and “Boston strong”.

Less known is Menino’s role as the “Urban Mechanic,” a guy who was persuaded years ago to give tech a chance, to see how digital tools could serve and engage Boston’s citizens better, empower government employees, and help restore trust in government. Beginning with interagency interoperability through the installation of a “customer relationship management (CRM)” system, the effort soon spread to community outreach. Nowadays the Boston experience exemplifies “participatory urbanism”, but other cities—Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York—are doing cool things, too. Key here is the fact that policy, execution, technology, and innovation—Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) has a page devoted to new apps—can co-exist and thrive at the local level, empowering and engaging government employees and citizens in common cause.

The Boston experience is nicely covered in The Responsive City, and Mayor Marty Walsh has pledged to continue the process begun during the Menino regime. It serves as an example of how, if you get the small things right, the bigger challenges can be tackled with greater sharing of knowledge, experience, and expertise.


The work of the Forum for Cities in Transition and those profiled in The Responsive City, including those in Boston, can serve as models for those of us who want revive democracy’s promise. Our problems won’t go away and our politics won’t get much better unless we do.

We need a new “Alliance for Progress“, a domestic version of what President Kennedy proposed 43 years ago. This alliance for progress features Baby-Boomers joining forces with Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials to rededicate ourselves to active citizenship, and create our own social and technological “mesh networks” in doing so. It would draw on technology’s tools—and learn how best to use them (most people get this wrong, using old models for new realities)—and leverage the vibrant new infrastructure of initiatives dedicated to building sustainable peace and prosperity.

I think of it as a Civic Stewardship Brigade, part of a citizens movement aimed at creating a society that’s stable and secure, with sustainable prosperity and justice for all. Aimed, too, at “sharing common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention,” as James Luther Adams said, “of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it.”

With technology, grit, and goodwill, perhaps these values of citizenship and selfless service can be revived, from the ground-up. After all, when the body is injured, healing begins at the subcuticular level, from the inside, out. That’s true of self-governance and the body politic, too: from feeling *ground up* to healing Ground-Up.

Oh, speaking of self-governance and the body politic: in addition to being Veteran’s Day, it’s also the anniversary of the 1620 signing of the Mayflower Compact, in Provincetown Harbor. That was our first governing document, composed by William Bradford, wherein 41 male Pilgrims pledged to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick”.

I think we should do the same, 394 years later. Time for a cross-generational Civic Stewardship Brigade, our prophethood of all believers, to get organized. I think William Bradford, James Luther Adams, Dana Meadows, Bob Bellah, and Tom Menino would agree.




[1] Donella (Dana) Meadows, lead author of the landmark Limits to Growth (1972) and a pioneer of sustainability thinking and systems theory who was not duly recognized during her lifetime, finished a draft manuscript for Thinking in Systems: A Primer in 1993. She did not have a chance to complete it, due to her untimely death in 2001. The book, edited by Diana Wright of Vermont’s Sustainability Institute, was not published until 2008 by Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont. This passage is taken from the “Introduction: The Systems Lens,” 4. While working on a project there, I had the privilege of meeting Dana Meadows and her husband Dennis at Dartmouth in the early ‘80s, and have first-hand knowledge of how she was perceived by many (mostly males, and often negatively) in the political scientist world.
[2] James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, edited by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 99.
[3] Ibid., 102-103.
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