Seeing Networks Everywhere

Bruce Katz & Jeremy Nowak · April 3, 2018


At its core, The New Localism is a book about the rise of networks and networked governance as vehicles for problem solving. As we state in the Introduction:

The current suite of supersized economic, social and environmental challenges and the abdication of responsibilities by the federal government and many states demand new models of local governance. The most effective local governance occurs in places that not only deploy the formal and informal powers of government but create and steward new multi-sector networks to advance inclusive, sustainable and innovative growth. The logic is incontrovertible: if cities are networks of institutions and leaders, then institutions and leaders should co-govern cities. (emphasis added)

We are schooled from an early age to think about hierarchical structures, vertical agencies and the execution of hard, formal power. The excessive focus on government rather than governance means that we wrongly equate urban problem solving with city governments in isolation from other civic and market actors.

A focus on networks, by contrast, compels us to turn the world on its side and explore horizontal relationships across a broad array of institutions and sectors. It forces us to reevaluate the nature of power, emphasizing the soft power of convening and cajoling, and how it is deployed within and across organizations.

The most prominent network governance story in our book – the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership – reveals a powerful modus operandi that is hidden in plain sight in most cities. Once exposed, these new governance models change our way of looking at the world and make us more aware of collaborative efforts already having an impact in our backyards.

We start, in short, seeing networks everywhere.

We have experienced this first hand as part of our rapid fire, multi-city book tour.

In Salt Lake City, Mayor Ben McAdams introduced us to his effort to set a common agenda around homelessness. The result is Shelter the Homeless, an evidence driven effort that has engaged a broad range of public, private and civic leaders.

In Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer has continued to evolve the city’s Cradle to Career initiative, an integrated effort between the disparate organizations focused on kindergarten readiness, elementary and secondary education, college completion and workforce-oriented skills training. The Mayor is now considering a new governance structure, guided by institutions and leaders from all affected sectors.

In Chattanooga, Mayor Andy Berke described the iteration of the downtown Innovation District, which over several years has built an incredible ecosystem comprised of the public utility, public hospital and state university, mature companies, start-ups and scale-ups, the Edney Innovation Center (a co-working and gathering space), local investors, the real estate community and The Enterprise Center (a nonprofit intermediary which brings it all together).

Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland, a remarkable book about the opiate epidemic, told us that he is struck by the rise of social networks as a response to the newest addiction crisis. He pointed us to an article he wrote in December 2014, The End of Gangs, which chronicled how disparate law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles had come together to set aside old grievances and forge new alliances.

The proliferation of new networks – spanning a variety of issues at the district, city and metropolitan level – enable us to see a new pattern of governance emerging as if the pieces of a complex puzzle are being put into place in real time.

Like many powerful revelations, they seem obvious in retrospect. It isn’t earth shattering to say that effective solutions to hard challenges require stakeholders from disparate experiences and expertise to pool knowledge and find a common purpose and language. But the deification of specialization and the growth of stove-piped bureaucracies prevent the obvious from taking hold. The rise of networked models is a sign that more of us are learning to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur, in the words of Mathew Taylor, of the RSA in the United Kingdom.

Social scientists and others have documented how formal and informal relationships can galvanize resources and enforce norms in fields as disparate as kinship studies, entrepreneurship, and technological innovation. There has not been as much attention paid to the role of social networks in local governance.

Given our observations and new conversations, we are left with many questions to explore over the next several months and beyond.

What are the best models of networked governance? Who is doing this well? Which communities are combining the entrepreneurial capacity and capital of business and philanthropy with the legitimacy and broader concerns of local government?

How can we capture and codify core elements and enabling features and transfer them from one solution set (say economic development) to another (say environmental stewardship)?

Are certain challenges more conducive to networked governance than others?

How do we ensure that networks enhance local democracy rather than undermine it?

What are the best examples of cross-city networks? Where are they emerging and why?

We look forward to hear from many of you about your own experiences and advice on this subject.

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