Guiding Change in a Complex and Interconnected World

A new initiative aims to provide a forum for public officials to talk about the future of their communities in an age of upheaval.
by | January 27, 2014

Most governmental organizations continue to operate as separate teams of specialists working on independent projects. But this vertical, siloed approach, a holdover from the Industrial Age, is ill-suited for the complex issues facing government in the 21st century.

Water, waste, energy, transportation and buildings all connect in multiple ways, and understanding and managing the dynamics of this interconnected system opens up new opportunities to build great places for people to live. What's needed in government is a more horizontally integrated approach to address the needs and interests of an entire community.

In this light, the publishers of Governing have launched a new initiative, called FutureStructure, as a framework for public officials to view, think and talk about the future of their communities as large, complex systems consisting of deeply interdependent smaller systems.

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Much of this discussion will center on early identification of the kinds of trends that might change our communities, both in small ways and in ways as profound as the digital revolution that has transformed how we communicate, socialize, share information and work.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, of course, that particular coming upheaval wasn't apparent to most people. One who wasadept at identifying changes that would have a profound impact was John Naisbitt, author of the best-selling 1982 book Megatrends. He laid out what he saw as 10 major trends, the majority of which proved remarkably accurate.

There's merit in learning how he approached his work. Observing that trends tend to occur from the bottom up, Naisbitt used a method called "content analysis" borrowed from World War II Allied researchers who gathered information about German wartime production based on content from local newspapers. For a 12-year period, Naisbitt's research team compiled more than two million local articles from cities and towns across America.

"Out of such high localized databases, I have watched the general outlines of a new society slowly emerge," Naisbitt wrote. That new society did in fact emerge and has moved on. New trends are coming to view now with particular relevance to state and local government leaders, and identifying and tracking those trends is a primary goal of FutureStructure. We are working to build a rich resource of best practices as well as policy and finance information gathered from jurisdictions of all sizes and presented in a context relevant to government's business needs.

We want this framework to help government leaders make sense of seemingly disparate data and to see a community as a system so that they can more effectively collaborate within and outside of their organizations toward the goal of creating a more livable community.

In a sense, government leaders act as system engineers for "soft infrastructure" -- the ideas, policies, designs and regulations that put in place the hard infrastructure of a community. Community leaders are inevitably called upon to make important decisions with inadequate information at hand and uncertainty as what outcomes are likely. We intend our FutureStructure initiative to make that task a little less difficult and the results much, much better.

Bob Graves, associate director of the Governing Institute, is the designated content curator for the FutureStructure initiative and also a co-founder of e.Republic, the parent organization of Governing.

Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute
bgraves@governing.com

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