The Collaboration Ecosystem By Julia Gluesing

The Collaboration Ecosystem By Julia Gluesing

 I have spent much of my professional life investigating collaboration, what it is, and when and why it works (or doesn’t). The Fall 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review came into my email inbox last week, and I was reminded about something very important about collaboration. I read the lead article by Ben Hecht entitled “Revitalizing Struggling American Cities” about his search for just the right level to transform the lives of low-income people. Mr. Hecht is the president and CEO of Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative of 22 foundations and financial institutions that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Living Cities is focusing its efforts on Detroit right now, along with four other cities. Mr. Hecht says that at one time he thought the lever for big improvement was going to be housing. Then he thought it would be strong community organizations, and then that it would be the internet. None of these levers produced the results he had hoped. Someone from Cisco Systems, with whom Hecht was working in 2000, was bold enough to tell Hecht he couldn’t solve the problem with just one lever alone, that what he needed to do was build an ecosystem, opening the way for other organizations, all those who had a stake in the community, to become part of the solution.

Hecht states that his life was changed from that moment on. He learned that no magic level would ever exist because no matter how committed or heroic his efforts, no one person or organization would ever be enough. He took a new approach, which he calls dynamic collaboration. Dynamic collaboration requires funders and local actors to be committed together to make an impact, adapting to changing conditions with resilience and the capacity to stay focused long enough to transform the problem. What struck me about this approach to collaboration was its holistic nature and its incorporation of change as an important element.

As an anthropologist, I was taught very early in my course of studies about the benefit of taking a systems view of society. Hecht reminded me once again about the interdependent and adaptive nature of collaboration and about the importance of the holistic approach. He encourages cities to create a single place, a “table”, where members of different community sectors can come together to create alignment rather than working in parallel with only loose connections. In Detroit, the effect is being felt as the inclusion of lenders in the collaboration and at the table has resulted in $20 million of “deal flow” that will help with complex systems changes that take a longer time. The tendency for many struggling communities is to focus on short-term results and projects, the part of the system, rather than the larger system challenges. By keeping attention directed at the bigger picture and not getting bogged down in technical details or day-to-day obstacles, people learn that they have to fundamentally change behaviors. New solutions often have to be invented. Complex systems changes mean re engagement of the public sector in new and different ways, they mean learning or relearning how to collaborate, encouraging new ways of working among funders and community stakeholders, and new behaviors that lead to sharing responsiveness to local actors and sharing of lessons learned as well as financial benefits.

The Detroit community is creative and growing more so with every passing year. In the Midtown area, the innovation cluster, and Tech Town, the largest urban incubator in the world, there is impetus for social innovation and creative business as well as entrepreneurial ventures in technology. The robust arts and culture ecosystem has an active role to play in the larger dynamic collaboration that will have people looking back at Detroit’s seemingly intractable problems and asking, “How did they do it?” Keep your eye on the big picture and join the collaboration, if you haven’t already.