The Power Inversion: Regions take Center Stage

150 150 Doug Henton

When David Brooks writes about The Power Inversion, you know that the importance of regions has finally entered the zeitgeist.

Since the New Deal, we have become accustomed to seeing American politics as an ever-concentrated national enterprise. But the sclerosis of the federal system will inevitably produce a reversal, as regions fill the void.

While the immediate impetus for his column was the new book The Metropolitan Revolution, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution who argue that as federal government becomes less energetic, metropolitan city-states become more so, the idea that regions are now taking center stage as a result of a power shift has been gaining momentum for many years.   

Since the early 1990s, Neal Peirce and his Citistates Group has been chronicling these developments with the publication of the book Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World in and now through the weekly Citiwire. Over a decade ago, the Alliance for Regional Stewardship created a regional learning network to share best practices focused on the critical role of civic leadership. As stated by the late John W. Gardner in the initial monograph of the Alliance for Regional Stewardship in 2000: 

Regional stewards are rising to the challenge. But what do regional stewards look like? They have first of all a deep sense of responsibility about their region. They want it to thrive economically, to be sustainable environmentally, and to have the web of mutual obligations, caring, trust and shared values that make possible the accomplishment of group purpose.

They recognize that most of our communities are seriously fragmented, and they are committed to bringing the fragments together, committed to fostering the shared understanding and priorities that will permit community solidarity in pursuit of goals. Regional stewards will draw young potential leaders into the fray. They will make sure that leaders in their region come to know and understand different sectors so that true community deliberation can take place.  

Regionalism will continue to gain ground, but its progress will be greatly strengthened if we cultivate our potential regional stewards. 

Based on our experience in over 30 regions, Collaborative Economics has written two books on the central importance of regional steward leadership: Grassroots Leaders for a New Economy: How Civic Entrepreneurs are Building Prosperity Communities (1997) and Civic Revolutionaries: Creating the Passion for Change in America’s Communities (2003).

Now when David Brooks and Brookings recognize the national importance of these trends emerging from the bottom up, we know that its time has finally arrived. As Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point out: 

The promise of the metropolitan revolution, of course, is not just to catalyze problem solving across metropolitan areas or even to unlock market innovations, as critical as those advances are. It is to repair what ails the United States, a political system mired in ruinous partisanship and ideological division. It is a short, logical step from collaborating locally on affirmative, pragmatic solutions to advocating at the state and federal level for systemic and structural policy reform. Collaborative action on ground level leads naturally to collective advocacy at the federal and state levels. (Page 205)

One current example of how regions are coming together to collaborate to address challenges at the state level is the California Economic Summit,  where 16 regions are engaging over 1,700 business, government, labor and environmental stewards in identifying and advancing common strategies focused on workforce, infrastructure, regulations, capital and innovation. This bottoms-up approach is modeling a new governance approach where regions work together to shape state level policies building on the work of the California Stewardship Network, an alliance of regional partnerships and California Forward,  a nonpartisan, statewide group promoting governance reforms.

Underneath this power inversion are much deeper trends. A recent forum led byTom Friedman in San Francisco brought together some leading thinkers on how power is shifting downward.  Friedman likes to quote Curt Carlson of SRI International who says “everything that is top down is dumb and slow; everything from bottoms up is smart and chaotic.” Friedman asks, while we have more “amplified individuals”, who leads in this new bottoms-up world?

At his San Francisco forum, Friedman invited two leading thinkers who addressed the issue of the downsizing of power. Moisés Naím, former editor of Foreign Policy author of The End of Power asserts: 

Power is spreading, and long-established, big players are increasingly being challenged by newer and smaller ones. And those who have power are more constrained in how they can use it. …

Power is undergoing a fundamental mutation that has not been sufficiently recognized and understood. Even as rival states, companies, political parties, social movements and institutions or individual leaders fight for power as they have done throughout the ages,  power itself – what they are fighting so desperately to get and keep – is slipping away. 

Power is decaying. (Page 1)

He argues that restoring trust, finding new ways for citizens to meaningfully participate in the political process, creating new mechanisms for effective governance and enhancing the capacity to work together should be the central goal of our time. (Page 243)

We are on the verge of a revolutionary wave of positive political and institutional innovations. … It will not be top-down, orderly, or quick … Yet it is inevitable. Driven by transformation in acquisition, use and retention of power, humanity must, and will, find new ways of governing itself. (Pages 243-4) 

At the Friedman Forum, Marian Gorbis of the Institute of the Future in her bookThe Nature of the Future agreed that power is shifting downward but saw information technology as a driving force.  

Large corporations, big governments, and other centralized organizations have long determined and dominated the way we work, access healthcare, get an education, feed ourselves, and generally go about our lives. … Today, this organizational advantage is rapidly disappearing. The Internet is lowering transactions costs—costs of connection, coordination and trade—and pointing to a future that increasingly favors distributed sources and social solutions to some of our most immediate needs and our most intractable problems. (Book jacket, The Nature of the Future

She sees a new kind of social economy emerging where the need for institutional structures to create value and achieve scale are evaporating and being replaced by a new level of collective intelligence embedded in social connections with multitudes of others. Instead of taking the personal and social out of transactions, she believes that we can use our technology-enabled connectivity to achieve scale in new ways. (Page 39) She too believe this will lead to new forms of governance based on citizen participation and networked collaboration. (Page 115) 

It is worth remembering that the futurist Alvin Toffler saw these trends on the horizon over two decades ago in his 1990 book PowerShift – the second volume of his trilogy that opened with Future Shock and continued with the Third Wave: 

…We live at the moment when the entire structure of power that held the world together is now disintegrating. And this is happening at every level of human society.

In the office, the supermarket, at the bank, in the executive suite, in our churches, hospitals, schools, and homes, old patterns of power are fracturing along strange new lines. This crackup of old-style authority and power in business and daily life is accelerating at the very moment when global power structures are disintegrating as well. 

The forces now shaking power at every level of the human system will become more intense and pervasive in the years immediately ahead. Out of this massive restructuring… will come one of the rarest events in human history:  a revolution in the very nature of power. 

A “powershift” does not merely transfer power. It transforms it. (Page i)

Once again, Toffler was ahead of the curve in recognizing the importance of networks in providing a new way to organize in this changing environment. 

Informal networks of many kinds crop up in virtually all complex societies. … For a long time the role and structure of such networks were ignored by economists and business theorists. … These networks, formal or not, share common characteristics. They tend to be horizontal rather than vertical – meaning they have either a flat hierarchy or none at all. They are adaptive—able to reconfigure themselves quickly to meet changing conditions. Leadership in them tends to be based on competence and personality rather than on social or organizational rank. And power turns over frequently and more easily than in a bureaucracy, changing hands as new situations arise that demand new skills.(Pages 196-7)

Which returns us to the core reason why regional networks and civic leadership within these networks have become so central in this era of power inversion.     

As the famous sociologist Daniel Bell once said, 

The nation-state has become too small for the big problems of life and too big for the small problems.

As we face increasing gridlock at the national level and experience the long term, downward powershift, we must now turn to regions for innovative solutions to our most pressing challenges. At the core of the most effective regions we are likely to find “innovation brokers” who act as the critical intermediaries in the innovation economy who take regional assets like universities, local industry, and sources of capital and connect them in order to create new businesses, jobs, and wealth. We have been identifying this trend for some time.     

So there you have it; regions are finally being officially recognized for taking center stage. Let’s get on with creating the regional networks that civic leaders need to succeed in this more decentralized, innovation economy. 


Doug Henton

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