An Activist Manual for the Davos Crowd

The "megacommunity" approach to problem solving, with a dose of consultant-speak.
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The "megacommunity" approach to problem solving, with a dose of consultant-speak.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew battered South Florida, destroying 126,000 homes, wiping out 80 percent of the area’s farms and leaving 40 deaths in its wake. The damage totaled $26 billion, and as many as 11 insurance firms went bankrupt trying to cover hundreds of thousands of claims.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush said it was a wake-up call for the state, and its government, business and nonprofit leaders joined to create an expansive emergency planning and response program. By the time a series of heavy storms struck in 2004 and 2005, the state was better prepared. Strengthened building codes limited the damage; organizations collaborated to provide relief to victims; and insurers tapped into a new, multibillion-dollar catastrophe fund. Federal aid was critical, but it was just one piece of a broader plan.

One year later, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, a state that lacked such programs. The results, as have been widely reported, were disastrous: broken levees, developing-world-like conditions and New Orleans neighborhoods that became ghost towns for months.

What Florida had established, and Louisiana had not, was a “megacommunity,” a leadership model that allows people to work together to tackle natural disasters, infectious diseases and other complex challenges, according to four Booz Allen Hamilton consultants who’ve written a book titled Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together that touts the concept. The idea is simple: The world is too interdependent and confusing for individuals, or even single institutions, to face its massive, intricate problems alone. The best way to approach them is for entities working at cross-purposes to sit down face to face and find a solution. In other words, oil companies and environmentalists, steel conglomerates and global health foundations, and lumber retailers and forestry preservationists need to drop their adversarial ways and make nice.

The megacommunity notion sounds more than a bit naive, and the theory is made less persuasive by this book’s writing style, which includes a healthy dose of gobbledygook consultant-speak. A representative sentence: “Leaders of business and government around the world should design new economic mitigation strategies that avoid market spikes due to crisis decisions.” In case the reader feels the need to look up “tipping point” or “decision velocity,” a four-page glossary is included. Nevertheless, many of the real-world megacommunities the authors describe are novel approaches to solving significant problems, and the underlying methods deserve attention.

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The book isn’t all Pollyannish: Drawn largely from Booz Allen cases and interviews with more than 100 members of the global elite, it paints a bleak picture of a world whose leaders are struggling to deal with information overflow and unpredictable geopolitical change. As American Express Chief Executive Kenneth Chenault puts it, “Everybody is frozen.” To make matters worse, government policymakers, business executives and nonprofit leaders — along with their middle managers and underlings — often don’t talk to each other. In fact, many of them don’t even speak the same language; it’s hard to imagine a productive discussion between an organization whose bottom line is fulfilling the mission of, for example, saving the manatee from extinction and one whose bottom line is measured purely in dollars.

If the era of top-down authority and concentrated knowledge is over — or at least waning — no one is quite sure what will replace it. Some favor the wisdom of crowds as a way to make key decisions; others believe in the power of expert technocrats; and some arch-capitalists call for government to get out of the way and let entrepreneurs battle for the market to decide. The Booz Allen authors claim that the megacommunities concept, which combines all these methods, will prove most successful.

For many big businesses, the concept could be the logical heir of two kinder, gentler practices of the past few decades. Through programs called “corporate social responsibility” or “sustainable development,” companies have, for instance, voluntarily minimized their environmental impact on communities where they do business or donated a percentage of profits to local charities, even if it has meant slightly smaller short-term profits. In public-private partnerships, corporations provide aid, training or other resources to bolster government programs. But megacommunities are even more expansive, bringing in all sorts of entities — multiple government agencies, activist groups, charitable foundations, technical experts, even direct competitors — to help effect change.

The Booz Allen consultants describe several megacommunities that have formed recently, including many initiated by people who had never even heard the word.

In 2003, a New Delhi conference on accelerating corporate involvement in fighting HIV/AIDS brought together representatives from a global soft drink company, the Gates Foundation, senior U.S. government leaders and the World Bank, among others. In the weeks that followed, one attendee, the Indian conglomerate Tata, expanded HIV/AIDS workplace prevention and public awareness programs. The next year, the Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla worked with global drug companies and a global nonprofit, making an HIV/AIDS drug available at a price below $1 per day. Many of the organizations involved continue to work together.

In another program, the nonprofit Forestry Stewardship Council announced a registry in 2006 to help companies ensure that the wood they buy is harvested in a responsible manner. It was funded with a $380,000 grant from The Home Depot Foundation, the charitable arm of a hardware retailer that just a few years before had been threatened with boycotts because it sold wood from old-growth forests.

Despite the apparent success of these initiatives, there seem to be many potential pitfalls to a wider use of megacommunities, and the authors either don’t address them or dismiss them as minor obstacles on the road to “win-win-win” solutions.

In the chapters that act as a sort of megacommunity manual, there’s one particularly obvious hole: What happens when interests brutally collide? The consultants do mention the problem of inherent conflict but don’t provide many suggestions for what to do about it. The megacommunity concept assumes that all players that relate to a problem want to solve it and that an optimal, long-term, consensus solution can be found if they talk things out long enough. Nearly all the examples they’ve chosen for the book exist in communities where profits align quite conveniently with the desires of government and nonprofit groups — sustainable energy production, a healthy labor force, hurricane protection.

But what if the desires — and even the core beliefs — of relevant groups are so far apart that there seems to be no common ground? What might happen, for example, if Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, Democratic members of Congress and Bush administration lawyers met to discuss prisoner interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay? It’s hard to believe the executive branch would cede much ground to its critics. Any number of less extreme cases exist: critics of genetically modified organisms talking to big grain manufacturers; proponents of market-oriented reform in South America talking to representatives of the continent’s low-income native population; prospective Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drillers meeting with hard-core Alaskan environmental activists.

For all their touting of inclusivity and the decline of the top-down command structure, the authors’ examples often fail to take into account the interests of average citizens — or, really, anyone other than a member of the technocratic elite. One example: Faith-based charities, which have proven successful at providing everything from soup kitchens to addiction recovery programs, are barely mentioned. Unfortunately, this focus on elites is exactly what one might expect from the globe-trotting partners of an international consulting firm that caters to wealthy businesses and governments.

The subtitle of the book and its foreword and preface suggest that megacommunities can address our biggest, most complex global challenges. Yet too often what the authors describe are just companies engaging with government and the civil sector to prop up profits without making too many people angry or devoting a small percentage of revenue to a community’s benefit. This may be valuable work, but it’s not going to save the world.