10-Year Case Study: From Local Frustration to Global Transformation

Italy was hard hit by the 2008 global financial crisis. All municipalities faced budget cuts or freezes. In Bologna, in 2011, a neighbourhood group of women contacted their city offering to donate benches to their local park, because it lacked any place to sit. But their kind offer created a host of problems for their municipality. Who would be responsible for maintenance of the benches? Who would be liable in any accident involving the benches? Would accepting the benches break any public procurement rules? The women grew frustrated as their offer was bounced from one municipal department to another for months, until finally they were told: No. Their gift was impossible. In fact, it was illegal for citizens to contribute improvements to municipal facilities.

In hindsight, that was the beginning not the end of the story. The incident created new connections between city officials from different departments – people who had all wanted, but had failed, to help this simple act of civic involvement happen. Individually, they could understand their own department’s reasoning; collectively, they knew the final outcome was absurd.

A large tree is shading a bench on a sunny day in a park. The tree is full with green leaves. In the distance more trees line a path through the grass. Some red leaves are scattered on the ground as fall is coming.

What was missing from the whole system, they decided, was a “decision point” where citizens who had the energy, imagination and responsibility to improve their city could summon to the table all the different departments set up to worry full-time about issues like implementation, maintenance, legality, safety and financing. Without this decision point, the only way to get those departments to work together on something unexpected – even a very small thing – was to gain the support of top-down champions from higher up the hierarchy or through top-down processes like the annual budget.

Paradigm Shift: From “Service Delivery” to “Shared Caring”

The city reached out to Professor Christian Iaione of LUISS University in Rome, co-founder of LabGov, the Laboratory for the Governance of Commons, to help them design that missing decision point, so that citizens could initiate partnerships with their own government to improve the public commons. The result was a new legal framework, the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons, formally passed by the City of Bologna in 2014 and quickly copied by other Italian cities.

Within a year, more than 20,000 citizens had struck 165 collaboration pacts with local governments across the country. Five years later, driven by these successes in Bologna, Naples, and other Italian cities, Professor Christian Iaione’s team had launched an ambitious pan-European eState experiment at giving local communities greater powers to shape the urban commons and shift the paradigm of local governance from “service delivery” to “shared caring”.

How Frustrations Begin Transformations,
in Four Steps

The Centre for Public Impact has accumulated hundreds of case studies like the above from across the globe of people making major transformations happen – specifically around the theme of reimagining government to work better for everyone. Toby Lowe, Visiting Professor in Public Management at the Centre, has seen the same basic pattern unfold across how many of the most successful transformations begin:

Step 1: Dissonance Supplies the Energy for Change

The energy to instigate change often comes from simple but deeply felt personal experiences of dissonance and dissatisfaction. How can a public park not provide places for people to sit?!? How can a city’s government forbid its citizens from helping to make the city better?!? Answers may be given, but they do not satisfy.

Transformations are more likely to begin where people get good at detecting dissonance. Common signs of dissonance include:

  • People complain privately about the lack of truth-telling;
  • People struggle emotionally with the mismatch between what’s being measured and what’s actually happening;
  • People tell one story in formal setting and a very different story in informal settings
Dissonance is the energy for change. Find it.
- Professor Hannah Hesslegreaves, Department of Leadership and HRM, Northumbria University

Step 2: Allies Amplify One Another

“All talk, no action!” is a piece of popular wisdom that can prevent people who feel strongly about something but don’t know what to do from doing anything.

In practice, Lowe observes, talking about the need to improve a situation without knowing how to solve it is a vital, under-appreciated stage of the transformation journey. And it is easier than people tend to think. Strangers who feel strongly about the same situation eagerly accept invitations to come together and talk about it, even if no one knows what to do. Such talk is not useless; it grows the energy for change by helping each person to validate, amplify and make sense of the dissonance they all feel. It helps people to make the journey from “I must be the one who’s crazy” to “Maybe we’re the ones who are sane.”

Innovative solutions tend to emerge from new groupings, so causing them to come together is a worthwhile goal in itself. In Bologna, the women’s group’s initial failure to donate their park benches was insignificant compared to their success at causing an informal, cross-departmental alliance of municipal bureaucrats to coalesce around their shared frustration that this simple act of civic participation couldn’t be done.

Taking an action is one way to invite people who feel the same way to show up. There are many other ways that have worked in practice: writing an article or blog post, hosting a conversation, creating art. Whatever the medium of communication, the underlying invitation is the same: Does what I’m saying resonate with you?

Step 3: Gathering Is Its Own Kind of Leadership

Another frequent milestone in the start of any significant journey of transformation is a gathering.

Whole bookshelves have been written on the art of gathering. In practice perhaps the most consistent feature of these gatherings is that whoever participates in the discussion can also participate in a discussion about its form. For larger gatherings, that might involve inviting people to opt into a pre-arrival conversation to figure out what the structure will be. Those who love structure will gladly show up and bring structure. Those who decline to show up will bring a greater sense of flow to the gathering itself. For smaller gatherings, it might be as simple as talking together about the question, “What does collaboration look like to you, and which principles should we adopt here?”

Another consistent feature of transformational gatherings is to place a premium on conversation and to be biased against presentation. Fodé Beaudet is Senior Learning Advisor in Canada’s foreign affairs ministry and a veteran of high-stakes transformation programmes in communities around the world. “I always tell conveners: If you’re playing your role right, you’ll never talk for more than ten minutes – and ten minutes is long.”

“I always tell conveners: If you’re playing your role right, you’ll never talk for more than ten minutes – and ten minutes is long.”
- Fodé Beaudet, Senior Learning Advisor, Government of Canada.

Good gathering(s) tend to accomplish four things.

  1. They enlarge participants’ permission space to try new and different things. No hierarchy is so controlling that people within it have zero space to act on their own initiative. When like-minded people come together and coordinate their actions, they can sum up those spaces and expand one another’s freedom to explore and experiment.
  2. They make it easier for individuals to perceive their shared “system of interest” – the set of relationships and interactions that makes the outcomes they all care about happen.
  3. They help people in that shared system to form shared purposes, too.
  4. They help the people who show up to identify who’s still missing, so they can target new invitations to whatever comes next.

Step 4: Learning by Doing Different

A consistent next step in starting new journeys of transformation is for whatever allies have come together to try something different – not to solve the situation, but to see what happens.

When it comes to starting transformational journeys, “Learning is the strategy; exploration is the method,” observes Rob Wilson, professor of digital government at Newcastle Business School.

At this stage, it’s important to resist the urge to shift from “problem” to “solution” too quickly, and instead try to linger in a middle-space where you hold onto the intention and tend the garden of possibilities that emerges, according to Giulio Quaggiotto, global Head of Strategic Innovation at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). That’s because, as the American poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde put it in her most famous essay: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, when we rush to solve problems from within existing mindsets, we risk perpetuating the same mistakes that produced the problem in the first place.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
– Audre Lorde, American poet and civil rights activist

These early experiments don’t solve a problem, but they do energize the people who care about it. They help to reveal more of the “system of interest” and how it actually works to produce outcomes that matter. They help to attract new allies. “If you’re doing something different, others will be curious,” is a simple-but-fundamental insight from the late Donella Meadows (1941-2001), an American environmental scientist. And they help clarify what to try next.

Let the Journey Begin

“We are in the presence of myths.” That is how David Graeber, one of the foremost anthropologists of our time who passed away in 2020, summed up humanity’s struggle to think freely in his ambitious final book, The Dawn of Everything, co-authored with David Wengrow. (Read more about their candidates for history’s biggest myths.) By noticing the big myths within our own mental latticeworks, we can amplify our capacity to imagine more open futures.

How can you act upon that capacity? One answer is: with more tools than ever. Look around, and the world is full of examples of people leveraging new technologies to try new things.

Take cryptocurrencies. Most of the crypto-activity underway today is people hoping to get rich quick. The price of a cryptocurrency is determined entirely by its popularity. So: buy low, hope Elon Musk tweets about it, then sell high. Voilà, easy millions — especially if you have enough friends or followers to help you manipulate the price.

Logos for 20 different crypto currency brands, including bitcoin, ethereum, litecoin, monero, bitcoin cash, zcash, EOS, tezos, stellar, and tron.

But it also offers a new way to fund experiments, not unlike how stock IPOs can fund companies: issue a crypto-currency, describe your vision for it, and the more people who buy into the vision (i.e., buy the coin), the more that coin is worth and the more money-energy you’ll have at your disposal to try to reach that vision. It used to take substantial coding knowledge to “mint” coins for purposes like this. Now a whole industry of technology companies exists to help anyone try it with a few clicks online. (Check out MintingLab or TrustSwap, for example.)

One thing you don’t need to get started is any answers. Journeys of transformation that begin by not knowing the answers can be more transformational than those that begin by thinking they do.