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The Rise of the Rome-less Empire: Preparing for a Polycentric Future

SOCAP Guest Writer August 29, 2011
* This guest blog is by David Jay who is supporting the Polycentric Solutions: Local in the World track, as well as, social media at SOCAP11.
In most ways, the Roman Empire was a boon to everyone involved. Once-warring tribes were brought to a place of peace. These tribes could suddenly trade local goods, exchange ideas, and invest in shared infrastructure. The only drawback to the Pax Romana was Rome. Rome sucked resources that it burned on extravagant gestures, often designed to distract. It served as an information bottleneck, forcing bad decisions onto people with the local knowledge to make better ones. Worst of all, Rome became a single point of failure that eventually brought the entire system crashing down. 
Today, these wealthy, ill-informed single points of failure are still causing disasters on a regular basis. Our small tribes accept them as a necessary evil because in a deeply interconnected and interdependent world we need our Pax. But that may be changing. For the first time in human history, advances in social technology are letting small tribes build an empire together without elevating a Rome. (“Social technology” refers to systems of organizing like democracy, not social media tools like twitter.) These emerging technologies and their practitioners will be featured in an upcoming Polycentrism Track at the Social Capital Markets Conference.
The emerging Rome-less Empire is hard to see, because it lacks the centralized might and grandeur of empires of the past. In response to the global financial crisis, local leaders across the globe are building community resilience by developing local networks around food, housing, and the flow of capital. Through a combination of new communications technologies and new organizing methods, these local leaders are able to seamlessly trade local goods   and services, exchange ideas, and invest in shared infrastructure in a way that was unheard of just a decade ago. The results are rapidly becoming transformational.
It all starts with deeply rooted community leaders, like Pandora Thomas, Zakiya Harris, and Konda Mason of Earth Seed, Dana Harvey of the Mandela Marketplace, or Jason Harvey (no relation) of East Oakland Food Connection. These organizations and individuals have the connections and on-the-ground knowledge to mobilize their communities around healthier systems for creating everything from food to housing to investment capital.
Historically, these leaders’ deep networks have kept them in geographic isolation, but that isolation is rapidly ending. Connecting organizations like Eco-cities, Smart Cities’ Advisors and Purpose Built Communities are able to convene and empower these leaders to share best practices, connect with policymakers, and mobilize their networks around good ideas that cross the bounds of geography.
Sitting in between these deeply-rooted community leaders and the global networks that support them are social entrepreneurs like Homayoon Shahinfar and Konrad App of Stima, Lakshmi Karan of Riders for Health, and Claire Herminjard of Mindful Meats. Homayoon and Konrad are building business models in post-conflict Africa, focused upon the supply of domestic-scale solar energy. Riders for Health have created an agile, sustainable distribution infrastructure for medical supplies in Africa, and operate with hybrid public/private funding models. Claire is building systems for local, humane slaughter of sustainably raised cattle, a huge milestone in building local food systems that can provide complete services to the community. In ways that were rare just a decade ago, Claire is not alone. National networks like Slow Money are able to connect her with financing, expertise, and leaders who have the sort of deep on-the-ground relationships necessary to make a polycentric food system a viable reality.
Far-sighted members of more traditional institutions are beginning to integrate these community leaders, connecting networks and social entreprenuers into their work. They see social entrepreneurship as the next wave of sustainable economic development. In the Eastern and Western regions of Sweden, around Gothenborg and Malmo, universities, local government and social entrepreneurs are working together to create a new robust economic sector. In the Bay Area the community development arm of the Federal Reserve is brokering connections between different community actors to align and multiply actions.
Government agencies are realizing that all of this dense community partnership has an unforeseen benefit: resilience in the face of natural disasters. The kind of community resilience being generated in Gothenborg and Malmo is seen as a cornerstone of any sound disaster preparedness or recovery strategy. This holds true from Afghanistan to Japan, where Peace Dividend Trust and Arabella Advisors have learned to effectively translate philanthropic dollars to community resilience and economic recovery on the ground.
What does it all of this mean? It means that groups like Earth Seed are going to become part of a global learning economy around social entrepreneurship, in which size and location will no longer be a barrier to influence and effectiveness. It means that city halls will start feeling more pressure around best practices coming out of Bangladesh than around political winds at the statehouse. Get ready for the Pax Polycentrus.
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