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A Formula for Fixing the Hardest Problems

Harvard Business Review

For many years I have been asking friends and colleagues, "What frustrates you the most in modern society?" I've received many, varied answers but at their core, so often, was a common root — another question: "How can citizens and government accomplish what modern life requires of them to improve the world in which they coexist?"

As the three basic sectors of U.S. society — government, business, and nonprofit,each of which have their own culture, language, and mentality — attempt to solve our most-pressing challenges, we seem to be sinking into a bottomless black hole. Even simple problems elude solutions, and the ones that do exist — regulation in government, competition in business, and the work of nonprofits to fill gaps — frequently fall short.

How can we find some way out of this mess?

Let's start by considering one knotty problem: traffic in Manhattan.

Yes, as in many big cities, it does seem to get worse all the time. Private cars, taxis, buses, delivery vehicles, construction sites, double parkers, diplomats, garbage trucks, film crews, ubiquitous jay walkers are all scrambling for limited space in this dense, fast-paced city.

Just think what would happen at a four-way intersection if a (city) fire truck ran into a (private-sector) FedEx van, an ambulance from a (nonprofit) hospital, and a motorcycle driver (that is, a private citizen) without a helmet. All those vehicles (and their respective sectors) are going somewhere presumably important to them. But when these competing elements collide in a busy intersection, societal havoc is unloosed: insurance problems, pain and suffering, more traffic, litigation, and plenty of costs all around.That's a rat's nest of potential and real confusion and conflicts.

Into this maelstrom stepped Mayor Bloomberg. Although he wouldn't think of himself in these terms, the mayor is a paragon "tri-sector athlete" to use Kennedy School professor Joseph Nye's term — a rare breed of leader, who owing to an unusual breadth of experience is able to build bridges and hurdle barriers between the business, non-profit, and government sectors to address some of society's thorniest problems.

As a first step, Bloomberg had city government officials study the problem. Looking at London, Paris, and other dense cities, they came up with the idea of deploying bike lanes, bike stations, and bikes. Citibank came up with the funds for the bikes and their stations in return for advertising rights. Finally, private citizens of all ages and stripes are making an effort to learn to ride again. Thus Citi Bike was born, out of a collaboration between the city government, private enterprise, and the public at large.

The program is still too young to know if it will fully succeed. If the high number of bikes in use is any indicator, things look promising. But traffic may need to get worse before it gets better, as it will take people time to adapt. Drivers, parkers, and pedestrians are already screaming about giving up space to bike lanes. Worse, many folks who have not been on a bike in decades are wobbling through New York's streets and endangering themselves and everyone around them.

Is there hope? Surely, yes, if tri-sector leaders and citizens at large get behind the joint effort to collaborate and change behavior.

This may seem improbable but in reality it is an old, old idea. Such efforts at collaborative governance, as John Donahue and Richard Zeckhauser explain in their seminal book of the same name, have roots that go as far back as George Washington and his efforts to create routes to the West by working with private enterprises to build canals. The Lewis & Clark expeditions, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum are all in various ways, combinations of government funding, and private ingenuity and enterprise.

A more recent example of successful collaborative governance at work is the renaissance of New York City's park system, when the non-profit Parks Conservancy and the City Parks department came together to develop a long-term collaborative plan to maintain, oversee, and improve the park.

Why aren't such collaborations more obvious today? Many such efforts have to take place behind the scenes for good political reasons, and so they remain invisible, failing to get the recognition they deserve.

I have been thinking about this subject for the past 10 years, and I have come to the conclusion that a better way to untangle intractable problems, like New York City's traffic, is by enabling genuine collaboration in the intersection of the three basic sectors — that is to create an "intersector" — a notional space where individuals like Mayor Bloomberg can work with the government, business, and non-profit sectors to make collaborative governance a reality again. That won't be easy or quick. But when people of good will accept and recognize a joint problem and goal, it can work.

If the visionaries who planned Citi Bike and enough other participants, for instance, give it a fair try, Manhattan traffic just might get better over time, as it has in other similar cities around the world. In fact, if all this comes together and works out, the end result would not look like that crash in a four-way intersection — where the hypothetical fire truck, FedEx van, ambulance, and motorcycle collided — but more like a roundabout where those elements can integrate smoothly and safely in an orderly and flowing way. Everyone will get where they need to go, avoiding havoc and benefitting all traffic and society at large.

All it will take is tri-sector leaders and ordinary citizens who want to cooperate, who understand and embrace the elements of collaborative governance and are willing to work through the intersector to give better balance to the three traditional, and quite insular, sectors. And, then, when Manhattan traffic gets better, don't worry; there will be lots more challenges ahead.

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