The Ascendency of the Local

2010-12-09 19.24.40

Last week I sent birthday greetings to a woman in Israel, whom I've not meet face to face, yet with whom I have talked on Skype and emailed over the past year.

A year and a half ago, I initiated and then coordinated an online conversation about morale in the workplace that included 36 different people from 12 different countries on four continents. The result was the ebook - Managing moral in a time of change.  The book was edited by a woman in England.

Weekly, I engage in online conversations with people from around the world whom I have also never seen face-to-face, yet with whom I feel a close friendship as colleagues.

These few illustrations, along with many more, could lead someone to the conclusion that we live in a global community. In one sense that would be correct in the sense that it is possible to have relationships with people across the globe. In another, often missed or ignored sense, these globally connected relationships are not global. Instead, I see these relationship as not unlike those where there is a close physical proximity.

The Rise of the Local?

What we are experiencing is the rise of the local, that can be characterized in both a geographic and a relational sense.

Roberto Verganti, Professor of Management of Innovation at Politecnico di Milano, in his fascinating book, Design Driven Innovation, makes the following observation.

The design discourse is both local and global. On the one hand, the local density of the network is essential, because interactions based on tacit knowledge benefit from geographic proximity. On the other hand, interactions among interpreters worldwide allow them to enlarge the quanity and variety of their insights and provide a global perspective on the evolution of meanings.

Verganti is speaking about how product design processes are conducted.The key word in the paragraph is "interactions."  It is what distinguishes the local from the global.

All "interactions" are potentially local, especially when there is a clear purpose. Local, therefore, is more than "close proximity" and is about about "shared values and outcomes."

If we define local in this way, then what does global mean?

It appears to me that global is often a code word for "centralized" or "one size fits all."

Years ago, one of the American car companies marketed what they called their "world car." It was a phrase euphemistically used to describe a car that they could market everywhere, in any country, on any continent. In reality it was a car that they saw as "one size fits all."

This was a "global" approach that was not based on interaction or the recognition of local distinctives, but rather a singular strategy that was intended to work everywhere.

A "global" approach is a mindset that can even function in what we'd consider a "local" context.

For example, a family has three children. A "global" approach to their development is to see that all of them learning Spanish and attending either their father's or their mother's college or university, and returning home to work in the same career's as their parents. 

A global approach, therefore, is more formulaic, describing a general or generic path that is intended to fit most every circumstance. In this sense, it is a lowest common denominator approach to interaction. One message for everyone regardless of who they are. 

A "local" approach would see each child as a unique human being with specific needs and potential, and making their own choices about their education and their career in consult with their parents. As a result, one child may need to learn Swahili in route to becoming a teacher or aid worker in Kenya. Another may earn a two year degree in  mechanics in order to work in a motorcycle shop. And the third child learns Mandarin on her way to earning a Ph.D. in economics in for a career as business consultant with a international investment banking firm.

There is a tension between "local interaction" and a "global one-size-fits-all" approach. It is partly an issue of personal responsibility and individual freedom, and partly an issue of how does a global society make decisions that impact billions of people?

Network-Hierarchy ImageA local approach is based upon individuals making decisions that take into consideration their family members and neighbors, even if their neighbors are people on another continent. It is based on relationships, shared values, responsibility and outcomes.

A global approach assumes that this is not feasible, and that a central decision making body should make these decisions. In effect, it distrusts interaction and collaborative solution making. This has been the course of most societies for the past two centuries regardless of whether they are politically democratic, socialist or developing.  

The ascendency of the local challenges an elitist global approach to decision making.

This distinction between local and global leadership is most significantly being played out in local communities. 

Over the past year or so, I've been following developments in a city far from where I live, as its city administration sought to apply a "globalized" solution to the problem of city revenue. The solution would have had an adverse impact upon local business, and led to more "centralized" control by city government over businesses and private property.  Based on my observations as an interested outsider, these "global" solutions were really a way for a small group of citizens and city administrators to gain power and control over the economic assets of the community.

A contingent of local citizens organized and through their "localized interactions" working within the system of local government, exerted influence upon the city to change some of these decisions that were having an adverse impact upon local businesses.

As an outside observer in conversation with some of the citizens involved, I saw the power that "local interactions" have in a "globalized context."  They have a capacity to transcend the artificial barriers that traditional social and organizational structures provide. Those boundries represent the effect of past decisions upon a community. As new pockets of local influence grow and gain importance, the community's ablity to adapt to the changing social and economic realities grow as well. 

Legacy structures like these tend to be hierarchical and ordered for control of the system, rather than for interaction and initiative by members.  We don't tend to think of global approaches as representative of the old industrial model, but that is precisely what they are. It is an organizational design that assumes that a few persons closely linked together, who hold power on behalf of the larger comunity will make decisions that are beneficial to the whole community.

The Local is the Future because the Future is the Interactive.

The future of organizations and communities is in the interaction that takes place in relationships. This is already happening, and has been for some time. And where there are legacy hierarchical structures, localized interactions are happening. In many cases these interactions transcend the boundaries of the organization as they created collaborative groups whose focus is on the shared values and outcomes that have drawn them together. 

One example of how "local interactions" are not limited to "social or organizational  proximity"  is found in the impact of author and entrepreneur Seth Godin


Several years ago, Seth started the online social network Triiibes  as a vehicle for his book Tribes to find an audience that would be engaged not only with the ideas in the book, but also as way for people learn how to develop and lead their own tribes. This successful social network, with close to 15,000 members, is a platform for a wide range of activities that are bringing people from across the globe together to create value in their local arenas. Tribes cover

The Morale ebook, mentioned above, is the product of this interaction in the Triiibes network. There are, now, ebooks being produced on a regular basis through the "localized interaction of the Triiibes global community".  

In addition, a global gathering of local meetings are regularly taking place that bring people together who have been inspired by Seth Godin's book, Linchpin. As of the time of this writing, over the past nine months, there have been 1,575 Linchpin gatherings, involving 8,269 people in 102 countries. Linchpin book cover

As one of the organizers of these local gatherings, this globally dispersed gathering for local interaction has a thematic continuity of shared values and outcomes that is a guide to the future of localize interaction in organizations and communities.

    Local Interaction on a Global Scale Makes The Difference That Matters

    Local interaction makes a difference because it where collaborative work takes place. The Local is based on individual initiative rather than quiescent compliance. It is a more agile, adaptive, responsible approach because it is a way those who are most impacted by circumstances are able to address issues under which they have control.

    The challenge for global structures is to establish the credibility that provides a basis for their interaction with locally interactive collaboratives. Both need one another. One as its reach goes beyond the local into a collaborative environment with other local groups, and the other as it shifts from a compliance / control orientation to a facilitator, sustainer role.

    Wherever you are in relationship with people, you are a local group whose potential is far greater than the sum total of members in your group. The question for local groups is whether they can see beyond their own self interest to embrace a set of values and outcomes on a global scale.

    Civic Leadership - City Magazine, Kentucky League of Cities

    The Kentucky League of Cities Spring 2005 issue of City magazine arrived in the mail today.  This is a very well done beautiful magazine.  I was particularly taken with the graphic artwork employed. 

    It is fitting because one of the articles is partly drawn from comments that I shared with writer John McGill about a leadership workshop I give to local government groups called If Aristotle Were Mayor. The material - the Four Dimensions of Human Excellence - (from Tom Morris' If Aristotle Ran General Motors) - identifies Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Unity as the four universal conditions of excellence.  The workshop applies this ideas in a local government context.

    There are some excellent things to note from this issue of city.

    Sylvia Lovely, Executive Director/CEO of KLC in her column writes: For many of us in this day and age, however, a desire for legacy arrives at some point in our lives, but that is about as far as it seems to go.  In the face and under the pressures of today's way of living, what appears to have changed is our belief that it is still possible to leave a strong legacy or that it is worth the sacrifices required to do so.

    Sylvia, you are exactly right.  If there is no legacy to leave, there is no reason to do much more than the minimum expectation.  I believe we are all destined for greatness, and what stands in the way is part believe and part character.  Belief in the idea that greatness is possible, and the character to achieve it. 

    She also says:
    Sometimes it is just easier to give in to the forces - particularly those that are technological - that have enabled us to live without certain burdens and focus only on comfort.

    Leaders who desire comfort will never take the risks that are required to bring positive change to their organizations and communities.  Comfort and security are the great narcotics that afflict all of us.  We have to recognize that to focus on these qualities of life mean than some of the more enjoyable ones will be lost as a result.  Comfort and security do not go along with adventure and high aspiration.  A comfortable person will not make the changes necessary to be a fully happy person.

    This is point of If Aristotle Were Mayor.  Happy cities are the product of community "partnerships for living well."  Happiness or as Aristotle would have called it, eudaimonia, is not superficial, but deep and enriching.  It is the total fulfillment of a human life. Aristotle believed, as I do, that every human has a purpose, a telos, an aim, a target, a destiny, a legacy to secure.  When it happens, happiness grows.

    In John McGills article, he begins by talking about Steve Gilmore, mayor of Ashland, Kentucky looking at himself in the mirror in the morning and saying: "I'm going to be happy today, ... and I'm going to try not to make anybody unhappy." McGills continues: "By making the pursuit of happiness an actual intent, he says he can focus better on the community's problems and listen well."

    Happy Civic that is a novel idea...maybe an innovative one...maybe how civic leadership will be described in a hundred years.

    It is a great issue with a lot more leadership thought to provoke us to be our best.

    Citizen Journalism/ Citizen Leadership

    A few years over lunch a county commissioner that I know asked me how the commission could improve communication with the public.  He lamented that most of the input they got was not very helpful.  It tended to be negative, not constructive, and rarely had the whole community's welfare at heart.  I sympathized with him, as I do with all local elected officials who have to manage the delicate art of public communication.

    What holds for local governments also holds true for other public organizations.  One of the most significant develops of the past year has been the rise in the influence of weblogs as a journalistic medium, not just as a personal journal vehicle.

    Dan Gilmor, a respected Silicon Valley newspaper columnist, has left his position at the San Jose Mercury News to become a "citizen journalist."  Gilmor published We, the Media, last summer, a look at the burgeoning grassroots journalism movement.  I commented on it when it came out.  Bloggers are the center of this phenomenon.  Time magazine even awarded the Powerline blog as a "blogger of the year" for its investigation of Rathergate.  Here's a moderate to liberal traditional news magazine recognize quality journalism in a blog by conservative lawyers from Minnesota.  When the mainstream media takes notice like this, it means a corner has turned.

    Gilmor points to a strategic decision made by the editors of the Greensboro (NC) News Record.  John Robinson, editor, in his new year's column writes what his city editor, Mark Sutter discovered as he researched the future of newspapers and their paper. "The News & Record is an intensely local, community-oriented newspaper and newspaper company. It functions as a virtual town square, operating both in print and in cyberspace. We are a place where our neighbors come to hear the latest local news and share their own news -- big and small. It is where they come to shop and to play; to learn and to laugh. It is where they find out what is happening in the community, and how they can go or get involved."

    Robinson concludes by inviting readers to become collaborators in making the News-Record the town square of Greensboro. 

    Both Robinson and Gilmor are onto something.  In 1998, I was priviledge to speak to the top managers at the Asheville (NC) Citizen Times.  What I saw then echoes what the News-Record folks see.  I said, “Newspapers are windows on a community… There is no other place in a community where the whole community can talk to itself.  …Newspapers are the only place where all the voices of the community can be heard. “

    The key to the future of newspapers, to this idea of grassroots journalism and to the impact of blogs is the emergence of average citizen who find a way to connect with other citizens around the issues that are important to them and their community. What the technological innovation in website software that is the makes weblogs possible holds within it the opportunity for citizens to exercise their voice in such a way that they can make a difference.

    Update: Jeff Jarvis has posting about the Pew Internet & American Life Project. See "Blog Explosion."

    Pollution: Leadership Asheville Ethics Case Studies #5

    A description of this discussion can be found here.
    An brief overview of the If Aristotle Were Mayor presentation given prior to this discussion can be found here.

    Under the Federal Clean Air Act, private businesses and governmental agencies that succeed in keeping their emissions below the permissible limits dictated by the Environmental Protection Agency can earn pollution credits. Holders of these credits can sell them to other organizations that have trouble keeping their emissions within the limits, or can retire them permanently, thus reducing the potential of further pollution. State agencies in New York have amassed millions of dollars in pollution credits. Recently the state has sought to lure businesses to New York by offering the credits for free. That is, if a company agrees to set up a plant or office in New York then the state will give them some of the pollution credits that it (the state) has earned. This new approach for attracting business into the State of New York in highly controversial. Widespread protests forced the state of Maine to back away from a similar approach.

    North Carolina is considering similar legislation. As an elected official, you have been asked to take a position on this issue and you know that you will be called upon by state legislators to defend your position. How will you respond?
    © Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, author Robert F. Ladenson

    LA23 Core Learning Group #5:

    As an elected official, we felt we must take a position, rather than suggest
    a process. Our hope is that a process that had vetted all viewpoints had
    taken place at some point previous.

    We would oppose a measure designed to incentivize business to relocate or
    establish itself in the state with the promise of Clean Air credits.

    1. While there is the potential of attracting more jobs in the short term,
    the long term health and environmental consquences cannot be overlooked. We
    cannot support any proposal that would mortgage the future health of this
    area for the potential short-term economic gains.

    2. The community we want to create is one that supports innovation, as well
    as a healthy long-term environment. We can do both by requiring companies
    that do business in the state to be Clean Air compliant.

    We want to create a community that is viable well into the future, where
    citizens can grow and flourish for years to come, without worry.


    Free Speech and the Klan: Leadership Asheville Ethics Case Studies #4

    A description of this discussion can be found here.
    An brief overview of the If Aristotle Were Mayor presentation given prior to this discussion can be found here.

    Free Speech and the Klan
    Seeking your perspective as Mayor, a student writing a paper on the Constitutional Amendments has sought you out to comment on a controversial application of the First Amendment. The “Adopt-A-Highway” programs began in Texas in 1985 to enlist the help of private citizens and organizations to keep highways clean. The program allows an individual or, more typically, an organization to take responsibility for cleaning up and beautifying a stretch of highway that it “adopts.” In recognition of this effort, the name of the organization is posted on a sign along the highway, indicating that particular stretch of the highway is maintained by that organization. Similar programs now exist in most other states and have proven to be an effective way for states to save money and keep highways clean.

    In 1994 the Ku Klux Klan submitted an application for Missouri’s “Adopt-A-Highway” program, but was denied on the grounds that the Klan had a history of violating anti-discrimination laws and committing violent acts against individuals from racial minorities. However, the Klan sued, arguing that Missouri’s rejection of it application violated its right to free speech under the First Amendment. The lower courts ruled in its favor. Senior U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh, in St. Louis, stated that “the state unconstitutionally denied the Klan’s application based on the Klan’s views.” Hence, in November of 2000, signs went up designating a one-mile stretch of Interstate 55 south of St. Louis as having been adopted by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan seemed to have selected that particular section of I-55 because it is used for bussing St. Louis black students to county schools under a court-ordered desegregation program. In a symbolic response to the KKK, Missouri passed a bill to name that section of I-55 “Rosa Parks Highway” in honor of the famous civil rights heroine.

    Missouri’s subsequent appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was joined by 28 other states arguing that a highway sign acknowledging the Klan suggests an implicit acceptance of the Klan and gratitude for its participation. However, forming an unusual alliance, the Klan found legal representation in the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU attorneys representing the Klan successfully argued that the First Amendment protects the organization “against those who would misuse government power to suppress political dissidents.” How would you respond?
    © Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, author Robert F. Ladenson

    LA23 Core Learning Group #4: