Sustainability through Massive abundance.

Episode 18: Governing a City

If politics seems a painful topic right now, it's because the whole edifice is crumbling under the weight of new realities and perceptions. In this episode, I'll take you on a tour of how governance is changing, how ecology informs the latest thinking about organizational structure, and end with some hints about what this might mean for city design.

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Ideal Leader

"Who would be an ideal leader for Edenicity?"

That's the question my wife Becca had when she found out I was doing an episode on governance. Well, I gave her my answer. And she came back with: "Wow, I was expecting you to name a famous person. But from the sound of it, you're a lot more focused on everyday leadership by ordinary people."

That's right! That's actually the central question that I have for today's episode, which is: how can city design empower all people? How can its physical structure facilitate harmonious operations and projects both public and private? And how can it keep all of this fair?

The short answer is through an emerging understanding of organizations and governance through ecological metaphors.

Intro [music]

Cities designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode 18, where I'll discuss the Edenicity of city government.

Let's get one thing out of the way, right away. The reference design that you can download from the link in the program notes would support a traditional city government with a mayor and city council and so forth. So we're done right? It's the end of the episode.

Traditional governments in crisis

Well, not quite. You see, times are changing in politics and governance. There's a huge crisis of trust throughout the world, and especially in the United States. We have politics overrun by oligarchs and well funded special interests. We have election tampering, and the rule of law has been weaponized against minorities and have nots. It's a volatile situation.

At the same time, when you look at the bigger picture of governance taken as an evolving discipline, it's a time of massive innovation. Companies are ditching many layers of management, planning budgets, committees, task forces. And they're running circles around companies with much greater structure and centralized authority.

If we're going to build new cities, this would be an ideal time to take stock and look at the opportunities we have to make politics and governance more fair AND caring, more efficient AND culturally relevant, more healthy AND economically vibrant, responsive to change, but NOT capricious.

A design opportunity

Now, these are dichotomies. I suspect many or all of them are false dichotomies. And you may recall from Episode 5, that the second function of design is to resolve false dichotomies.

Now, I've engaged in reading and study of political structure and governance since about 1986. But I'm really more of a fan than a scholar of these topics. Nevertheless, I think we can at least identify some of the major ideas at play here.

Governance and politics defined

Let's start big: Governance is how you steer a society. And politics is how people organize to solve problems that concern more than one person.

Theory of Political Transformation

Now, the changes that I'll be talking about today have been happening for quite some time. I first encountered a discussion of this in 1986 and 1987, when I took a couple of political science classes from Manfred Halpern at Princeton University. His courses were titled The Theory of Personal and Political Transformation. It's a very elaborate, and I found very useful, theory that goes well beyond the political process that most of us are familiar with.

He had studied the different types of relationships that people could have with each other and with institutions and with ideas, and after many years of study, concluded that there were just eight possible relationships or relationship archetypes. He also sometimes called these polarities.

Now, I'm not going to go into all eight of these. But I will mention that when I took an inventory of the different archetypal relationships that I was using or not using, I found that direct bargaining was completely missing from my repertoire. And so when I added that, my world became a lot more whole, and I had a much richer life.

Anyway, three of his relationship archetypes define a larger drama in Halpern's theory. These are the three acts of literature. It's also the same process that drives political change, scientific revolutions, and the origin and life and change that you see in the world's religions. All right, here are the acts:

Act One, Emanation, finds us in a world of static and immutable truths. So this is for example, religious doctrines. geocentric cosmology or Newtonian physics before Einstein or the divine right of kings, and after that the superiority of democracy which we still assume to this day. So these are basically things that we do not question in our lives; that we avoid questioning, because they're so infused with our own identity that we don't see where the idea ends, and we begin. And of course, this is where most fiction begins as well. So all is right with the world. There's nothing to question. We live in total security with no conflict and certainly no questions--at least no questions allowed. That's Act One.

Act Two is what Halpern calls Incoherence. And in this act, questions arise, relationships fail, nothing makes sense. And there's really no justice. And this is the middle part of most fiction. This is when the data is stopped supporting what has been taken as physical law. People wallow in incoherence, usually for quite some time before, if they're lucky, going on to...

Act Three: Transformation. And in Transformation, we find new inspirations, try them out, and some lead to better relationships. So Copernicus overthrows the geocentric cosmology. Einstein overthrows Newtonian physics, democracy overthrows monarchy, these are big changes.

Now, the thing that's really interesting about this drama of transformation is that once you're through Act Three, it's very tempting to then enshrine your newfound relationship and make it permanent, immutable, static. And so there you are back in Act One. That makes this a cycle.

Now, Halpern points out that the thing that's changing in the modern world is that Emanation is no longer possible as a way of life. You see, through most of history in his view, most people in the lived in emanational societies of one sort or another, usually religious. And during the Scientific Revolution, we entered into an Age of Incoherence where we still are today. And it's pretty much impossible to live an emanational life when the world is incoherent. And if you try, you end up in a relationship called Deformation. This is actually an anti-relationship. And in Halpern's phrase, this happens when we cling to emanation as incoherence overwhelms us. And this leads towards destruction and death. Now, it's a fairly complex theory and I put a one page crib sheet up on the website, there's a link in the program notes.

So Halpern sets the stage for understanding some of the really big forces at work in the world today.

Reinventing Organizations

In the same vein, a much more recent book by Frederic Laloux, called Reinventing Organizations was published in 2014, with an illustrated edition in 2016. And this is basically a history of the stages of organizational development. And its general trend is toward increased capacity as you go from one stage to the next.

But as I was reading about these stages, it seemed to me that under stress, people often regressed earlier stages. See what you think.

Impulsive (red) organizations

The first stage, he calls impulsive or red. And this started maybe 10,000 years BC. This is what I would call an autocratic society where you have a strong man, and you have to do what he says or die. So obedience and security define justice in such a society. Halpern would have called this relationship Subjection: you are subjected to the strong man's authority.

Now, the breakthroughs include division of labor and top down authority. This was a big step forward: it allowed societies of a few thousand people to thrive, and today, you can understand the dynamics of the society by looking at a street gang or a wolf pack. It's very much a winner take all type of world.

Conformist organizations

Now the next stage in Laloux's book is Conformist. This started about 4000 years BC, and it's based on immutable law and order. Does that sound familiar? It should: this is Halpern's Act One Emanation relationship. This gave rise to hierarchies. Now, the breakthroughs in this case were repeatable processes and stable organization charts. You'll find this structure persists to this day in armies, churches, and many school districts. It's organized a belief that there's really only one right way of doing things and leads to in one way or another an organization of caste and class structures in addition to hierarchies.

Now, Halpern would say This way of life is irrevocably dying in the face of modern realities, as we'll get to in a moment.

Achievement (orange) organizations

Laloux's next phase of political development is Achievement. By the way, he assigns these stages colors, so Impulsive was red, Achievement is orange, and so an. Achievement-based organization is organized like a machine. And the assumption behind it is that now we can question everything, we are free to question everything. So not only are questions arising, and challenging old authorities and hierarchies, but the only way to get by in such a world is by continuing to ask and test new questions.

So this is the paradigm that gave birth to Liberty as a political ideal, and to liberalism. And what we now think of as conservatism today; they're all liberals from this perspective.

In an Achievement-oriented political structure, we're constantly asking "what if."

Not surprisingly, this gave rise to the Scientific/Industrial Revolution starting in the 1750s, and to the rise of democracy, and of course, the rise of corporations. The breakthroughs are innovation, accountability and meritocracy.

But Orange organizations have a deep shadow, and that is materialism, which has led to environmental destruction. Again, Halpern would have characterized this stage as incoherence with no justice, nobody owes you anything, you just play the cards you have.

Pluralistic (green) organizations

Laloux identifies a new stage starting in the 1950s, which he calls Pluralistic and the color there is Green. In this case, the organization works like a family. And so we start to pay attention to things like harmony and tolerance. The breakthroughs here are empowerment, value driven culture, and multiple stakeholder focus. This is the structure that you'll find in co-ops. And the shadow here is that it invites a consensus process which can be stultifying and paralyzing to an organization. It doesn't scale that well, unless you break it up into little clusters.

Evolutionary (teal) organizations

Which actually brings us to the Teal innovation, which Laloux calls Evolutionary, but I think a better word would be Ecology, starting in the 2000s (actually a little bit earlier, as we'll get to in a moment). So in this case, the organization is a living system, that is to say an ecology. And the breakthroughs here are self management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose.

The reality of an ecologically organized company is that it's dealing with complex systems. Whereas a company built on a machine metaphor is dealing with a complicated system. If a complicated system is like an airplane, a complex system is like a flock of 100,000 birds that don't collide, but change direction instantaneously when a predator comes near. And they do this without any managers or leaders, but instead by following the same simple rules of flight, and exercising lots of individual discretion.

To give you a sense of how very nimble and powerful these kinds of organizations can be, let me give you an example. This is the Buurtzorg company in Holland, which has grown to a company of about 9,000 homecare nurses.

Originally they had managers, and they were always rushing through their jobs because the managers were putting pressure on them to put a certain number of bandages on people and get a certain amount of work done each day.

But when this company was founded, the idea was that people would have no managers, and instead that they would have self organizing teams of 10 or 12 nurses. So imagine the organization of 9,000 nurses in small teams of 10 or 12. How would that go, do you think?

Well, as it turns out, they use 60% fewer hours than prescribed, because they bring their whole selves to work. So this addresses the breakthrough of bringing wholeness to the workplace. And because their whole selves are there, they see opportunities to advocate for their patients. First of all, they get to know their patients. And they find ways to build autonomy and social capital for their patients. So they might go knock on some doors and make some introductions. They might call their children and get them a little bit more homecare, because they got to know the patients, they were able to do more preventive interventions, and this brought hospital admissions down by 30%.

Paradoxically, by eliminating management entirely, they were able to drastically improve their performance. How did they do that? Through self management, and wholeness.

Now, what about that other breakthrough: evolutionary purpose? Now, you might think that a self-organizing company would have a lot more meetings, but actually it has a lot less. There's still a CEO. But his job is mainly to listen to what the organization wants to become. That's what evolutionary purpose means.

Someone will come to the CEO with a proposed initiative. And instead of convening a task force and studying it for months and getting reports back and rolling it out slowly, what he'll do is just post the proposal to his blog, which is read by everybody in the company, and collect comments on it, maybe several hundred in some cases. And by the next day, he's usually ready with a go/no go decision that people can implement immediately, rather than having to wait four months and endure a really long rollout procedure.

Can you see how that is so very much more efficient than the top-down Achievement organizations are capable of? And how it's also more efficient than a consensus-driven organization.

One of the other jobs of CEO of a Teal or Evolutionary organization is to hold space for their identity as an evolving organization, so that when they are under stress, they don't regress to less effective models such as hierarchies or huge lists of processes or worse.

Now, Laloux introduces just a few of the very many methods and innovations that have arisen in recent decades that employ this Teal organizational concept. These include holacracy, Agile, Scrum, Theory U, and the one that I'm familiar with is Sociocracy, otherwise known as Dynamic Governance.


Now, the whole point of Sociocracy was to overcome the tyranny of the one, that is to say autocracy, AND the tyranny of the many, which is when democracy basically becomes mob rule. My main reference here is We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy by John Buck and Sharon Villines published in 2007.

Now, Sociocracy is a fairly detailed methodology but it rests on three governing principles:

First consent governed decisions. So, in other words, decisions are approved by default, if there is no argued and paramount objection when a group meets to make a decision. So, this breaks the log jam that is so often present in consensus processes.

The second governing principle is the circle, which is basically a self-run team or unit very much like any Teal company would have.

The third governing principle is double linking between circles. That is to say, the connection between two circles is one operational leader and one or more representatives. Now, the operational leader is appointed from above if there's a higher circle that coordinates several circles below. And the representatives are appointed from within a given circle. So these people participate fully in the decisions of the next higher circle.

Now, this might seem really strange --this double linking structure-- but it gets around a really thorny problem that I encountered actually as a public school teacher, which is that a foreman has a conflict of interest. I mean, do they represent management or do they represent labor? And in my case, the union got involved in promotion decisions. And so I was often wondering, well, whose side are you on?

In sociocracy, perhaps the most striking feature is that anyone can be promoted to upper leadership in just a couple of meetings. In their book, Buck Villines described how a Dutch shipping company faced a complete collapse of their industry. And they were looking at layoffs when a machinist proposed to save the company. He was appointed from Fabrication circle to the General circle. And from there to the Top Circle. They implemented his suggestions and it saved the company.

So this was a very agile response to a catastrophic situation that the company faced. That would have been nearly impossible with any prior organizational structure.

Edenicity governance circles

I'm not an expert in any of these organizational principles. But let's get out that reference design that I mentioned earlier. And take a look at the physical structure of Edenicity. And imagine how a self organizing circle structure would work with each of these units. First of all, at the very bottom of the design is the city block. This would have a population of 250 people. And it would include Zone 1 rooftop gardens and Zone 2 block scale gardens, plus the cafe and perhaps the people involved in maintaining those would be a circle. There might be a physical plant, an events circle. They might also look at recycling and maintenance. Perhaps it would all be one circle, I don't know. But the block would certainly have one and perhaps several circles.

The next scale up is the village. There's 24 blocks in a village. So there's 6000 people in a village. And the village would govern the Zone 3 broadacre crops and food forests, ponds and livestock. Also foot and bike paths, power generation and storage and use. And already I start to get a sense of real stability, as this would shelter it from the many changes that are overtaking the energy industry. It might also manage a daycare, which has perhaps 200 children in primary school with 400 students.

There are nine villages in a town so a population of 54,000. The town would be responsible for Zone 4 farm forests and recreation areas. It would no doubt have a fire department, probably a police station, small clinics, farmers market, small businesses, a Loop repair shop, a bike repair shop, the newsdesk, middle school, high school, trade schools and small colleges with a few thousand students.

The next level up is the city, which operates Zone 5, the wilderness beyond the city, where it would be doing a lot of restoration work. It would also no doubt have departments such as justice, including courts and maybe jails; Public Works, handling the water quality and waste recovery for the city; planning and business permits (by the way, most of today's businesses would really have to stretch to accommodate the ground rules of working in Edenicity because it's built for ecological sustainability and very few businesses outside are). There'll be a transportation department maintaining the loop and Hyperloop stations and tunnels as well as peripheral parking and perhaps airports. There would be hospitals and universities with up to 200,000 students, and no doubt a Taxation and Public Finance Department, as well as perhaps a Central Library and Archives with a Recorder of Deeds.

So as I went through that list, I think it's pretty clear that there's a lot of opportunities to structure the governance in all kinds of different ways, whether traditional or in different circles, whether the circles are vertically or horizontally oriented. In other words, whether they are at the level of block, village, town, city or whether they are by function, those details are probably going to change from one installation to another.

But we really do live in an exciting time in the arc of organizational history. We have the possibility of evolving better, faster ways to accommodate and thrive under complexity and constant change, as well as ways to avoid the tyranny of the autocrat AND the mob. We have the opportunity now to show up to work as our whole selves and not just as cogs in a machine. And so this is really good news for diversity and inclusion.

And hopefully these structures give us the ability to participate in the governance of the systems we depend on for our lives without being sucked dry by the process the way it's so easy to do when you're involved in a political campaign today.

Under stress, we regress

Now, Edenicity may or may not have mayors, but if it does, one of their functions will be to hold space for their ecological identity. Remember, under stress, we regress. So when things get really bad, we may long for a stronger process with more rules and regulations. We might long for immutable law and class structure, more hierarchy, and if it gets really bad, we might even look for stronger leaders and rulers and end up with dictators. But that way lies chaos and deformation.

The dominant reality of our times is ecology. It's dynamic, complex, networked and alive. If we want to stop destroying ourselves in our world, we need to design cities capable of steering --that is to say governing-- their way into this reality.

Close [music]

If you enjoyed Episode 18, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. If you haven't already done so, please visit the news link at to download a copy of the reference design and the one page transformation theory summary. And please join me next time when I'll take you on an end-to-end tour of permaculture, the key design tool for the series.

I'm Kev Polk and this has been Edenicity.


Edenicity 18: Governing a City

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