What is Civic Synergy?

Social innovation appears important because, as anticipated, it indicates viable ways of dealing with [intractable problems]: solutions that break the traditional economic models and propose new ones, operating on the basis of a multiplicity of actors’ motivations and expectations. [1]

I vaguely remember civics class in junior high school.  What I do recall is how little it seemed to resemble the way the relationship between government and its citizens actually worked.  This was particularly true in the predominantly black neighborhood where I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio from 1949-1967.  I’m sure that theoretically all of the textbook boxes were checked off: people voted, paid taxes and obeyed, while bending, the law.

However, in no way were we equally represented in city or state government nor on the police force or in the firehouses. Shortly after I left home to attend college in Massachusetts, Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland in November 1967. That was a big deal. He was the first elected black mayor of a major city in the U.S.

The foregoing might lead one to conclude that my childhood neighborhood was socioeconomically disadvantaged. On the contrary, I lived in a thriving, robust community that included street after street of family-owned homes, main streets and boulevards teeming with locally owned businesses, safe and well maintained public parks and baseball diamonds filled with kids, reliable public transportation and easy access to some of the most wonderful cultural resources in the nation.

That’s not to imply that Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood was immune to the discriminatory and racist practices that were prevalent throughout the country at that time. 

[Cleveland’s] postwar era was also marked by progress in civil rights. In 1945 the Cleveland Community Relations Board was established; it soon developed a national reputation for promoting improvement in race relations. The following year, the city enacted a municipal civil-rights law that revoked the license of any business convicted of discriminating against African Americans. The liberal atmosphere of the postwar period led to a gradual decline in discrimination against blacks in public accommodations during the late 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, both hospital wards and downtown hotels and restaurants served African Americans.

Despite these improvements, however, serious problems continued to plague the African American community. The most important of these was housing.

As the suburbanization of the city’s white population accelerated, the black community expanded to the east and northeast of the Central-Woodland area, particularly into Hough and Glenville. Expansion, however, did not lead to more integrated neighborhoods or provide better housing for blacks. “Blockbusting” techniques by realtors led to panic selling by whites in Hough in the 1950s; once a neighborhood became all black, landlords would subdivide structures into small apartments and raise rents exorbitantly. The result, by 1960, was a crowded ghetto of deteriorating housing stock. At the same time, segregation in public schools continued, school officials routinely assigned black children to predominantly black schools. In 1964 interracial violence broke out when blacks protested the construction of 3 new schools, as perpetuating segregation patterns. Frustration over inability to effect changes in housing and education, coupled with a rise in black unemployment that began in the late 1950s, finally ignited the Hough riots for 4 days in 1966.

-The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

Against seemingly insurmountable odds our neighborhood flourished. I can best describe it as a decentralized, safe, nurturing and mutually supportive ecosystem that was nested within racially charged national, state and city layers. Bound together by pride and commitment to resist racist oppression, our families self-organized into a tightly knit organism capable of generating a powerful form of social capital that empowered and enabled us to prosper in ways that conventional wisdom could not comprehend.

That is civic synergy: the collective power of people in organized networks to transform the systems that affect their lives. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative leveraged it.  The Cuban revolutionaries leveraged it.  Interestingly, so did the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) following the tragic fire in 1967 that took the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Staff and Board, 1990.

In “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disasters” Rebecca Solnit describes how natural and man-made disasters can be utopias that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society. Neither capitalism nor socialism can save you when all hell breaks loose.  People — your family, friends, neighbors and sometimes, total strangers – can. The question is, can the same kind of solidarity be mobilized to create opportunities for positive change absent a life-threatening catalyst? (Although it can be argued that it may already be too late for that).

NASA’S Tragedy: An Expanded Concept of Community

NASA and its contractors still tend to date events in terms of ‘before the fire’ and ‘after the fire’. Before the fire there had been the usual run-ins between NASA and its contractors…Suddenly everything changed. NASA Administrator Webb came to realize that relationships with the contractors were defective and that the inter-communication they had fought so hard to obtain was not working as well as they thought it was. The result was an intimate new sociology of space, a new kind of government-industrial complex in which each interpenetrated the other so much that it is hard to tell which is which. Frequently now the government and corporate participants in Apollo display an emotional – at times almost mystical – comradeship that seems unique in industrial life.

-“The Unexpected Payoff of Project Apollo” by Tom Alexander. Fortune. July 1969.

Interactive Networks

Interactive networks facilitate the sharing of encouragement, insights and innovation among individuals championing specific solutions to their local problems and among others concerned with the same type of problem. [2] The emphasis is on innovation not invention, although inventions may be developed as part of the process. Tools such as systems maps help reveal the active or potential networks that can facilitate innovative change within existing systems while helping stakeholders envision and build new systems that are truly free, just and sustainable.

Is that too utopian?

Then I plead guilty as charged.



[1] Manzini, Ezio. “Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. The MIT Press. 2015
[2] Parker, Louis Allen. “Interactive Networks for Innovation Champions: A Mechanism for Decentralized Educational Change. Harvard University, Ed.D., 1971.