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21st Century Civic Infrastructure: Under Construction

The 28-page paper, 21st Century Civic Infrastructure: Under Construction, written by Jill Blair and Malka Kopell was commissioned by The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and published in spring 2015. The paper offers 3 keystones for building an effective and more equitable civic infrastructure: engaging all sectors; enlisting all voices; and creating vertical and horizontal thoroughfares for the exchange of information and practice. Below is an excerpt of the paper, which can be found in full on The Aspen Institute’s FCS’s site here.

From the introduction…

Our existing civic infrastructure was not designed with intention; it evolved over time in an ad hoc fashion and was built, in part, as a result of investments made over time, largely by philanthropy, but also by private and public sector entities. While philanthropy has helped to populate our current civic infrastructure with nonprofit organizations, the public sector has introduced civic infrastructure policies – from public hearings to citizen budget commissions, and the private sector has contributed to civic infrastructure as well by sponsoring everything from volunteer engagement programs to corporate social responsibility efforts.

The investments and contributions have created a set of institutions, organizations, policies and practices upon which society has come to rely to facilitate public engagement in what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “associational life.” This is civic infrastructure, and it is made up of civic platforms of interplay and participation that enable us to connect with one another and to discover, express, and act on our collective community and civic interests.

We are suggesting here that given the myriad ways in which the world has changed and the persistence of the problems our civic infrastructure is intended to address, there is a need not only to revisit that infrastructure but to consciously create an infrastructure capable of meeting the challenges of our times. Our existing civic infrastructure is, in some cases, failing to take advantage of opportunities, in terms of today’s technology, communications and access to information. In other cases, our current system is failing to meet the challenges it was intended to overcome. Some remnants of 20th century civic infrastructure are ineffective and others may be damaging or undermining or compromising our potential for positive social impact.

As leading investors in public problem solving across all content and disciplines, we see philanthropy as the primary, but not the sole, audience for this paper. As problem-solving investors, philanthropy historically has been a source of support for many of the institutions and organizations that comprise our civic infrastructure. With that said, the concepts presented here are relevant to all individuals and organizations committed to building a better world — one in which fairness, justice, economic and educational opportunity prevail and where all people are engaged as stakeholders in civic and community life. We offer this concept of intentional civic infrastructure design to provoke broad interest and to spark participation in its further development and realization.

We set out to explore the nature of and to begin to frame the principles of an intentionally designed civic infrastructure. We conducted conversations with 18 individuals1 and facilitated a number of small group discussions representing a range of philanthropic, nonprofit and private sector organizations. Many of those interviewed are quoted anonymously throughout this paper. We posed questions about designing a 21st century civic infrastructure in small groups gathered to discuss a range of issues, from democratic practice to place-based or neighborhood-based philanthropy. From these discussions and building on our original intention, we have gleaned what we believe are the keystone elements of a 21st century civic infrastructure wherein organizations and relationships are redefined according to what is both needed and possible given the times in which we live. We offer these keystones in a nascent stage, hoping to provoke deeper exploration and exposition. We are convinced that this moment calls for a close look at what is possible, and a closer look at steps we can take to get there.

It is time to conceive and construct, imagine and then create, a new civic infrastructure that enables full engagement in community and civic life. We must build it to be more robust and to achieve greater impact on the most vexing and troubling issues confronting our communities and the nation at large.

We intend this paper to be the basis for a series of organized conversations during which the keystones will be refined and made practical by examples and by trial and effort. We hope our colleagues in philanthropy and beyond will consider how to apply the keystones to their own portfolios and their ways of doing business in order to consciously cultivate better conditions for 21st century problem solving. As we apply these principles and our new expectations to practice, the nature of 21st century civic infrastructure should become clearer. We will build it as we go; we will recognize it as it manifests along the way. We know this approach may require reimagining, recreating and dismantling organizations and strategies to which we have become accustomed (and perhaps even committed), but that is the nature of building.

This is an excerpt of the paper, which you can find in full here

About the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions
The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solution’s mission is to support community collaboration – including collective impact – that enables communities to effectively address their most pressing challenges. The Forum works to accomplish this mission by pursuing four complementary strategies including: 1) building awareness by documenting and lifting up impactful strategies and stories of success; 2) mobilizing stakeholders through knowledge and network development; 3) removing barriers by advocating for effective policy; and 4) catalyzing investment by encouraging funder partnerships.

Follow on Twitter: @AspenFCS

Resource Link: http://aspencommunitysolutions.org/21st-century-civic-infastucture-under-construction/

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