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In the Perspective section of last Sunday’s Denver Post, Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote an excellent piece exploring the two competing development visions for Denver’s Union Station (Who’s on the right track with Union Station plans? http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19312116). What I like about this article isn’t just the informative discussion of a single issue of current significance, but rather how it focuses on one instance of a more general challenge we face: Public Entrepreneurialism.

In all of the ideological noise, the competition of those who consider government the enemy and those who consider corporations the enemy, we don’t discuss enough the shared enterprise we are in, in which both government and corporations are problematic but indispensable players. Treating the public sphere as a popular entrepreneurial challenge, with one of the issues being how best to articulate that public entrepreneurship with the private sector to maximize our welfare through the most robust and efficacious utilizations of both, is exactly what we need more of. This is a wonderful discussion of that oft-forgotten but critically essential aspect of public participation and discourse: How we can act together in productive ways to improve our social institutional landscape. Let’s hope that is the kind of conversation we have more of in the future, displacing the one we already have far too much of.

Public entrepreneurialism is a concept that can join the pantheon of entrepreneurialisms, along with commercial, political, and social entrepreneurialism. Commercial entrepreneurialism requires no elaboration: It is what is normally referred to by the term. The development and implementation of a commercial idea in pursuit of private profit is commercial entrepreneurialism, and it plays a vital role in the ongoing evolution of our social institutional landscape.

Political entrepreneurialism involves political leadership outside of the established and official political landscape, in service to fomenting fundamental political change rather than preserving or operating through the status quo. Gandhi, King, revolutionary leaders and leaders of radical political movements, are examples of political entrepreneurs. They might leverage assets, mobilize resources, and divert profits of other enterprises toward the political goal. Clearly, commercial entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of political entrepreneurialism.

And, similarly, political entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of social entrepreneurialism. Social entrepreneurialism isn’t about changing regimes or merely expanding the franchize; it is about altering the culture. Changing the political landscape may be a means to that end, but, for social entrepreneurs, it is not an end in itself. Political entrepreneurs are often also, to varying degrees, social entrepreneurs: Certainly, King was a social entrepreneur to a very large extent, and Gandhi to a lesser extent. (Gandhi’s goal was primarily political: Indian independence. King’s was primarily social: The end of racism.)

But political entrepreneurs do not need to be social entrepreneurs: Many revolutionary leaders are simply trying to topple the current political power structure and replace it with what they believe to be a preferable one, because they believe the preferable one better serves either the public interest or their own interest, or the interests of those close to them, or some distribution among these, depending on the degree to which they are acting idealistically or cynically, and selfishly or altruistically.

All three of these forms of entrepreneurialism, on average, involve a higher proportion of charismatic authority than other forms of leadership (see What is Leadership?), though rational and traditional authority may well be invoked as well.  Social and political entrepreneurship probably rely more than commercial entrepreneurship on charismatic authority (though commercial entrepreneurs are often charismatic; think Steve Jobs), if only because the rewards of the former two are less immediate and less fungible: Those who follow, or work for, a commercial entrepreneur can do so for the promise of income without being otherwise persuaded, while those who follow political and social entrepreneurs generally have to be convinced of the ideals for which they are working.

Public entrepreneurialism is something different from all of these, articulating them into a single enterprise, and doing so from or through the established power structure rather than in opposition to it. It involves the mayor who has a vision for his or her city, the governor who is focused more on long-term development than short-term indicators, the president who has a vision for the country that guides his or her policies as much as or more than the ephemeral tides of political exigency.

It also involves those who try to influence them, not to change the nature of the game, but to play the game that exists more beneficially. Commercial entrepreneurs exist on a continuum ranging from the purely profit-motivated to the socially idealistic and visionary, and political and social entrepreneurs exist on continua ranging from extreme radicalism to subtle tweaking of existing institutions. Those who occupy the ranges closer to the latter poles become more involved in public entrepreneurialism, in partnership with others who occupy the more visionary range of elected and appointed office and bureaucratic careers.

Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was less radical, less rejecting of the status quo, than Malcolm X; the American Revolutionaries less revolutionary than their French counterparts. The former were more willing to retain much and make changes mostly on the margins, moving the sophisticated package of human history along a slightly diverted trajectory rather than trying to destroy what was and replace it en masse with what they believed should be.

Public entrepreneurialism is characterized, for instance, by the vision touted by recent Denver mayoral candidate James Mejia, involving developing the river front in much the same way that San Antonia did in the latter’s creation of its famous River Walk; and by the vision espoused by now Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper during his campaign, in which he discussed a vision for Colorado that revolved around articulated roles for political, social, and commercial entrepreneurs (see A Positive Vision For Colorado).

Public entrepreneurialism can emphasize different aspects of our social institutional landscape: The economic, the cultural, the aesthetic, the charitable. It can focus on improvements in education, or in the delivery of social services, or in the production of wealth, or in the promotion of fairness and justice and human decency; but, at its best, it involves at least a little of all of these, emphasizing one more than others in each project, but pursuing projects which, taken together, emphasize all of these values.

We are indeed in a shared enterprise, one which we can participate in by “railing against the machine,” or one which we can participate in by “rallying agents of the organism.” The former is often more emotionally gratifying, assuming the role of someone external and superior to that which is. The latter is more productive and realistic, recognizing that we are indeed a part of something larger than ourselves, something that has a history and a value worth preserving and developing. Public entrepreneurialism can be bold, idealistic, even radical at times. But it is the kind of change realized through the realization that no viable change occurs that does not leverage what is to create what can be.

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