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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? 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.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

This is a very specific, almost arbitrary, example of the systemic nature of the reality in which we live, and an illustration of the coherence of systems across levels and disciplines. The relevance, for me (other than exercising the sense of wonder that I believe should be driving us), is to draw attention once again to the ways in which we can better understand the context within which we live, both “human” and “natural” (it’s all natural, really), and, by doing so, can be better equipped to interact with that context wisely and productively. It stands in opposition to the movement advocating self-governance by shallow platitude, and in support of the movement that insists we are conscious entities, forever summoned to cope with the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world.

The October 11 issue of Time Magazine has an article in it about Blockbuster’s “failure at failing” (i.e., its failure to manage its demise in shareholders’ best interests), which made me think of what an excellent example audio-visual entertainment is of the parallels between economics and evolutionary ecology, with the distinction (among others) of far more cross-over synthesis  involved in the flow of innovations (like “breeding” of genetically dissimilar species to produce dramatically different ones). It is a story of dominant successors displacing eclipsed predecessors, combining with other dominant successors from other distinct lines of evolutionary descendance

Like a whole new species emerging from the combination of photographs (flipped in rapid succession) and, eventually, phonographs, first silent movies and then talkies spread like Eucalyptus trees in California. Movies shown at movie theaters became a dominant form of entertainment. Breaking this down a little, silent movies were the Neanderthals to the Homo Sapiens Sapiens of talkies, a dominant sub-species either displacing or interbreeding with the “inferior” one, driving it into extinction.

Then, by improving and adapting the technology of broadcasting signals encoded with sound (radio) to this form of entertainment, incorporating moving images as well, a new ecological niche was formed, one that would prove to be immensely robust: Television, in one’s own home (again, television being the dominant successor to radio, with the synthesis of audio-visual entertainment with broadcast technology being its genesis). The various species (audio recordings, radio, movies, and television) have found different ecological niches ever since, sometimes competing at one another’s expense, sometimes contributing to one another’s reproductive success. Silent movies were the only species from these various braided lines of development to go (virtually) completely extinct.

Within the television industry, various micro-ecologies evolved, with three major networks in the United States swallowing up and revitalizing local stations, forming a very robust symbiosis. Different content formats were tried and evolved: Talk shows, variety shows, news broadcasts (all off-spring of radio predecessors in form). Sit-coms, courtroom dramas, cop shows, and other archetypical forms, emerged and evolved, and occasionally blended into new forms (Ally McBeal and Boston Legal  each blending comedy and courtroom drama, for instance).

Meanwhile, movies evolved as well, with special effects, and various genres, and various motifs developing and cross-breeding and displacing predecessors in a variety of ways. And some cross-breeding occurred between movies and television (and novels), with mini-series briefly enjoying a heyday (though short-lived due to the expense of production, a species-killer, at least in television, at least thus-far).

Enter video cassettes, a technology cross-pollinator of movies and TV. Now movies produced for cinemas could be watched at home on television sets. This seemed to threaten the survival of the movie industry for awhile, reducing box office revenues dramatically, until the movie industry adapted, and found that home rentals and sales could be every bit as lucrative.

Then the separate evolutionary thread that produced the computer revolution cross-fertilized with these, as with virtually all other evolutionary threads, producing compact disks, and, eventually, streaming video (as well as downloadable songs and i-pods, and downloadable movies).

Blockbuster was an innovative business piggybacking on the invention of video cassettes, which made more sense to rent than to buy. It was a niche waiting to be filled. But like ostentatious displays such as huge antlers on elk or bright plumage on peacocks, signalling to potential mates a surplus of male prowess, few qualities contribute more to reproductive success of products sold in the modern market than increased convenience. So, with the invention of the compact disk (and more manageable postage rates associated with smaller size), Netflix swept in to occupy that niche, ultimately spelling doom for the far larger and richer Blockbuster.

Netflix itself had to adapt to streaming or downloaded video via computer, or it would have been displaced by dominant successors just as it had displaced Blockbuster (which failed to adapt in time, though it might now). In fact, Netflix faces stiff competition from others eager to fill the streaming and downloadable video niche, including Amazon and Apple. And a separate niche exists for supermarket and store based CD rental vending machines, in which Redbox enjoys an early dominance.

I’ve traced above just one set of strands of a far vaster and more complicated net, with, for instance, the evolution of audio recording devices (phonographs to reel-to-reel tape to cassettes to digital, with the various forms of vinyl recordings evolving alongside of magnetic tapes); different filming and projecting technologies and types (as well as production styles); television sets (from small black-and-white to slightly larger, then color, then much larger, then projection, then plasma screen); different television signal delivery technologies (local over-air broadcast, cable, satellite, digital, which catalyzed a proliferation of channels and networks); and, of course, evolving computer hardware and software intertwined with all the others.

Any aspect of the “anthrosphere” (human social institutions, technologies, products and constructions, and cultural motifs) can similarly be zeroed in on as one aspect of the evolutionary process discussed in “The Politics of Consciousness ,” and “Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future.” We can trace building construction, or aviation, or land transportation, or clothing, or medicine, or money, or markets, or warfare, or farming, or mining, or law, or political forms, or religion, or any other aspect of the human-produced sphere of our existence, in exactly the same way as audio-visual entertainment, and then trace the linkages and cross-fertilization’s among them. By understanding the anthrosphere in these terms, and contextualizing those human systems within the similar biological evolutionary ecological systems (the “biosphere”) that they mimic and echo, all within the framework of other natural systems (e.g., the hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere), we have a single, coherent paradigm within which to understand the entire global system, applying complex dynamical systems analysis adapted to the particular forms of analysis evolved to address various subsystems, focusing on different aspects in different ways, zooming in more tightly or panning out more broadly, but not arbitrarily divorcing any one branch from the others with which it is ultimately interconnected.

(see also Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix for more on this general theme).

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