Three years ago when he founded the Clinton Global Initiative, which has emerged as one of the most influential and prestigious annual gatherings of world leaders, former President Bill Clinton understood that the new century’s formative operating principles depended on collaboration, not hierarchy. Only through the efforts of untraditional allies working together could people make progress on any idea or project of real significance.
If you doubt this, just consider that in the 20th century the United States simultaneously built an interstate highway system, put a man on the moon, initiated a world-and economy-changing program of environmental protection, and enacted civil rights safeguards for minorities and women. Imagine trying to achieve any of these outcomes in whole or in part today.
Tomorrow I travel to New York to attend the invitation-only Clinton Global Initiative and see how the new global operating software works first hand. The three-day initiative draws together heads of state, academics, NGOs, business executives, and philanthropist to make “commitments” to produce change in four program focus areas — health, poverty, education, environment.
To date, much of the media attention that the affair attracts has focused on its glitter, the who’s who of global leadership that attends, the wealthy and glamorous that clamor to get into what has become the equivalent of the Academy Awards of the global public interest community.
But much more is at play here. In its basic structure, CGI is now arguably the best example of the diverse and untraditional convening organizations that have emerged in recent years across the nation and the world. These convening organizations, which differ in their form and function from traditional civic and governmental groups — chambers of commerce, rotary groups, Lions Clubs, government agencies, UN organizations — arise out of the need for communities and nations to find a way to negotiate the conflicts that too often occur at the intersection of politics, commerce, advocacy, philanthropy, and investment. Their role is to help resolve big public interest issues — like traffic congestion at the local level, or the freshwater crisis globally — that cross jurisdictional boundaries and the lines between race, income, religion, and the public and private sectors.
In my work with the Michigan Land Use Institute during the last 12 years I helped to form several convening organizations, which are places for people of disparate interests to come together to talk, get beyond their differences, and reach agreement to achieve some particular goal. I helped design a convening organization in Grand Rapids, in collaboration with local governments, farmers, and Michigan State University, that resulted in the strongest farmland conservation program in this state. The Institute formed another that found a better, less expensive, more environmentally sensitive alternative to a 30-mile highway bypass proposed for Traverse City.
The Clinton Global Initiative is a global convening organization — independent but also intimately involved with governments, NGOs, foundations, academic institutions, and businesses. It is now a model for the new governing infrastructure that is starting to emerge to respond to huge international problems in a way that fits the political, fiscal, cultural, and environmental conditions of this century. Clinton’s initiative understands the new operating tools and principles, especially the fact that governments, businesses, and citizens acting separately and alone are not capable of developing, never mind executing, the scientific, economic, or political strategy to achieve solutions. A second is that new means are needed to organize governments, businesses, advocates and citizens, and new communications tools must be applied to the various global crises that the Clinton initiative is tackling.
This week I’m blogging about the Clinton Initiative and working for Circle of Blue, a new online global journalism project based here in the Great Lakes region that has set out to help solve the freshwater crisis. The project, invited to participate in the Clinton Initiative, rolls into New York with eight untraditional partners from Europe and the United States. In its outline and concept, using original reporting to elevate and inspire people to respond to a global environmental crisis, Circle of Blue fits its time. So does the Cinton Initiative.