Rebuilding our civic economy

O ur future prosperity depends on developing new, collective habits of complex thinking together. At the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab, we have introduced the concept of a “civic economy” to explain the importance of civility to our future prosperity. We have found audiences remarkably receptive to this new thinking.

Our civic economy supports our market economy. It represents investments that are publicly valuable but not privately profitable. These investments — often collaborative and undertaken by countless non-profit organizations, foundations, governments, and universities — support our shared well-being. They represent the collective responsibility that makes our individual freedom possible.

The incivility that has taken root in our politics threatens the health of our civic economy and undercuts our long term competitiveness and prosperity. At the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab, we are pointing in a new, more promising direction.

Civility and the health of our civic economy matters to our long-term prosperity

Economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have written a fascinating book, Why Nations Fail. They maintain that the character of a nation’s political and economic institutions largely determines whether the nation will prosper or fail. The key question they ask: Are these institutions extractive or inclusive? These findings go to the heart of our concept of the civic economy.

Research universities play a pivotal role in designing and guiding our civic economy

Who can lead the rebuilding of our civic economy? Answer: Our research universities. As John Sexton, past president of NYU, wrote in 2005, “Our research universities potentially can be a key to recreating the kind of public discourse our society requires and thereby maintaining the kind of civil society in which they themselves can thrive.” Sexton argues that the research university is uniquely positioned to rebuild our civic economy.

But how?

We can rebuild our civic economy by designing and guiding new engagement platforms

At the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab, we have experimented with the design of new collaboration platforms. Embedded with an agile strategy discipline — Strategic Doing — these platforms have shown a remarkable capacity to build complex collaborations quickly. These are the type of collaborations we need to rebuild our civic economy and accelerate innovation across organizational and political boundaries.

Platform business models emerged in the early 2000’s as companies began experimenting with how to design and guide networks — an ecosystem — which they could manage and from which they could extract value. Apple’s app store is a clear example of how a company can create a platform that encourages collaboration and creates value.

Universities can follow the same approach.

Rebuilding our civic economy is critical to our long term competitiveness

Some years ago, Pisano and Shih argued in a Harvard Business Review article that the key to restoring American competitiveness involved rebuilding the “industrial commons”. By that, they meant the shared industrial assets that could speed innovation across manufacturing firms. The industrial commons is yet another term for our civic economy.

In the years since Pisano and Shih’s publication, others have made similar arguments. Porter and Kramer have launched the Shared Value Initiative to underscore the importance of collaborative investment. Again, creating shared value is yet another path to strengthening our civic economy.

In sum, designing and guiding ecosystems of innovation around our research and universities represents a long term strategy for moving our economy to the next level of performance. We have experimented with these approaches both at Purdue and with our university partners.

We have learned that we do not need to leave the creation of these ecosystems to chance. For future generations, we have the responsibility to lean into the challenge.



Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st-Century America.— Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart received a doctorate from Oxford in 2001. He converted his dissertation into a book exploring the Jeffersonian virtues embedded in our republic could be applied in the 21st century. Link.

Gawer, A., & Cusumano, M. A. (2014). Industry platforms and ecosystem innovation. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 31(3), 417–433. Cusumano, a professor of management at MIT, and Gawer, at the University of Surrey, pioneered the academic work on industry platforms.

“Dogmatism and Complexity: Civil Discourse and the Research University”, former NYU president John Sexton’s speech at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in 2005. Link.

“The Nature as well as Rights of Man”.— Former congressman Jim Leach provided a thoughtful exploration of civility in a speech to the Vermont Bar Association in 2013. Link.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.— Book by economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson published in 2012. Link.

“A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future”, A Call to Action and Report from The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. Link.

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