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The Sinews of Society Are Changing

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The convergence of a birthday with Valentine's Day (which has been happening to me now for 81 years in a row!) is both a reminder and indicator of changes in how modern society works.

When you think about the world in 1931, the year I was born, well over 40 percent of Americans lived in small towns in rural America. People knew their neighbors, helped each other regularly and cooperated as best they could to make their towns and lives work. And they sent Valentine and birthday cards.

Today about 82 percent of Americans live in cities (only about two percent are as rural as in 1931) and hardly anyone knows most of their neighbors. People ignore street screams of people being murdered because it is none of their business. And birthday and Valentine cards are giving way to Facebook and other Internet connections, often with so many "friends" that the meaning of friendship is undergoing revision.

The really important sinews of society are the connections and shared concerns among citizens that produce focused and effective forces that make society work. A few years back, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who had done research in Italy, discovered pretty much by accident that communities that had choral societies had far and away the most effective local governments. He dug deep to find out why. The reason turned out to be surprisingly simple and obvious: The people who participated in the choral societies came from all parts of their communities -- bankers, bakers, bottle makers and busboys, of all ages, both sexes, sizes, rank, wealth and education. So when a community issue needed community involvement they talked about everything over their wine glasses after their choral society sessions. Simple and obvious yes, but choral societies and their ilk are no longer ubiquitous.

Some people argue today that "social media" has picked up the slack. It certainly is true that modern communications, starting with the simple cell phone, have enabled things like the Arab Spring, including Tahrir Square and Libya recently. But the ability of social media to create the myriad of linkages necessary at the local level to compensate for the loss of connectedness that existed in rural America is still very unclear.

Happily, there is another relatively new development emerging to help society work, which is called, for want of a sexier name, collaborative governance. Where communities have real problems that are NOT being solved by either the public sector or the private sectors, those two basic instruments of social order are experimenting with teaming up to work together. They have begun to find solutions to those problems that neither sector alone had been able to achieve.

One great example is the parks in New York City. A few years ago the parks had become a living hell. Then private parks conservancies started up and teamed up with city parks departments. The combination of private energy, initiative, money and energy with public bureaucracy, caution, responsibility, etc. evidently produced something new and effective and very important to helping to revitalize the parks for the benefit of the citizens of New York City.

The ancient wisdom of "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" is the basic linkage among people who know each other that keeps society in balance. Where those linkages have become attenuated due to the growth and anonymity of modern society, new methods have yet to be discovered and used.

This new tool, or recipe, is not political collaboration (which we could use more of as well) but it looks to be a new method which we could all learn more about on that day of love AND my birthday!