06/27/2013 09:44 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Organizing for Metropolitan Change

America circa 2013 can seem like a place defined by drift and dysfunction. But there is change afoot away from the nation's capital, the usual focus of our attention.

Cities and metropolitan areas -- and the networks of individuals and institutions helming them -- are becoming our national leaders: experimenting, taking risks, and making hard choices to reinvent their economies and embrace their rapidly diversifying populations. This metropolitan revolution is at the cutting edge of reform, investment, and innovation.

On the ground, there are three essential steps to fomenting the metropolitan revolution: build a network, set a vision, and find a game changer.

Getting a network started does not have to be hard, nor does it have to be expensive. The informal power to convene is probably the least respected tool an elected official or recognized private or civic leader possesses but the most important one when addressing issues as multidimensional as the desired shape and structure of a metropolitan economy. Small simple gestures matter, such as simply sitting down with your fellow metro leaders, within and outside of your sector, talking over ideas, and asking who else can join the network. The costs of building a network can be comically low compared with the potential return of transformative investments that networks can bring to life.

Spend 15 minutes in conversation with elected officials or the head of the business chamber or local philanthropy. If they talk about the networks they are organizing or participating in and talk up their fellow partners, you have entered an open, functioning metropolis. If they talk only about their work and disparage other players in the community, you have entered a closed, competitive zone. You can predict in a quarter of an hour which metros are on a path to attract talent, crack hard problems, and make important choices.

Networks of leaders can then set a vision bold enough to redefine the identity and image of the metropolis. Successful visions are grounded in evidence, developed through the accumulation of relevant data and information, accompanied by smart analysis, experience, and intuition. This is, in part, Moneyball for metros. Moneyball -- Michael Lewis's popular book -- documents the unique metrics developed by the Oakland Athletics to assess baseball talent. By this unconventional approach, the A's were able to compete with free-spending teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Yet data is not enough. There is no super metropolitan computer that can take in information about every metropolis and mechanically spit out the right vision for each community. Once the data is gathered, leaders and stakeholders need to bring all their collective experience and intuition to bear in analyzing and assessing it. Former president George H. W. Bush once admirably admitted that he struggled with the "vision thing," feeling more comfortable with strategies and tactics. Most city and metropolitan leaders, if pushed, would probably admit the same. But setting visions is a critical step in the metropolitan revolution and, like network building, a platform for everything that follows.

Setting a vision naturally leads to the design and delivery of game-changing initiatives. What intervention has the potential to alter the trajectory of an economy? Each metropolitan innovation described in our book, The Metropolitan Revolution, is a game changer. Some innovations are game changers because of their topical focus: they embrace ideas and initiatives that were once largely seen as the prerogative of states or the federal government. For example, Los Angeles and Denver are part of a growing number of metropolitan areas that are contributing higher and higher shares of the cost of building transit and innovating new financing mechanisms along the way.

In other cases, a game changer means a radically new approach to a traditional issue. Consider Northeast Ohio's move to build an intricate ecosystem of strong intermediaries to serve the existing network of small and medium-size manufacturing companies. This is a far cry from the modus operandi of conventional economic development -- steal a business from an adjoining county with the allure of costly trinkets and subsidies.

The metropolitan revolution has emerged in a period of deep economic crisis and political dissatisfaction that has sparked a fundamental reassessment of roles and responsibilities in our 21st century system. Power is shifting in our country. We are not a nation beholden to the 537 elected officials in the federal government, nor are we in thrall to almost 8,000 elected officials in state governments. Rather, we are a powerful, growing nation of 315 million people, with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals playing active, participatory leadership roles in their communities and metropolitan areas.

America is a metropolitan nation. In this century, starting in this decade, we will finally and fully start acting like one.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.