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I recently read a fascinating article by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms about “New Power” in the digital age. The authors argue that the nature of power is fundamentally changing from an old “currency” structure—where power is traded between a privileged few and wielded through top-down leadership—to a new “current” structure where power emerges through sudden, energetic surges of mass participation driven by open, peer-driven networks.

These networks use digital tools to share, shape, fund, produce, and even co-own new systems—think Kickstarter, YouTube, Airbnb, or Wikipedia. Through platforms like these, individuals no longer just passively consume information or products; rather, they actively mobilize to create new economic structures and organizations.

New power networks are also embracing values that are radically different from the past: informal decision-making and self-organization; open source collaboration; transparency; do-it-yourself “maker” culture; and short-term, conditional affiliation. While today’s power structures have not completely shifted toward new power—the authors consider some of the most successful modern organizations to be entities such as TEDx and the Huffington Post that are “bilingual” in navigating both new and old power dynamics—the directional trend is clear.

New power is already transforming business models across nearly every industry. But how will it transform our governing institutions? What will it mean to be a citizen in a world of changing power dynamics, and how will global society shift as the nature of power evolves?

In many ways, there is a fundamental disconnect between our emerging digital society and the institutions that govern it. Our governing institutions are, in essence, the ultimate old power structures: slow, bureaucratic monopolies that rely on strict hierarchies, complicated rules, and indirect feedback loops where citizens only exert influence through elected or appointed leaders. While businesses race to keep up with the pace of change in order to stay afloat, civic service providers such as schools, hospitals, utilities, and city agencies remain relatively untouched in these early years of the Digital Revolution. But this separation cannot last forever. Shifting power models are changing every aspect of our society, and they will inevitably bring about the radical reinvention of government and public services, as well.

Can we channel new power to improve our institutions in productive ways? In our recent Innovation that Matters report, we outlined a “Civic Entrepreneurial Framework” that describes the evolving interactions between citizens, entrepreneurs, and institutions. The three-way interactions between these actors form a “Triangle of Civic Innovation”:


New power can flow multiple ways within this ecosystem. Civic institutions like schools, hospitals, or city governments can engage entrepreneurs in order to tap into the potential of viral, mobilized citizen networks. For example, a new app called SeeClickFix helps city governments channel the power of the masses to identify problems in their city and communicate how they are being resolved. In this scenario, proactive partnerships between startups and governments create opportunities for innovative popular participation.

Alternatively, entrepreneurs can provide a helping hand to citizens in order to put pressure on disengaged institutions. In 2013, large groups of young, disaffected Brazilians frustrated with high inflation and poor quality public services suddenly mobilized in the hundreds of thousands, using social media to vent frustrations, broadcast instances of police violence, and organize protests across the country. Mayors, governors, and the federal government, all caught by surprise, pledged to overhaul the political structure and public services. In this scenario, institutions are not channeling the new power of citizens but rather being forced to react to it.

As we move forward into the 21st Century, both of these scenarios will become increasingly common. Forward-thinking institutions will form partnerships that help them to channel the new power of the masses, and reactive institutions will have change forced upon them as entrepreneurs find creative ways to build tools that enable citizens to organize themselves in novel ways.

This is not to say that old power is no longer relevant. Insider connections still matter, and finding ways to penetrate complex organizations to influence key stakeholders will remain as essential an ingredient for enacting meaningful change as it has been for thousands of years of human society. Mobilizing citizens will still require leadership. But old power will no longer be the dominant force it once was. New power—the sudden, unpredictable surges of mass engagement and awareness—will forever transform the way citizens interact with the institutions that govern them.

Patrick McAnaney

MA Candidate, Johns Hopkins SAIS

Before enrolling in his current graduate program, Patrick led 1776's research initiatives. He had also worked in business operations for Downtown Project in Las Vegas, where he opened the Downtown Container Park…