Many 20th-century problems—a widening income gap, ongoing racial inequities and injustice, and environmental challenges—persist today, and some have grown worse. Our political system leaves more and more people out of the equation, and increased political and social polarization makes problem-solving even more difficult. 

To truly address these 21st-century problems, our society needs 21st-century solutions. We need to build a new civic infrastructure—one where fairness, justice, and economic and educational opportunity prevail, and where all people are engaged as stakeholders in civic and community life. 

In August 2014, the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions commissioned Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) Founder Jill Blair and Civity Co-founder Malka Kopell to help us answer the question “What do we need to tackle the 21st-century challenges we face, with the 21st-century tools we possess?” They conducted a series of informant interviews with practitioners and funders, and did a literature review of the civic-engagement field. This research culminated in the recently released monograph “21st Century Civic Infrastructure: Under Construction.” In it, Blair and Kopell conclude that—like our physical infrastructure (the roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, and water systems we built and continue to improve)—an intentionally designed civic infrastructure is crucial to living more relational and economically vibrant lives.

What is civic infrastructure and how do we build it?

Civic infrastructure is the foundation on which ordinary people participate in ordinary civic life—from joining neighborhood watch groups to entering the voting booth. It is the places, policies, programs, and practices that enable us to connect with each other, define and address shared concerns, build community, and solve public problems.

The paper is primarily intended for philanthropists but is relevant to anyone who seeks positive social change. It offers three deceptively simple keystones on which we believe we should build 21st-century civic infrastructure and asks some serious questions:

1. Engaging all sectors: Today, many lines that previously distinguished sectors are now blurred. The boundaries between sectors are dissolving, as we understand that the problems that plague our society affect us all. We need to mindfully support those who seek to engage all sectors in the problem-solving enterprise. When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz assumes public leadership on issues such as youth employment and racial equity, for example, he sends a message to employees and other private-sector leaders about the importance of engagement and the power of shared responsibility.Questions going forward include: When and why do we resist cross-sector collaboration? When and why do those in whom we invest welcome public and private sector participation in their work? What more do we need to learn and share to partner better with others?

Questions going forward include: When and why do we resist cross-sector collaboration? When and why do those in whom we invest welcome public and private sector participation in their work? What more do we need to learn and share to partner better with others? 

2. Enlisting all voices: Today we have tools and technologies that can provide real-time feedback from consumers of services. It is time to use these tools to listen to the voices of those whose lives we seek to improve, bringing people on the margins into the center. To increase community impact, for example, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Zilber Family Foundation, and Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual awarded funds to 21 neighborhoods to directly engage residents’ voices and help them identify high-priority issues.

Questions going forward include: Who qualifies as “on the margins” in the work we support, and are we hearing their voices? When are the voices of ordinary people incorporated into the strategies we support, and how? Who are our constituents and how do we engage with, listen to, and follow them?

3. Exchanging practice and knowledge: Today is a time of information exchange. Our 21st-century civic infrastructure must include the capacity to move knowledge, policy, and practice from local to national, and from national to local. We need to build our capacity and commitment to exchanging information horizontally as well—between and among like-minded efforts. Instead of developing living-wage policy proposals in isolation, for example, we must encourage an “echo effect” across communities—the proposals will benefit both substantively and strategically. Organizations such as the Center for Community Change are already actively connecting communities to strengthen strategies for achieving a living wage across the United States.

Questions going forward include: How are we communicating with others in our fields of practice and interest, and to what end? To what extent should and do those in whom we invest seek to contribute to and influence public policy, and scale their success by sharing it? Where are we sharing with and learning from others, and how are we putting that learning into practice? 

In addition to all of this, we also need to reinvent the concept and construct of intermediary organizations—those that build connections, marshal resources, and share knowledge. Blair and Kopell point to the “backbone organization” recognized by the collective impact movement as one example of reinventing this concept, but argue that intermediaries must be more intentional in their role. They call on intermediaries to bridge the differences between sectors, populations that the social sector must engage, and others who have the skill to move and collect knowledge and practice so that we exponentially grow the value of our efforts by their ready transfer, adaptation, and adoption. 

We all have a stake in creating the strongest possible foundation for the greatest possible participation of ordinary people in civic life. It is time to build a 21st-century civic infrastructure—one that supports the permanent capacity for community change and equality of opportunity. When we build it, all can come.