Building Resilient 21st Century Communities

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An historic re-calibration is taking place.

This is an era of unprecedented disruption. The pace and scope of change are faster and more widespread than anything ever experienced by humans, which is upending many aspects of culture. Because many changes are occurring simultaneously, they are contributing to transformations (or sea changes) across society. One of today’s most significant sea changes involves the purpose and structure of community.

What is a community?

Communities are dynamic social groups that share problems and interests within a specific time and place. They are organisms that need to be nurtured, and the right conditions must be present for their formation, growth, and survival. Ultimately, a community is a collection of people who find commonality around something, such as a social issue, a business goal, or a belief system. 

How are communities changing?

Communities typically revolve around three things: Wealth, status, and power. From a sociological standpoint, wealth refers to the resources possessed by a community or its members. Status refers to social standing (one’s place within a social hierarchy). Power refers to the ability to be influential.

While wealth, status and power continue to be key components of communities, the values (or currencies) associated with them are changing. Particularly exciting: A growing body of evidence suggests that while old currencies have begun contributing to inequality and injustice, several new currencies foster equity, sustainability, and profit.

Understanding and embracing these new currencies can help communities, whether they are neighborhoods, businesses, governments or non-profits create resilience and thrive in today’s rapidly changing world.

What are the currencies of wealth, power and status?

Old currencies of wealth

According to the old community paradigm, wealth exists as a mechanism for creating separation and distinction. Accumulation of resources is emphasized. A scarcity mindset, one that suggests a finite amount of wealth exists is promoted.

Example: Economic disparity around the world is increasing. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor is now the widest ever seen. In addition, new research has discovered a direct correlation between economic disparity and unhappiness.

New currencies of wealth

In the new community paradigm, wealth creates choices, which enables the pursuit of a purpose-driven life grounded in multiple types of health, including financial, physical, and spiritual. An abundance mindset is promoted. 

Example: There is a growing interest in economic holism, the idea that all aspects of well-being, including physical and financial, are inter-connected, and that true wealth results when these elements are aligned.

Old currencies of status

Community members play multiple roles within a community (that will always be true). The community decides which roles can be played, and how much status they are granted. For instance, a woman may simultaneously be both a mother and a physician, but if the community doesn’t grant equal status to both roles, it could be (and often is) difficult for her to thrive in both roles.

Example: When Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo and also announced that she was six months pregnant, her ability to lead the company before and after she gave birth was widely questioned and harshly criticized. In addition, while Yahoo’s stock value went up when Mayer’s hiring was announced, it dropped when her pregnancy was announced.

New currencies of status

The new status paradigm recognizes that while some roles within a community may seem to be in conflict when viewed as parts of an integrated whole, they can actually strengthen the community. 

Example: As the challenges facing humanity intensify, there’s a growing need for new kinds of problem-solving. Fortunately, some very clever and insightful ideas are coming forth, and they are being generated by people who would not be given a voice in the old status paradigm. For example, Boyan Slat, a 22-year old Dutch entrepreneur recently invented what was deemed a “feasible” solution to ridding the ocean of plastic. In the old status paradigm, his age might have precluded his idea from being considered. In the new paradigm, it’s possible for him to be taken seriously as an inventor despite his relative inexperience.


Old currencies of power

Power is defined by influence. A person or institution that is influential can use their influence to create change.


“The system is broken.” 

This has become a common refrain. For example, partisan politics is experiencing extreme division. A Pew Institute study recently found that, “Political polarization is the defining feature of early 21st century American politics,” and that, “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history.”

 New currencies of power

While consumer trust in many cornerstone institutions is at an all-time low, an interesting trend is emerging among the nation’s younger citizens, Millennials. While Millennials are the least trusting of all generations and often don’t trust most individuals or institutions, they do trust group reviews for products and services offered through the gig economy, like Uber. In other words, the consensus is a new currency for creating trust.

How to start building a resilient 21st century community

Recognize that all members of your community are experiencing this disruptive era.

How is this disruption impacting them? How are they reacting to it? Understanding the impact of potentially disorienting social change on community members can help leaders build an organization driven by empathy, which is a key currency of community resilience in the 21st century. These insights can also be applied to the audience or constituency your organization is trying to reach.

Identify the currencies valued by your organization and its members.

Do the currencies represent the old paradigm of wealth, power and status, or the new paradigm? How are the currencies manifested in the culture and function of your organization? What is their impact on the organization and its community members?

Amplify new voices.

Does your organization employ a rigid, top-down hierarchy? If so, try giving the community ‘microphone’ to different members. This doesn’t mean eliminating your org chart or infrastructure. Rather, it’s about seeking input from members who may not occupy positions of status in your organization. Seeking their input can help illuminate opportunities for seemingly disparate elements to be aligned, which can lead to a stronger, more holistic organization



Do the currencies associated with the old paradigms of wealth, status and power, still exist within communities? Absolutely. But the new currencies are gaining strength and credibility. Consequently, the 21st century is witnessing a massive cultural re-negotiation. The keys to community resilience are becoming clear: collaboration, inclusion, empathy, diversity, flexibility, and adaptability. That means the most pressing question isn’t whether the concept of community is undergoing a major shift, it’s how can we accelerate the transformation.

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