Understanding “New Power” — What’s really “new” here?

Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms articulate a much-needed reframing of the discussion around technology’s role in social change in their Harvard Business Review piece, “Understanding ‘New Power.’” The question of technology’s impact, they say, is too narrow and misses the big picture — arguing that power itself is shifting from an old framework “enabled by what people or organizations own, know, or control that nobody else does” to a new one “enabled by peer coordination and the agency of the crowd.”

It’s a refreshing and thought-provoking re-focus on the most important element of social change work. But it misses the mark.

The new thing here is not a type of power itself — power comes through the scale and efficiency gained through resource consolidation, whatever form the power takes. That’s not changing. However, the mechanisms of consolidation are changing rapidly , and that is an important opportunity for grassroots movements. A public that increasingly seeks the “visible… payoffs of peer-based collective action [that] endow people with a sense of power” is a rich resource for driving social change.

The “new power” the authors articulate is, in fact, a very old power — grassroots, people power — with some exciting new tools and values.

Corporations are becoming more and more responsive to this climate. Companies increasingly see the demand for individual empowerment as an important business consideration, and leverage that demand by including consumers more deeply in their growth efforts — not just as consumers, but as advocates and collaborators

Virgin Airlines launched a public support campaign (including a website and a petition ) to win access to Dallas Airport. Their campaign, which won in 2014, is a strong example of a company leveraging “new power” values — grassroots power — while keeping a foot squarely in an old power model. At the end of the day, Virgin is an airline seeking to build infrastructure and reach, through a power play for market share. And it worked because it was an authentic alignment of customer demand, high-quality product, economic drivers, and the objectives of the airline.

In the same way, “new power” companies like Kickstarter, Etsy and Lyft are leveraging grassroots mechanisms to consolidate their power and to grow. In each of these examples, power is not shifting away from corporations, but rather these businesses are meeting the public demand for individualization and communication (by modeling “new power values”), with the effect of both consolidating a lot of power and making a lot of money.

Organizations and institutions that adapt to this shift in public expectations will find new opportunities for the attainment, maintenance, and growth of their power. It’s a bit old-fashioned, really. Leveraging the intelligence, will, power, and resources of millions of people in democratic systems does, in fact, shift power.

Conversely, those who fail to adapt to these new expressions of grassroots power are more likely than ever to see their power deteriorate.

In a social change context — including public service and government — there are significant lessons to be learned from the private sector on this front. And that lesson is absolutely not that the consolidation of power is going away anytime soon. On the contrary, social change efforts will be most successful when they, too, come together as a dynamic force of consolidated power to create institutional and cultural change.

The opportunity in the “new power” values the authors propose is in finding new avenues to consolidate grassroots power — to channel the current of the public will in new ways given the new mechanisms and context available to them. This opportunity won’t be brought about by throwing away or dismantling the existing infrastructure that gives us power (NGOs, Government agencies, community organizations, philanthropic groups, democratic systems) but rather by evolving those systems so that we can take advantage of the strategic and tactical opportunities presented in the shift of public expectations and identity.

Key challenges for grassroots work and “new power” in the United States

A critical challenge in “new power,” which Heimans and Timms point out, is the loss of public belief in government to solve social problems. A core pillar of liberal values and beliefs is in the power of laws and governmental systems to create a just and equitable society. If, as Heimans and Tims argue, new power “gravitates toward the view that big social problems can be solved without state action or bureaucracy,” we have a huge problem of strategic and ideological misalignment. You can see this play out today in the debate over the education system, where publicly funded and managed education systems are falling away to privately owned schools, textbooks, and tests while demand for strong public education remains strong.

In the context of a shifting understanding of the role of government overall, issue campaigning becomes a proxy for that foundational debate. Organizations would do a huge service to the movement if they addressed the idea of (and difference between) public and private solutions to social problems in a clear and meaningful way. Its a question that the “new power” framework demands be robustly, publicly discussed and answered.

Second, we need to get beyond “storytelling” and harness individuals’ increasing ability to to amass real, if temporary, power into broader movement work. Storytelling has been the darling of progressive action, and increasingly of corporate PR and marketing efforts for nearly a decade. But thus far, much of that storytelling effort has subsumed the story of an individual into a broader organizational or movement effort (or presidential speech). The storyteller becomes a proxy for voicing the demands of a pre-existing institution, and in this new context, that limits their effectiveness.

We need to recognize the strategic opportunities that new players bring to the fore: in a context of distrust in institutions, authentic and unaffiliated individuals have increasing influence. We need to be ready to uplift and support those individuals and the rapidly forming constituencies that they can amass.

In a new power framework, the heroes of social change will not be institutionalized professional organizers or long-standing dynamic leaders, but rather the people who decide in the face of their personal tragedies to seize their most vulnerable moment, publicly, and demand changes that will impact us all. Think about Jose Vargas coming out as undocumented, Zach Wahls and his two moms, Molly Katchpole cutting up her debit card.

In the new power framework, it is our job as institutionalized drivers of social change to create the infrastructure for these very people to lead, for as long as they can, and to win with the strength of consolidated, institutional power behind them. Instead of going to the parents of a child killed in a school shooting with an anti-gun agenda and asking them to become our spokespeople, we need to authentically and with deep vulnerability and humility teach them (if they choose) how to harness the fleeting power that their moral authority bestows. We need to be able to pour resources and training into these people, and we need to fund them.

Finally, funders and funding models need to adapt too. While there has been some progress in the flexibility of institutional funders, progressive movement funding is largely in the “old” model — focusing on top-down planning that often stays in the ivory towers and can have a knee-jerk distrust of the broad public. It’s true that “there’s a fine line between democratizing participation and a mob mentality,” but broad-based grassroots social change work is necessarily about channeling the energy of the mob.

Institutional funders need to be comfortable with public opinion as an agent of change, not as something to be controlled or shaped, but as something to engage with authentically. And they need to support organizations in following the innovative solutions presented by unlikely sources and at unlikely, and often inconvenient times.

Organizations have a key opportunity presented by crowdfunding models here, and this is one of the most interesting elements of the “new power” proposed by Heimans and Timms. There could be a true shift in the democratizing of social change movements through the tools of crowdfunding, and it would be amazing to see a Kickstarter campaign to pass important legislation or stop a bad corporate practice match the deep pockets of institutional funders and billionaires, as Lawrence Lessig is working to do now with his super PAC to end super PACs or as the economic justice movement has done with loan buy-backs.

A strategy isn’t a goal

Progressives can be dazzled by process, and with any new model there’s a risk that “becoming a new power organization” could come at the expense of a focus on outcomes and the strategies that will achieve them. As the authors point out, both the old and new frameworks have weaknesses, and we should not interpret “new power” (read: modern grassroots power) as the always best lever to pull when advancing social change.

We should not forget that at its core, power is still about consolidating and focusing resources behind specific outcomes, whether you do that by owning the means of economic production, or by harnessing collective action with an SMS campaign. We cannot confuse the emergence and use of new avenues to amassing power with the acquisition of power itself.

The public’s newly understood power must carry with it newly understood responsibility: to build lasting and good social change in culture and institutions that create social harm. We can help build that understanding, and channel it into the critical work of building strong consolidated power networks to advance the public good.