Friday’s Thoughts: Age of Collective Impact

For the past century, society has grown ever more specialized and balkanized. Today, we’re getting smarter about bringing people back together to build comprehensive solutions. This is a shift away from a trend that can be traced back to Adam Smith, who wrote in the very first sentence of “The Wealth of Nations” that the greatest gains in productive power come from the “division of labor.”

Smith famously showed that a pin factory could multiply its productivity many fold if each worker specialized on one narrow aspect of pin making. Henry Ford adopted the principle and invented the assembly line. Modern society is full of “pin factories” — inward looking agencies and organizations that operate in silos and bounce people back and forth like pinballs.

The problem is that social issues are multi-dimensional. If you want to fix the health problems in a low-income community, you have to fix the housing problems and the access to healthy choices. If you want young people to graduate from college, it’s best to get started when they are in preschool, or better, in utero.

And that’s how more people are beginning to think about problems. In a number of areas, we’re witnessing the sewing together, or integration, of social functions that have for decades been handled in piecemeal fashion. One of the best examples of this is the strategy that has come to be called “collective impact,” through which scores or hundreds of organizations in a city agree to coordinate their work, aligning behind an agreed set of measurable goals. In education, cities are building end-to-end “cradle to career” pathways.

-David Bornstein, “Social Change’s Age of Enlightenment,” 10/17/2012