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Age of Enlightenment

Engagement or Citizenship?

What Is Our Age?

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This blog post is an extract of a piece originally published on www.citizenrenaissance.com.

I would like to think we have now entered the Age of Citizenship, but I am not so sure.

The optimist in me believes that a new class of citizen influencers is emerging, challenging the historic dominance of moribund elites. Dramatic societal change is being driven by (access to) technology and by the behaviors that a more social world is shaping. Peer-to-peer trust is increasing, just as trust in traditional authorities (whether in government or in business) continues to fragment and decline. Those at the vanguard of today’s information revolution understand that content and ideas need to be likeable, shareable and atomic – and that “business” now sits properly within the contract between the individual and society.

Those at the leading edge of this change are witnessing the re-distribution of trust and influence, rather than wealth. Here, values are being re-appraised: making money is no longer the primary driver of reputation or benefit, as societal and social factors become more central to the story. Smart governments and smart corporations recognize the shifts, and are embracing them with re-imagined approaches that look to regular people (employees, moms, citizen journalists) to build new relationships. Engaged citizens might yet build a fairer society.

This is the optimistic view.

But not everything always runs to plan. The crowd may be as wise as Plato’s, but it could equally be as frenzied and as atavistic as Hobbes’. How to maintain order? “Autocratic” governments can still enable society by enhancing the economic and social welfare of citizens, who therefore may mind less that there are no pesky, democratic elections to get in the way. These governments are essentially the new business states – earning their license through a combination of economic and social reform – and their citizenship is of a very particular flavour. Paradoxically, “democratic” leadership (in government and in business) can fall quickly: penalised by citizen-stakeholders when seen to be not caring, not listening or not delivering. Here trust erodes fast and the License to Influence is quickly removed.

It might be that neither system is right or wrong, better or worse. And either – or neither – could emerge dominant.

The ‘third’ way might simply be classified as an era of proper collaboration and better behavior, within a new, tri-partite contract between Government, Business and Civic Society: the Age of Engagement.

Today’s Age of Engagement will bring inevitable challenges. The twentieth century imperial model – whether of nation states or globalized corporations – is no longer enough. The inconvenient truth for leaders, whether in government or in business, is that the pursuit of sustainable growth through an expansive, dominating geographical footprint based on exhausted structures is probably not consistent with a networked society that sees instead real communities and regular people.

The Age of Citizenship may yet properly emerge from today’s Age of Engagement. But engagement is the first imperative. The world is neither balanced, nor fair; neither top-down, nor bottom-up. We now have to confront the polarities and externalities of our times in a constructive, open and honest way.

Robert Phillips is president and chief executive officer, Edelman EMEA.

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