“One actor alone doesn’t have the solution” – leading urban change collectively

Interview with Petra Kuenkel

Multi-stakeholder partnerships and the capacity to lead change collectively are decisive if we aim for the creation of a sustainable urban future. In an interview with Urbanet, Petra Kuenkel, Executive Director of the Collective Leadership Institute, presented her insights on the success factors of urban development partnerships and their implications for the New Urban Agenda.

Ms Künkel, for many years you’ve been working on the concept of Collective Leadership. Could you give us a brief explanation of what this concept is about?
In the institutional world, the logic of planning and implementation is usually still built on a silo-approach based on a rather linear or mechanical worldview with little room for dealing with complexity. But if you look at the challenges for organisations and institutions, for example in the context of a city – climate change, security, social equity, resource management, public transport – these challenges can only be addressed successfully collectively – one actor alone doesn’t have the solution. We need to make a shift in the way we look at how we constantly change, and the emphasis here is on the “we” and not so much on the individual or the individual organisation anymore.

We need to look at leadership not only as an individual capacity, but as a way for a collective of actors to become successful as a group. Groups are usually cross-sectoral, they are cross-institutional, cross-ministerial and they are cross-level of society. And even if they differ in the details they need to have a joint concept and a common goal for the future. In this respect the collective leadership approach is a new approach because we need to move beyond conceptions of leadership that focus on the individual and rather look at the strategy of collectives to become successful in change formation and interest formation.

Why do you believe that a collective form of leadership is needed to master the challenges of sustainable development?
If we look at the structures that we have created, the many different institutions, for example the incentive systems, the laws, the regulations, the governance systems – the purpose of these structures is to manage the delicate balance between the individual interest and the common good. But we all know that if we get lost in structures they may not really serve their initial purpose or they may be biased towards certain groups of society.

We need to look at how we can create a shift in these structures back to their original purpose and how we can bring them together with the relationship management of people. And that is where the collective leadership approach actually can play a crucial role: It starts to integrate the flatland aspects, the facts and figures and structures and laws and incentive systems etc. with what I call “wonderland aspects”, the relationship management, the people, the identities, the culture, the dreams, the aspirations etc. The collective leadership compass that we developed is more or less a guidance that helps to bring these two realms of life to-gether.

What are the conditions for successful and equal partnerships? How do you get different stakeholders together to work on a common goal?
That is a very big challenge. First, people need to be able to look at the larger picture and leave for the moment their immediate interests and conflicts aside. If you are able to step aside a little bit, it becomes easier to work together in different ways.

Secondly, you need to have a joint strategy development to create orientation towards a future that is jointly owned by everybody. A reasonable engagement practice helps building networks and networks of networks, and this is what creates resilience and an equal collaboration system like a city. For that you need to have a step-by-step engagement.

The third factor is raising commitment to jointly find the best possible solution, so you need to bring innovation in and – and that is absolutely crucial, particularly in city development – look at the existing challenges from a different perspective and bring in actors who have ideas that you may not have considered before.

As a fourth factor, one should really look at the people and acknowledge the fact that change is about people. It is about going the extra mile to understand why someone else thinks and acts in a certain way. Only if different ways of thinking are respected there can be a shift in people’s perception of each other.

The fifth factor is to create a setting where collective intelligence can merge and respect for differences can be developed, also in conflictive environments. That is a huge stepping stone when it comes to harvesting progress out of difference.

And finally, people need to realise the larger context of the initiative or partnership. They need to say “we are operating in a context, our initiative is contributing to a larger story, to a larger goal”. The moment people do that it becomes easier to overcome internal difficulties.

What are common mistakes that should be avoided?
In my experience, there are numerous common mistakes that are being made, I will name just a few: one common mistake is that in the initiation of a collaboration process everybody is involved at the same time. It is pushing change instead of taking a slow step-by-step engagement process that would lead to a more sustainable success.

Another mistake is to ignore differences, especially differences in power. You cannot alleviate differences in power, but in a thorough stakeholder analysis you can develop a better understanding of who is powerful in what way and who wants what kind of change.

Then you can work with people to acknowledge the power differences and see where they can be shifted, for example by giving weaker stakeholder groups like informal settlers in cities of developing countries a voice in order to raise their possibilities to have influence.

Partnerships and collaborations are seen as crucial for cities in developing countries to find new solutions to their complex challenges. How can they realise effective partnerships at the local level?

I think that there are several points that are crucial. Number one is: take collaboration seriously. It is really important not to slide back into competition or planning things without consultation.

Number two is shifting the focus from events to really collaborative change pro-cesses. Events, conferences and learning workshops are important, but they need to be embedded in a long-term change process. In addition, it is important to combine the regulatory parts, the planning and the governance systems with high quality dialogues that acknowledge the different actors in a city. Also the stakeholders in the change process need to define how they want to measure success in city development.

And finally, you have to look for what engages people emotionally. If they start identifying with their city or with a certain issue you should definitely make use of that and create an atmosphere where people begin to feel that they are part of a bigger story and want to contribute to that. And then, of course, establish a culture of joint learning – that is extremely important.

At the Habitat III cities conference in Quito this fall, the member states of the UN will agree on a New Urban Agenda. In your opinion, how could the New Urban Agenda catalyse multi-stakeholder partnerships and collective leadership at the local level?
I think it offers a good chance to add a new approach to the agenda and to focus on the city as a whole. A city is a complex collaboration ecosystem and an interaction system that has most often a number of dysfunctional subsystems. So I think what is important is to go through what I call the “nested” collaboration ecosystems of a city and also consider the different target groups and the different stakeholder groups.

And it is extremely important to have a good combination of a bottom-up and a top-down approach. The first one would take into account the parts of the city that are relevant, as small as they may be, for example communes, quarters or an issue-based collaborations etc. The different collaboration ecosystems then can get in touch with each other and learn at a meta-level. At the same time – as a second aspect – it is extremely important to have a top-down collaboration ecosystem approach that enables the main functions of the city, the important authorities, the public sector or private sector organisations to get together at a higher level and dis-cuss how they can push things forward collectively.

The third aspect that needs to be taken into account is to see where innovation takes place and where solutions are emerging that otherwise might not be noticed. It is better to support and to integrate people that are self-organised and develop things that could improve the whole system than to exclude them through regulations.

Petra Kuenkel

Petra Kuenkel

Executive Director at Collective Leadership Institute
Petra Kuenkel is an author and leading strategic advisor to pioneering international multi-stakeholder initiatives that tackle common goods and sustainability issues. As a Member of the Club of Rome and the Executive Director of the Collective Leadership Institute, she promotes the scaling-up of collaboration skills for change agents from the private sector, public sector and civil society. She is a pioneering thinker on re-inventing leadership as a collective competence. Petra Kuenkel is the author of the ground-breaking publication “The Art of Leading Collectively” (Chelsea Green, US, 2016).
Petra Kuenkel