When Launching a Collaboration, Keep It Agile

Essay by the Stakeholder Alignment Collaborative: “Conventional wisdom holds that large-scale societal challenges require large-scale responses. By contrast, we argue that progress on major societal challenges can and often should begin with small, agile initiatives—minimum viable consortia (MVC)—that learn and adapt as they build the scaffolding for large-scale change. MVCs can address societal challenges by overcoming institutional inertia, opposition, capability gaps, and other barriers because they require less energy for activation, reveal dead ends early on, and can more easily adjust and adapt over time.

Large-scale societal challenges abound, and organizations and institutions are increasingly looking for ways to deal with them. For example, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has identified 14 Grand Societal Challenges for “sustaining civilization’s continuing advancement while still improving the quality of life” in the 21st century. They include making solar energy economical, developing carbon sequestration methods, advancing health informatics, and securing cyberspace. The United Nations has set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve by 2030 for a better future for humanity. They include everything from eliminating hunger to reducing inequality.

Tackling such universal goals requires large-scale cooperation, because existing organizations and institutions simply do not have the ability to resolve these challenges independently. Further note that the NAE’s announcement of the challenges stated that “governmental and institutional, political and economic, and personal and social barriers will repeatedly arise to impede the pursuit of solutions to problems.” The United Nations included two enabling SDGs: “peace, justice, and strong institutions” and “partnership for the goals.” The question is how to bring such large-scale partnerships and institutional change into existence.

We are members of the Stakeholder Alignment Collaborative, a research consortium of scholars at different career stages, spanning multiple fields and disciplines. We study collaboration collaboratively and maintain a very flat structure. We have published on multistakeholder consortia associated with science1 and provided leadership and facilitation for the launch and sustainment of many of these consortia. Based on our research into the problem of developing large-scale, multistakeholder partnerships, we believe that MVCs provide an answer.

MVCs are less vulnerable to the many barriers to large-scale solutions, better able to forge partnerships and a more agile framework for making needed adjustments. To demonstrate these points, we focus on examples of MVCs in the domain of scientific research data and computing infrastructure. Research data are essential for virtually all societal challenges, and an upsurge of multistakeholder consortia has occurred in this domain. But the MVC concept is not limited to these challenges, nor to digitally oriented settings. We have chosen this sphere because it offers a diversity of MVC examples for illustration….(More)”. (See also “The Potential and Practice of Data Collaboratives for Migration“).