On June 25 in 1876, two mortal enemies found that the differences they had between them paled in comparison to the a threat both encountered.  After the Civil War, the U.S. government turned its attention to the Wild West and the fight against the Indians – or as they called them, “savages.”

Two warring tribes, the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne were being relentlessly pursued by the U.S. Army – and specifically, General Armstrong Custer.  After numerous skirmishes with minor military leaders, they learned of Custer’s intention of attacking them in Southern Montana.

Separately neither the Sioux nor the Cheyenne had the upper hand … but together, maybe the result could be different. Unprecedentedly, Lakota chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull met secretly with Cheyenne chief Gall and devised a plan for their mutual survival.

The Sioux encampment of 6,000 plus was set on the banks of the Little Big Horn River in Montana.  Starting the night of the June 23, Sitting Bull moved the Sioux women and children down river out of harms way while the warrior chief Crazy Horse amassed the Sioux warriors in the cover of brush on the river bank.  After numerous skirmishes with Gall and his Cheyenne on high ground on 25th, the next day Custer moved down towards the banks of the Little Big Horn only to come face-to-face with the Sioux.

The infamous battle of Custer’s Last Stand lasted only twenty minutes with Custer’s army being annihilated.

Custer's white crosses

While the current economic climate and the fate of your community may not equate to the dire situation the Sioux and Cheyenne faced (or maybe economically and socially it does) … lessons can still be learned.

A community can’t isolate itself in a silo

A community’s resources extend beyond it’s borders: physically and socially. The borders and boundaries arbitrarily drawn a hundred years ago are nothing but an impediment to growth today. Let rivalries end on the high school basketball courts and football fields. A community can’t isolate itself in a silo in an attempt to ‘hold onto yesterday.’ And yesterday wasn’t really as good as we remember it. Civic and cultural myopia is a disease. A community should have it’s own identity and that’s good, but that doesn’t mean that identity shouldn’t evolve and expand. And with that evolution comes breaking down the ‘silos’ arbitrarily constructed many decades ago for purposes not at all relevant today. Threats and opportunities change as time changes. It’s a community’s responsibility to open their eyes and minds to all resources available to them, whether traditionally geographic or not. 

The boom in sports facilities is the latest version of a flawed strategy by cities — “building bling to accelerate growth,” said Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, a Brainerd-based community development organization. “You could be like the guy who has the big house and the big truck that are all under water.”

City and county municipalities concern themselves often only with their image and not so much of the actual welfare of their residents. We see this across all government entities. Ultimately this creates unhealthy competition amongst civic neighbors. Whether it be competition for property taxes generated by oil refineries in Billings, Montana or a Wal-Mart Superstore in Southern California, municipalities wage war in revenue ‘fight to the death’ cage matches – each trying to outdo each other offering freebies and rebates. And seldom is any consideration given to the indirect costs. Police, fire, sewer and water services aren’t delivered by Santa Claus.

An interesting piece came out in the Atlantic earlier this year called, “The Miracle of Minneapolis.” Ironically it should have been called “The Miracle of the Twin Cities.” The piece details the success the Minnesota metropolitan area has had in combatting neighborhood inequality. The Twin Cities have broken down the silos of individual cities and municipalities and worked as a unit. The region plans as a single unit and shares tax revenue as a single unit. For the most part no neighborhoods are left to blight and ruin because not having a sufficient tax base. Of course the Twin Cities plan is not perfect, but it seems to work better than any metro area that condones infighting amongst its constituent towns and cities (which is pretty much every other one).

Break down our self-imposed limitations in search for solutions to citizenry wellbeing

But even with the success of the Twin Cities enlightenment, we need to look past governmental entities and the traditional description of civic demarcation … and expand our cerebrally self-imposed limitations in our search for solutions to citizenry wellbeing. 

On the global front we’ve seen this search take us to the formation of non-governmental organizations where their participants are united not by geography or politics but rather by cause, ‘solutions’ and the desire to voluntarily make an impact.

The term “non-governmental organization” was first coined in 1945, when the United Nations (UN) was created. The UN, itself an inter-governmental organization, made it possible for certain approved specialized international non-state agencies—i.e., non-governmental organizations—to be awarded observer status at its assemblies and some of its meetings. Later the term became used more widely. Today, according to the UN, any kind of private organization that is independent from government control can be termed an “NGO”, provided it is not-for-profit, non-criminal and not simply an opposition political party.

One characteristic these diverse organizations share is that their non-profit status means they are not hindered by short-term financial objectives. Accordingly, they are able to devote themselves to issues which occur across longer time horizons, such as climate change, malaria prevention or a global ban on land mines. Public surveys reveal that NGOs often enjoy a high degree of public trust, which can make them a useful – but not always sufficient – proxy for the concerns of society and stakeholders.

The devolution of the Nation State

Parag Khanna, Managing Partner of Hybrid Reality, a geostrategic advisory firm (amongst other things) hypothesizes the decline of the nation-state:

“The broader consequence of these phenomena [devolution of nation states] is that we should think beyond clearly defined nations and “nation building” toward integrating a rapidly urbanizing world population directly into regional and international markets. That, rather than going through the mediating level of central governments, is the surest path to improving access to basic goods and services, reducing poverty, stimulating growth and raising the overall quality of life.” 

While Khanna was speaking mainly of nations and federal governments, the same postulates can also be applied to local governments. Why can’t a socially connected geographic area function as a NGO around common cause and joined concerns? Granted most local charities and non-profit groups that help out operate this way, and these groups may be geographically inclusionary … their focus and direction probably isn’t. Normally they operate as silos themselves focused on their own funding raising and disbursement of resources acquired. Each have their own cause and flag to bear. Seldom do they cross-pollinate efforts to synergize around the overall wellbeing of the communities they serve. Non-profit classifications and tax reporting create environments ‘holding on to their own.’ The sharing of donor and membership lists is often considered taboo. Competition here is not unlike that we see with municipalities. Many national and international concerns, by nature of their visibility and marketing resources, monopolize prominent ‘do gooders,’ leaving little more than scraps for local causes that often make a much larger impact in the community in areas of higher concern.

Imagine if silos, governmental and not, were taboo. Imagine sharing was the norm, not the exception. Imagine if the only concern was the people … not who was doing the helping. The goal should be breaking down silos of municipal and charity jingoism in lue of ‘making things happen.’

Individual volunteers and ‘Solutionists’ that can move from cause to cause

Imagine if the goal was to create an open-ended platform where invitations were extended to all, regardless of high school nickname or charity religious affiliation. This all-inclusionary platform is here to provide tools and guidance for diverse group aligned only around the causes and solutions they seek to pursue – not those pre-picked by marketing budget or the media.

This platform is not to be hierarchical, but rather organizationally flat. Any power structures created are only done so for each cause or ‘solution’ and the pursuit of them. On going organizations, constantly in pursuit of a cause and existing only for the act of self-preservation, are taboo in our evolved ‘solution’ based societal norm. When a problem or opportunity arises, groups are immediately formed and activities dispatched using the resources of the platform (including the human resources connected only to the platform). Individual volunteers or ‘Solutionists’ move from cause to cause depending on their current passions and availabilities. Nothing is wasted. Resources are put towards the solution, not to the preservation of the organization.

We need to look past these artificial restrictions we impose upon ourselves. And to do that, we should look past only the organizational concoctions devised by the human species. Nature provides many desirable alternatives including a Rhizome theory developed by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Rhizome features societal cross-pollinated connections, that allow for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points. Their theory is depicted in the example of the “orchid and the wasp” taken from the biological concept of mutualism, in which two different species interact together to form a multiplicity (i.e. a unity that is multiple in itself). Deleuze and Guattari called the organizational representation of the serendipitous platform of ‘solution’ activity I described above, the ‘Smooth Space.

As humans we put too much trust in hierarchy, structure and institutional control. In theory some of this is fine, but in practice in puts too much authority and power in the hands of few. We can’t assume all of those we entrust in leadership positions will be as benevolent as we wish. We need to only look at the statistics of the ever-increasing levels of inequality, especially in the so-called developed world. The more developed a country gets, the higher it seems is the concentration of wealth in the upper echelons of its population. This is an institutional problem, not a people problem. And blind jingoistic allegiance to these organizational structures produces little but inefficiency, bloat and inequitable distribution of affluence to those in power.

We need to think new and break convention, especially on local levels where change can occur easiest, and where it can occur while working within the constraints of the system. Let’s not build structure for the sake of structure and create silos because we always have.

The human mind is adaptable and able to mold to situations and needs, both in itself and others. Let’s take advantage of it.


If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.


You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

One thought on “Silos

  1. Lots of good points in this article. You’ve demonstrated your commitment to building networks by how you’ve re-tweeted articles I’ve posted to Twitter and Facebook and how you have encouraged others to look at my work. I encourage you to look at this and other articles I’ve posted on

    To break down silos, or to bring people together, I feel that someone needs to be building the information base that identifies the many different stakeholders within a geographic area, or across many geographic areas that share the same issues. Until that is done few can do the “invitation” and “network building” that needs to be happening over, and over, with a goal of nudging the people in the network to connect, form relationships, learn from each other, and ultimately work collectively toward solving common problems.

    While this sounds simple, it’s not. While I’ve maintained a database of youth serving programs in Chicago for almost 40 years, very few others have tried to do the same. While I’ve used my database to share information, invite people to come together, and to draw needed resources to all who are in the network, few provide the talent and financial support necessary to do this well, or do it consistently, and for many years.

    I hope your articles and our networking on Twitter help me discover others who already have their own “problem solving strategy” and are sharing it as much as I do on my web sites, on their own sites. As we connect, we can learn from each other, and we can try to innovate ways to generate the support intermediaries and information aggregators need to do the necessary work they do.

    Finally, just a suggestion. I think when we talk of silos we need to stop limiting support to NGOs and formal Non Profit organizations, and include anyone who is actively working toward social benefit. The non-profit structure, with a formal board of volunteer directors, is too cumbersome to innovate solutions and move quickly toward solving complex problems. The Internet has changed the information available to innovators and volunteers on most Boards are not yet committing the time to their governance to support the creative thinking and innovation needed in coming years. Mark Zukerberg’s Facebook donation, set up as an LLC, may be a reflection on not wanting to be restricted by the limits a non-informed governing board might place on him, now, or in the future.

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