Learnings from institution building

Learnings from the Charter Cities Institute and other work I've done on building new institutions and improving existing ones

I started the Charter Cities Institute six years ago. This year we hit an inflection point. The last six years were about building the intellectual scaffolding for charter cities. We did work with new city projects and governments, but progress was generally slow. Over the last year, especially the last six months, we’ve seen progress greatly accelerate to the point where our focus is shifting towards execution. 

Execution means getting 2-3 charter city projects off the ground. It means getting organizations like the African Union to develop frameworks for charter cities that allow for multiple charter cities to be built. We are confident in the model we’ve developed and its broad applicability, now we need to implement it. 

I’ve also been helping, advising, and participating in other projects adjacent to charter cities, including New Science, Vibecamp, Zuzalu, and Roots of Progress. This emerging scene, which takes Silicon Valley ambitions about scale, and applies them to building communities and spreading ideas, is very exciting. While software might eat the world, ultimately we are governed by institutions and culture which have different underlying rules than software and startups. 

A question that I continually return to, possibly the question I return to, is how we create new and better institutions and culture that reflect the demands of the 21st century. This includes both reforming existing institutions, as the Institute for Progress is doing, and building new ones, like New Science. It requires a deep understanding of power structures, memes, and the impact of technology and other structural forces. 

Silicon Valley is successful in a large part due to the ecosystem. There is a funding, mentorship, and talent network that allows successful startups to rapidly scale. A founder raising a Series A can quickly reach out to those who have successfully done so in the last year or two, allowing for rapid learning and iteration. There are consensus milestones for startup companies for funding, as well as emerging consensus milestones for hard tech companies. There is a shared understanding of building a startup, ensuring relatively effective talent allocation for companies. 

Building new institutions and improving existing ones requires a similar ecosystem. It requires effective coordination between different groups, funders who agree with the vision, and a talent network that can support the organizations, and founders who can see the need for new organizations. The last few years have seen the emergence of successful organizations like Institute for Progress, with many others at the start of their journey. 

When starting the Charter Cities Institute, I made the mistake of analogizing too closely to Silicon Valley. I had unrealistic expectations about impact and scale. I wasn’t quite sure how to build the organization, who to hire, what to prioritize, etc. As the charter cities space has grown and other organizations have emerged on similar trajectories, I’ve gotten a better sense of good practices for the emerging ecosystem. 

  • Need for new and improved institutions is greater than ever: Recent events, including the disastrous hearing with MIT, Harvard, and UPenn, regional conflict, the abysmal Afghanistan withdrawal, the covid response, and more have demonstrated the sclerosis of existing institutions. 
  • Patience: Building things is hard, especially when there’s no playbook. It took the Charter Cities Institute six years to hit an inflection point, longer than I wanted and far longer than most technology companies. Founders and donors need to have appropriate expectations for the magnitude of the task they’re engaging in. 
  • Building and maintaining momentum tricky: Startups live and die by momentum. With longer term projects, setting appropriate expectations and figuring out the intermediate steps is critical to keeping stakeholders engaged. 
  • Community is important: Having a community is valuable. Not only can it provide useful emotional support, it can create an iterated feedback loop that helps figure out what strategies are working and what strategies are less relevant. 
  • Run experiments, scale up success: The Charter Cities Institute engaged in some projects that, in retrospect, were not good uses of resources. However, the projects were an important part of the learning process, figuring out what worked and what didn’t. In high uncertainty fields, it’s important to create a search process to figure out what your leverage points are. That involves running experiments. 
  • Events are very important: The world for the last 70 years has been one of increased efficiency gains. Improvements to trade and processes create value. The world is moving towards innovation gains. As such, the alpha for multidisciplinary events has substantially increased. Coordinating those events is high leverage. 

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