DYNAMO Communities

Tobjörn Lahti explains the community dynamic involved in creating community vision.

Tobjörn Lahti explains the community dynamic involved in creating community vision.

Torbjörn Lahti,  master färdledare of the Sustainable Sweden Tour and co-author of The Natural Step for Communities, has served as a project leader in several communities seeking to incorporate sustainability principles into their community development efforts.

During the introductory session of the Sustainable Sweden Tour last August, he shared a perspective for framing different roles municipalities play. (A reminder: a municipality in Sweden covers a geographic area comparable to a county in Wisconsin.)

The first, perhaps most basic role for a municipality, is that of the AUTHORITY. It’s a top-down approach, “what the state tells us to do.” Municipalities serve as regulators and enforcers to ensure that certain minimum standards are met for the safety and welfare of the residents. Often this is to keep residents out of each others’ hair.  ‘Thou shalt not steal your neighbor’s goods or the authorities will prosecute.’

Relationship between government and resident is enforcer to potential violator; relationship between residents is potential perpetrator to potential victim. The leader’s role is to keep people in line.

A second role Torbjörn described was that of SERVICE AGENCY. The municipality provides a smorgasbord of services demanded by the market, like street maintenance, water delivery or emergency services.

Relationship between government and resident is vendor to purchaser; relationship between residents is hardly required, as co-consumers. The leader’s role is to keep a finger on the pulse of people’s needs, and provide these services at reasonable cost.

The third role is that which Torbjörn termed DYNAMO. In the long history of civil society, this one is relatively new in which municipalities play a role in developing territorial vision. This requires a different level of engagement between community members.  The government plays a role of catalyst in participatory democracy.

Relationship between government and resident is more like listener to participant; relationship between residents is partner to partner.  The leader’s role is to find a way to facilitate a conversation involving the entire community system, so they can build this vision together.

This might be my very long answer to Andy’s question in response to my last blog entry. I think a healthy community has all these leaders, but we tend to have too few of the DYNAMO leaders.  It takes a very different skill than we learn throughout most of our schooling: dialogue.

Sometimes I fear that we, in our society shaped by consumer-dominated language, are stuck in the model of my municipality = my vendor. It is far too easy to speak of government as merely a menu, and one that is never enough and always too expensive. Well, we can’t import water from China.

I wonder, what kind of relationship do we want with our fellow community residents? I hope it goes beyond bulk purchasing.

What kind of relationship do you think people want between their leaders and themselves? between the residents? What is a desirable relationship, in your opinion? How does that happen?


  1. This is a very interesting discussion. When I think of “dialog” I think of ideas moving back and forth — not in one direction. A message I try to emphasize to community members is that your responsibility did not end at the voting booth. It just began. I also discuss with elected leaders the importance of working with and listening to citizens. All too often, however, power differentials and indifference get in the way.

  2. It’s an interesting thought, but I find one major failure in government leaders: they are too interested in their own agenda. There are some that purport to “listen” to their constituents, but in reality they go along more with what they (the leaders) think the people need rather than what they actually need. There is too much of an ego.

    Likewise, with constituents, they fail to see the big picture. What they need in their corner of the world may not be what the community as a whole needs. So government leaders have to look at how they could provide these constituents the service they need while maintaining the good of the whole.

    Personally, I would like to see more residents attending city council meetings or town board meetings. I think that would help start an understanding of what government does and how it operates. You can also get a very good idea of what your representative is actually doing – are they doing what they said they would do when you called them the other day? We voted these people into office. We are, in effect, their supervisors. I don’t think dialogue should be from the top down – government to the people – but rather from the people to the government. And, as challenging as it will be, we all have to be intelligent about it.

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