The New Visionaries: Eli Ingraham

I met Eli Ingraham not too many years ago, but have only really been talking with her actively during the past few months, as we’ve been strategizing the Future of Work community together, where she’s been instrumental and has taken a leadership role, especially with regard to our advisory council (announced earlier today).

About Eli Ingraham


Eli Ingraham

Eli Ingraham is a digital innovator, social strategist and collaborative economy thought leader. She was recently head of Social Business at Aetna, Inc., has worked in social business strategy with clients like Pearson, PBS, and with the Community Roundtable, and was director of digital and social media at WGBH, the Boston-based PBS station.

The Interview

Stowe Boyd: In a recent article on collaboration — The Future of Collaboration Isn’t What It Used to Be —  you seem to be using the term in several ways. You wrote,

Together we build and rebuild, together we make sense of things, together we decide what to take and what to leave behind. Together, we are not overwhelmed, because Collaboration is the Mother of Intervention of our time.

This sounds more like connection than collaboration to me: the sense that we are linked together, and that our understanding of the world is tempered by an awareness of being networked with others, and the power of networks as a means of agency.

Eli Ingraham: My intention with this comment harkens back to a compelling passage in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, actually. Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and agricultural industry changes. As the Joads set out for California in search of a better future, there is a moment when they ask, “What shall we take? What shall we leave behind?”. To me, this was a fitting metaphor for how we bring forward the best elements of our past into a technologically advanced future. On a greater scale, as an entire culture, we prefer to decide that together. When things get unsettled, we have a tendency to band together in order to restore equilibrium.

The humanization of business constructs, leadership models, economic benchmarks, domestic habits, seems far more fathomable than reengineering political doctrine. – Eli Ingraham

I believe connection, collaboration, and cooperation are intertwined and interdependent forces. Rather than splicing and dicing these terms, I see greater value in elevating them as a collective of powerful and interoperable methodologies, capable of creating meaning, opportunity, and stability, in a time of great change. While intellectual frameworks are helpful, the key is to interpret these words into reality, in a simple and focused way — to define unencumbered tools, participation models, and policies that support the greater good, and address the bigger issues. I think your expression, “the power of networks as a means of agency” is spot on. Networks are attracting talent, coalescing resources, and starting to have real impact, both within the workplace and in the world-at-large. Networks are reinventing and reinvigorating our way of life, turning even the prolonged negative aspects of a Great Recession into new ways of doing things, as evidenced by the emerging Collaborative Economy.

SB: In your piece, you make a case for the ‘collaborative economy’ and how it might disrupt business, but I felt you were missing the single distilled value proposition for those two words side-by-side. What is the 140 character answer to ‘what does a collaborative economy mean?’


@eliingraham: The #CollaborativeEconomy means redefining our relationships w each other in order to redefine our relationship to “stuff” cc @rachelbotsman

In other words, the future of this world should no longer be determined by institutions acting in their own best interest, but by people, individuals acting collectively in empowered networks, as well as in those organizations conducting business in ways that reflect currency, meaning, sustainability, and genuine public interest. But We the People have to take a hard stand to not buy goods and services from companies that do not improve our civilization. Easier said than done, but people are doing it.

Companies are getting it. Convenience and Consumption are being replaced by Awareness and Access. What’s compelling about the Collaborative Economy, is that people are disintermediating companies by forming their own marketplaces. They are slowly diverting the economic lifeblood by creating conduits around the entrenched, encumbered mainstream.

The tipping point will come when companies realize that it’s economically and ethically profitable for them to cooperate in new ways, to elevate themselves by honestly advancing the Greater Good. Collaboration is everyone’s responsibility. I see a whole new field emerging of professionals deeply skilled at translating things like “sharing” and “sustainability” into household management, lifestyle changes, community development, small business operations, and ultimately, big business. I believe this could be a bigger and more strategic role for social business practitioners.

[Over simplified, but there you have it. 🙂 ]

SB: Like you, I have hopes for new sorts of cooperation between organizations and society, to avert the disasters looming in our future and to find new ways for us to work together for a more equitable and sustainable world. You wrote about a new scale of connection as a way to harness this potential,

a new global fascia — a structure of connective tissue that like our biological mesh, binds some structures together, while permitting others to slide smoothly over each other — that are getting the job done.

I’ve agreed with social critics like Frederick Jameson and Zygmunt Bauman that solidarity has been difficult if not impossible to find in the present day, which explains why we seem unable to find common cause, and incapable of coming together to erect new institutions, but instead — as the Arab Spring and other recent upheavals have demonstrated — we seem only capable of pulling institutions down.

I suggest that fluidarity, not solidarity, may be our only path forward. Fluidarity is the notion that we don’t have to agree on everything to agree on a few things. We can act connectively, not collectively. Your thoughts?

EI: You make an important distinction here. The humanization of business constructs, leadership models, economic benchmarks, domestic habits, seems far more fathomable than reengineering political doctrine. That said, the Arab Spring movement clearly indicates an intense desire for change and more democratic, evenly-distributed, governance. The mechanistic, command and control methods employed to contain growing populations are precisely the reasons people are revolting. The more rigid and impervious the power structure, the more the solution seems to be revolution rather than reform. Plain and simple, sometimes it’s too hard and agonizing to put “new wine in old skins”. It generally doesn’t work, it’s inefficient, and it doesn’t bring about real change. Let’s face it, governments are enormous, complex infrastructures. Sometimes you have to tear down before you can build anew.

This is why networks are compelling. They are flexible and fluid, capable of circumventing rigid, unresponsive systems of any kind and on any scale. They are receptive, self-regulating, and adaptive, while holding fast to commonly held principles that propel toward a common goal. In 1980 Gdansk, it may have been 17,000 workers, aligned under the “Solidarity” movement, that seized control of the Lenin Shipyard and won the right to self-govern in an independent trade union, but it was a much wider network of public support around the strike that toppled Communism in that country. According to Radek Sikorski, a former deputy foreign and defense minister, “that was one of those moments when, suddenly, millions of people felt that they wanted the same thing, which was free trade unions to represent them against the [Communist] Party. It gave people hope that perhaps communism could be reformed. We now know that it couldn’t.”

Maybe networks are the trade unions of the Digital Era. Through networks we coalesce our voices and values to drive the changes we believe are in our mutual best interest. Maybe social networks are harnessing socialist principles without the scary politics. – Eli Ingraham

Maybe networks are the trade unions of the Digital Era. Through networks we coalesce our voices and values to drive the changes we believe are in our mutual best interest. Maybe social networks are harnessing socialist principles without the scary politics. The post-modern “consumer society” of Frederick Jameson’s world is starting to free itself from this consumptive shackle, and to align itself with a more enlightened mandate defined not by production and consumption, but by distribution and access; driven not by profit, but by prosperity — for everyone. I agree with Zygmunt Bauman [and you] that fluidarity rather than solidarity has a greater chance of succeeding. The notion of “not having to agree on everything” before taking action is liberating. And as you suggest, acting “connectively, not collectively” resonates with people’s natural preference for “unity over uniformity”. We cannot wait until we are all in agreement to start doing something about global warming. We do not need a perfect plan to begin the process of healthcare, tax or education reform. It has never happened that way. We understand it’s a process. Networks are crowd-sourced lobbyists, putting pressure on regulatory and legislative bodies to do their jobs, to make something happen, or move out of the way.

In addition to fluidarity, networks have “reflexivity”, a term introduced by sociologist William Thomas. I’m not a social theorist, but in the context of networks, I would argue that reflexivity is a community’s ability to be self-aware, to have consciousness and commentary on themselves that “bends back on” and informs their mission and efforts. It is both aspirational, a self-fulfilling prophecy, as in “if we want this badly enough, it will happen” and self-referential, as in ” if we want this to happen, we’d better manifest it ourselves”. This internal reflexivity lowers the viscosity of networks so they remain agile and laser-focused. Relexivity not only keeps them honest, it keeps them engaged and effective, by reducing the factors that cause them to solidify, primarily distrust and personal gain at the expense of others. Over time, networks become increasingly more self-aware, reflective, and empowered.

Cyborg anthropologist, Sheldon Renan, is credited with saying,

As society progresses, the creation of value liquefies and begins to flow unfettered. The production time it takes for value to occur declines. To survive, products and interfaces must quickly flow from spaces of high-resistance and poor usability to spaces of low resistance and user interaction.

So while the Arab Spring movement may appear to have overthrown only a handful of corrupt leaders, the unrest in Tunisia liquified into upheavals in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Western Sahara, and the Palestinian territories. Heck, it even migrated to America as part of the Occupy movement.

The rebuilding of the political and socio-economic frameworks will come, but the powerless standing around and waiting for something to happen has ended. We have demonstrated our spectacular ability to harness networks to break the log-jam, to end the grand game of The Emperor’s New Clothes we’ve been playing, in business and politics, especially. Now we are realizing their enormous potential to help us devise powerful solutions, to replace broken systems, to create marketplaces, innovation labs , even new currencies.

It’s not that we are becoming more decent, more honest, more creative, more caring. It’s that we are becoming more connected and discovering that, thankfully, the majority of us share these values, even though some bad apples have done real damage for a long time. We now have the ability to stop the madness, to band together and take things in a different direction. All aboard the new and improved Cluetrain, people.


I admire Eli’s aspirations, and her hope that we will be able to usher in a brand new era, a ‘collaborative economy’. My focus here, is to examine how that is happening in the world of work.

I will put aside any sort of analysis about the myriad Springs — Arab, Egyptian, Syrian, Ukrainian — that we have seen rise, and the numerous chills that have followed. For today, I will restrict myself to the changing world of work, where the dark currents of war, revolution, and conquest are at most metaphoric, and not a natural consequence of our actions.

Like Eli, I believe in harnessing the power of connection — of the reflexivity of networks — and the slow emergence of a new work culture that transcends the shallow and limited cultures found in organizations. That work culture is firmly based on an appreciation of humanness, and the degree to which we are benefitted by and shaped by our connection to one another.

As I have been saying for years,

I am made greater by the sum of my connections, and so are my connections.

This, then, is the new work culture, where we build on our capacity to find meaning and purpose through dedication to work, through the achievement of mastery, and the willingness to help others to do the same. Cooperation means that there is room for each of us to pursue our own ends while still connected and working toward shared goals, too.

And it is my hope that if we can rework the old ways of work — to break out of the industrial blinders and hierarchical mindset that pervades nearly all corners of business — then perhaps we can take that experience and take a long hard look at the greater problems that Eli touched on, the many aborted Springs that have sprung up in recent years. We may be able to reweave the ties that bind us in nations, states, and as a world, but let’s focus on the world of work, first.