Seattle Foundation Blog

"New Localism" Lands in Seattle

Bruce Katz discusses where the real power to create change lies and how it can be used to address our communities' most serious social, economic, and environmental challenges.

February 15, 2018

The “new localism” is about reimagining power and developing new models of public, private, and civic sector partnership to solve community problems, says Bruce Katz, Brookings Institution Centennial Scholar who spoke with Seattle Foundation philanthropists and community partners on February 14th.

A longtime champion of community foundations, Katz was in Seattle to promote his new book, “The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism,” written with Jeremy Nowak.  In this book, the authors reveal where the real power to create change lies and how it can be used to address our communities’ most serious social, economic, and environmental challenges. Katz also spoke at Downtown Seattle Association’s State of Downtown Breakfast and at the Rainier Club during his visit here. 

“Power is shifting in the world,” explains Katz.  “First, it’s moving downward from national governments and states to cities and metropolitan communities and it’s also moving horizontally from the public sector to networks of public, private and civic actors, and globally along circuits of capital, trade, and innovation.”

Describing the current role of the federal government as that of a “health insurance company with an army,” Katz emphasized that communities cannot expect financial or policy leadership from the federal level and they must mobilize at the city and county level to solve their problems by activating new power dynamics.  “Power now belongs to the problem solvers,” says Katz, noting that research-driven universities are key partners in the cities that are the vanguards of the new localism.   

In The New Localism, Katz and Nowak tell the stories of the cities that are on the vanguard of problem solving. Pittsburgh is catalyzing inclusive growth by inventing and deploying new industries and technologies. Indianapolis is governing its city and metropolis through a network of public, private and civic leaders. Copenhagen is using publicly owned assets like its waterfront to spur large scale redevelopment and finance infrastructure from land sales.


The new localism is emerging by necessity to solve the challenges characteristic of modern societies: economic competitiveness, social inclusion and opportunity; a renewed public life; the challenge of diversity; and the imperative of environmental sustainability. “Where rising populism on the right and the left exploits the grievances of those left behind in the global economy, new localism has developed as a mechanism to address them head on,” he explains.  

One of the key tenets of this approach is quantifying and leveraging public wealth.  Most governments lack an understanding of the public’s “balance sheet,” the real estate, utilities and commercial assets that can be leveraged to raise capital.  With this knowledge, taxpayers, politicians, and investors can better recognize the long-term consequences of political decisions and make choices that mobilize real returns rather than relying on more taxes or debt.  


Also critical is the commitment to “decide” and not just “discuss.”  Katz noted Seattle’s long-standing reputation of debating major civic investment decisions, while the problems continue to worsen.  This approach, coupled with an overemphasis on public accountability, prevents timely action and results in higher costs. 

Katz also emphasized the emergence of community foundations in this new localism.  “Community foundations were invented one hundred years ago to channel private civic wealth toward public good. In the next 50 years, community foundations are going to be very important and they will be pushed out of their comfort zone to think about new models of deploying civic capital. It’s an amazing time for the community foundation.”

A reflection of this is Seattle Foundation’s Community Investment Portfolio, which provides philanthropists with strategic investments to further equity and opportunity in our region. Many of these initiatives are grounded in the approaches of the new localism.

To learn more about Bruce Katz and The New Localism:  How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, visit the Brookings Instituition website. 



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