The Citizen Story: stepping into a many-to-many society - with Jon Alexander



The Citizen Story: stepping into a many-to-many society - with Jon Alexander

Jon Alexander joins us to talk about how we are moving from a consumer story toward a citizen story where people are part of actively shaping the many-to-many relationships that make up society.

Podcast Notes

Jon Alexander began his career in advertising, winning the prestigious Big Creative Idea of the Year, before making a dramatic change. Driven by a deep need to understand the impact on society of 3,000 commercial messages a day, he gathered three Masters degrees, exploring consumerism and its alternatives from every angle.

In 2014, he co-founded the New Citizenship Project with Irenie Ekkeshi to bring the resulting ideas into contact with reality. Since then, they have been on a mission to figure out how to use our skills — not just to sell stuff — to Consumers, and involve people in the decisions that affect their lives as Citizens.

In this engaging conversation, Jon shares some great insights from his latest book Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us. We also explore how we can move away from being a passive consumer to being an active agent, how collective power leads to exponential results, the responsibility we have to build our own systems, and what a Citizen democracy means for the government.

A full transcript of the episode can be found on our website:


Key highlights 

We discussed:

  • Defining Citizenship
  • The Subject and Consumer stories versus the Citizen story
  • How leaders of organizations can help to empower people to be Citizens
  • Becoming active agents of change and investing in the future


To find out more about Jon’s work:


Other references and mentions:


Find out more about the show and the research at Boundaryless at

Thanks for the ad-hoc music to Liosound / Walter Mobilio. Find his portfolio here:

Recorded on 13 March 2022.

🌐 Boundaryless Conversations Podcast is about exploring the future of organizing at scale by leveraging on technology, network effects, and shaping narratives. We explore how platforms can help us play with a world in turmoil, change, and transformation: a world that is at the same time more interconnected and interdependent than ever but also more conflictual and rivalrous.


Stina Heikkila:
So, hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Boundaryless Conversations Podcast. Today I am, let’s say, in the control room seat, and I’m here with Simone.

Simone Cicero:
Hello. Hello, everybody.

Stina Heikkila:
And we have the pleasure here to have Jon Alexander with us.

Jon Alexander:
Lovely to be here. Thanks for having me.

Stina Heikkila:
So, we discovered while when talking, before starting the recording here, that we all somehow connect by this incredible network that is Ouishare that we have all in some way come across in the past, mainly through the Ouishare Fest that has been this yearly conference for several years since the early 2010, let’s say 2013, I think, was the first one. So, really great to have you here, Jon. We are excited to talk about this topic of citizenship and how you conceive that, how you work with that, and also what you’re writing about that, because we know that you have your book coming out very soon. So, we have a lot to talk about today. But maybe what would be a good starting point, if you can explain how you look at citizenship, how you define it, and then we will go into how you work with that concretely.

Jon Alexander:
Thank you. Yes, I will do. And just to say, this book actually is very much itself a child of the Ouihare network. I think I met my collaborating writer, my co-author, Ariane Conrad, at Ouihare. And in fact, I saw her speaking at Ouishare and went and collared her then and there, and then we’ve been talking ever since and that was back in 2015. So, it’s a long time in the gestation, they’re very much a child of the Ouishare network. So, yeah, the ideas I work with, so essentially, I think about the idea of the citizen as a story of who we are, a story of humanity, and and I juxtapose it, I think too often in the world today, the idea of citizenship is counterpose, to non-citizenship and thought of as a status that you either own or don’t or as a passport you hold. And I think it’s actually much more helpful to think of citizen in contrast to two other possible stories of humanity, which I described as the subject story and the consumer story.

And actually, this is a kind of a broadly historical shift and context that I talked about. So, up until the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th, the dominant story of the individual in society, I argue, is something like the subject. So, in the subject story, the right thing to do is to keep your head down, do as you’re told, get what you’re given on the basis that the God-given few who rules society know best actually, and they will lead us to the best outcomes for society as a whole. And then that story, I think, collapsed at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th. As I say, with the industrial revolution, rise of the middle class, the burgeoning of technologies. And out of the two World Wars, we got a different story more or less consciously, more or less deliberately, which describes the consumer story.

Consumer story says the right thing to do is to get the best deal for yourself, to look out for number one, choose the best option for you from those often on the basis that the pursuit of individual self-interest will add up to collective interest. The famous Milton Friedman language of the social responsibility of business is to maximize its profits is a really direct expression of this. It’s like self-interest is social responsibility. And I think what we’re living in right now is an analogous moment to the transition between the subject story and the consumer story, or at least an analogous collapse. I think just as the subject story fell apart, in the late 19th to early 20th century, the consumer story is falling apart now, it just can’t sustain the weight of its own contradictions. It is a cause of many of the — an underlying cause of many of the problems of our time. And what might be emerging in this moment is what I would call the citizen story.

So, in the citizen story, the right thing to do is to get involved, to share your view, to contribute your ideas, energy and resources to the pursuit of the best outcomes for society as a whole and encourage others to do so on the basis that all of us are smarter than any of us that actually, collective intelligence is how we’ll figure out what’s best for society as a whole. That moment in time that we’re in now, is that a moment when the consumer story is collapsing, and yet it is trying to be — there is an attempt to reboot it, the subject story is kind of roaring back, but also the citizen story is emerging. And I guess the reason for writing the book, at this moment in time was to say, we need to be able to see that as a possibility in order to be able to step into it.

Simone Cicero:
So, Jon, let’s double click a bit on this idea of the citizen story, which is extremely interesting and I reconnect these, for example, with some conversations we had previously with probably a friend of yours, Indy Johar. I’m sure you know Indy. And he speaks about this idea of transitioning from basically the corporate economy, the private economy into what he calls the civic economy, right. And so I’m really curious to understand from your point of view, what are the differences between the subject story, and the citizen story? What is really this transition? What does it mean really to go through this transition between being a consumer and being a citizen, from the perspective of not just approaching, for example, what we buy, or how we participate in existing corporates, for example, as equity holders or with other forms of cooperation, but much more in terms of what do we actually have to do firsthand. So, what is the real — How do we really implement this citizen story, from our perspective, in terms of contribution?

Jon Alexander:
I think, as I say, these are stories that — I think the way we tend to think our society works is that we play many different roles and many different times that we’re parents and students and teachers and employees and employers, and we move between those roles kind of seamlessly. And what I’m really saying is that underneath all of those, there’s layer of kind of foundational story, what Arlie Hochschild, the Berkeley sociologist calls a deep story that actually forms and shapes how we play all of those roles. And what this is about is saying that we’re experiencing a shift at that level of story or experience contention at that level. And so if I zoom in on the subject story, the right things to do, the ways to behave in that time were about, like, the role that most people can play was just to obey and receive and the role of organizations and leaders was to command and sort of direct operations, as it were as the kind of the hierarchy the central brain function.

And in a consumer society the promise was that that would flip upside down. The idea was that individuals, the role of the individual, like we could choose between options, we know our own self-interest and the role of organizations and leaders becomes to sort of be in service. And I think what’s powerful about talking about those three, rather than just juxtaposing say private and civic and as you say, I know Indy and love his work very deeply. But I think putting those three together, lets you sort of see a bit more why the consumer story why that logic is so appealing, because it is a liberating shift. It puts the power to choose in people’s hands, that the kind of gray line and limitation of it is that it confuses being able to choose between options with meaningful power because there are so many options to choose between, it makes us sort of forget. It disguises the fact that the real power lies in shaping what the choices are. And it shows up in every aspect of society. So, it’s not just about a shift from business being the most powerful function in society back to government, or whatever. It’s actually like — I think it’s much more about saying every organization and every institution we have, is in many ways, kind of manifesting the consumer story and keeping us in that story. And what we need to do, what all organizations need to do is actually step into an idea of themselves as an idea of the people they are working for and with as citizens not just as consumers.

So, for example, the work with the New Citizenship Project, we have this line we say we help organizations do stuff better, because we think of people differently. Like our work is essentially an inquiry asking, what would this organization be if it thought of people as participants and citizens and people with agency rather than, as consumers and creatures of self-interest who need to be served. So, whether it’s a charity, like the National Trust, which owns visitor attractions all over the country, historic houses and places of natural beauty, in a consumer story world, that becomes very much a consumer proposition that’s about selling days out, providing value for money. In a citizen story, that organization becomes a movement of people who believe that beauty matters, and they’re coming together and experiencing these special places as part of that movement.

Business changes as well, business stops being just an extractive kind of Milton Friedman logic I mentioned already sort of profit maximizing function and becomes a profit making function, but one that recognizes the citizen business as opposed to the consumer business is a business that recognizes its interdependence with broader society. And government, there is a fundamental transformation in the world of government, I think. And I do think that’s one of the most interesting and important aspects of this, which is to say that government needs to go from sort of — I talk about sometimes the idea of consumer democracy, a democracy where our only agency is to choose between options offered to us every few years, to a citizen democracy where actually everyone has meaningful power to shape the decisions that shape their lives on an ongoing basis. And everything from kind of open idea generation, open policymaking to participatory budgeting, to a citizen’s assembly sort of all are in that space.

So, I think it’s part of the potential, I think, is about moving from a private economy to a civic economy. But I’m sort of — I think it’s even deeper than that. I think it’s actually at the level of mindset and worldview and paradigm that informs all of those things, and not just the economy, but the whole of society.

Stina Heikkila:
Yeah, thank you. I think that, of course, what you say here resonates also a lot with, you know, we are working with the platform design and the way that we conceive the entities in an ecosystem, and that the platform is designed for as very active participants, right? When you’re talking, you’re really talking about moving from being more like a passive consumer, and just accepting that role that I choose something that is presented to me and instead, you become like an active agent in shaping whatever you’re going to consume, in a way. So, I think that this is something that is really, and I know that you’ve written about — we identify ourselves very strongly with this consumer story. So, what are some of the ways that you can make people identify as a citizen and not be, I wouldn’t say lazy, but I know that in a lot of participatory projects, it’s quite hard to get people really involved because we are used to being served very conveniently things in that kind of frame of being a consumer, and maybe you can also share a bit in your work, how do you encounter that? Are people ready to step into such an active role? Are they looking for that, and just lack the right tools, the right mindset, and so on, and what can be done, essentially.

Jon Alexander:
So, I think what I would say is, the starting point for this is really sort of fundamental ideas about human nature, going right back to first principles. And where I come from on this is an argument that humans are citizens by nature, we are collaborative, creative, and caring creatures who can and want to get involved. But the second sort of fundamental insight is that we are also storytelling and story dwelling creatures like we are deeply influenced by the story that surrounds us. And where this work began, for me was actually working in the advertising industry. And my first boss described my job to me, he said, what you got to remember is that the average consumer sees something like 3,000 commercial messages a day. And his thing was, your job is to cut through that and make yours the best. And I was kind of happy doing that for a while.

And then I was like, hang on a minute, 3,000 a day. And recent studies suggest that could be anything up to as many as 10,000 for Gen Z young person living and working in New York, for example. But sort of at the real sort of zenith of the consumer story. And I think that seeing the challenge that you’re talking about, the sort of challenge of creating or stepping into a citizen society through the lens of those two, those do framing insights that we are citizens by nature, but we are also story dwelling creatures I think is really important. Because what it says is the challenge isn’t — it’s not that we’ve been taught to be consumers and now we need to engage in a kind of intergenerational project to teach ourselves to be citizens. It’s more that we are citizens by nature and the task is to open those opportunities and get the story of the consumer out of the way of that so that we can sort of be more truly who we already are.

And one of the stories that most excited me and I’m sure many of your listeners will know it very well, but is the story of what’s happened in Taiwan over the last decade there. I mean, they were very much in a space and a place and a social narrative that said, like people are consumers. The government even started something called an economic power up plan in 2012. And effectively said, you people just go shopping, because we know that’s what you want to do, we’ll look after the difficult stuff. And it was that moment, that was the birth of the gov zero movement and the creation of those parallel structures that Audrey Tang and that movement were part of that then has sort of blossomed into creating the space for a different relationship. And after the sunflower revolution in 2014, when the students occupied the parliament, and then the power shifted so dramatically after that time, it’s very quick from there.

By 2016, you had a presidential election where Audrey became a minister in the government. You have that group of people effectively leading Taiwan’s COVID response, which was fundamentally participatory, down to even things like creating a phone line where any citizen could ring in with ideas for how the country’s response could be better and getting the six year old who rung into that phone line on national press conferences. That transition happened over in the space of, well, really, the core transition happened in the space of about four years. So, that should give us great hope. And I see the opportunity and the challenge as being less about kind of how do we cultivate citizenship in people. And, of course, there is some of that there, but I really love the metaphor that my friend, Steven Green, who runs Rock Core, talks about which is a citizenship as a muscle you build, not a cup you empty. And once you start to work it, you actually want to work it more and more. And so I think that the real opportunity, the real kind of task in this moment in time, and the real challenge to leaders, actually, is to recognize that hunger for agency that we have, and to encourage us to step into it.

By the way, I think in the particular moment that the book is coming out in the world into with Russia invading Ukraine, and actually like the Ukraine, the response, the global response, as well as the Ukrainian response, being actually quite deeply citizen driven in many ways. I particularly focus in on Vladimir Zelensky and the way he has actively invoked the agency of Ukrainians, the agency of Russians, the agency of people around the world to support him, to be part of it. And contrast that with the — I saw an article posted and went live on the Guardian this morning saying “what can consumers do to support the war in Russia?” And it’s like, take shorter showers and drive slower. And you’re like Jesus, like really? Like, that’s the agency that our society, our story is prepared to offer us? And I think that these are the moments, these are the —

Like, if I go back to the Taiwanese example, like that moment of the student protest, and the opening of the doors to the agency of the population to say, no, we’re going to do this differently. We want ideas and energy and resources of everyone. Those things are hugely culturally powerful. And it’s just those moments that can trigger a different story that open it up in us and the belief that that instinct is there. I know I’m going a bit out, but just one moment — I interviewed Audrey Tang for the book. And I said to her, at one point people must really trust the government of Taiwan for you to do this stuff. And the response was, “we don’t want people to trust the government, you’ve got it completely wrong. What we want is the government to trust people”. And I think that’s a really profound kind of flip of what’s required here.

Simone Cicero:
That’s it. I mean, you got me to the point very, very quickly. I often make this remark, essentially, when we have these conversations around the contribution of citizen into essentially running the economy, running the infrastructures, running the government and so on. So, I’m wondering in this transition from giving citizens the possibility to contribute, and you spoke about freedom of agency, which I believe it’s very important point. But sometimes I feel like what we need, it’s some more like a reckoning, which the responsibility to organize, the acceptance of the fact that we cannot live in through an age where the idea of delegation is ending, right, the idea that you can delegate to the government, you can delegate cooperates, you can delegate and organize to do the work to solve the problems is kind of ending.

And the idea that citizens have to engage directly with the questions of creating resilience and responding to risk, building their own economies of essentials. So, I feel that there is still a huge, enormous gap between the challenge that is coming to us, basically, as we live through the end of industrialism. And as we live through an age of, to quote again Indy, continuous catastrophes. And the kind of engagement and understanding and deep acceptance of the responsibility, we have to build our own systems, and I think the gap here is still tremendous. So, what is your feeling? Are we trapped into this idea, okay, we have to participate with the government, the government needs to trust us and so on. Or we cannot see that the fact, the problem here is that the government is just not enough basically. We need much more institutions, many more institutions and institutions of a kind that we don’t know yet. So, we have to basically prototype them. And nobody is going to do that. It’s not that the government is going to prototype multiscale institutions that can really help us to respond to what’s coming. In the context of the place and the landscape, the community we live in.

Jon Alexander:
To offer a couple of reflections back, I think that’s a challenge I want to sit with for longer, but a couple of reflections back. The first, I think, so I heard a Polish journalist from Politico, I think, interviewed on the radio the other day, about what’s going on in Poland right now, the Polish response to the refugee crisis as people are flooding out of the Ukraine. And the polls are leaning into that so powerfully, like people are welcoming Ukrainians into their homes just as a matter of cause, and flooding to the border to collect refugees and take them into their homes. And the journalist on this interview referred to it as Poland’s Dunkirk moment. And I thought that was such a powerful metaphor. I mean, particularly as a Brit, and particularly given how, frankly pathetic our response, our government’s response is to this current moment, but the metaphor imagining those, the Dunkirk moment of the small boats crossing the channel to rescue and take people back there, the idea of this sort of self-organizing.

But what it evokes is this pride and energy and power in the opportunity to do something meaningful. And that is genuinely commensurate with the scale of the challenge. And I think when we’re offered that, something that is genuinely commensurate with the scale of the challenge, when we’re offered a role that is genuinely meaningful, we’re so hungry for that, as human beings, so hungry for it. It’s when we’re asked to do things that just don’t feel commensurate that it just feels trivial. And it feels like why would we, and I think there’s some justification in that. And I guess where that takes me to is I do think there’s a really, really critical role for leaders in this moment in time. And if there is a key audience for the book, it is people in positions of existing power. Because what I’m saying to them is that, like they have to open up because they have immense storytelling power.

People in position, in leadership positions, particularly heads of government, and so on, have such immense narrative power, that they can tell us to be quiet, they can shush us down, even when it’s rising. And I think we particularly saw that in the context of the pandemic, in the early days of the pandemic in the UK, at least. And I know I saw footage from Italy of people singing across balconies and the street, WhatsApp groups that sprung up all over the world. And in the UK, there was this particular example where the government briefly looked like it was going to invite our agency. They created a thing called the NHS first — National Health Service First Responder Scheme, which is a volunteer thing. And they created anticipating 250,000 people signing up over three weeks, and the whole thing crashed because 750,000 signed up in 48 hours. And so in these moments, like we’re there, we’re wanting and the agency has offered and we come for it with energy and vigor.

And then what happened, certainly in the UK and I think across most of the world with exceptions like Taiwan, is that that agency is shush down. So, in the UK, we move from messaging that told us to stay at home, which was very much a kind of subject story. The bargain of the subject story is kind of protection, in return for obedience, and that was falling apart. And what happened, the national message changed to stay alert, kind of look out for yourself, take personal responsibility. And the implication was that if other people got sick, then that was their fault, like getting sick was your own fault. And that was the consumer story. And it was imposed on us as a kind of this hunger for agency was starting to manifest in new organizations, exactly the kind of nascent prototyping new institutions that you’re talking about, I think, Simone, were starting to emerge. But when the power of story is, consciously or otherwise exerted, it can crush that energy. It really can. And so that’s why I stare — for all that — it is our responsibility as citizens to do this, and we are doing it, right?

Like, everywhere you look, I begin the book with five stories from all over the world of citizens, emblematic citizens kind of organizing some of the most unlikely situations. It is happening everywhere. But I do believe that the power of story, the power of storytelling is such that unless people in positions of power and the existing system are the critical ones. In the Taiwan story, I would hero less Audrey Tang and the gov zero movement and more hero, a man called Speaker Wang, who was the speaker of the Parliament, who when the protests was going on, when the occupation of the parliament was happening, the students were in there. He was the one who said what they’re doing here, this occupation is democracy, he was the one who opened the door to the reframing. And he won’t be famous in history, unless my book is terribly successful. But he is actually the person in the position of power in the existing system who opened the door to the new system. And I think that’s a critical role. I hope that makes some sense in response to your question.

Simone Cicero:
Yes, I mean, definitely. Just probably a quick point that I wanted to add, see if you have further reflections. So, what you share, I see that there is the need, let’s say, to envision how these new institutions can come up in a coherent frame of collaboration with existing ones, right? For example, the government and all these questions around narratives, it’s extremely important. I’m wondering if you see stories of cooperation, integration, collaboration between government and citizens, between corporates as well and citizens that I would say express themselves into a context of place. Because when I think about the idea of citizens, right, that connects, of course, with the idea of city. I mean, city can be, of course, connected with the idea of place, at least partially because the city is also a known — I don’t know how to say it in English, but kind of transcends the idea of place.

It’s more like an expression of globalism as well, especially today. So, I’m wondering if you have any reflection or stories or comments in terms of how you have seen or we can see in the future, new institutional agreements, new types of organizations to be created and prototyped in collaboration with either governments or corporates in the context of place and landscape essentially, right, because I think this is such an important point. It’s just such an important background question when we think about reframing our story of organizing, right? We have to factor in place and landscape and the limits of place and in the way we rethink our organizational structures.

Jon Alexander:
I love that. It’s such a wonderful challenge, and I completely — I do think cities are the most exciting, arguably, realm at which to do this work. I’m feeling more and more drawn to that. Just before I go into maybe an example, just a word on the language because I think we tend to assume because citizen is a longer word and city as a short one that looks very like it, that the word citizen derives from city. So, therefore like, and what that tends to make us think is that a city is a place and a citizen is someone from that place. But actually the way the actual derivation works is the reverse. The word citizen kind of comes first as it were, and literally means together people. It means people who are only understandable, only intelligible in relation to one another who are fundamentally interdependent. And a city is just a place where together people are. It’s like a collective noun for citizens as it were. And I just find that I just love that and I like playing with language anyway, and finding that was was a lot of fun. But I think that only reinforces your point further, like a city is the sort of first unit of citizenship as it were, or the most significant unit of citizenship. And so a really exciting opportunity.

I mean, I think there are lovely examples starting to emerge everywhere. I could go to Reykjavik where the very simple platform or better Reykjavik where anyone can propose ideas for how the city is run, and they’re up votes and down voted, and the top ideas are debated every month in a special session of the city council and have to be responded to publicly, and that’s led into participatory budgeting and so forth. I could go to Liège in Belgium, where there’s now a — they call it the food belt, which is a ring I think of now 15 or 16 cooperatives, food producing cooperatives, that are the built up around the city and through community share offers uncooperative ownership. You could go to Mexico City where they’ve crowdsourced the constitution for the city using, I think it’s like GitHub and Google Docs or something like that. You might know that example better than me.

But I know there’s work going on in Colombia on the idea of — in Bogota, in the idea of a care city. And these are the kind of — the units where the experimentation is happening and starting to emerge. And I think they are at a kind of human scale, where we can relate to and build them together. So, I do — I think, what I’d say is, yes, and I think it is happening, and maybe like some narrative building where you go, like, where are the citizen cities, let’s hero the cities where this is taking shape already would be a really exciting thing to do. I hope that helps.

Stina Heikkila:
And also, I want to come back a bit to this question of technology that we were talking about a bit in the preparation for this conversation. Because when I hear all the examples that you cite, Jon, there is almost always, in some element of technology, facilitating everything that is happening. So, I think this is just interesting to note that this is — technology is pervasive in society. And it’s, of course, as our listeners know, we are exploring how this is becoming even more and more so and what will be the next frontier of this technology-enabled organizing. So, this is very interesting to note that without, let’s say, the help of platforms of technology, everything that you have mentioned, would have been much harder, much slower, probably. Less inclusive, less sort of crowd sourced in such a comprehensive way. So, it would be interesting also to hear your thoughts.

But I also then wanted to, yeah, just open the floor for us to explore a little bit, maybe the risks around this. We know that we have big platforms that are, on the one hand, enabling the spread of a citizen story, let’s say, the co-creation of a citizen story, but would also have the power to shutdown things that don’t sort of cohere with what some people might think should be the dominant story, and so on. So, it would be interesting to see if we can explore some of the fundamentals in, you know, how can we allow technology to serve this? And I think this question can go to you, Jon, and also to Simone in a way. Do we need, let’s say, internets that are more independent from what we have today? Or can we work with the current tools to build the citizen story that you’re talking about?

Jon Alexander:
I would love to learn from both of you on this, and from all of your listeners, it’s really an edge of my learning and understanding. I guess, where I come from, and maybe what I offer into this conversation is really the lens of these stories to try and look through. So, just to offer a counter example to what you’re saying that these new institutions that are emerging are technology driven, one of — my favorite examples actually is going on in the city of Paris right now where you have a new standing citizen’s assembly that actually oversees the elected representatives, the elected council.

So, a random selection of, I think, 100 Parisian citizens will have an annual remit to sit in judgment effectively on the performance of the city council and to commission issue based citizens assemblies, and all of that work is offline. But I think what it speaks to, the reason why I throw that example in as well is that the citizen story is a many to many story. The subject story and the consumer story are one to many stories. They put power in the hands of a few and the power to create in the hands of a few. Whereas in a citizen story enabled, I think, by digital technologies, by the internet, it is a many to many society. And I think that is why we now are at an historic moment where it is genuinely possible for us to create a society where everyone does have meaningful power over the decisions that shape their lives.

So, one of the ways I think about this is using the kind of going back to Marshall McLuhan and his sort of eternal wisdom and the idea of the medium is the message right. So, like, in a society dominated by print, which was what the subject story was, there were very few people who controlled what was said and the rest of us were just on receive pretty much to whatever we were given. In a society dominated by the television, we became able to choose between channels, but the power to decide what goes on those channels still resides with very few. In a society dominated by the internet, the potential at least, is that many to many. But then the other McLuhan is that — I think it was McLuhan, as well is at first we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. And I think the danger and the great tension in the moment in time we’re living in is we’ve created a lot of these tools and platforms, even from within what I would describe as the — from the consumer story. Like Facebook is fundamentally a consumer proposition, its business model, and so on and so forth. It’s all rooted in that mindset. And those tools can shape us back and keep us trapped.

And so I do think there’s an evolution. We all met, as we said at the beginning, or we know our sort of circles overlap because of Ouishare. And I think Ouihare was there with deep optimism and hope at the beginning of what we all then called the sharing economy. But what I think as a result, I would argue, of the consumer story, the gravitational pull of the consumer story kind of degenerated into the gig economy, like Airbnb and Uber and all those guys. I mean, I remember hearing from them first at Ouishare and the great hope was that they would create a kind of peer-to-peer world where we all shared with one another. And what they actually did was just turn us not just into consumers of businesses, but consumers of each other. And I have a deep worry that if we design this next wave of technology, the Web3 era from within the consumer story in the same way, then it will trap us back in it as well.

Like, I have these — I don’t know if this is a realistic nightmare, or even a useful dystopia. But I have this sort of vision of Elon Musk’s Dogecoin becoming the global reserve currency instead of the kind of Ethereum backed, kind of more decentralized power world. And I think these potentials, I guess the way I see the moment in time is that these potentials are all live. And I offer the subject story, the consumer story and the citizen story as lenses through which to see this moment and kind of distinguish between the possibilities and maybe see what decisions we could make to open different things up.

Simone Cicero:
I mean, these questions around technology are very interesting and essential. So, you say for example, citizen stories are many to many story, right? And when I quoted Indy speaking about the civic economy, I remember, he was making this point of the transition from the private economy into the Civic economy, essentially, connected with the idea of the new technology that the blockchain and digital ledgers in general are bringing up. So, this idea that you can make now contracts which are many to many, as you said, it fundamentally changes the nature of what kind of agreements we can create and what kind of organizations we can create evolving from the one to many brands do consumer whatever, into the many to many, right, as you said.

My point probably – if we reflect on technology – is that this comes with several challenges, right? One challenge is political. Right? So, the blockchain — and we spoke with Ethan Buchman recently and he made really this point that the blockchain is a political innovation, it’s not a technological innovation only. It really requires us to rethink our idea of trust. And essentially, to go beyond and to start be able to design systems for places where we do not have any, or at least we have limited trust for centralized institutions, right, from third parties that are supposed to ensure that information is legitimate, and so on. So, the idea that — the key idea here is that the blockchain comes with political changes. It’s an enabler of new types of political architectures, let’s say. And that’s one challenge, because we’re not used to that.

So, basically, citizens are not used to think beyond the existing institutions and the responsibilities that these institutions have. And so, for example, security, reliability, and so on, then there is more like the design challenge. Because when we think about entrepreneurship, we always think about this relationship between, let’s say, the architect and the architected. So, the idea that there is a designer, there is an entrepreneur that creates the vision, one or more of their team or some kind of a team that creates the vision, makes this happen, grows the system takes care of, essentially, the organizing elements that are needed for larger frames of relationship interaction. It could be a consumer, but it could be also prosumer and consumers as we see now with platforms.

So, what is the point here is that some of the challenges are the result of us living through century, I would say, of consumerism. So, I mean, it’s more like a mental challenge to think that there is something different you can do beyond consuming, beyond being “administered your organization”, let’s say, but some are inherent. So, committees have hard times deciding and moving forward. Of course, we have some collective decision making and governance systems, like think about sociocracy, for example, that are providing us with some solutions for that. But I mean, moving forward as a committee sharing governance and decision making, these are inherent challenges that impact the efficacy, we can have the speed at which our organizations can move.

And third, I think, and that’s the last point, and then I will bounce it back to you to see what do you think. The problem I see is a problem that, for example, if we think about blockchain, and blockchain is also essential, for example, to allow us to think about advanced ways to transition, for example, from the initial team, the initial creators into the community, probably you know about this idea of exit to community that could be important to move forward with this transition from centralized institutions into collective institutions. This technology is kind of premised on the internet as we know it now. And the internet, as we know it now, probably is not like a given for the future. Because if we look at what’s happening these days, I mean, we’re seeing supply chains breaking down in front of our eyes, we are seeing now holding of materials, we’re going through probably peak of many resources.

And so, what happens if the infrastructure we are giving us granted now is going to break down. So, we have to become a citizen sovereign, even from the perspective of creating our own infrastructures. And so if I look into that, I kind of start to see this idea of this kind of solar punk narrative that is kind of spreading up these days. So, the idea that we may live through a future where even accessing to networks and technology it’s not a given, it’s not granted. These are so many open points. There is a political point, there is design related entrepreneurial kind of related points that I spoke about. There is this technology and supply chain related topics. So, the challenges abound for sure in thinking of how we can really execute these transition from the one to many into the many to many economy and governance. What do you think about that?

Jon Alexander:
That was fascinating. I haven’t heard it put like that, particularly that last point I think is profound, right. And you’re so — it speaks so powerfully to this moment in time. It’s not just about Russia and Ukraine, right, or Putin in Ukraine. It’s all of us. I guess what I’m moved to sort of say into that is, I think the citizen story, this is where I almost want to go right back to its roots. And so I talked about the idea of a shift from subject to consumer, to citizen to potentially citizen over the last 100 years and more. But in the research for the book, where I ended up was that actually this idea that we are citizens by nature, and that actually the story of humanity is actually, in many ways, the story of the citizen instinct kind of rising and being squished and rising and being squished over many centuries in many different ways and forms. And I think it wasn’t the only thing that was there. But it was there in our kind of hunter gatherer phase, right?

Like, there’s this phrase in the literature now campfire democracy that’s, I think, really evocative. It’s been there in all kinds of oppressed communities. I mean, the co-operative movement didn’t really so much start as we Brits like to claim everything started with us. But really, the co-operative movement arguably started among black communities in the slave systems of America and finding ways to to rely on one another rather than accept the situation’s they were in. You could go through to some amazing stories about the Golden Age pirates who actually originated a whole load of governance structures and cooperative functions, and you can reinterpret ancient Athens actually, and the deliberative structures and processes there as a surge of this citizen instinct. And I think the reason why I go there is to say, I think the idea of ourselves as citizens is what emerges in crisis every time and we saw it in the first approach of COVID.

I would recommend to your listeners a wonderful book by Rebecca Solnit, called The Paradise Built in Hell, where she tracks back through many crises. And I think what happens when we’re in crisis is we turn to one another, and we build together. And I think that is a deep source of hope, but also an instruction in this time is like trouble’s brewing, right? Like, this is just the beginning, and turning to one another, strengthening these networks. Yes, building the tools online and using the next wave of technology and blockchain so forth, but really fundamentally, building those connections, building those networks. Because as and when things do get even more difficult. It is not just that these could be future ways of organizing the whole of society and the new Golden Age. It’s also that these are the most deeply resilient ways of being human. And preparing the ground for those is a very sensible and powerful thing to do. So, yeah, my challenge to leaders in the book is open up to this story of humanity, invite people’s agency. But my challenge to individuals is also like, get involved, right? We’re leaving the period of history where you could just say, I’m just going to go back into my bubble and turn off the news and pretend it’s not happening.

The thing we can all do and the energy we will all find is by finding the others. Like, in our local communities and our workplaces, seeing ourselves as citizens with agency in shaping those things, and finding the others who can do it with us because our power is so much greater. Collective power is not related to individual power by sort of one plus one equals two and two plus two equals four. It’s related exponentially. If we find one another, we have exponentially greater power than we do as a gathering of individuals. And so I think that’s probably almost like, the critical point in this is, whatever the future holds, the citizens story is both our deepest nature and something we can take open and optimism from, but also, as you’ve kind of pushed me to acknowledge as well in this conversation is also a challenge to us to lean in and get stuck in whatever’s coming our way.

Simone Cicero:
I mean, I guess that as the proverbial point, we’re going to see the value of the ship in turbulent times, right? And the skipper as well. So, that’s for sure. One last thing I wanted to ask you, Jon, before we move into closing moments, so you’re also a consultant, right? So, that is something that I’m wrangling with, we are wrangling with at Boundaryless since many months now, and this is something that I will call our search for our new investment thesis, essentially. How do we move from this idea of consulting, right, this idea of selling our capabilities on the market into an idea of having skin in the game in what we do, and investing in what we do to create our own wealth, let’s say. So, I’m wondering how do you approach this idea of consulting, also having in mind that our real transition entails taking more responsibility and having more skin in the game in what you do? So, my point here is shouldn’t we think about our own business instead of maybe consulting others in evolving their own organizational strategies and so on? I don’t know if you have a reflection on this.

Jon Alexander:
In a lot of ways I actually think of the new citizenship project, the consulting business I founded with Irenie Ekkeshis, my business partner, as almost less than a consulting business and more a research project. And the way we think of ourselves, a lot of our work is rooted in ideas around action research methodologies, and so on. So, we’re really an inquiry question. We’re really a question holder. And the question we’re asking is, what would it look like for organizations of all shapes and sizes to treat people as citizens rather than consumers, whether that’s their employees, or their customers, or whoever. And I think what we’ve been able to do kind of methodologically as a result of that is to hold inquiries with individual organizations or multiple organizations. We do these collaborative innovation projects where we bring together six organizations from across the sector and say, like, what if museums were to treat people as co-creators of culture, rather than just consumers of art, just to give you an example.

And so I think, to some extent, we at least in method and spirit, we do have skin in the game, as you put it. It’s really interesting, though, to think about, like the gravitational pull still exerts itself on us, because someone is paying for services provided by us, at some level. That is still the frame of the contract. And sort of nudging at the edges of that, I think is something we have been trying to do. But you’re pushing me to go, we need to do that further. If we’re going to practice what we preach, I guess where I would maybe leave it is, is in that spirit of like, yes, there’s a business model a question. But I think if we have something to offer on this, it’s probably the idea of holding questions with the organization’s we work with. I’m deliberately dancing around the word clients, holding questions with the organization we work with, rather than providing answers for them as clients. And I think that is potentially a very interesting — We found it much more generative and joyful and the relationships that we’ve been in where we are able to do that, I think we’re able to almost play more of a kind of coaching, you might even call it a kind of therapist role.

And I think that’s analogous to the challenge I’m laying down for all of us. Like how do we see one another’s agency and expand it rather than provide solutions? Because providing solutions actually contracts the agency of the other like giving answers is a closing down of space, whereas asking questions together, providing safety, but not certainty is an opening up of space. And that so — I love questions. I love working with questions more broadly. The last sentence of the book is a question I love to pose to people, which is like, what would you do in this time, in all of this context if you go back to this idea of people as citizens, what would you do from where you are, from wherever you are? If you really believed in yourself and also in those around you, where would that thought take you? Where would trusting in people, radically trusting in people take you? That’s the deepest question I think I’m working with in the world

Stina Heikkila:
I love that question. You know, I got the sneak peek from the book. So, it really makes you think and get excited. So, since we are coming to the end of the conversation, can — everything you just described sounds great. So, how do people now get in touch with your work? Can you tell us more about your imminent book release, where to find your work, where to follow you and so on? And I know you’re getting away from the one hero narrative, so to find your team, rather, and your projects.

Jon Alexander:
Thank you, Stina. Yeah. Well, yeah, hilariously, for someone who is trying to get away from the one hero narrative I do have my own website at You can find and hilariously, for someone who’s preaching away from consumption, I am selling copies of my book. And you can find it anywhere in the world on But you can also like, I’d love you to call your local bookshop and tell them to get it in. I’m hoping to travel around with this. And you can find out more about the work of New Citizenship project at We’d love to hear from you, from anyone. And we’re just very passionate about this journey that we’re on and the questions that we’re holding and working with. So, thank you so much both for having me.

Simone Cicero:
I mean, Jon, it’s been amazing, amazing chat. And I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done, really on envisioning what does it mean to perform this transition towards the new citizen story as you call it? So, thanks so much for joining us and it was a precious time to discuss these topics with you. And to all our listeners, catch up soon.

Stina Heikkila:
Thank you.