If you want to improve the carrying capacity of a city, then increase its caring capacity.


That was the experience of the city of Leon, Mexico when its Citizens’ Observatory set out to connect many stakeholders from across the city with the intention of learning how “WE” could work better together to improve economic, environmental and social conditions.

In the process of doing so, this Civil Society organization discovered a surprising inspiration right at the heart of the outer and inner heart of the city.

This story strongly underlines the importance of Civil Society in playing an integrator role in the Integral City. Faith-based and spiritual organizations (like churches, synagogues, mosques, temples) have a critical opportunity, at this time, to redefine themselves as this voice of integration for the Integral City. However, secular organizations, like Citizens’ Obervatories are also key players who can align and weave together a collective “heart wave” intelligence from the cacophony of separate voices of the city.

In Leon, the Citizens’ Observatory set out to make a difference that would create commitment and courage to withstand the growing threat of Mexico’s notorious drug cartels, support the shift of the city’s traditional economy (from leather manufacturing to more diversified industry) and give their youth opportunities and hope for future thriving.

The membership of the Citizen’s Observatory included city leaders with strategic business experience, who volunteered their time and expertise. They worked with the universities, student interns and many of Leon’s Civil Society organizations, to build bridges amongst the education, health, business and social services sectors. Through the leadership of Roberto Bonillo, Founder of Novarumm (with his expertise and capacity for Integral Thinking), the Citizens’ Observatory started to undertake research about city values, stages of change, and publish the results to gather momentum for making change.

They learned from global experts like Spiral Dynamics Integral Founder, Dr. Don BeckIceland’s Values Cartographer, Dr. Bjarni Jonsson and Integral City Meshworker, Dr. Marilyn Hamilton (your humble blogger J).

The Citizens’ Observatory sponsored a 2 day discovery exploration of Leon’s potential, inviting me to facilitate the tour through the lenses of Integral City.  We co-designed the main focus of this event to update new data on the city’s values prior to the event and report on it during the full day workshop on the 2nd Day. However, in order “to land” in the city on Day 1, I requested to meet the diverse stakeholders of the Citizen’s Observatory, and then take a tour of the physical city.

With the inspired assistance of local historians, writers, journalists, tourism operators and artists, we boarded a small bus that followed an itinerary around the city. We travelled from the lofty views of the Monterrey Institute of Technology, to working class neighbourhoods with unpaved streets but strong pride, wending our way across unincorporated “housing squats”, and everywhere seeing in operation, Leon’s sophisticated, practical and well-used bicycle lanes (the longest network in Latin America) which allows city residents to have low-cost and accessible mobility.

To finish our tour we ended up by the railway tracks, where indigenous peoples from many traditional territories had set up camp. I didn’t know what to expect. Many “Leonites”  on the tour did not know of the existence of this city “hood”. But what we quickly learned as soon as we got off the bus, was that this was a healthy, thriving village within the city. Peoples with many different indigenous languages had organized themselves to find teachers, build a school for their children, build a church, support each other’s indigenous artisan skills (especially basket weaving) and create colourful, imaginative dwellings from cast-off materials.

The vibrancy of this “shanty town” was contagious. The residents had their own version of Civil Society and organized us into an hour’s talking/learning circle within their tiny open air church. And while we had come to see what we could offer, it was the indigenous people who proudly gifted us with their baskets and weaving.

It was obvious that these people were key players in Leon – but no one knew they were there. Before we left their village they had inspired us to invite them to the next day’s workshop. What happened next could never have been predicted.

More than a dozen of the villagers turned up at the workshop with families and children in tow and baskets for sale. The Citizen’s Observatory assigned translation ‘buddies” to sit at their tables so they could participate in the workshop (being delivered in English and Spanish).

When the workshop small groups came to report out at the end of the day, this vibrant culture proved to be no shy wall flowers – but took the lead in setting goals for improving the future not only for themselves, but for the whole of Leon. They revealed the inner heart of caring in Leon and took it to the outer heart of caring, symbolized by the lion statue over the gate to the city.

So this short story of Leon, exemplifies the power of Civil Society not only to integrate the 4 Voices of the City (1), but to enable caring connections that make a difference. With the kind of initiative and wisdom shown in Leon, Civil Society can amplify the rhythm of the city’s heartbeat through cultural gatherings, caring and compassion.

And this brings us back to the impact that growing caring capacity can have on a city’s carrying capacity. We are rapidly learning through the science of complexity that cities improve the carrying capacity of human settlements (using resources from the eco-footprint more efficiently – measured through dimensions like kilometers of road networks, the level of average income and the number of patents issued).  This almost seems logical if you consider that living systems naturally tend to be energy efficient.

However a more surprising discovery is that cities acquire these efficiencies of “carrying capacity” at the same time as – and as Leon illustrates – because of the scale of social interaction.

Science writer Emily Badger, quoting Santa Fe Institute’s Luis Bettencourt captures this beautifully:

At their most fundamental, cities are not really agglomerations of people; they’re agglomerations of connections between people. All of their other properties … derive from this fact.

This affirms a precept long emphasized by Margaret Wheatley: If you want to improve

the health of a system, connect it to more of itself.

Thus we can see that Civil Society can play a powerful role in the wellbeing of the city. It has the potential to attract, amplify and integrate all 4 Voices of the City into a powerful WE, so collectively they can learn from one another, strengthen bridges between people connections and bring alive the Caring Heartbeat of the City.

Postscript: Since these activities in Leon, the Citizens’ Observatory has met obstacles to its intentions from changes in the political domain and other social sources (as the whole country of Mexico is undergoing economic shifts). But it should be noted, this is not unusual in the course of living systems – to experience a convergence of intention where progress is made, followed a divergence or distraction of energies. However, once the rhythm of Leon’s heartbeat has resonated as strongly as it did, the memory of that heart wave of caring compassion still lives in its system – ready to be tapped when the next wave of convergence can build on this resident level of caring capacity to generate even more vibrant levels of wellbeing. Sometimes it takes an outsider like me/WE to hold the hope long enough for that to happen. That is another role for Civil Society to perform for each other between cities.


(1)     4 Voices of the City: Citizens, Civil Society, Civic Managers, Business