Sunday, July 28, 2019

Toward a new sectorism — #3: an attractive but flawed “fourth sector” proposal?

I’ve come across a proposal I should have found years ago: a forward-looking call for recognizing and developing a “fourth sector.” It’s from Heerad Sabeti and associates in the Aspen Institute’s and Kellogg Foundation’s Fourth Sector Network, created in 1998. This is the first I’ve heard of Sabeti, currently the head of the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Sector Development Initiative and CEO of The Fourth Sector Group (4SG).

This is all news to me. Is anyone here familiar with Sabeti’s “fourth sector” proposal? Any comments about how it’s regarded? I’d like to know more before I continue.

Here’s why it’s of interest: TIMN theory forecasts the rise of a fourth cardinal form of organization: the +N or info-age network form. TIMN further says a brand new sector of society will take shape around it. Remember, the rise and consolidation of the T/tribal form millennia ago led to what is now known as civil society, along with a confusing surfeit of names for its sector(s) — e.g., civil sector, nonprofit sector, voluntary sector, etc. Ages later, the rise of the +I hierarchical-institutional form resulted in governments and what we now call the public sector. Next, a few centuries ago, the rise of the +M market form led to what we now call the private sector. Today, we’re just a few decades into the rise of the +N network form, and it’s not yet clear what new sector will result from it — but there will be one.

I’ve previously mentioned my own deductions from TIMN regarding this next/new/fourth sector. I’ve also kept my eyes open for other forecasts, and mentioned them before too. But what about Sabeti et al.’s proposal? How does it compare?


According to Sabeti (2018), “The emerging Fourth Sector is fundamentally comprised of organizations that pursue social purposes while engaging in business activities.” Thus, he/they view the Fourth Sector — a term they coined in 1998? — as “a new economic space at the intersection of the three traditional sectors (public, private and non-profit).” In their view, the “non-profit sector” is also the “social sector” (a term they borrow from Drucker’s usage a few years earlier?). Its key actors will be for-benefit organizations.

What I discuss here is derived mostly from Sabeti’s paper “The Emerging Fourth Sector: Executive Summary” (2018 — see link at end).
“Stripped to its essentials, its thesis is as follows: a new class of organizations with the potential for generating immense economic, social, and environmental benefits is emerging — and this sector can be consciously developed and expanded through broad recognition and engagement.”


His/their Fourth Sector (FS) framework overlaps well with the TIMN framework, in that both rest on the following observations:

• Our society is in transition from a three-sector to a four-sector system. Whereas FS calls them the social, public, private, and fourth sectors, TIMN is headed toward calling them the home, public, private, and commons sectors.

• Boundaries are blurring among the sectors, and new kinds of hybrid organizations and partnerships are forming, in ways that indicate a fourth sector is already taking shape. Today’s non-profit and for-benefit organizations, including collectives and cooperatives, seem best suited, in terms of ethos and structure, to enabling its emergence.

• Eventually, entirely new organizational forms and models will have to be designed explicitly for the fourth sector. But whereas FS favors for-benefit designs. I’m not sure about TIMN yet. This is partly because, unlike Sabeti, I am sure the fourth sector won’t be a primarily economic and business-oriented sector — see below for clarification.

• Information-age network structures are crucial for the development and performance of this new sector, not only for individual parts but also across the entire sector. Both FS and TIMN lead to requirements, in Sabeti’s words, for “new networking structures that enable collaboration and coordination” among individual actors, as well as “new models of networks … that enable large-scale, cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary collaboration.” But TIMN implies extending this far more than FS does — see below for clarification.

• To take hold and endure as a distinct separate sector, vast supportive infrastructures will have to be created: laws, regulations, services, associations, etc. FS is way ahead of TIMN in specifying this “ecosystem” — as Sabeti notes, “Social entrepreneurs, funders, non-profits, businesses, employees, members of the public, associations, policymakers, academics, lawyers, accountants, consultants, and others all have vital roles to play”. I’m aware of this, for comparable infrastructures help explain the cohesion and power of the earlier public and private sectors — I just haven’t written much up for TIMN yet.

• Even though evolutionary dynamics will eventually induce the rise of a fourth sector, it is advisable to start making concerted efforts now to construct and define it. In Sabeti’s words, “The Fourth Sector is an idea whose time has come. … The counter-forces of inertia and sectoral constraints stand in the way, sharply reducing the odds that it will develop in an accelerated and coherent manner. The evolutionary process needs to be facilitated by the addition of a layer of conscious support — not to control or shape the process, but to enable those involved to develop a shared framework of effective design principles and supportive infrastructure.” That’s pretty much my view for TIMN as well.


So, there’s plenty of agreement between the two frameworks — somewhat better than TIMN has with other forecasts about a future sector. However, the FS framework does not track well with TIMN in other respects, largely because the two have different theoretical underpinnings. FS is based mostly on observations about current economic trends, whereas TIMN is based on observations about long-term social evolution.

• Sabeti et al. view the fourth sector as a new economic sector, albeit one that operates for social-benefit rather than private-profit purposes. He, like most everyone I’ve found writing in this future-oriented area, foresees not only that it will be an economic sector, but also that a key purpose/effect will be to contain and reform capitalism, particularly its negative excesses and externalities.

According to TIMN, it’s wrong to think that this next/new sector will be, in essence, an economic sector. Yes, the rise of this sector can be viewed from economic perspectives (as can all the other sectors). Yes, it’s emergence will have profound economic effects on all other sectors, and on society as a whole. Yes, it will alter the nature of capitalism. And yes, the fourth sector’s functioning will involve new kinds of business organizations. Yet, according to TIMN, this new sector will be as different from the older three sectors as they are from each other. It will be a distinct and separate sector. And it will function according to its own ethos and logic, as do the other sectors. The challenge, for TIMN at least, is to identify what may make this next/new sector that distinct and separate.

• As Sabeti et al. see matters, the fourth sector consists businesses that serve social purposes. That sounds worthwhile, but it’s awfully vague. The FS framework is also vague and open-ended as to exactly what types of actors and activities will define the sector. Sabeti lists a hodge-podge of organizational types (non-profits, cooperatives, etc.) that are currently in business for social purposes; and he expects new types of for-benefit organizations to supersede them. But there is no specification of what, or even whether, particular problems or issues will/should be the sector’s principal focus and strength. Seemingly anyone who engages in business for social benefit belongs in the fourth sector — the more the better for the future of society, no matter the issues and problems at stake. (P2P theory is like this as well — seemingly any actors who subscribe to pro-commons beliefs belong in a future commons sector.)

In contrast, TIMN implies an evolutionary logic for deducing/predicting the next sector’s nature. This future sector will arise and take hold according to the same logic that has characterized the rise of the three old sectors. In brief, (1) sectors take shape based on the TIMN form of organization that is finally coming into its own at the time — in our time, this means the +N/network form. This future sector will thus operate far more according to information-age network (+N) principles than according to the kinship (T), hierarchical institutional (+I), or market exchange (+M) principles that, in turn, drove the rise of the earlier three sectors — the civic/social, public, and private sectors. More to the point, (2) each sector in turn, as well as the organizational form behind its rise, emerges in ways that enable a society to address and resolve a crucial problem whose importance and difficulty has grown as that society has advanced, outgrowing what it could accomplish by using its existing sectors. Thus, the civic sector still serves, as it did ages ago when societies were basically tribes, to address problems related to community identity and belonging; the public sector, problems of large-scale administration and endeavor; and the private sector, problems of wide-ranging trade and commerce. So, the question looms, what about the next sector in this progression?

• While the FS framework doesn’t (can’t?) specify exactly what actors and activities will define the new sector, it behooves a TIMN-ista to try to do so by using the evolutionary dynamics noted above. My own deduction is that this next sector will form around what have become the most critical complicated matters our society faces today — problems that have grown so serious it’s increasingly evident they cannot be resolved long-term by relying on the old public-private framework, nor even by adding the older civil sector back into it; problems also for which the network form seems more relevant than the civic-kinship (T), hierarchical-institutional (+I), or market-exchange (+M) forms.

So, exactly what matters are these? Best I can tell, they’re education, health, welfare, the environment, and related insurance matters — matters that, in aggregate, concern collective and individual care, broadly defined to include social, economic, cultural, and environmental care; in short, people care, life care. Indeed, these matters bundle well together as an interrelated set when viewed from a societal care perspective, in contrast to how they are viewed and treated quite separately within today’s economistic public-private framework.

For decades these matters were manageable enough to fit into our old public-private policy framework, and/or be left to individuals, families, communities, and related civil-society associations. This is no longer the case — these matters have grown too large, too complex, and too interconnected for standard solutions to work. America’s decades of progress have brought us to a turning-point for resolving care-centered matters. They have outgrown that two-sector framework in ways our politicians and policymakers don’t perceive yet.

• The FS framework is correct to emphasize cooperative network principles and designs for the fourth sector’s growth and performance. However, TIMN implies going farther than FS in this direction. This new sector will be able to emerge and grow precisely because the information age has enabled massive network forms of organization to finally take hold as the latest of TIMN’s four cardinal forms to arise. The network form, not the other forms, is what will glue this sector together, undoubtedly in ways we’ve not detected yet.

I have a few tentative speculations: Compared to the earlier sectors, this next/new sector will be structured very differently, woven together by means of collaborative network principles. Constituent entities will be non-profit and for-benefit, committed to the common good. Many may be organized as cooperatives, collectives, collaboratives, trusts, platforms, and other networked associations; none will be allowed on the stock market. They will be constructed as belonging to a mutually shared and boundaried commons — indeed, they’ll form a commons sector. As befits a commons, pooling of information and financing will occur across all sub-sectors and the entities that move (or are moved) into this fourth sector: health, education, welfare, environment, and related insurance (including social security). If some entities acquire excess earnings, these may be shared across all sub-sectors, as needed. Funds to pay for the sector may still have to come from the usual sources — government, business, philanthropy, membership — but, presumably, the sector itself will generate new savings and earnings, compared to the current mess. I’m unable to discern what new array of laws, rules, and regulations may be required to foster and protect such a new sector — not my bag — but they will surely have to be quite different from those pertaining to the other sectors. In any case, this new commons sector would be about the kinds of “assurances” — that’s right, assurances, not entitlements — that an advanced next-stage society can and should be able to warrant for the common wellbeing of its people.

N.B.: These are speculative notions, so preliminary and tentative that I’m barely willing to field them here. Advice and comments invited. But if I’m making mistakes, I’m sure my overarching point will remain valid — this sector will be characterized by new and unusual organizational designs. I’ve read many times that better education is essential to improve people’s health, and that better health is essential to improve people’s education. But I read this only in specialized writings, not yet in strategic overviews about systematically bundling health, education, welfare, and the environment into its own sector — a commons sector governed by collaborative network principles. According to TIMN theory, as I understand it, it’s time we start thinking this through.

• The FS framework depicts its fourth sector visually as a small circle sitting atop and growing at the intersection of the three major sectors (the social, public, and private sectors), which are depicted as large circles. Those three are shown as touching but not overlapping, whereas the FS sector sitting atop overlaps them all. This looks appealing and communicative to the eye — it surely helps convey the FS message — but it is inherently inaccurate. (See Venn-like FS diagram at

A TIMN visualization would/will be quite different: All circles depicting the four realms and their sectors would be sized equivalently and in the same plane (though the fourth would be smaller for now). Moreover, all circles would overlap somewhat to help depict that the sectors all interact, and that hybrids of two or more sectors may exist in those overlapping areas. This is easy to depict in a pretty Venn diagram if there are only two or three circles. But a Venn diagram of four or more circles is difficult (impossible?) and even ugly to draw, if it is to capture all possible intersections and interactions. What’s needed is a three-dimensional molecular visualization — unfortunately, I’ve not done that yet.


• Many discussions, whether from the Left or the Right, discuss care-centered matters — health, education, welfare, the environment, etc. — as though they are about people’s rights and/or entitlements. FS does not delve into this. But TIMN dynamics indicate that responsibilities and assurances may be as important as rights and entitlements, though the former rarely figure as much in contemporary policy analyses and debates.

According to TIMN, each sector’s rise across the ages has advanced the responsibilities and assurances that a society can and should provide its people in the long march toward an evermore civilized complexity. The next sector, presumably a care-centered commons sector, may well reflect that dynamic even more than the earlier sectors. As envisaged here, it would be bound to advance individual and collective responsibilities as well as provide assurances of greater wellbeing for society as a whole, and for individual people. Doing so may well be essential for civilizational progress.

A care-centered “assurance commons” could build in that direction better than would an economy-oriented “fourth sector.” From a TIMN perspective, then, the best that can be said about FS is that it aims to develop an array of socially-minded hybrid actors and activities which, if properly oriented, may help foster the transition to the full-fledged four-sector system implied by TIMN.

Here’s the principal statement about Sabeti et al.’s fourth-sector concept:

Also see:

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