About twenty years ago, my daughter Alex and I were living in Marin County above San Francisco. During this time I became addicted to reading. I don’t know if I was trying to make up for lost time or what; but a pile of five books (all in various stages of completion) became a permanent fixture on my dining room table. At least once week, and more often more than that, I made the trek to my local independent bookstore in Corte Madera down the road to see if there were any new current event titles I could add to my menu of cerebral digestion. Normally a book stayed a couple of weeks until I was done with it – only to make way for another to take its place. There was one book however that stuck around a lot longer. The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History by Michael Hart written in 1992.
Hart’s book was fascinating to me. Since I was in grade school, I’ve been a history buff – even reading the entire encyclopedia sitting on the living room floor when sub-zero temperatures and three-foot snow banks put a damper on outdoor activities (obviously it was a pre-video game era). What intrigued me about “The 100” was that Hart didn’t pass value judgement on whether the influence the person had was good or bad – just that the person had influence. Jesus and Sir Issac Newton figured prominently, but Hitler and Genghis Khan were also ranked. He also went into copious detail on why he ranked them where he did. A lot of the reasons weren’t obvious, but once brought to light – made complete sense. George Washington for example, was ranked in the top 40 not because he was the first president of the United States, but rather because he chose to voluntarily relinquish his office after only two terms, setting a precedent that would remain intact until Franklin Roosevelt 150 years later.
Being immersed in the printing industry as a headhunter, I loved the fact that Johann Gutenberg and his printing press made the Top Ten. But the one person that took me by surprise was the one Hart ranked as Number 10 overall. That was Euclid. I didn’t know who Euclid was – even with my encyclopedias and three-foot snow banks.
Euclid and Alexandria
Now for those of you who are as uninformed as I was, Euclid is known almost solely for writing the math text, Elements.
Euclid (fl. 300 BCE) was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”. He was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I (323–283 BCE). His Elements is one of the most influential works in the history of mathematics, serving as the main textbook for teaching mathematics (especially geometry) from the time of its publication until the late 19th or early 20th century.
But the most interesting part about Euclid was that Elements wasn’t really that much of an original text. He didn’t make any groundbreaking revelations like Newton or Copernicus. He pretty much just took the works of other scholars, many of which lived and worked in Alexandria, and synthesized into one book a comprehensive guide to geometry. In summary – Euclid was a curator; and a prolific enough of a curator that Michael Hart had him ranked Number 10 in the list of the most influential persons of history. Holding a curator in such high regard, especially at that time in history where personal contact was really the main way to spread knowledge – brings up an interesting point. Euclid was a product of his geography and those who resident in his civic proximity. Euclid embodied the very essence the of Alexandria, Egypt … the diverse cross-pollinated intellectual melting pot of the world. Rather than beset by religious and societal division, it was a bastion of inclusion and open thought. Thinkers worldwide traveled from afar to participate in the collectivism.
In January of 1989, my wife Mitra and I found out she was pregnant. I vividly remember the discussion of names. Before we knew the baby’s gender, we picked both a boy’s and girl’s name. We didn’t necessarily agree on the boy’s name (which I don’t even remember). The girl’s name was a different story. The decision on Alexandria came quick as our first pick, even though our reasons were different. Mitra liked the name itself (as did I). But I really liked what it stood for. It’s hard to set the bar much higher for your child than being named after arguably the most prolific center of learning in the history of the world. If some of that rubbed off on her … all the better.
On October 11, 1989 in Burbank, California – Alexandria Noelle Forsberg was born.
Two years ago, as part of my series on community-based societal evolution, I wrote “Silos.” “Silos” outlines the need for communities to rise above their provincial jingoism in order for them to truly pursue sustainable policies. Cross-pollination; whether its gender, sexual-preference, ethnic, racial, age-based or especially geographic – must be fundamentally encoded in a community’s civic DNA. All to often however, especially where I live, the opposite is often preferred. How far back your Montana roots go back somehow makes you a better person – not more geographically myopic which is actually the case.
Community and the Value of Diversity
Everyday the environment we live in changes. These changes are a response to external stimuli. Darwin’s theory of evolution states that the flourishing and ultimately the survival of a species (or any other anthropological entity) is based on its ability to adapt to stimuli. Diversity is an advantage if not a necessity. Lack of diversity makes itself open to disease (literally and figuratively).
My daughter Alexandria breeds exotic snakes, specifically Rainbow Boas. She goes to extreme lengths to make sure the gene pool of her breeding stock is as diverse as possible. It may be a lot easier and less expensive to acquire stock domestically – but due to inbreeding (often unintentional) by less diligent breeders, genetically based pathologies often occur. To counter this, Alex has imported snakes outside the genetic pool from Finland and Great Britain. It’s much more difficult and more expensive – but it’s her only option with the bar she’s set for herself and her projects.
Your community really isn’t a lot different from Alex’s Rainbow Boa community (aside from the preponderance of scales). Any community is the product of its residents. Social inbreeding creates weak species and weak communities; vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. Inbred societies rely on decision-making and responses founded in a narrow historical perspective – severely limiting its response to challenges and opportunities.
The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision-making and problem solving. Diversity can lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers. Scientific America
A community is the collective sum of the value of its individual inhabitants multiplied by the community’s ability to synergize these individual parts (by curating organized and random encounters). Every encounter or engagement has an opportunity to be a synergistic one. Empathetic cross-pollinated engagements are the key. The city of Alexandria during the time of Euclid was a perfect example of this. Even though there were organized discussions and forums, just walking down the street could lead to a serendipitous encounter that might result in a groundbreaking discovery.
Every member of your community is unique and adds to its fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. It’s up to us to find it and help them see it. The more expressively diverse a community is, the more resilient it is and more potential it has to invoke change – both inside and outside its walls. Our focus must actively be on inclusion, not retreat into personal protectionism and paranoia of those different from us. We must resist the temptation of the comfort of “sameness.” Nothing happens in our comfort zones. If we don’t venture into the land of wonder … we’ll never see, let alone realize the possibilities life avails to us.
Designing for Serendipity, Synergy and Collaboration
Cross-pollination doesn’t happen easily though. People of different fabric may inhabit the same locale, but that doesn’t mean their views and ideas will synthesize and your community will be built on Alexandria-type collaborations. You have to reach out and try to understand these people not like you. You first need to empathize with them. The most effective way to do that is through shared actions – specifically shared community-beneficial actions. For example, building a school playground with your neighbors of different ideologies can bridge chasms that would otherwise be uncrossable. It’s amazing what work for the common good can do. This is what happens in disaster relief efforts. I doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democratic, everyone bands together to help rebuild the town they all live in. We just have to not rely on disasters to bring us together. Community commonalities are everywhere. We just have work to create opportunities for everyone to share in them.
From these opportunities and resultant actions will come serendipitous relationships; relationships that create synergies that move your community ahead in ways no one envisioned. That being said, we have to design environments; physical, social and personal so that these opportunities, actions and relationships become baked into our society. In business applications we strive for economies of scale. These efficiencies are mainly mapped on vertically axis or are niche based. Building for serendipity takes community economies of scale and expands their opportunity on the horizontal axis across defined multiple niches and focuses. This solution thinking stemming from diverse thought breaks through conventional siloed vertical constraints.
Imagine if your community had a Department of Horizontal Integration, where its primary role is to break apart the silos of the status quo power structures and connect dots from the pieces. This department wouldn’t need to be housed in the government. In fact it would be best if it wasn’t – for obvious hierarchical reasons. It could rely on your community’s true assets; its people and where they congregate, the Front Porches of the small business network.
Rather than abide by a top-down governance model run by those embedded in the status quo of mediocrity – we must create a platform of serendipity where matchmaking happens organically through interaction uncovering commonalities between the participants. Think of a synergistic mixing bowl of opportunity; obliquitous, indirect, organic relationship building.
Now imagine organizing set gatherings where this serendipity is on the menu. While there’s no guarantee your group will change the world – increasing that chance through proximity of diverse thought and motivation sure increases its chance. And what if the overarching goal of your gatherings was to improve the human condition in your community. How this is accomplished would be determined by those in the room not by a top-down bureaucracy mired in inefficiency and out-dated procedures. Everyone is here for the same reason and they are here because they WANT to be … not have to be because of an overriding need to fuel ego and status.
For arguments sake let’s call your gathering, Serendipity. Serendipity could be a petri dish for how to solve civic and social problems directly rather than through government. It would be the platform for inclusion and experimental benevolence. The bar would be set so that no area of community need would be untouched. If something needed to be fixed, or something needed to be done – there would be no questions and no siloed jurisdictional squabbles … it would just happen.
In 1986, John Gage, then of Sun Microsytems, organized NetDay in California. NetDay was historic grassroots effort in the classic American barn-raising tradition. Using volunteer labor, their goal was to install all the basic wiring needed to make five classrooms and a library or a computer lab in every school Internet-ready. If the same work was financed by taxpayers, it would cost more than $1,000 per classroom. Volunteers from businesses, education, and the community acquired all of the equipment and installed and tested it at each school site. As a result 20,000 volunteers helped to wire 20 percent of California schools to the Internet. In addition, by bringing together these diverse elements, NetDay established a framework for lasting partnerships among business, government, educational institutions, and local communities provide ongoing support for the schools to this day.
What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement from those in the streets? The more engaged our residents are … the more empowered they would be. They would feel more in control of their health and their futures. Imagine if a chance to engage, whether it was physical, mental or social was just around the corner. What if our physical security and well-being was not dependent on government assistance or the whims of a fickle market driven economy.
What if our neighborhood was our safety net, a safety net that knew best in our time of need. What if the streets of our community became melting pots of diversity-driven serendipity – places where curiosity was bred. What if engagement, well-being and self-efficacy was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics. And what if getting up in the morning was a chance to nurture our hope … and engage with others to help them do the same.
Building Your Own Alexandria
It’s obvious the human species must evolve. The ascent of Donald Trump to the forefront of our attention has presented us with some hard facts. We all have to take look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we got here. We will have to change our thinking – or maybe just start thinking. Instead of relying on past expectations, and cultural assumptions and metrics as our guides — we have to envision what could be … not just what always has been and try to bring it back to life.
But vision is only part of the journey. We have to look past how things in past have been done. No longer should government and traditional institutions be looked at as the first line defense … rather should be looked at only as a last resort. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize and do what has to be done — developing self-efficacy, individually and collectively along the way. And we best accomplish that by inclusion and reaching out to those around us who normally we may feel uncomfortable doing so. These outliers of our social circles may be the exact people who ensure the our very survival.
We can make the change we need — but it won’t be by thinking the way we’ve always thought and doing what we’ve always done — the way it’s always been done.
If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo and helping me build a new civic alternative … please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and well-being is priority. Or even better email me, at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up time to have a conversation.
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