Rebuilding Alexandria

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 that will inevitably take anyone and anything down with it … 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 clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation.

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“A Saturday in May” … a study in engagement

A few years ago, when visiting my daughter in Los Angeles, I was on a walk through West L.A. when I ran across a homeless man collecting cans and bottles from a dumpster. I stopped and we talked for about for fifteen minutes.

We talked about a lot things; the weather, the BP oil spill and eventually the economy. His take on the economy was that he thought things were getting worse, rather than better – as what we’d been hearing from the news media. “How did you come up with that?” I asked him.

“Well I see more cheap brand cans in the garbage than I used to. Even last year when things were supposedly worse, people still drank Coke and Budweiser. But now it’s changed.”  It’s Shasta and Natural Light.

His astute observation was definitely not a perspective I would have gotten through my normal channels. But it made sense – and for here it was probably more accurate than any economics professor would have come up with a few blocks down the street at UCLA. But that was only the start of what turned out to be a very memorable day.

After meeting the astute homeless man I mentioned above, I caught a bus to Skid Row to meet up with a woman I knew only as Special K. Special K was a photographer and homeless activist I was introduced to through a friend. She invited me to Skid Row to help with a clean up she had organized. I’d been through Skid Row before – but never not in a car. Today there was no car, only me on foot in the midst of the largest homeless community in the United States. 

It was Saturday morning about 11:00 am, so this was about as good as it gets down there. It was eye-opening. There were people literally laying everywhere. But one thing I noticed … there were no stores, nowhere to buy anything.  But what there was, were soup lines.  There were several of them, pretty much all put together by local churches. I felt like I was transported to an area that had just been hit by a natural disaster – a hurricane or tornado or something. But there wasn’t anything natural about this … just disaster.

After about a half an hour, I found Special K and I helped her organize a crew of about fifteen others and began cleaning the sidewalks, the streets and anything that needed it. There was one thing that surprised me though. There was hope. Not everybody acted down and out.  For example, there was Richard. Richard had just moved to Skid Row – not that he had to be there.  He had just moved from Laguna Beach (high rent district for those of you not familiar with Southern California). He moved here to help … it’s where he said he belonged.  

One of our most energetic workers was an attractive young woman named Veronica. I thought she was just another of the volunteers like me … but she wasn’t. She’d been living in Skid Row for the last two and half years. I commented that she didn’t look like she was in the situation she was. This was her response:  

“I may be homeless, but I don’t have to look like I’m homeless. If I look like I’m homeless, I’ll always be homeless.” 

Veronica took, “faking it till you make it” to a new level. I know if I’ve ever met anyone like Veronica. I can say my life is better because it. And I thought … what a day! – as I got on the bus for 90 minute ride home. I’ll just use the time to relax let everything sink in.

Twenty minutes into my ride back to West L.A., we turned onto Wilshire Blvd. Wilshire was my old stomping grounds. On two occasions during the time I lived in Los Angeles I worked on Wilshire, mainly mid-Wilshire or Koreatown. Shortly a young Asian woman and what I found out to be her parents got on the bus. They were all well-dressed, not the norm for the bus. The young woman sat in the seat next to me and her parent in front of us. They spoke what I found out later to be Mandarin. She spoke English, but they didn’t. After a brief conversation, I found out she was going to school at UCLA and this was for her parents, their first time in the United States. They wanted to take the bus so they could get a “real” feel for the city. This was my opening.

I spent an hour playing tour guide: The Ambassador Hotel where Bobby Kennedy was shot, Koreatown, Little Indonesia, The LA Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits and even the ARCO headquarters, home of the Armand Hammer Museum who launched the Los Angeles oil boom.

Around 4:00 pm I got off the bus, alternating between being mentally exhausted and hyper-stimulated. Whatever it was, I was charged up – and only had a ten minute walk to Alex’s apartment. I was wrong. Ten minutes turned into an hour.

The weather was great and people were walking their dogs and generally milling around in Alex’s neighborhood. A block from Alex’s I saw an old woman sitting on her 2nd floor balcony. I yelled up at her, “Good afternoon.” She responded back and inquired about my day. My response was a 90 second recap of my engagement filled day. Then she invited my up for a cup of coffee. At first I thought, I should just get home – I’m exhausted. But then, how many times does this elderly women, who looked about ninety years old, get a chance to entertain. I accepted. Margaret it turned out to be was a Holocaust survivor. For almost an hour she recounted her journey to the United States after being liberated from one of the camps. Fortunately she had only spent a short time there as a child. 

Now she lived in West L.A. nestled between Beverly Hills and UCLA, one of finest institutions of higher learning in the world. If that isn’t the American Dream … then what is?

I don’t if could have made up the stories that comprised that Saturday. But I do know that none of it came to me without an effort on my part. I initiated each the encounters I had – and because of it I’ve added so much to my life and the make-up of who I am. And that’s only one day. It would have been easier just to listen to music on my iPod consumed by my own thoughts and songs I’d heard dozens of times before. And plenty of times that’s exactly what I’ve done. It’s easier to stay in your comfort zone. But that Saturday … I didn’t.

We only so many minutes in life. It’s easy to dismiss that, thinking that what’s a few minutes, or an hour or two – or even a day. What it is – is an opportunity lost. It’s an opportunity lost to become a better person, to enhance your well-being … and most of all help others to do the same.

Time is the bedrock of scarcity. If a person isn’t doing something meaningful in a given moment, they’re wasting opportunity. By meaningful, I don’t mean productive, in an economic sense. I mean important to the person, to her own well-being.  It’s not that we should be doing something meaningful with our time, it’s that we should want to. We should want to express and receive affection. We should want to be part of a group, a community. We should want to be accepted. We should want to be human.

Our goal as a society must be to accommodate this need to engage, and not instead create barriers (which often the case). We have enough of those right now with the often generationally-driven entropy of community dissolve that is making isolation the norm rather than the exception. The higher our level of engagement is individually and collectively, the more well – physically, mentally and socially we will be.

Salutogenesis, Engagement and Self-Efficacy

Salutogenesis is a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a former professor of medical sociology in the United States. The term describes an approach focusing on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). More specifically, the “salutogenic model” is concerned with the relationship between health, stress, and coping. Antonovsky’s theories reject the “traditional medical-model dichotomy separating health and illness”. He described the relationship as a continuous variable, what he called the “health-ease versus dis-ease continuum.”

In 2008 Scotland, specifically Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, adopted salutogenesis as national public health policy. Burns helped Scotland conceptualize health improvement differently, being aware that the small gains that resulted from a range of interventions can add up to produce significant overall improvements. Much of these interventions were and are aimed at empowering the populace through engagement with their own health outcomes.

Self-efficacy cloud

Engagement creates agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. The key is to “get the ball rolling” by nudging activity and engagement – personally, socially and civically. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and well-being. In other words – well-being can be learned.

In America, the established healthcare industry puts in little effort into getting people to engage directly with their health and personal well-being. Healthcare providers seem to be reluctant to relinquish control, even though transferring some of this responsibility to the patients will prove beneficial to them in the end. And it’s not just having the patient focus on themselves physically that can produce impact. Nurturing altruism and benevolence by doing good things for other people takes their minds off of their own ailments and gives them purpose beyond just their condition. For example: if they can’t actively participate in hands-on volunteer projects, then they can at least feel they’re part of the solution by experiencing the joy of giving vicariously through attendance.

Well-being, Hope and Role of Community

What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement. The more engaged our residents would be … the more empowered they would be and feel they were 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. And what if opportunities to help others realize the same were part of the fabric our daily lives. 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. And what if the streets of our community became melting pots of serendipity – places where curiosity was bred and benevolence was the norm.

What if engagement and well-being was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics. What if we fixated on what we “could,” rather than what we “can’t.” And what if getting up in the morning was a chance to nurture our hope … and engage with other to help them do the same.

What we need is a conduit that can help us build towards communities of engagement. We need a vehicle that connects the dots in our communities and makes its resources not only accessible – but actually taken advantage of. We need something or someone who will help us engage.

Purpose-Driven Engagement

Amazon’s digital personal assistant is called Alexa. To say it’s been a runaway success is an understatement. Originally created to help you buy more Amazon products easier – if that was even possible, Alexa has turned into a repository of tens of thousands of possible lifestyle automation uses and applications. It controls the heat in your home, it gives you definition (by voice) and provides recipes for the finicky guests at your next dinner party. And everyday its uses only multiply.

Imagine if you had an Alexa for engagement. Imagine if you had a virtual assistant that gathered communications and ways you could improve yourself and the community you live in. And imagine if these were sorted, prioritized and “nudged” you to do things that best helped your physical, mental and social self. These Engagements could be advice from your doctor, special deals from your neighborhood small businesses or even alerts of volunteer opportunities sponsored by a community non-profit.

Being well is not just something you do … it must be a basic function of your life, like breathing. The bleedingEDGE Platform is Community 3.0‘s communication vehicle that conditions our decision-making process to automatically act healthy and enriching through a ubiquitous immersion of positive engagement prompts, internally and externally. Personalized communication will encourage positive behavior change maximizing all the resources of not only your healthcare provider, but also the community – including the small businesses you frequent. Those participating in the Community 3.0 network will be encouraged not to just “sell stuff” – but be part of the solution by acting responsibly. These businesses, as well as your local non-profits, will organize what we call Solutions, or volunteer projects designed to strengthen the social fabric or of the community – and in turn  your sense of empathy and altruism … all heightening your well-being.

Community 3.0‘s efforts to improve the human condition is detailed at the initiative’s dedicated site, “Engagement For A Purpose” here.

Community 3.0 is a civic ecosystem that connects local businesses to its customers by solving their community’s problems directly in addition to marketing their services, products and events. These participating businesses and organizations, or Front Porches, are hubs of civic involvement and volunteerism. Imagine a social hub where like-minded people can come together just to do good for the neighborhoods we all live in. Community 3.0 represents a new decentralized way of affecting change in our communities. Rather than passively waiting for government to fix what civically ails us – the 3.0 network mobilizes you and your neighbors to act directly using the small locally owned business community as its center.

“A person is a person through other people” strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”. (on Ubuntu Philosophy Michael Onyebuchi Eze)

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In the United States we’ve elected a president who ran on a platform that he would make things different, that he was the only one who fix all our problems. He would wield his magic wand and shake his fist and all us minions scraping for crumbs on the street below would be lifted up set on the way to prosperity. It doesn’t work that way no matter who says whatever they say. The government isn’t a replacement for personal responsibility and legislation isn’t a replacement for engaging with each other and experiencing each others worlds.

Our opportunities and solutions lie in us and with those next to us. Only when we wake up to that fact … will we realize what it means to really be human and maximize our potential in this world.

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Thoughts on a ‘Perfect World’ for 2016

Imagine …

Imagine if we were immune from the constraints of “so-called” societal norms – free to determine our own fates, our own definitions of happiness … free of the expectations of others.

Imagine if the default was to include … not exclude.

Imagine if we embraced and yearned for the future and change – rather than the past and the ways things were – or how we mistakenly thought they were.

Good morning full

Imagine if we were all seamstresses mending the “safety net of life” for all around us, rather than sitting by idly on the sidelines as our friends and neighbors fall through.

Imagine if we looked at the health and wellbeing of all not as a profit center, but as a journey we all go on together throughout our entire lives.

Imagine if the older generations embraced and nurtured the younger generations and viewed them as a source of knowledge, rather than view them as irrelevant and show them disdain. And imagine if the opposite was also true, with the young not only recognizing the knowledge of the old … but seeking it out.

Imagine if we took responsibility as our the primary educators of our children, and not just turn over their futures to a system ill prepared and ill motivated to be of any assistance.

Imagine if we were not preoccupied with the irrelevant people and events that are put in front of us by those in the media with only their own self-interest in mind.

Imagine if we were looked at for the talents we bring, and those talents were embraced as part of the greater solution.

 It’s the eve of 2016 – and that is my ‘Perfect World.’

Dream I may … but doesn’t everything start with dream.

The “Pop-Up Community” and the Evolution of the Commercial Space

More than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time … but only if they’re allowed to. ~ Stuart Brand

Several years ago I read book called “How Buildings Learn” by Stuart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue. The premise of the book was that a building whether it’s a house, a factory, or an office building, should be designed to adapt with its inhabitants. As a family goes through the different stages of its life, so should its home. If it can’t then the family will have to pack up, move and find a new home more suitable to its current needs. Such is the same for businesses.

Unfortunately this is not always the case. In fact, normally it’s not the case. Brand vilified vaunted architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright because his buildings, especially his houses, were built for one specific family at one specific time of their life. If anything in this family’s life changes … their residence wasn’t appropriate for their needs since it couldn’t adapt.

We can take this same principle and apply it to communities. Inevitably communities and cities change over time. Detroit is a dramatic example of this. The auto industry moved out from the city’s core leaving vacant blight in it’s wake with no evolutionary strategy. And unfortunately, unlike a family, a community can’t pack up and move down the street or to the next town. Its stuck where it’s at, abandon buildings and all.

But it doesn’t need to be like this. There are three main impediments to a community’s adaptability; individual design of its buildings, zoning laws and mindset. I believe the first two can be overcome with a little effort. A building, with imagination – can be converted into something more appropriate for the community’s needs at the current time. Zoning laws can be changed, maybe not without a lot of kicking and screaming … but they can be changed.

The third impediment, mindset – is not so easy though. Adaptation and evolution can either be embraced and helped along, or it will come on its own terms. And in the latter, it’s often not pretty. Again we look at the example of Detroit. Once the decline of the Big Thee American auto industry started in the eighties, the city (and especially the auto unions) turned a blind eye to it. “This can’t be real. Nobody’s going buy those foreign cars. We’ll be back bigger and better than ever.” Detroit did not embrace the enviable. Now we see what happens when evolution comes on its own terms. It’s pretty much like a real life version of the four headless horsemen in the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (On a positive note, Detroit is finally making some headway on revitalizing itself by recognizing the the past isn’t coming back).

“Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s easy to do the same old thing the same old way, day and day out – and just expect the world to take a break from change. But it doesn’t work that way anymore than expecting the world to stop spinning. This reluctance to change and except new ideas is the core reason for any generational gaps we’ve had in past, have now or will have in the future. The older generations want things like they were, and the younger generations want things like they’ll be. Well, let me tell you – there ain’t time machines, so we’re not going backwards, at least in time (attitude maybe). For a community to prosper, or even survive – it needs to embrace adaptability. It can hold on to its heritage and history, and it definitely should. But it has to take that heritage and bring into the future and make it relevant to not just generations of the past.

This embrace has to take place with the local presence, the locally owned businesses and commercial property owners. It has to happen with the city policy makers and planners. Adaptability requires being on the pulse of the community, recognizing where its resources are and maximizing them. That’s the advantage local businesses have over the box stores and the national chains. Locally owned businesses can adapt immediately, while the latter change course like the Titanic. In fact that’s the prime advantage a local business has over an “out-of-town conglomerate.” They can’t compete on price. But they can compete on relevance.

But there’s more to adaptability that just changing product mix or revising hours or even sponsoring local events and sports teams. It’s about changing one’s mindset from the old fixed location “brick and mortar” two-year lease – to none of the above. Imagine if you had never known a world where a business was committed to a fixed location for a fixed time period.

What if a business could adapt: come and go, and move around according the to needs of its clientele. This stretch of the imagination is the foundation of the “Pop-Up Community.”

You ever walk around an old downtown area and see all the buildings with nothing in them. It’s not like the downtown is dead or doesn’t have potential, a new potential – it’s just not be utilized or maximized. What if a business could go into one of those buildings for two months and then pack up and leave. And then another business, of a different type would come in a couple of months later for stay three months and leave. It may not be a two-year lease for the building owner. But then again the building owner isn’t getting the two-year lease anyway. Plus having the building occupied, generates traffic and revenue for neighboring businesses.

This is “Resource Maximization.” And this is what communities will need to do to prosper in our “warp speed evolving future.” And the people navigating this “warp speed.” are the younger generations. These “kids” want flexibility to grow with “trial and error.” And a two-year lease in a fixed location just doesn’t cut it. This is the main reason for the boom in “office hubs” or shared office space in recent years. I belong to one in Los Angeles. It works perfect for me since I’m only in L.A. a couple of times a year, but for a month at a time. When I’m there, I pop into The Hub LA, and do my thing, network, attend events or just socialize.

That means, above all, that they are able to live in a community that is a collective expression of their social being and their social ideals, rather than being an obstacle to them.

If a community truly wants to move ahead then it will have to position itself to attract these young entrepreneurs and their crazy ideas, whatever they are. On that note, I’d like present my idea of the next evolution of community, or I call Community 3.0, and the “Pop-Up Community” is a big part of it.

Pop-up store

How to Create Your Own “Pop-Up Community”

  • Customer focused: Be where are the customers are and when are they going to be there.
  • Permissive zoning laws: Flexibility will create more business for everyone including neighboring businesses, thereby raising property values.
  • Special permitting processes for pop-up and temporary businesses: Make it easy for small low capital businesses to operate legally by cutting the red tape.
  • Walkability: Pop-up businesses encourage geographic consolidation therefore access via foot rather than automobile. The less time in a car … the more time in a store.
  • Specific pop-up business network loyalty programs: Having a common loyalty marketing program operating under consistent rules will bind this nomad community together and make it more stable and more likely to be less transient. These programs can also take the form of cooperative promotions.
  • Co-op ventures between property owners and tenants: Rather than relying on old the “fallback” of the two-year lease with set rental rates, property owners should participate in the success of their tenants’ businesses.
  • Street activity: Create a fun, festive environment including visual art, performance art, food carts, etc. which will draw people to an area. This increased traffic (by foot) can only help all neighboring businesses.
  • Pop-up educational opportunities: Make everything, everywhere a learning experience. “Label your community.” Every building, bridge and park has a story just waiting to be told and passed on to the next generation.
  • Encourage community entrepreneurialism: Rather than just focus on attracting big business – a community should grow its own through their own start-ups. The nurturing process should happen on all levels including the chamber, colleges, tech schools as well as co-op ventures with existing community businesses.
  • Office hubs: Pop-up and temporary ventures need not be limited to retail. A community should have multiple micro co-op office space hubs with shared facilities, such as meeting rooms, kitchen facilities and technology areas to make it easier for fledging entrepreneurs to succeed.

I’m all for nostalgia, and I’m definitely for keep the flavor of community’s Main Street. But ’70s suburbia and all it’s physical constraints … not so much. I believe a community’s value lies in its past, its present and its future. The art is to balance and synthesize the requirements of the three. That takes flexibility. And a “Pop-Up Community” provides the flexibility to do that.

Steve [Jobs] felt that most people live in a small box. They think they can’t influence or change things a lot. I think he would probably call that a limited life. And more than anybody I’ve ever met, Steve never accepted that. He got each of us [his top executives] to reject that philosophy. If you can do that, then you can change things. If you embrace that the things that you can do are limitless, you can put your ding in the universe. You can change the world. ~ Tim Cook

Maybe it’s time to let our cities and neighborhoods climb out of that small box.’ It may not change the world … but it may very well change our communities.

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I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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Now you’ve ‘Raised your flag’ … what’s next?

The events in the Ukraine, and specifically Kiev, over the last couple weeks have been extraordinary. A group of determined protesters overthrew a government with heavy backing from Russia. And most amazing is that the protesters were not driven by irrational religious zeal, but rather by a desire for economic reform. They’ve ‘Raised their flag’ in pursuit of having lives dictated by their of own doing … not according to decades of old ideas hatched in the former Soviet Union. And if the rebellion in the Ukraine isn’t enough, it appears a similar situation may be unfolding in Venezuela.

Ukraine Protest

About twenty years ago I coined a phrase. “On the Road to Your Perfect World. It was used mainly in the context of my recruiting business. It’s premise was that life is a journey, not a destination. Thus the “Road” moniker. I told my candidates to view a job as step to where they wanted to go. And if the job they had or the one they were considering didn’t go down the path they wanted to go … then find one that did.

Well the “Road” and “the Perfect World” has taken me a whole lot of places I would have never envisioned back in 1995. But that’s a whole different story and the concept itself has evolved. “The Road to Your Perfect World” is now about more than just work and career. “The Perfect World” is my way of looking at life. It’s about breaking from the way you’re supposed to do things and the being on the road you’re supposed to travel according to societal norms (or what others think ). Everything is in question – even the our whole system of how we value ourselves and our place in this world. I got into this a couple of weeks ago in my post, Can We Ever Stop the March of the Neanderthals.

Greg Rader over the years has also articulated a lot of the same issues in his blog. Two years ago he posted a piece on making the jump to this alternative way of thinking and breaking from convention. I commented on this post about what happens after one makes this break. Below is my comment:

“Well here we are. We’ve done it. We’ve waged war on the status quo for control of ourselves. We’ve thrown out conventional wisdom concerning education and the value of a traditional institutions. We’ve decided that the accepted professional ladder climbing is no longer acceptable. We’ve even redefined our system of value – with the ‘undying sole pursuit of material goods’ being a casualty. The welfare of all is to be held above our own personal desires and wants. Our knuckles are bloodied, our will tested … but we’re here.

Now what’s next. We’ve deconstructed every norm we can find. We’ve sought them out in the classroom, in the boardroom and even the bedroom. No room was left untouched.

But now … what’s next!

It’s easy to tear down, to point out the faults of convention and the “one model fits all” thinking. But it’s harder to actually break loose, to endure the ostracism of the masses, the lemmings on the crusade to the cliff.

But again I ask  … what’s next. It’s not enough just to declare victory. One can only look at Egypt. They won the battle for freedom from tyranny – to be replaced by what? Have we, us fellow “sociopaths” relegated ourselves to a similar fate? What will fill the void of conformity and a life not unlike the one Donald Sutherland so valiantly tried to escape in the ’70s classic, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers?”

Reminiscent of post World War II, now is time for us to develop our own person Marshal Plan. How are we going to succeed in this new world we’ve thrust upon ourselves? It won’t have a timetable of months or even years. It is a plan we will need to follow, to implement, over the course of our lives. And our plan must take into account not just ourselves, but all who we have a vested interest in, and  those who have a vested interest in us; including the generations who will follow. For all them are stakeholders and will be effected.

We’ll lose some of them. Some just won’t be able resist the pressure to conform and step back into the old societal comfort. We’ll have to accept that. We’ll just have to make it so that those that matter most remain in our fray, and realize their own “Perfect World” – even if it’s not in lockstep with ours. All we can hope for is understanding and empathy. Because to succeed in this rebuilding effort, we’ll need them.

We’ve raised our flag, assessed the damage – envisioned the possibilities. Now it’s time to go to work!”

This very well could be a mantra for the heroic of Kiev and the other nations who have sought and will seek to break from the convention of physical and societal tyranny. Or it could just be your own. Discarding the status quo is only the first step. It’s only the first of many battles that will have to be fought. The hardest ones will be ones of choice, of what to do next. Deciding the goal to ‘tear down’ is an easy one to make. The decision of what to build in its place and how to do it … not so much so.

I’m not going to tell you what your “Perfect World” should be. And I’m not going tell how you should travel your road. That’s up to you. All I’m saying is it’s alright to map your own journey. Moses didn’t have an eleven commandment saying you have to blindly join the crusade to the cliff.

But once you have ‘Raised your flag’ and you ask yourself what’s next … you better have your own Marshall Plan.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg

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Can we ever stop the march of the Neanderthals?

Update January 19, 2013: I wrote this post three years ago. And just, if not more appriopriate today than then. Naively so I thought that maybe by 2014 things might be different. Maybe in some respects they are. A new generation is gaining more of a foothold in the world (For the better I believe). But at the same time, the old guard of attitudes, those resident in the ‘ivory towers’ of materialism are digging in deeper … reminiscent of siege of the Civil War battle Vicksburg.

Yesterday (February 21, 2011) I commented on a provocative blog post by my friend Greg Rader, “The Future of Status – Conspicuous Production.”

Imagine if there was no money and no things to buy. How would you show the world your worth? How would you show yourself?

Would your value lie in the number of friends you have – physical or electronic? Would it lie in the quality and depth or your relationships with these friends (kind of an esoteric three-dimensional assessment)? Maybe it would lie in the number pieces of art you produced, or books and articles you’ve written.

Or better yet … what about the number of nebulous karma points you’ve accumulated by doing random acts of good? Haven’t we reached a point on Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ where we can at least flirt with self actualization?

Over your last couple posts, I think you’ve been us leading to this. It’s obvious, the standard societal measurement of wealth and worth just isn’t cutting it for you. I join you brother.

Maybe this is the first step – discontent. Only then we can find our own “store of value.” and from there truly maximize it’s worth. Maybe this is what I mean when I talk about “On the Road to Your Perfect World.” Thanks for pointing me the way.

I viewed the focus of Greg’s piece as: “Isn’t there a way of presenting our value to world other than just through the money we make and our consumption habits?” As you can tell from my comment above – it’s a topic that’s been on my mind also.

Recently, in light of the sky-high valuations of several dotcom 2.0 stocks, such as Facebook, Groupon and Twitter, this matter seems to be especially relevant. Recent investments have Facebook worth $52 billion and Twitter at $10 billion, while Groupon recently turned down a $6 billion offer from Google.

But I ask you … on what are the values based. In the first two it’s their ability to act as advertising platforms, and Groupon is worth what it can take as a cut of the pie. Isn’t there more though … more than just advertising, more than just a vehicle to accommodate more and more consumption. God I hope so.

Let’s put Groupon aside, they are what they are – a group buying coupon service … nothing more, nothing less. Eventually they will fall prey to another ‘new and improved’ version of the same.

But Facebook and Twitter are different. To label then as just advertising platforms is to vastly understate what they really are – what they’re really worth. One needs to look no further back than one month. Only thirty days ago the political environment in the Middle East was much the same as it’s been for the last thirty years. No longer. Tunisia is liberated. Egypt is liberated (well kinda). Libya will be in a matter a days, and whoever is next is anyone’s guess.

While Facebook and Twitter didn’t overthrow these dictatorships … they played an integral role. They facilitated strategic and tactical communication that was on the level of a sophisticated military sorte, only performed primarily by young civilians. These social networks provided something that wasn’t there before … coordination. The results to this point have been the liberation tens of billions of dollars and ten millions of people, people who now have the prospect of governing themselves and having a say in their future.

What’s that worth?

Have you evolved?

How can you put a monetary value on person’s freedom? How can you say in dollars and cents what it’s worth to know you have something to get up for in the morning, to know that just maybe your children might just have a better life than you … a life you could only dream of.

Why does everything have to be based on money and what we spend it on. Just because you drive a Mercedes 450SL and I drive a Ford Taurus – does that make you worth more than me. I could make a case on the contrary. We focus so much on our children making sure they go to college and get a job that pays a lot of money. How many us even discuss any other options – any other means of worth? This valuation system seems Neanderthal in the light of what’s happening in the world these days.

I have been there and done it. I’ve had the nice car, the apartment on the water, the original art on walls. But it sure wasn’t “the be all end all.” The car’s gone (well,not a Mercedes – didn’t have one of those), the apartment gone and my daughter has the art. The memories are good, but now it time to move on.

It’s like the pursuit of possessions had put me in a cloud. I had other pursuits, but the almighty dollar seemed to reign supreme. No longer.

My valuation lies not in my financial net worth, but rather in what Greg says, “my conspicuous production” and what results from it. Production can be anything. It could this blog post. It could be the comments that result from it. And as I said in my comment above, it could be in the karma points I accumulate by doing good things. So here it is, here is my new definition of “my value:”

My value is the sum total of all positive synaptic connections I have a role in creating, both in myself and in others. In other words, the more I can get people thinking in ways they wouldn’t otherwise think in – and correspondingly, act in ways that benefit themselves and others … the more I’m worth.

There you have it.

Now it’s time to pick up my hands … my knuckles are bloody.

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And if you like this … please Tweet it and follow me on Twitter @clayforsberg

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Nurture your “Weirdos” … and let them bloom!

“We have a new bigotry in America. We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us about anything.”~ Bill Clinton at the 2013 GLAAD Awards

We live in world of conformity. Being different, being … “not like everyone else is or like your supposed to be” – is bad. Because if you’re different, then you’re unpredictable. And most people need predictability. Their minds aren’t programmed to understand, or even accept these “outliers.”

And it seems like it’s getting worse.

In the misguided (and ineffective) effort to be globally competitive in the education world, we have sacrificed all for the pursuit of rote math and science instruction. This relentless focus has left all creative pursuits, such as art and music, nothing more than carnage in the ditch along the academic road to mediocrity. It’s like we’re programming an army of drones.

nonconformist

Instead of nurturing creativity, we test. Instead of teaching applicable real world problem solving, we test. And we test by filling in ovals on multiple choice tests. Easy to teach, easy to grade … and mostly irrelevant. We do this instead of nurturing art and music – disciplines proven to ignite synaptic connections, ironically the same connections used in math and science proficiency.

The march towards further standardized testing is only intensifying with the implementation of the Common Core Standards. On face, these standards don’t seem to be so bad. But digging deeper, you’ll find that the initiative is headed by David Coleman, president of the College Board. The College Board is the testing behemoth behind the SAT and all it’s siblings. Reading the signs … with its focus on math and English, Coleman’s appointment as “overlord” of American education curriculum, does not bode well for a well-rounded instructional approach.

The education dilemma in the United States has deteriorated to the point where hundreds of thousands high paying, intellectually stimulating jobs go unfilled. But it’s not so much because of lack of math and science … but lack of creativity and problem solving skills in math and science. These are skills that can’t be acquired when all attention is paid to short-term memorization designed around ovals and #2 pencil.

So disparate are these technology companies … a years worth of H-B1 Visas are snatched up in a mere three days. Foreign educated prospects have been schooled in real world application of the fundamentals. To these students, the fundamentals are means to an end, not the end itself – only to be forgotten in a couple of weeks.

Normal is not something you aspire for … it’s something you run away from! ~ Jodi Foster

It’s the creative people, the out-of-the-box thinkers … who are ones who push the boundaries and shatter the status quo. They tremble at the words – normal, or conventional. These are the “Weirdos.” The ones that don’t conform, the Albert Einsteins, the Steve Jobs, the Truman Capotes and the Orson Wells. These people “scare” other people. They scare the normal people, the ones who do what their parents did. The ones who are “politically correct.”

When this country has made strides and moved ahead – it’s the “Weirdos” that blazed the way for others to follow … often to much prejudice and ostracism. But we forget that those proverbial roads we often take for granted – were the result of the chances they took … and not us.

2013 GLAAD Awards

It’s easy to say to point to successes of the people I mentioned above and recognize them for their accomplishments. But what about the “Weirdos” close to us. The guy down the street with the dreadlocks. The Goth girl who always keeps to herself writing … always writing. Or even the boy next door that his teacher is “hell-bent” to get him on ADHD meds because he doesn’t sit still (through her boring detached lectures). These “Weirdos could be the next Bill Clinton or Jennifer Lawrence, both of which were bullied and looked at as outcasts. But too often instead of embracing them – we brand them with a Scarlett Letter.

They say, “all politics is local.”  So is misunderstanding. So is prejudice. What you do to accept the “Weirdos” in your community, whether young or old, will help construct the flavor and individuality of your community.

And it’s how you nurture these nonconformists may very well influence the future of your community … the nation and even the world.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg

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