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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 29 August 2015

#CCETakeover Day 6: CSI and the Spirit of Change

If you've come along for the whole #CCETakeover ride, you'll probably have noticed some consistent themes: 

- the desire to contribute more to society; 
- the search for community; 
- the emergence of a movement that is, depending on your point of view, either disrupting the status quo or in timely fashion trying to steer our civilization through a tectonic shift of cultural change.

Our journey began with the idea of DECAs as value-adding community animators, but as a counterpoint the reality that many people both members and DECAs alike have gravitated towards CSI looking for community. They are living through self-defined "periods of transition" and have come together because they feel that CSI is a place they can belong in, be part of.

This bears repeating - they're not coming to CSI looking for profit, a new market, or to get an in with a growing organization. They're not coming (at least not primarily) for the basics of space and desks and administrative assistance. These are all things that can be found elsewhere.

Entrepreneurs, Not-For-Profits, even corporations and public servants are migrating to CSI in search of something deeper than the material - something that isn't so easy to find in their normal lives and spaces of engagement.

They come to CSI looking to find themselves. They come to belong. They come to be part of something greater than themselves.

Pause on that for a second.

In Marxism, religion is labelled as the opiate of the masses - something that oppressive rulers use to keep lower classes in line. The implication in this is that the community existed first, and that religion was essentially a con created by elites that allowed them to rise to the top and ensure the common folk carried the labour burden.

Archaeological sites like Gobekli Tepe paint a different picture. They suggest that religion may have come first and became a focal point around which community could form, like the stone in the soup.

Now, think about political parties, or comic-cons, or festivals like Burning Man. What are these except places where people go to discover, share, create and belong? An individual or group of individuals, motivated by the urge to see something in the world that they feel is lacking, or find an avenue for expressing something they feel can't be expressed in their normal lives create a space for new kinds of activity to occur. They may be seen as outliers as first, but others recognize something is happening that they want to be part of. That's how any movement begins.  

Think about User Generated Content as a concept - the idea of people creating their own tweets, sharing their own ideas, investing in costumes or solutions that someone else will benefit from. Is it really a clever scheme by corporate/partisan interests to get people to do their heavy lifting for them, or is it a natural human inclination these organizations are simply harnessing, like hydro-electric power?

If it is a human instinct, it's about more than aggregating in communities - it's about personal empowerment within that community. Like DECAs who design better processes or members who plant the seeds of a community garden.

Functionalism looks at religion as sort of a manifesto for society; a standardization of values to allow for smooth societal operation, flow. We know there's a lot more to society than symmetry, though, because the world is a complex system that is constantly in flux; society also needs to be in flux, which means standardization is actually long-term detrimental to the well-being of society.

It's the core principle of Darwinism; that which survives isn't the toughest/most stubborn and inflexible, but rather that which is best able to adapt to its environment. It just so happens that consensus is growing at all levels of society and around the world that we are in the first blush of a tectonic soci-economic shift.

Besides, the implication of functionalism is that the community existed first and that religion is the thing that evolves to allow societies to function cohesively.  

If that's the sum of what religion has to offer - in essence, rules - why has religion consistently been a catalyst for the creation of entirely value-add art?

Visit any continent, inhabit any society - the material culture of humanity is illuminated with value-added art, architecture and music created for the glory of (insert deity here). Throughout history, people have been inspired to create art and add value to their community because of religious fervour. It's not the only motive (love is another one), but it's a consistent one.

I'm sure by now you can see where we're headed.

There is evidence to support the notion that some form of religious instinct serves as a centre of gravity that pulls people together - call it the spirit of community. While organized religion (much like organized politics) can lean towards an insistence on rigid hierarchies, rituals and codes of surface societal conduct, the raw spirit of religion has been known to inspire people to create, experiment - be innovative. That, and of course, to be pro-social.

It used to be the case that religious institutions did the lion's share of charitable/social service activity.
As our society has expanded and older religious/social models have faced challenges in adapting to our shifting societal consciousness, we've seen a diversification of charitable/public service providers and solutions offered.

Less people make weekly visits to partake in religious services. Less people identify themselves as being part of one religion or another. Heck, less and less people believe in the concept of a divinity, period.

At the same time, there are a massive number of charitable organizations, not-for-profits, community groups and corporate social responsibility initiatives out there all seeking to do what used to be the purview of the church and, to some extent, the state.

In fact, there are so many funders, service providers, etc. out there now that we lack a comprehensive system to keep up with all of them. Our current model of service provision, including government, is plagued by duplication, gaps and overlaps. Humans do silos well, but systems - that's a work that has progressed in iterative fits and spurts throughout history.

The past two days of #CCETakeover have explored some of the work being done right now to facilitate this transition from silos to systems through open government and open data initiatives. Even media organizations like the Toronto Star are getting in on the game, asking #howmightwe provide access to our resources so as to empower others with them?

If wade into the conversations being had at forums ranging from Open Data Day to the Toronto Global Forum to countless chats in coffee shops across the land, there's growing buzz around the concept that all of this is leading somewhere, that there is a common ground in the middle of activity that we just need to discover.

Over the course of #CCETakeover, we've also looked at innovative programs like Techsdale and Community Solutions Labs that aim to empower traditionally marginalized people so that they can be equal partners at the social table.  Projects like these empower individuals within target communities. And they start by creating shared spaces and cultures that nurture belonging.

Initiatives like these aren't about service provision, capitalizing on an untapped market - in fact, the revenue-generation model is often the last bit of business to be tackled.  The key motivation isn't to reel people (and their pocketbooks) in, it's about growing strong communities.

Which leads us back to CSI.

What is CSI?  Is it a co-working space?  Is it an incubator?  Is it a unique environment that places coffee-making higher up on the to-do list than turning on the printer?  It's all of that, but from its inception, CSI has aimed to be something more.

"It's a place where I think you belong", Adil Dhalla has described it, perhaps prophetically.

CSI's membership continues to grow.  Its events attract more and more people, each one looking to find something - and each one ultimately finding both a community to belong in and an encouraged opportunity to be and do more within and beyond it.  It's not just the grassroots/Not-For-Profit community that has become a pillar of the CSI community - For-Profit entrepreneurs, corporations and even government is starting to put down roots in the centre.

My favourite examples of this are the weekly salad club which happens at each location and the community potluck with which CSI Regent Park is helping to animate not only their members, the broader neighbourhood around them.

The format of these events is pretty simple - CSI provides the pot (physical space) and a stone (the event), then inspires others to bring their own ingredients into the mix.  With a bit of intentional animation, what results is not only a meal as rich as its members, but a dynamic community of engagement.

CSI members are, by and large, change-makers.  They are part of a community that believes in community.  Members reflect the Grasssroots, For Profit and, increasingly, government agencies, partners and even public servants like Diana Thai.  The same holds true for those who are becoming part of the broader CSI community through events, programs and projects.

Wherever they have arrived from, these change-makers, virtuous schemers and community animators have three things in common:

- the desire to contribute more to society; 
- the search for community; 
- the belief that a movement for social change is emerging

These needs and beliefs have driven each one of them to the Centre for social innovation.

I don't think it was intentional.  If anything, the story to date seems to suggest that the catalysts of CSI were simply the first ones to put down a pot, toss in a stone and issue an invitation.

As things often happen, CSI just ended up being conceived and executed at the right point in time when an unnamed community of people were individually looking for an aspirational community to belong to that didn't seem to exist anywhere else.

Part by design, part by luck, but to a large extent simply because there is a need, CSI has come to represent the spirit of change that defines the age we live in.  Increasingly, CSI also embodies the spirit of community that people are seeking.

That's why it is becoming a centre of gravity for the change-making movement of our time.

Is the Centre for Social Innovation a modern-day Gobekli Tepe? If so, what are the broader implications of that?

I have no answers to share with you - only perspective.

After all, this takeover is a ride we're all taking together, as a community.

And where we go from here - that choice is up to us.

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