Communities of Many Types, Yes, but the Clock is Ticking

Three important blog posts from 2010 on the subject of community — John Michael Greer’s “The Costs of Community”, Sharon Astyk’s “On the Problem of Community”, and Rob Hopkins’ “Why ‘Community’ Might Not Need ‘Organising’” — coupled with an exchange of comments over the past two years over applying the principle of subsidiarity and moving much decision-making lower down the governmental/organizational food chain have got me reflecting today on what kind of action, if any, we should be working to make happen in our communities.

Actually, to be completely fair, the “we” in that sentence means “each of us as individuals” and, yes, each of us belongs to multiple communities.

Our Multiple, Fractal Identities

For Dominion Day, 2008, I wrote a short essay on the multiple identities each of we Canadians find within ourselves. Recalling David Hume (who held that our notion of “being” a persistent person [or ‘identity’] through time was an illusion of memories alone), the notion that you, yourself and I, myself, are a collection of identities is not completely strange.

On the one hand, I am myself; I perceive myself as persisting through change; I see myself as the same person no matter in what setting I find myself, nor what role I play (parent, manager, coach of the ball team, amateur philosopher, you name it).

Yet, at the same time, we recognize (ask anyone interviewing a short list of candidates to join their organization!) that the pattern of experiences a person has lived through — a combination of where they’ve been and what roles they were asked to play — makes for differences between one person and another that matter to the decision no less so than their “personality” or credentials. The person, for instance, who has been an entrepreneur and returns to take up a profit-and-loss managerial role brings a quite different “identity” to the game than the one who has climbed the managerial food chain in a number of very large organizations.

So if we (to use Dave Snowden‘s well-known coinage) are fundamentally Cynefin, then it is a reasonable inference that not only will we bring different fragments of our “selfs” to different communities (work, sport, volunteer, protest, etc.) we affiliate to, but we will, in turn, find that our “selfs” begin to shift in response to the role we play in each community, and the impact of that community in support of, or as a distraction from, other roles we play in other communities.

The “involved person”, for instance, must take time from her or his family or relationship, just as any “political family” adjusts and subordinates its members’ behaviours in support of the politician-family member.

What’s equally important to remember in this is that some of those fragments are no longer roles being played in communities — they are inherited from natural faith (see Thomas Langan, Being and Truth), from upbringing, from systems of thought adopted by the individual (whether integrated with other facets of the individual or not), and from prior roles played but no longer in “force” (e.g. playful child, student, previous careers, etc.).

Why “Municipality” Isn’t Enough

Much of the thinking on subsidiarity, moving power closer to the people by rendering decisions at the “lowest” effective level, has focused on moving power down to municipal levels where, it is generally asserted, people stand the best chance of coming together as a community and having real influence on the decisions that affect their community’s future.

This, of course, is a remembering of Greek ideals: the polis (city) as the locus of politics (the ethics of the social order).

I don’t want, for a moment, to suggest that municipalities offer no hope. But think for a moment: the municipality I live in — Toronto, Canada — has more seats in the Canadian House of Commons than seven of the ten provinces do (one of those anomalies that emerge with concentrated populations in urban areas and a lower chamber based on representation by population). That base population in excess of 2,500,000 exceeds the population size of 83 countries (out of 223). Yet many of the issues in creating a viable, sustainable community seem to require a larger structure — to integrate transportation, for instance — not a smaller one.

You may say that communities the size of Toronto aren’t what’s meant by “community”, and I imagine that each of Toronto’s wards are bigger (at an average size of 60,000 people each, or about half of the estimated 2009 population of the province of Prince Edward Island) than you mean, too.

Most people who write on community at a municipal level — a “living place” level — tend to focus on village-sized units, and thus on neighbourhoods when the municipality itself exceeds village size. Indeed, in cities, we see “residents’ associations” and “business improvement associations” sized precisely thus, to walking distances and populations of 1,000-5,000 depending on density. Yet these — when the village is not a “true” village habitation — tend not to have a political structure.

Subsidiarity matters, and moving decisions down from central and remote governments is worth striving for. But most municipalities people live in — and with roughly 50% of world population now urbanized there are many countries where urban dwellers exceed 75% of the total national population — are larger than “communities”.

I note in passing that the United States and Canada are shown to have roughly similar urbanization rates at around 80%, although anyone familiar with both countries knows that on both coasts of the USA the spaces between cities and their suburbs — the “statistical metropolitan areas” — tends to be filled with “exurbs”, whereas in Canada the similar space is filled with open farms and forests, coupled with true villages and small towns that are not part of the commuter shed. Statistics alone — as always — don’t tell the whole story!

Communities of Ideas, of Practice, of Intention and of Action

Many claims have been made as well for the creation of other kinds of communities, and, indeed, as social media tools have spread, so, too, the ability to create facet- or fractal-based communities has been touted as the way to bridge the gap between municipal size and decision effectiveness.

Indeed, long before the tools came along, communities were built by round-robin letters or scheduled meetings — think of how science was done in the seventeenth century, both by letter between practitioners and with the formation of entities such as the Royal Society. Then, too, many have noted that our primary interests today are seldom as strong with those who happen to inhabit the same block of flats, or streets, and more often with those who are part of our profession, or work at our firm, or via the activities we take part in.

There was nothing as rewarding as a Little League baseball season, to watch lawyers, management consultants, air conditioning installers and salespeople for radio advertising come together and simply be ball fans, coaches and scorekeepers, as they sped up their adjustment from “work” persona to “parent” or “fan” persona. Fragment-shifting is not automatic! — something every employer decries when “family matters” get in the way of “work”.

There have been many successes, but no group has as of yet solved the most important problem: is this organization capable of achieving its goals without “going political”?

Let me define that: “going political” means overcoming the fact that we play multiple roles, live as fragments, have fractal identities, etc. and therefore may not be involved, or, if involved, be passionate enough to contribute much, to the community — and so our participation is legislated, through required actions and/or fees.

Note that communities that act to lobby for, or agitate for, established political authorities to provide said “legislation” on their behalf, must be judged appropriately. When Gandhi put pressure on the British to leave India, he required nothing of them than that they stop legislating and administering Indian life. He asked for no favours, no special treatment, no “positive” actions. This is quite different from the community that “demands”, that “requires”, that requires mandated support, and the like. With both provincial and federal budgets due before the end of this month, expect the screaming of demanders to be loud, long and furious as April dawns!

Those that don’t require this certainly are true communities, although they may struggle in the face of the many to succeed.

Some will make some real progress (e.g. the Bowen Island, BC, citizen eGovernment movement) and then fade into the background or die out as initial objectives are met or the process goes longer than intended.

Others will continue years of operation (most community activities and community- led social services, such as Crisis Centres), with or without subsidies, but with no strategic change from one year to the next. (This is not necessarily a bad thing — one does want certain things to be continuously delivered! — but it can make renewing leadership and participation a challenge at times, and, if subsidized, the avoidance of demanding legislation to enforce the subsidy is a constant challenge.)

The technology has allowed for non-geographic communities to operate at least as fast — and often faster — than “ground”-based communities, especially in growing! But numbers — as the various Facebook pages and Twitter hashtag communities have shown — are minimal levels of involvement, and seldom if ever lead to the achievement of anything other than “we hit our number”.

As the work world has shown, social networks in professions and organizations that already exist can be valuable sources of action — consider the crowd-sourcing of a technology strategy at the UK Department of Work and Pensions as an example — but many relationships between these people in some of their roles and facets were “mined” to help this along.

In other words, the technology can amplify the community, but it far less often does much of meaning without either a leadership cadre setting the terms for the “members” — or human relationships within it and the time to discuss action. (This is the essence of Jon Husband’s Wirearchy as an organising principle, and is drawn out in Euan Semple’s book Organizations Don’t Tweet: People Do.

Community, then, is truly a double-edged sword, ready to cut into the principle of community on the one side by forgoing subsidiarity to the personal member in favour of power relationships and the exercise of higher authority to achieve ends, and on the other by falling afoul of Dunbar’s Number if true human relationships are to be depended upon. (Technology might make for a doubling of the mild acquaintance category … but I don’t think “much more” is possible. We humans really don’t have the capacity to know that many people even marginally.)

This does not mean “ignore the whole thing”.

Those who call for community to deal with the transition of our society, who worry about health and welfare, who are concerned about energy, our economy or our ecology, have not invented their concerns, no matter how much the “true believers” for resonant and grating causes alike one to believe that!

Nor, too, are their opponents to be so easily dismissed — few matters are as “settled” as their proponents or opponents claim. To take but one example, those who promote dense public transport systems claim “the future of the suburbs is to die”. The availability of affordable energy may well tend in that direction, and building the transportation system takes sufficient time that a decision to proceed must be made years ahead of a crisis. Yet we, as a society, have invested much of our capital in the suburbs, and should be trying to put as much of it to work as we can, which may well lead to ways to maintain the “suburban way of living”.

As always, finding a middle route between force and despair, and coming closer to who we are (human nature), offers us the most opportunity to succeed.

What we must not do is assume that “big structures”, of any sort, will sort matters out for us. They provide the appearance and illusion, yes — but our human needs (in all senses) come from working with others. For that, we need communities we can comprehend (literally, “get our hands around”).

It’s time to get smaller, and get on with it.

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