Weekly Reflections, 21 November.

What’s been on my mind.

It’s that time of year when we start to reflect on the year that is ending, what we’ve learned, and what it means for next year. This year, there’s a lot of reflecting to do, and I find myself having to do it in parts.

What’s on my mind at the moment is the notion of communities – how we define them, how they form, and what they mean to us.  

When I was young – admittedly, more than a while ago – community was easy to define. The Cambridge dictionary definition reflects it- “the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality.” A neat notion of clear boundaries and relationships, and my early life reflected that – family, school, locality. Relatively stable and slow to change. However, this was before the internet and easy travel (Long-distance phone calls had to be booked days in advance). Things have changed.

Social Science identifies several characteristics of cohesive and sustainable communities. Primarily, they are small; rarely more than five hundred, and more often around one hundred and fifty, and grounded in a shared belief. 

Today many communities are much more amorphous and fluid, less defined by geography, more defined by connection, and often comprise many more individuals. Technology may scale our ability to connect, but it doesn’t scale community.

When it comes to how they form, traditionally, it takes time. We are born into communities that shape us. If we find ourselves away from them, becoming part of a new but established community is a process. There is low-level ritual and ceremony to be observed and learned, culture to understand, pecking orders to be respected. I married into a Yorkshire family decades ago and am still getting the hang of it. These are communities with depth and change slowly. 

In the last two years, though, we have seen hybrid communities developing – geographically diverse, centred on purpose, grounded in trust, respect and common cause. People who have not, and may never, meet face to face. These are a new and vital element as we enter new ways of working.

Today we also have communities of convenience formed around an idea or a meme. They grow quickly and also decline rapidly, spending little time in periods of stable maturity. Often centred on a celebrity, or cause celèbre, they are disposable.

What they mean to us varies – for some, it is a central part of our identity, a source of meaning and a place of refuge. But, unfortunately, they can quickly become defensive and resistant to change. Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the centre of so much of the news this week, was founded in 1863 in one of the proudest counties in the country. It was never going to change in a generation. Other communities, from the police, military and parliament, have similar characteristics. They are at the heart of the Establishment, central to their members’ identity, and all the legislation in the world will not change that. Change in them will happen more slowly than the society they try to run. The question is, when do they run out of relevance and authority?

For others, their community is a place to make contacts, find information, and do deals. We casually tag LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups and local Business Groups as “Communities” – although they rarely are. They serve a useful purpose but are neither sustainable nor resilient because they don’t need to be. They are disposable and disappear as the opportunity they are centred on disappears.

Our communities – of all types – are crucially important. In times of rapid change such as we are in, they provide for us. In the case of our sense of who we are, they provide meaning, common cause, identity, friends and a place for debate, decision and support. In the case of opportunity, they provide a marketplace.

I think the critical aspect, though, of both is their size. Strong communities are small. They link and aggregate to form towns, or companies, or movements. We need to remember that communities are networks of relationships and trust, and our capacity to handle size is limited. 

Our communities are critical. As “big” – in politics and business – becomes ever more dysfunctional and distant, we need to take our communities seriously. Our futures depend on them.

What I’ve liked this week.

We are all individuals. Our communities, though, are a choice we can make. This delightful article from Aeon magazine looks at trees as individuals. We can learn a lot from trees.

Coffee Houses and Change. We often talk about coffee houses as cauldrons of change on the Enlightenment. This paper is one of the most comprehensive I’ve seen. Not a light read, but food for thought as we consider what the equivalent is today.

Iain McGilchrist. I’m a huge fan of his work. I have this new book – all 1700 pages of it. It is a huge work, and for me at the heart of what interests me – the synthesisi of science and spirituality. This video is a good overview. 90 minutes, but very well spent.

WasteMinster. Greenpeace with an effective reminder of context. Words vs Reality.

An Endthought.

The tensions we feel, the disturbance we are experiencing, have a purpose. As Heraclitus wrote over two thousand years ago:

“All things are in flux; the flux is subject to a unifying measure or rational principle. This principle (logos, the hidden harmony behind all change) bound opposites together in a unified tension, which is like that of a lyre, where a stable harmonious sound emerges from the tension of the opposing forces that arise from the bow bound together by the string.”

What we are going through is not to be feared; it is to be harnessed.

Have a wonderful week.

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