Where do Communities come from?

Communities is one of those ideas that I think often bypasses thought and becomes a terminology we use carelessly. The thought struck me as I was listening to an interview with Ben Francis, founder, and majority shareholder of Gymshark, a business founded in a garage a few years ago and now with a value approaching a billion dollars.

What stood out was the groundedness of this 29-year-old as he was questioned about IPO’s. growth, and the rationale for his first bricks and mortar store. He said “this is all about community, it always has been.” Money as fuel, not as goal. He has an idea of what this community could look like in thirty years, and that is what he has his eye on. It was so wonderful to hear in amongst the rest of the near term, economy obsessed news stream.

It got me to thinking – where do communities come from? It used to be easy – it was where we were born – two hundred years ago, most people could travel only as far as their feet would take them. Even by the end of the nineteenth century, that hadn’t changed much – rail made a difference for one off holiday trips, but even then, communities travelled more than individuals. The world wars and mass travel changed all that, and historic communities fragmented into ones defined by workplace more than birthplace. Globalisation and communications technology has now eroded that to a point where we can, if we wish, and have the courage, work and live almost anywhere, with anyone.

The result is, we find ourselves homeless. Not so much a community, as a bunch of individuals in temporary loose formation.

What does it mean to belong to a community? On a call this morning, I heard it described as “the subtle buzz of belonging”, and this was in a small group of people sitting variously in India. Kuala Lumpur. Ireland and UK. We have never met in person, but that buzz was there. We have become a small community.

Communities are now a choice. All the marketing, PR and HR blurb in the world does not change that. Organizations that talk about “family” is the same breath as talking about restructuring are embarrassing. So, if we are going to choose, how do we choose?

Not by logic. Communities are people loosely but powerfully linked around common purpose – from survival to a cause. They can bicker, laugh, fight, and celebrate, but it is that often unspoken purpose which makes them a community. Like the Yorkshire family I married into, they can criticise each other continually, but criticise the family and things go very quiet. The family is the purpose. Communities feel their way into existence, they cannot be designed.

To make our way out of the ecological and economic mire we have got ourselves into, we all need a community – people, place and purpose; virtual and physical, to be part of, somewhere to call home, and people to trust as we go through the storm we are entering.

It’s a good time to choose.

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