The value in being together

Being Human, Collaboration

I’ve got issues. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. Why? The gist of it is that I’m rather disappointed by humanity’s reluctance to improve upon our collective situation.

But recently I’ve had a few realisations which are helping me make peace with this which I’d like to share. They’re important, so I’m going to cut to the chase, and then explain what I’m talking about.

How do we speed societal change?

  1. Fun
  2. Stories
  3. Durable friendship
  4. Dialogue

This isn’t new (Transition Towns, deliberative democracy, festivals, campus universities all take the same approach), and it’s not without its problems, but I recently saw it played out in a rather convincing manner which gave me faith that it’s the right way to go.

Two weekends ago I was dancing in what must surely be one of the largest exhibition halls in the world.

It was the biennial gathering of Slow Food and Terra Madre, and it seemed like every food business in the world was there: A few paces from the Haitian rum company are the finest cured hams from France, dried mulberries from Tajikistan, mushrooms from Italy, and fresh ewe’s milk cheese from Ireland. From wall to wall there are food stands, maps of provenance, displays of hundreds of niche adapted rice varieties, and stall after stall of men and women taking pride in the taste and quality of food they produce, and telling how that food shapes, unites, repairs, and even defines their culture.

They have brief conversations as people walk by, but in one of the halls one group drew a large crowd every night. With the speakers turned up loud, the video cameras playing onto the projectors, and the beer flowing, the Slow Food Youth Movement were celebrating.

Why? Just .. well, just ‘because’. Because they’re alive! They’re doing great things which inspire them, having a great time doing it, and they’re all really really friendly, interesting, and lovely people. If that’s not a reason to get up and dance and enjoy yourself, what is?! It’s a pure and contagious enthusiasm for nothing less than life, and a celebration which they want to share with everyone!

And that’s the key: It;s the fun which sucks you in. Not because their work is impressive and worthy, but quite simply because it’s fun to be there.

Of course, that’s obvious, right? We’re drawn to fun, and then more people are drawn to the crowds who have been drawn to the fun.

But here’s the thing which always bothers me: ‘Fun’ reached more people than the people who had travelled thousands of miles to show us how food is building peace in Gaza, or how farmers in South America are sharing regained knowledge of heritage varieties and lifting each other out of poverty.

Does that matter? Is that right?

Selling the sizze

The sustainability / thrive-ability companies and organisations like Forum for the Future, Common Cause, Futerra, Dragon Rouge and others have long exhorted us to focus on the positive, ‘sell the sizzle‘, and just be more attractive to more people by having a better time than they are.

But that’s really, really hard when the situation we find ourselves in is both urgent and not-at-all fun.

If the fire brigade found the best way to get the most people out of a burning building in the shortest time was for everyone to form a big conga-line and party down the stairs, then the people burning to death at the back might think that perhaps we should be taking things a little more seriously.

Not everything is about ‘fun’. I’m writing this on Remembrance Day, and it’s poignant and powerful to remember that sometimes it’s about buckling down and giving it your all.

So it’s not that we don’t know that the challenge is enormous. It’s precisely because we know the challenge is enormous that we have to build friendships to help us work together.

And the Slow Food Youth Movement know this, too: a very large part of the reason they’re celebrating is because in the previous two years they’d organised eat-ins, film festivals, campaigns on CAP2013, food politics (, and school gardens amongst many more wonderful local projects. They have a huge amount to be proud of. The fun is deeply real.

What they also know is that it’s just as much about ‘how’ you bring people together as ‘why’ you bring them together, and just as much about what you don’t ask them to do as what you do.

How you bring people together

Idea first: Weirdly, ideas are rather rigid structures which take a while to adapt to accommodate each other. Come together idea-first and there are going to be crunching noises, loud voices, and heated moments.

People first: But if you bring people together soft-sides first, as human beings – sharing a moment, a drink, perhaps a glance – and build friendships and mutual respect and admiration, then there will be cheering noises, excited voices, and focused passions. From there, we are in a much better place from which to go forward.

But this is not new thinking, so why did it resonate so much?

Why you bring people together

Because not only do they make it about fun, they actively made it NOT about problems. There’s no mention of it at all. Everyone already knew that’s why we’re there, so there’s no need to press that button. Resisting that temptation when organising an event is hard.

There’s a really useful point of learning in systems theory: sometimes the place where you think you need to push is exactly the place where you need to reduce pressure.

Simply by getting the right people in the right place you will get action.

So let’s revise the list:

  1. Draw a crowd. It doesn’t need to be through fun, but that evidently works really well.
  2. Create space for friendships.
  3. Create opportunities for admiration, compassion, and shared purpose.
  4. Support whatever happens.

And what’s happened is that new independent youth food movements will be founded in the coming months in Iceland, Senegal, Macau and others, inspired by the exuberance of this simple party. That rocks.

It’s the social (r)evolution which we need to get us through the 21st century, and this is where it happens.

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

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