Social integration and close relationships are the single most powerful thing that keep us living longer. Ever wondered why women live longer than men — they prioritize and maintain in person friendships.

Study by Susan Pinker

We’re talking about community — its definitely a buzzword. But what I mean when I say community is how we relate to ourselves and each other in deep, meaningful and constructive ways

I’m not talking about this.

Sald Bag Community

Bare with me as I take you on a short journey.

I used to give walking tours through SoHo and Jane Jacobs was a huge inspiration. She was an activist and the mother of modern urban planning.

Her ideal city was diverse, dense and created many opportunities for interaction: mixed use, short blocks, combination of old and new, densely populated. Cities are hubs of economic activity and information exchange. They provide opportunities for growth and for change — our own individual but also our collective growth and change.

Living Systems

A city like New York, that makes up our urban environment, is an incredibly complex system with buildings, streets, transportation hubs, government branches, rules, regulations and many, many people that all have a mind of their own. It mimics biological organisms with organs that have distinct functions, unique properties but also needs — the fascinating part is that they communicate and work together in an incredibly efficient yet autonomous way — all in the service of the greater good. It’s an incredibly complex and self sustaining ecosystem.

The keywords for me are autonomous and self sustaining. Over millions of years, evolution created a system that has clearly defined rules and parameters but also allows for a degree of flexibility and chaos. The individual pieces in this system are autonomous because they fulfil their duties without being individually instructed — the brain doesn’t direct or control every cell — and yet they work in unison.

Complex systems can be found in many places, ant colonies, bee hives and human settlements. The reason humans went to the moon, rather than bees or ants is our ability to collaborate flexibly on a large scale. And the main tool that helped us do that were stories. Stories that we could believe in, share and follow. They could unite us, organize us and help us strive towards a greater goal. And if you’ve heard these ideas before they’re from Yuval Harari’s two books Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Scaling and Failing

Unlike our biological systems our urban, social and economic systems dont work so flawlessly. And we’ve added another challenge: Scale. We’ve moved from settlements and cities to a globalized world, with complex economic and information structures that are fueled by the ever increasing drive for growth and speed. And thanks to shipping containers, financial tools and the internet, these structures transcend all boundaries.

And with that the networks of people we live, work with and relate to are getting bigger, more diverse and more interdependent — but at the same time we feel more isolated, more different and it seems harder for our ideas and stories to converge. We’ve gotten so far ahead of ourselves in trying to scale and automate everything that we’ve lost trust in and ownership of the system we’ve created. We are blindly trusting so many systems, that we hardly understand, and dangerously, we think that we do.

The question is how do we navigate this heightened complexity? How can we establish common ground within our diversity and among our differences? What does an equitable and sustainable system that also leaves room for autonomy, urgency and creativity look like?

Two developments are interesting here, because they deal with this new heightened level of complexity: open source and the blockchain. They are accessible, decentralized, and permissionless, which allows us to interact and collaborate in new ways. They enable a form of co-creation, trust and generosity that everyone can participate in and benefit from.

We’ve put ourselves in a very tricky situation. We can’t solve it alone, because everything we do is so interconnected. We have enough experts.

We also don’t need people on stages. What we really need is each other, a better language and more words to communicate with each other and new structures and processes that benefit ourselves and your collective ecosystems.

Illustration by Kevin Huynh

Trust and Belonging

The reason I’m talking about all this is I co-authored the Community Canvas.

The Community Canvas is in its basic form is a framework for building communities. We also call it a guidebook because we wanted to help people on their journeys of starting, growing and sustaining their communities. The Canvas has 3 sections: Identity, Experience, Structure — which to me are about: Belonging, Trust and Resilience. And within those sections are a number of themes or conversations that you can consider when building community. I say consider because we wanted to give you the flexibility to pick the ones that are most valuable to you depending on the type of your community and what stage you’re at.

Let me briefly touch on Belonging, Trust and Resilience.

Belonging is threefold.

You belong to it because you have shared values and beliefs and you identify with the same stories and places. It belongs to you because you’ve co-created it — you’ve put yourself in it, through your contributions, your time and energy, your sweat and blood. And you have a longing for it because it satisfies your needs, it gives something you need or want. It’s also a frame of reference — belonging is the space we operate in.

Trust is built through shared experiences which help us get to know each other, build empathy and intimacy. They allow us to live out and reinforce our values and beliefs and make them real. Trust is about managing the unknown. It’s about keeping commitments. Trust signifies the strength of our individual relationships.

Resilience is the most tedious part, but it’s equally important, because when things go sideways this is what saves the day. It’s about the agreements we make, how we resolve conflict, how finances are managed and how power is distributed. It ensures a healthy community, that’s not just sustainable but generative. It’s the glue that holds it all together.

The canvas is only a very small part in this gigantic puzzle, not to use the word challenge, that we’re currently facing. What we need more of in a community built future is the right amount of rules and structures with enough freedom and flexibility, that help direct us but don’t hold us back.

It gives us more opportunities for real, honest and meaningful experiences that allow us to relate to each other and collaborate with each other. It provides us with more spaces and places that bring us together, online and offline, virtually and physically, conceptually and practically, where we can listen, share, encourage, discuss, grow and change — all together.

And that’s where we — which includes you — come in. As designers, creators and entrepreneurs we can create this language and these new systems.

Have dating apps brought us closer together? I’m sceptical. Dating apps are really a dopamine trap. Dopamine being our reward neurotransmitter. Dopamine feels good. But has it made meeting people easier? It might have made it harder because people are engaging less and less on the street because they feel like they can fall back on the apps.

Bumble Dating App

AirBnB started out as a strong community — where both hosts and guests felt gratitude and appreciated each others presence. I was a host for 7 years. I made friends, some I’m still in touch with today. But over time AirBnB went from generous to transactional and became much more about a convenient way of finding a place to sleep or make a buck of the couch in your living room than having an exchange and experience with your host or guest.

Couchsurfing on the other hand has always been and over time has become an even stronger community — even more so because there is no money involved, its purely based on generosity. Couchsurfing had to put a system, rules, values and ways to resolve conflict in place to make that happen smoothly.

Peloton the stationary bike company that lets people compete but also provides live video classes, has a strong Facebook presence. Riders encourage each other, talk about their weight loss and fitness success stories — I’ve read about people meeting up in real life and becoming friends. The bike but also the app and facebook group — together with their community managers made that possible.

I would like to note though that many companies or products use the word community but are in fact talking about their customers. Its a transactional relationship. They are trying to use network effects and viral loops to sell more of their product. That’s definitely not the best use of community.

I don’t want to classify them as wrong or bad — to me they live on a spectrum from weak to strong. A strong community connects people in ways that energizes them, lifts them up, supports them and can even give them purpose. Weak communities are transactional rather than generous, have infrequent points of contact or connection, are unclear on their internal or external purpose. Obviously this nuanced and difficult to assess — these are just some general pointers.

As everything grows, becomes more interconnected and complex, we need to focus on whats close to us, what brings us together and what our commonalities are. Rather than extending ourselves in trying to solve all the problems everywhere and working on a non human scale, that we hardly understand. We’ll do much better if each of us builds strong and meaningful relationships, or encourages the forming of those relationships with the people around us, to form small but powerful ecosystems that energize and inspire us to be proactive and generous and then emanate outwards to the larger world.