Transformation Two: How it looks.2014-02-22 00:00:00
What the world will look like in 100 years
I wish I knew... This article is about what I think it could look like, if we play our cards right. I talked in the last article about what's new in the world that will give us the power to change it. I didn't spend much time on what we should be trying to change it into though, so that's what I want to describe here.
If we're freeing up all this time, what's it for?
Why would we want to have so much free time? Most people don't seem to be too interested in having time that isn't spoken for - you can tell by looking at the lifestyle they lead. Working, taking the kids to 10 extracurricular activities, buying stuff, watching TV; we tend to fill every spare second of our lives with things to do. It turns out that I'm not really advocating that we just sit around and stare at each other. We'll still be busy, but I think we can find more satisfying ways to do it. Before I get too far into it though, I want to take a little digression into a model of health that I believe has a lot of merit.
The biopsychosocial model
I said in the last article that the whole point of what we're doing here is to make it possible for everyone to live a fulfilling life. It is tragic that so many people look back over their lives at the end and are filled with regret. But, how can we actually do something about it? I think the beginning of an answer can be found in a new(ish) model of health called the biopsychosocial model (I'll call it BPSM from here on out)[1,2]. The BPSM says that there are three core components to human health. Some would say there are four, but for my purposes either version works. The three components that are agreed upon by most are biological, psychological, and social (hence the clever name). The fourth component that some believe should be added as spiritual, but that's contentious for the obvious reasons.
The big takeaway from this with respect to our world is that we need to have more than just material things if we want to be healthy (and we probably need to be healthy if we want to be happy). We definitely have to have the material stuff (that's the bio part), but it's not enough. We also have to have an engaging community around us, and we need to feel like we're doing something interesting and important.
So, assuming that those are things we should be trying for, what does that say about how to change our culture to make it a reality?
Thinking about our communities
The first thing I think we need to look at is the condition of our communities. I'm not talking about the buildings and roads, I'm talking about what actually makes a community. As long as we're thinking of communities solely in terms of things you can draw a circle around on a map, we're going to be missing the important part of the picture. A community is a lot like an ecosystem in many ways - different people fill different niches, and when they work together a lot of cool stuff happens. The important part about that is "when they work together" - in other words, the critical thing that makes or breaks a community is its connections.
Most of our neighborhoods now are really just random collections of people who happen to live in close proximity, but otherwise have nothing to do with each other. On the other hand, there are some places online that you can go where there will be a thriving community of people who are scattered all over the globe. So, proximity doesn't make a community by itself, but it sure can help.
If it's about the connections, how big can a community really be?
Since we're using the "tightness" of the group to decide what's a community and what isn't, it makes sense to wonder how big a group can be and still be tight. There isn't a clean answer to that as far as I know, but there are some interesting things that point is in a direction. One of the most useful of them is Dunbar's Number [3,4], which is the result of a couple of decades of research into primate social networks. The conclusion in a nutshell is that people are able to maintain about 150 meaningful relationships (on average) before we get overloaded and can't keep track of them any more. So, if we want a community where everyone knows everyone else, 150 is about the right size to shoot for.
There's another interesting bit of work that's pretty relevant here, and it comes with a free bonus vocabulary word: the propinquity effect. It basically says that we tend to grow to like the people that are close by, and that we're more likely to spend time and work with them as a result. This has some interesting effects even in small spaces - there was a study of research collaboration among scientists in a large organization  that ended up with a result that collaboration between people in the same hallway was five times as likely as collaboration between people in different hallways on the same floor! As the distance increased, the collaboration fell off sharply. So, it definitely helps to have regular contact with people if you want to develop relationships.
So, here's what I think this means: If we want to have lasting, worthwhile communities, we're probably limited to about 150 members, and they need to live near each other. With more members, or with large space between clusters of them, the community will probably start to fragment into more manageable chunks all by itself.
Getting back to our vision of the future
So, we've digressed to talk about what makes us healthy (the biopsychosocial model, or BPSM), and about what makes a community and how big it can get before it will naturally start to fragment. What does this mean for our future vision? I think it means two things. First, today's neighborhoods are probably too big to all be considered one community in these terms, and second, if we want them to become communities it has to be possible for people to interact with each other.
The first part isn't actually that big a deal in my opinion - I see no problem with having a lot of different "communities" all sharing the same space. In fact, it would probably lead to some really cool interactions and competitions between them as the communities develop their own identities. This is how it works on a large university campus - people naturally break into cliques that end up spending a lot of time together and become more like each other, and sometimes it causes some interesting interactions. That was actually one of my favorite parts of being in college - having a bunch of friends around me who were doing the same kind of interesting stuff I was doing. I'd love to see that become part of our neighborhood model.
The second issue is a lot tougher in today's world, mostly because of the issues of free time and zoning. It's hard to interact with our neighbors because the only time we're all at home is when we're exhausted from work, and we can't work in our neighborhoods because it's illegal. The village model of living really can't be achieved under this kind of climate, and it ultimately destroys the community and turns everyone's attention outward instead of toward the community. This is the place where I think a big change is coming.
The lack of real social connections in our day-to-day lives is having a big impact on our health and development as human beings, and I think people are starting to realize it. My biggest goal is to use the tool kit I described in the last article (permaculture, Internet, home manufacturing) to make real communities out of the "island homes" that currently infest our neighborhoods.
The vision in a nutshell
Now that we've discussed what makes communities work, let me just take you on a little ride through my imagination. Let's say that our project has been a huge success, and we're walking through a future neighborhood that's been revamped in the human 2.0 project style. What do we see? The first thing that hits you is the evidence of sustainable design everywhere. Yards are landscaped with useful plants, roof water is being caught, houses have passive solar heating and possibly even integrated thermal storage for year-round passive climate control. The neighborhood is walkable, with good sidewalks and possibly a vegetated median in the road. Looking at the buildings, you see that not all of them are houses. There's a makerspace, a small community school, a couple of little cafes, a book shop, and other odds and ends scattered through the neighborhood. In fact, as you look even closer you see that most of the houses have some kind of home enterprise going on, and people are going back and forth to each other's places to get things done.
There are public spaces for games and barbecues, and in general there is a lot of activity in the neighborhood in the middle of a weekday. Because of the design of the place and the strength of the local economy, the people who live here don't have to have full-time outside jobs in order to survive. There's a lot of talking as people walk down the streets and pass by houses where other people are hanging out on the front porch or working in the yard. There are dozens of projects underway where people are building, learning, or exploring something together just because they can - every movement is not dictated by the need to make a profit (although many of these projects do end up being profitable). In short, this community is alive, it's connected, and the people here are engaged in life with each other and are glad to be here. That's what we can achieve with the neighborhoods we already have... Imagine what can be done with new developments.
One last thing - I have a strategy planned out for how I think we can actually make this a reality, and I'll be getting into it in the next few articles. However, before you read them, I'd really encourage you to think of some ways you might approach this problem and post them below in the comments. I'm shamelessly soliciting your help here, because this is a huge undertaking and I know for a fact that I don't have all the answers. If you read what I have to say before you have your own say, I'm afraid we might miss out on something great. Be warned though, if you come up with something we haven't explored yet, I'll probably ask you to flesh it out in a guest post...