On Co-Creation

When I was a child co-creation meant playing cops and robbers in the front yard.  In my teens co-creation happened through deep existential conversations. In my late twenties it meant participating in the creativity of Burning Man.  Now well into my thirties, I’m asking myself what is co-creation and where can I find it?

You see, my early interests in social structures, connection, and creativity have converged into an adult yearning for a social structure based more on connection and creativity and less on cops and robbers.

I love the concept of co-creation – like actually creating something together.  As I’ve dived into the world of co-creation over the past few years, it’s come to mean something more than just collaboration though.  Co-creation implies a quality of presence that is not necessary for just getting work done together. So if collaboration is sharing knowledge and resources, co-creation is a function of the quality of presence that people share and the knowledge and resources that emerge out of that kind of interaction.  The difference is both subtle and significant.

There is a sense of being in an elevated energetic state whereby you are able to tap into some form of higher collective intelligence.  I’ve encountered echoes of this process across many domains. The Presencing Institute has done a really good job of creating language to describe this experience.  You can find similar approaches in the traditions of Quakers, Ba’hai, and many tribal cultures. These types of cultures are often both small group and community driven.

Co-creation works well in small groups because it is based on genuine connection and it naturally extends into community because this quality of connection creates deep relationships.  A co-creative community is a unique form of self-organizing social structure that is in every way more than the sum of its parts. The requisite attributes are deep levels of presence, listening, and authenticity between people.

So, where do we find examples of such communities today?  Mostly in the playground of our childhood imagination. Seriously.  Today such communities are rare and, despite my efforts, challenging to define.

Recently, our dog ran away and she wasn’t wearing her collar or any identifying information.  After hours of searching for her, my wife posted on a regional Facebook group and shortly thereafter someone reached out with our dog in hand.  What a great example of community coming together in a time of simple need. But is this the kind of transformational community we’re talking about?  Is there any true empathic relationship building happening? The experience was nice. It was nice in the way a Facebook status update can be nice. It’s there and then it’s gone.

How often do we experience a true sense of community where we feel connected, accepted, seen, and supported?  Maybe in church groups. And for good reason. Churches often use small groups to ultimately foster real relationships through meaningful interaction.

But not everyone wants to join a specific faith based organization, nor should anyone have to for the experience of real community.  Many people yearn for more belonging and meaning. This quality of interaction is delicate and subtle. The possibilities of human connection are vast and most modern interactions barely scratch the surface.

I don’t know about you, but I want more.  I want more connection, more love, more acceptance, and more creativity.  I want all that embedded and prioritized in the society that I live in. And honestly, I’m sick of this competition and cut throat economy shit.  It just doesn’t make sense.

How about a co-creative world where we engage in cooperative and deeply present ways that manifest stuff that is literally beyond our individual imagination?

To start, we might imagine a new form of community based social structure that supports economically sustainable co-creative interaction.

But never mind the community part, let’s just start with ourselves.  No system of economy or governance will solve our problems if we do not individually shift our way of being in the world.

As a child I was rarely listened to.  It took me years of self exploration to grasp and heal the very real trauma of not feeling heard.  Listening has become my super power. Not because I’m that good at it, but because I’ve become hyper aware of my own quality of listening and that of others.  And more than any other personal attribute, I find it is the quality of my own presence that creates higher quality interactions.

We are constantly modeling the world to each other.  Our natural predispositions and patterns intersect with the natural predispositions and patterns of those close to us to create all sorts of mischief.  Look no further than your daily newspaper to see the collective product of this mischief. The challenge with these pesky patterns and predispositions, both ours and those of others, is that they piss us off and we can’t see them.  It’s like that game Operation. Except you’re blind folded and someone keeps slapping the back of your head. It’s an emotional obstacle course between you and the rest of humanity.

To work our way out we need skills in deep listening, presence, and vulnerability.  Listening creates a holding space for all things to be observed, inward and outward.  Presence is a capacity to respond to what is observed with reflection and intention. And vulnerability sows the ground for meaningful connection.  This is the definition of emotional intelligence.

It’s difficult to practice emotional intelligence alone.  Take nature as an example. There is no forest without trees.  Each tree in a forest is interdependent with every other tree. Between their branches and their roots they share the same resources of sun and soil.  And they do so with a seemingly natural intelligence. Similarly, emotional intelligence is a collective process. It is learning to live in harmony with each other as one human ecosystem that is also sharing the same sun and soil.  Our interdependence is real and needs conscious attention.

And beyond just living together, just surviving, it is about next level creativity and co-creation.  A forest is more than the sum of its trees. It is a thriving ecological community which continually gives birth to new life.

We need opportunities to practice things that cannot be learned in a book and must be experienced directly – new ways of being that can extend into everyday life.  To quote shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown:

“The vulnerability journey is not the kind of journey we can make alone.  We need support. We need folks who will let us try on new ways of being without judging us.”

We need supportive, safe spaces to explore new ways of being and practice collective connection.  And we need the capacity to extend this connection into real world community as a way of life.

As humans, we love to organize and separate things into isolated silos like education, work, governance, economy, and spirituality.  But what is needed here is integration. Learning and practicing new ways of being while growing into real world co-creative community.  In the same movement we are learning, being, and doing. And if technology has been a source of social distraction, then it should be technology that is the source of social cohesion.

Some platforms are designed for learning.  Some platforms are designed for collaboration.  Some platforms are designed for community. None are designed for quality of presence.  Why should all these functions be integrated? First, because knowledge, work, and community are intimately related.  And second, because if we want to learn and model new ways of being in the context of real world twenty-first century interaction, we need software that supports that full spectrum of interaction – in the real world.

What I’m describing is at the edge of imagination and requires collective manifestation.  It calls for a new kind of social technology that emphasizes quality of presence over quantity of content.  An open source and decentralized utility that merges functions of community, learning, and connection into a singular experience.

If you don’t quite grasp what I’m saying, that’s ok because, honestly, I’m just grasping it myself.  Three years of working with communities as diverse as Harvard and Burning Man have taught me that I know little about how communities actually function but that this approach works better than any other I’ve seen.  Most of all, I am continually reminded how many people yearn for new ways of being. It’s those rare honest conversations that keep popping up again and again. Softly spoken echoes of – I want more depth, more connection, more authentic experience.  I’m searching for something deeper. How about you?

Learning and Collaboration

The heart of Sutra is small group interaction. Our emphasis is on improving the quality of interaction and relationship between people involved in any collaborative endeavor. We focus on learning because learning gives us opportunity to practice new ways of being – deeper levels of listening, dialog, and co-creation.

Learning and collaboration go hand in hand because learning naturally leads to collaboration. People who learn together are already exchanging ideas and supporting each other. Their potential to further collaborate is only increased by virtue of their shared learning experience and common interest in the material studied.

Learning also frames open collaboration in a very practical context. The reality of modern life is busyness. It is difficult to practice something like mindfulness or deep listening with the economic pressure of every day life. With learning we are afforded the practical benefit of something that we have a desire to learn while being able to do so collaboratively with the support of other people. Thus the quality of connection that one experiences in a learning group is directly aligned with the quality of the learning experience itself.

Learning offers a basic opportunity to experience non-competitive collaboration and deep relationship building. Furthermore, learning isn’t necessarily something we do and then stop doing. It is a continuous process that cycles between study and direct experience. Both of these functions can be undertaken collaboratively and form the foundation of productive and creative work.

Knowledge is learned, then it is applied, and then new knowledge is generated. All of this happens continuously and collaboratively. As new knowledge is generated it eventually becomes knowledge that is learned by other people and so the cycle goes on. Because these three functions happen together it makes sense to contain them in the same context. Today, we learn in one place, work in another, and may or may not gather any new knowledge from the work we have done.

Learning, collaboration, and knowledge are intimately related. These functions are underpinned by the quality of interaction and relationship between the participants involved. This brings us back to the small group dynamic. The size of a group is limited by the capacity of each member to build a meaningful relationship with the other members. This emphasizes quality of being over all other functions. In fact, it takes the view that all others functions are designed to bring emphasis back to this primary function: quality of being.

Community is Dead. Long Live Community.

This is an essay about online learning, the future of work, and building community. It is about learning together, collaborating with the people that we learn with, and cultivating real community through co-creative relationships. And it is about Sutra, an open source software project that supports the integration of these functions.

As an adult, most of my structured learning happens online. Since I no longer have the childhood luxury of spending days on end in a classroom with my peers, I am left wondering why my learning experiences cannot be more connected. I am sure that I am not alone. I am not the only person who loves to learn and enjoys learning with other people. Moreover, I am not the only person that wants more meaningful connection in my life.

If you’ve ever tried to take a course of study online, you know that the hardest part is actually completing the material. In an industry where people spent over $107 billion in 2015, attrition rates are as high as 90% for some online classes. People who learn together have much higher completion rates but most online learning experiences are incredibly solitary.

Knowledge has been decentralized but the classroom has not. People are left to learn on their own and, in the process, must hold themselves accountable every step of the way. Yet online education offers an opportunity to connect people in unparalleled ways. There is massive untapped co-creative and community building potential all around us. Mutual support, deep listening, sharing knowledge and resources, working together, feeling a sense of community – these are all experiences that most of us aspire to have more of in our lives. These are all functions that a shared online learning experience can offer.

The shifting trend in education mirrors a shift in our work life. The economic fabric of our world is rapidly changing. We are becoming a society of independent creators and free agents, constantly learning and collaborating outside of traditional organizational structures. Just in the US, over 75% of all businesses are one person enterprises. Large organizations are being replaced by small independent projects and loose collectives of people. Our capacity to collaborate and succeed depends on the quality of our relationships and the communities that we are connected to.

Traditional communities have deteriorated. Internet connectivity, consumption economics, and pressures of time and money have all contributed to making people less connected to any sense of true communal identity. We are now confronted with an opportunity to define modern community in a new way. As independent creators we can learn together, we can create together, and we can find opportunities to support each other in the context of these experiences. Learning, in particular, gives us opportunity to experience community through the practice of collaboration.

Every structured learning experience is a vehicle for community building. It is a chance to connect deeply with and support other people learning the same thing. Learning is simply better when other people are involved.

I believe that online learning experiences can connect people in much deeper ways than they do today.

Connection happens through collaboration. Sharing any constructive experience together is collaboration. Learning together is a form of collaboration. Listening deeply is a form of collaboration. Working on a project together is a form of collaboration. When we experience true collaboration with another person we feel more connected to them. That feeling, when it happens, is a deeply fulfilling experience. It is the basis of meaningful human relationships and genuine community.

Every group of people learning something online can become a community and every community can learn together. My observation has been that community is built through collaboration and collaboration happens in small groups. Meaningful connection happens in small groups of people with a shared intention where people have an opportunity to actually build relationships with one another. This is true for communities in general. Every project, every start up, and every organization begins with a small group and grows from there.

Interaction protocols are simple templates that can be used to self guide a group through a structured process. This can give people direct experience of true dialogue and collective intelligence, in a sense modeling a new way of being. The material becomes almost secondary to the process itself – holding space, deep listening, mutual support, and collaboration. These are things that can only be experienced with another human being and, when personally experienced, can be tremendously uplifting. Modern life lacks precisely these qualities and most people, knowingly or not, are starved for this kind of much deeper level of human contact.

Sutra is an open source software project aimed at integrating the functions of learning, working, and community building. In Sanskrit, “sutra” means “thread of knowledge”. It is a metaphor for weaving a new social fabric based on open collaboration through shared knowledge and learning. The intent of Sutra is to create a collaborative utility designed for small groups and communities. A flexible tool that can facilitate the formation of any number of small groups to learn together or collaborate around any purpose within any kind of community. A platform that can seed, support, and grow genuine community through small group interaction, providing resources and tools for optimal group connectivity.

This entails three primary functions:

  1. Facilitating the formation of small groups within the context of a larger community.
  2. Supporting the content delivery, communication, and collaboration needs of those small groups in a lightweight and flexible way.
  3. Providing resources to maximize the value of small group interaction inside of and outside of a learning experience (general purpose interaction protocols and support for educators who wish to deliver high quality small group oriented learning experiences).

Relevant software platforms today are either learning tools (Schoology, Canvas, Udemy, Coursera, etc) or organizational productivity tools (Asana, Trello, Slack, etc). They are centralized and do not offer the resources necessary for optimal small group formation and interaction in a decentralized environment with self led groups. They do not take into account the changing work / life dynamics of our times. As independent creators we are constantly learning, working, and socializing at the same time. These are not separate functions that happen in separate silos. They are, and should be, integrated. They should all reinforce one another and serve to build a foundation of strong co-creative community at the center of our lives.

A decentralized free agent workforce needs better ways of fostering collective collaboration and mutual support. In the past, traditional corporations have provided a hierarchy of structure by which groups of people could work together to get things done. The promise of a decentralized workforce is that each individual has more say and more independence. The dark side of this is isolation and lack of coordination. We uphold our individuality above all else but miss the fact that the only way to realize our full potential is through the support of others. Collaborative learning experiences offer the seed of co-creative community structures. They enable our society to explore new models of interaction that give people an experience of collective wisdom and leadership.

Real community transcends social aptitude. It supports our evolution as human beings. Genuine community upholds our full expression as unique individuals in service of shared humanity. As we become a society of free agent creators we have a responsibility to co-create a new world based on harmony and mutual respect. To do this we have to examine practical ways of bringing widespread community and cooperation back into our everyday lives.

This essay presents a broadly outlined proposal for how to cultivate a more co-creative society. It is a seed that needs much more thought, development, and contribution from many people to truly come to fruition. My partner and I have actively tested these concepts for well over a year. Through iterative development and feedback cycles with real world communities we have built a working prototype of the Sutra software with the intention that it eventually become an open source project.

I invite you to share this essay or contribute as you feel called to. Please reach out to me at lorenz at sutra.co to share your thoughts. Thank you.

Community is dead. Long live community.

Community and collaboration

comunityandcollaboration

Over the last few years I’ve been thinking a lot about how to connect people in deeper and more meaningful ways. A lot of my thinking has revolved around the role of community in that function.

I think people have (at least) two essential needs: a need for love and a need for creativity. We all want to feel connected and supported. We want to feel like we’re supporting others – we want to feel “wanted.” And we want to create. We want to feel like we are expressing our full potential.

I’ve always been intent on “being the best I can be.” But it has only been recently, over the last year or two, that I’ve seen how intimately these two functions of love and creativity are related in that endeavor. Being the best I can be happens when I help others to be the best they can be and others, in turn, help me to be the best I can be. Being the best I can be happens when I feel connected and loved. And being the best I can be happens when I feel deeply authentic and creative. That’s when all of my latent abilities truly come to the surface.

Historically, the individual has often been considered at odds with the collective. Think about how we’ve been governing ourselves – we’ve optimized our societies to either uphold the individual at the expense of the collective (capitalism) or uphold the collective at the expense of the individual (communism). But what if the best system revolves around maximizing individual expression and collective integration at the same time?

I experienced this most recently with a community of thirty thousand people taking an online class out of MIT. Part of the class revolved around breaking up into small groups of five people. Our group consisted of people from all over the world with very different backgrounds and interests. Through a method led by the class instructor, Otto Scharmer, we had the opportunity to practice being authentic and supportive at the same time.

The process called on me to be vulnerable about challenges in my life with complete strangers who were also taking this class. It was a practice of deep listening and mutual support. By tapping into each others intuitive and creative capacities in the safe space of our small group, we were each able to become a better version of ourselves through the experience of our interaction. Each of us growing as individuals and feeling deeply connected to one another.

These are strangers that I only connected with a couple months ago and yet we continue to support each other on a regular basis. I recently visited Oslo and had a chance to connect with one of the members in our group in person for the first time.

PerOslo

The question for me has been: how can we extend this way of being into our every day lives? How can we bring this level of connection, support, and creativity to more and more people around the world? How can we extend this sense of connection to the core of our society – our work, our communities, our service, and our social life? How can we cultivate more mutually supportive communities and foster more collaboration?

So many projects that we work on could benefit from being co-creative community efforts – not just benefit ourselves, but benefit the entire community through the interaction itself. There is so much potential for joy when we truly collaborate around creative work. Shifting this dynamic would have a profound impact on how people see themselves in relation to each other.

This has been our vision with Sutra. The intention is to extend this kind of interaction to more people, building stronger communities and bringing more love into the world through mutual support and co-creation.

Towards this aim, we hope to make Sutra itself this kind of project. A collaborative effort to build a platform where the intersection of all the energies and strengths of the people behind Sutra serve to bring out the strengths and energies of the communities and people using Sutra.

Sketch credit: Amanda Lyons

Holding space

As I’ve deepened my meditation practice I’ve found the concept of holding space to be deeply transformative. I can describe holding space best as listening deeply and giving the other person room to express themselves. When I feel this quality of presence from another person, I am uplifted.

Holding space can be particularly powerful in communities of learning and practice. People hold space for each other and in that space they create a container for authenticity and mutual support. This is the intersection of individual expression and collective integration. By holding space for others we create space for openness. By cultivating openness we become more receptive. By becoming more receptive, we are able to learn better and understand more.

Transformative experiences happen when we find small groups of people that hold space for each other to practice and learn. Yet even in communities that share the same values, it can be hard to find people that share the same level of interest and availability as you do.

There may be people around you who share your values. These people might also want to learn and practice the same things that you do. How can you connect with those people to hold space and support each other?

Over the last year we have been exploring ways to make it much easier to connect people in mutually supportive ways. We’ve built a simple tool that lets members within a community self organize into small pods around a shared intention. My hope is to find ways to foster more peer to peer support and, in turn, offer people a direct experience of deep presence and genuine connection.

We have so much potential to uplift others, provide accountability, and share our inner wisdom for mutual benefit. Each of us carries a lifetime of experience to share as a lens on almost any subject. When we hold space for each other in this way, we can shift our energy from competition to collaboration. We can support each other in being, learning, practicing, or just about any sort of co-creation.