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?

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