Jun 22 2010

Well-Being of our Community – Invaluable but not Invisible

Today Jeff and I are announcing a project we will be spending a lot more time on this Fall.  We would like to get you involved in photographing the value in our lives that cannot be expressed in monetary terms- invaluable things we do every day that contribute to our well-being and the well-being of our communities.  These are things that don’t cost a dollar, and do not contribute to GDP, but make our lives richer.

Our inspiration was a recent trip to Charlottesville, VA during Fridays after Five.

On the downtown pedestrian mall we were awash in the flow of people meandering to one end of the mall to join in with the salsa band.  It was a brutal winter for Charlottesville, but on that evening, spring weather made its first appearance and short sleeves and sandals were out with a cathartic vengeance.  Street performers and musicians were surrounded by amebic, smiling mobs.  A grassroots symphony of laughter and the clatter of glass and silverware from al fresco dining floated by on the breeze.  A complete spectrum of the local community- from stroller to cane- could be taken in with a single scan.

Here was a vibrant community.  If asked to pick the happiest community out of a line-up, a five-year old could surely spot this one.

It was the same day that the first quarter U.S. GDP figures for 2010 were announced.  The figures were higher than expected and the stock exchange tickers plotted a new, skyward course in celebration.  (It turns out that this new course lasted only one week, until a glitch in the circuitry of one of the exchanges and a downward adjustment of the first quarter jobs growth figure conspired to bend the arrow back earthward, yet again).

The contrast was inescapable to us.  So we started asking questions:

How would you tell a five-year old what a thriving community looks like?  Well-Being?  Social capital?  How to make it, build it, nurture it?  How could these things, which we value so much but aren’t accustomed to counting, be so elegantly and simply conveyed as a GDP report; a single number that goes up or down?  While the loudest voices during this down economy tell us the best thing we can do for the economy is to “shop!” and “spend!” what is the equivalent advice is for improving our communities’ well-being?

And more importantly, who could tell me how Charlottesville got to this place, at this moment in time?  Who else is working to recreate this scene where I live now, in D.C., as the Capital Hip Hop Soul Fest plans to do July 24?

The race among competing alternative measures to GDP is on, but until there is consensus, we thought that we could start with something much simpler, and possibly more meaningful: a blog project centered around community-led photography of the non-monetary economy.

There are some bigger wonky reasons for wanting to do this, but that’s just the back-drop.  Some countries, such as Bhutan and France are moving away from GDP and towards Well Being as primary indicators for national vitality and prosperity. Time Magazine recently discussed whether the U.S. might be thinking about the same thing (something Bobby Kennedy was talking about 40 years ago).

If the world does move away from GDP and towards well-being indicators, we are curious what that will mean for individuals, communities, and businesses, and for how they will measure their success in that new paradigm.

We are looking for partners interested in working with us or being interviewed by us to help us explore this topic, including three main focus areas:

1) Community Social Asset Mapping – conducting simple surveys to help us identify our community’s “social assets;” those things (people, entrepreneurs, clubs, businesses, even websites) which contribute to a stronger community by building new relationships, strengthening new ones, increasing the amount of time people share and give to others in their area, etc.  We will back these surveys up with interviews to go on the blog.

2) Community Photography – photography of the everyday things people do that have value and don’t cost a dollar. We are looking, in particular, to get local students involved.

3) Entrepreneur and Business/Nonprofit Profiles – photography of what a positive social impact looks like, on a personal and moment-by-moment level, for B Corps, Ashoka Fellows, or other groups that have built a positive social impact into their missions.  If there is demand, we might even roll up our sleeves and help businesses or nonprofits complete social impact assessments, using existing tools such as the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness project screening tool or the B Corps impact assessment tool as a guide.

Do you have ideas, want to help, or want to suggest friends of yours we should meet?  Thanks!


Jun 21 2010

Making Time as Sexy as GDP

(but was GDP ever that sexy, anyway?)

This weekend at my cousin’s wedding, I came across the attached wall poster called “How to Build Community,” produced by Syracuse Cultural Workers.

Further to the theme we’ve been driving home here about the lack of connection between GDP and well-being, I was curious how well all of the suggestions stacked up from the perspective of what value they would bring to the monetary economy.  So, just for fun, I have reorganized the list according to whether each activity would have a neutral, positive, or negative impact on GDP.

Neutral contribution to GDP
(No more or less money spent on end products or services)
Leave your house
Know your neighbors
Look up when you are walking
Greet people
Sit on your stoop
Use your library
Play together
Buy from local merchants (substitution of demand)
Help a lost dog
Take children to the park
Garden Together
Support Neighborhood Schools
Fix it even if you didn’t break it
Honor Elders
Pick Up Litter
Read Stories Aloud
Dance in the Street
Talk to the Mail Carrier
Listen to the Birds
Help Carry Something Heavy
Start A Tradition
Ask A Question
Bake Extra and Share
Ask For Help When You Need It
Open Your Shades
Sing Together
Share Your Skills
Take Back the Night
Listen Before You react To Anger
Mediate A Conflict
Seek To Understand (unless you’re paying for a course through a formal school, buying books, etc.)
Learn From New And Uncomfortable Angles
Know That No One is Silent Though Many Are Not Heard - Work To Change This

Positive Contribution to GDP
(More money spent on end products or services)

Plant Flowers (unless a neighbor gives you some starter seeds from their garden… although the contribution to GDP may net negative, if you buy less commercially-grown flowers as a result)
Have Pot Lucks (unless all of your food is coming from that great garden you and your neighbors planted)
Put up a Swing (unless you logged, milled, and made that swing yourself)
Hire Young People for Odd Jobs
Organize a Block Party (again, depending on how you get all of those delicious street foods to keep the party going)
Turn Up The Music (electricity cost, unless you’re making your own electricity)

Negative contribution to GDP
(Less money spent on end products or services, and less taxes paid)

Turn off your TV
Share what you have
Barter For Your Goods (welcome to the informal sector)
Turn Down The Music (electricity costs)

Yet all of these activities take time.  If this list is any guide, then the greatest cost of community building is time, not money.

This is the reason Allison Basille of Hub D.C. is helping start a Time Bank in D.C. – where individuals exchange hours of service in an open marketplace where one hour equals one hour, regardless of who you are.  (e.g. Your neighbor looks after your children for an hour, you pay back the hour to another neighbor by mowing their grass, and on it goes.)

Join D.C.’s new Time Banking community, learn more about the concept, and check out our new blog project focusing on this topic in the Fall.


Jun 17 2010

What Barefoot Running Can Teach Us About Leading a Happier Life

As some of you know, I was chosen to speak at Ignite DC #4 about my experiences with barefoot running, and the broader implications of the barefoot running movement.  Well, that event occurred last night, and I’d like to report that it was an amazing experience.

Thank you everyone at @igniteDC for organizing the event, and to everyone in attendance who so warmly welcomed me as the first speaker!  I was honored to have spoken alongside so many other great, inspiring presenters.

Check out the video:

Also, feel free to get a closer look at the barefoot running slides at Slideshare.

Throughout the night, many people asked me for more information about the subject of barefoot, or minimalist, running.  Below are some links for getting started:

  • Harvard University Skeletal Biology Lab – great, well-presented research about running mechanics, as well as videos comparing running in shoes to running barefoot
  • Barefoot Ted’s Google Group – community of barefoot/minimalist runners – a quick search in this group should provide the answer to any question about the subject you may have (and if not, go ahead and ask – they are friendly people that love talking about the subject)
  • Birthday Shoes – Community blog dedicated to the Vibram FiveFingers.  Lots of cool posts about people doing all sorts of fun activities in their VFFs, as well as news/general info about the “shoes” themselves

And to the broader point of the talk last night, that we should take some time to look at the world through more of a minimalist perspective, I’d like to invite any of you reading this post to share your experiences and/or ideas that you have related to the topic.  It’s a primary theme for this blog, and the company behind it, and we’d love to hear what you have to say!

Thanks again for a wonderful night!


Jun 16 2010

“… as a means to an end”

In some ways, it was inevitable that the mission of Night Train Consulting would be to help others pursue novel business strategies and technology solutions “as a means to an end,” rather than as the end goals themselves; we are both analytical (read: a little geeky), with Jeff’s background deeply rooted in start-up technology and data mining, and Alan’s in sustainability strategy. When you put those two backgrounds together- and sprinkle on top a little Bob Dylan and a healthy dose of reading on topics like economics, psychology, mathematics, environmental science, well being and social capital- it became obvious that while there are many, many things an organization or an individual can choose to maximize, over and over again we find ourselves returning to the basic things we have valued since the beginning of time: genuine, meaningful social relationships with other people. Ergo, “Technology with Social Skills” was born.

This has very obviously been the case while working with certain organizations, such as nonprofits like Machik (whose main objective, in my opinion, is to optimize trust and social capital between key groups in and outside of Tibet), or the many social entrepreneurs we have come across at Ashoka. But we are now understanding that this is true of for-profit businesses as well.

This is the reason that one business professor I deeply respect at the University of Virginia, Brad Brown, recently dusted off an analytical tool he was first taught in business school years ago: linear programming. Professor Brown teaches undergraduate business students at UVA about sustainability, so the reason he is kick’n it old school again with linear programming is to ask the question (paraphrasing); are we leading students and businesses astray with the thinking that any “profit-maximizing business” can maximize economic, social, and environmental goals all at once? If you’re not familiar with linear programming, it boils down to this; to maximize any given system, you can have many constraints, but only one objective. He points to a rockstar of the NGO world- BRAC- which set off maximizing something as simple as calories per dollar, rigorously and scientifically monitoring, testing, and iterating all programs against that goal.  They went on to build the world’s largest and arguably most effective NGO, which earns 80% of its own revenue through for-profit businesses owned and run by the formerly-poor. I know there is plenty of conversation about this in the so-called “Impact Investing” community too, which refers to investing with an explicit social objective in mind. Can you maximize both economic and social objectives at the same time, or must you pick one?

When Jeff takes the stage tonight at Ignite D.C. and makes his D.C. debute in the performing arts, this theme will focus front-and-center in the form of a conversation about barefoot running and minimalism as a philosophy. Minimalism is basically about maximizing something, using your resources as lightly and efficiently as possible. The “something” you maximize can be anything, but when used as a philosophy for living your life, it seems to focus mainly on maximizing well-being relative to resources consumed (conveniently, the same basic formula behind the Happy Planet Index).

Tomorrow we will be recapping the evening and the various conversations we will be having in and around it today, and we will be asking you; what do you or your business maximize? If you think you are maximizing multiple things, how is that working out for you? Or, do you find yourself giving preference to one objective over others when the going gets rough? In a pinch, what is the one objective you will not sacrifice for the sake of any other objective?

We look forward to hearing from you.


Jun 14 2010

How Often Do You Mine Your Own Data?

Hundreds of companies collect and analyze detailed data about you, your social networks, and your preferences; Pollsters, grocery store member cards, health accounts, not to mention the droves of data we create and maintain about ourselves- facebook, gmail, twitter, etc. The companies that hold or have access to this data of ours spend millions on algorithms to process that information, observe trends in our behavior, target advertising, sell services, etc. As a recent USA Today article noted “Facebook knows your relationship is about to end.” Meanwhile Business Week (June ’10) gave us some insight in how the “big data analytics and aggregated personal information” industry discovers the “latent factors” in your life.

My dad recently went through the exercise of pulling all of his own health data and getting it into one place. A surprisingly complex undertaking. But once he did he was able to notice all sorts of trends in things previously un-noticed, such as fluctuations of his historic cholesterol levels over the last 50 years. It was an incredibly enlightening, helpful, and simple exercise. It just made me think, how often do we take the time to mine our own data? (or at least give it as much thought as do the marketing firms that want to reach us…).

There is some interesting conversation out there about both how to do this (e.g. check out the Quantified Self– or the QS, for those in the know) and whether it is a good or bad thing; The NY Times Magazine (April ’10) notes that “almost imperceptibly, numbers are infiltrating the last redoubts of the personal. Sleep, exercise, sex, food, mood, location, alertness, productivity, even spiritual well-being are being tracked and measured, shared and displayed.”

Do you measure any data sets about yourself, or take the time to look into the ones other companies maintain about you? If so, have you been better or worse off as a result?


Jun 9 2010

U.S. Well-Being vs. GDP

Is financial wealth our most important asset?

We’ve written before and will continue writing about alternatives to GDP such as the Bhutan Gross National Happiness index, the Happy Planet Index (Time Magazine, Jan ’10) and France’s recent decision to include well-being indicators in national accounting (WSJ, Sept 09).

Not to beat a dead horse, we’ll let Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz summarize the basic argument for us: “National income statistics such as GDP and gross national product were originally intended as a measure of market economic activity, including the public sector. But they have increasingly been thought of as measures of societal well-being, which they are not. Of course, good statisticians have warned against this error. Much economic activity occurs within the home – and this can contribute to individual well-being as much as, or more than, market production.” (in the Financial Times, Sept 09)

The conference this week in D.C. on metrics and evaluation of the social impact of investing (Global Impact Investing Network, put on by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs) put us in a data-crunching mood. We decided to ask ourselves a simple question: how well does GDP correlate to Well-Being indicators in the U.S.?

Thanks to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Gallup, we were able to compare the two side-by-side for metropolitan areas of a decent size. We were most interested in anomalies; places with similar scores on well-being indicators but different GDP, or vice versa.

Here’s a fun one from running that comparison; Boulder Colorado (home to the University of Colorado) and Provo/Orem Utah (home to BYU), have 2 of the highest scores on the Gallup composite well-being survey. Yet the per-capita GDP of Boulder is $56,396, versus $21,345 in Provo/Orem. This difference somewhat increases when cost of living is considered, and decreases when median household income is considered instead of per-capita GDP.

There are also other anomalies with high ratios of reported well-being compared to per capita GDP, including:

  • McAllen/Edinburg/Mission,TX
  • Lake Havasu City/Kingman, AZ
  • Prescott, AZ, and
  • Ocala, FL.

To all of you data-loving, impact investing or economics geeks out there. Any theories to help explain these anomalies? What are these places doing to achieve greater well-being more efficiently (in terms of economic cost) than other cities in the U.S.?


Jun 7 2010

The TED-Inspired Meeting Scheduling Experiment

Given the growing popularity of TED, we’re all becoming familiar with the idea of their specific time limits (18, 9, 6, or 3 minutes). I recently attended a TEDx webinar where it was explained that the reason for the multiples-of-three time limits is that people take them more seriously than multiples-of-five time limits. Time-limits which are multiples of five are often perceived to be suggestions or approximations, whereas 18 minutes sounds exact.

I wonder how this philosophy would carry over to meetings? As noted in a recent BusinessWeek article on how to give a Ted-worthy presentation:

“If scientist Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, ‘the world’s most powerful global computation system,’ can offer an 18-minute presentation on his quest to make all human knowledge computational and searchable, then you can surely deliver your team update in the same amount of time or less. Einstein once said that nothing is so complicated that it cannot be explained simply. TED talks prove it.”

Is updating each other on the progress of each of our sales leads, or giving a run-down of top team priorities for the week, really more complicated than Mathematica? Or does the difference lie in preparation and the perceived hard-and-fastness of time limits?

It’s an extra click, but the next time you schedule a meeting, try setting an odd-number time limit. If you do, let us know how it goes for you.


Jun 2 2010

What Is Your Bus Number?

A bus number (also known as truck or lorry number) is a term used to describe the long term organizational stability of a project.  It boils down to: “How many team members would have to get hit by a bus before the project would be unable to continue?”  A bit dark, yes, but a useful metaphor for thinking about the distribution of knowledge/expertise within a given project.  When any one person in that project gets hit by the proverbial bus, a certain amount of institutional knowledge will be lost (the lower the bus number, the higher the loss), and a certain amount of time/money generally will be spent trying to regain it, either by the remaining team members, or through new hires.

What I find especially interesting about this question “What is your bus number?”, is not the bus analogy (a similar idea has been expressed using starfish and spiders*), but the semantic meaning of the word “your”.  For example, if “you” are an organization, then it is in your best interest to have a high bus number for your respective projects, so that as the natural turnover of employees occurs, your projects are able to continue on smoothly without a significant loss or setback in institutional knowledge.  However, if “you” are an employee, you have been taught that it is in your best interest to become indispensable to a company or project in order to achieve maximum job security and upwards mobility.  At this individual level, it’s in your best interest for projects that you participate in to have a low bus number, so long as you are included in that number.

It would appear that there’s an incentive mismatch here between employers and employees, one that is especially apparent during tough economic times when employees become bullish on job security, job applicants are taught to make themselves indispensable, and employers must somehow cut down project sizes without losing too much institutional knowledge.

For companies out there, have you seen this bus number conflict in your project, and if so, how are you dealing with it?  For those employees unfortunate (or fortunate?) enough to be cursed by impending vehicular distaster, how is life as a “Bus boy (or girl)”?

*Thanks to Losang and Tashi at Machik for pointing out the comparison