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!

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May 27 2010

VFFs – Not just a great wingman

Our secret is out.  Vibram Five Fingers are undoubtedly good conversation starters, and therefore undeniably great wingmen.

This made us think; by the law of large numbers alone, surely by now some boy and girl are very happy together, and would never have met if not for these curious anti-shoes.

But suppose the social value of these much feted shoes goes beyond the romantic.  What if Vibram Five Fingers are arguably making our communities stronger?

Social Capital refers to the number and strength of bonds between members of a community.  Higher overall levels of social capital in a community has been shown to be associated with everything from healthier to more productive communities (caveats aside about organized criminals or self-serving politicians also tending to have very large amounts of social capital).

Just for fun, here’s some rough mental math about the effect of Vibram Five Fingers on social capital:

  • A friendly source working in retail for a sports store in D.C. estimated that around 5 thousand Vibram Five Fingers have been sold by their establishment this year.  Let’s say that this number is half of the total VFFs that have been sold to D.C. residents this year, including other retailers and online purchases.  This means that there are now 100,000 mesh-wrapped toes on 10,000 runners darting around our nation’s capital.
  • Let’s say that on average these runners run 2 days a week (over last 3 warmer months).  Next, let’s assume (based on personal experience) that these runners average one random conversation with a stranger every other time they run (many times, it’s more).  On the whole that would mean that 120,000 conversations have happened between Vibram Five Finger wearers and perfect strangers this year, which would not have happened otherwise.
  • The next step is to determine what percentage of random conversations between strangers and Vibram Five Finger wearers on the street typically lead to an actual friendship (romantic or otherwise), the fundamental unit of social capital.  If we assumed that 1 in 100 interactions results in an invitation to join a running club, a discovery of a shared friend or coworker, a swapped phone number, etc., we could attribute 1,200+ new acquaintanceships to Vibram Five Fingers this year.  To take it a step further, if on average a person has 130 acquaintances, and 5-6 very close friends (personal experience), odds are that 5% of these 1,200 acquaintances may, in time, become close friends.  Therefore, we could attribute 60 or so new close friendships in Washington, D.C., this year, to Vibram Five Fingers.

This is all just-for-fun, psuedo-statistics, of course.  But it begs the question: If we could see this kind of an effect from random interactions prompted by shoes, what would the value be if we each said something kind to a stranger, or did something unexpected and helpful,  once a day?  Those clever boy scouts and their “do a good turn daily…”

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