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Worldchanging Epicenters and the Power of Meeting One's Allies
Alex Steffen, 7 Feb 05

Every network needs its epicenters. In October, I wrote:

The great glue of of this network is obviously the Net. But networks don't live by bits alone. Networks are made of people, and in order to do truly remarkable things, people need to get together, rub elbows, trade gossip, try out ideas, flirt, schmooze, encourage and learn to trust, admire and love one another. Conferences are great for this. Festivals sometimes can galvanize an entire Zeitgeist. But movements really rise or fall on the strength of on-going social occasions -- salons, showcases, the right bar, the right cafe, the place it's happening. These third places are the epicenter of any movement, no matter how tectonic in its effects.

But where are they today? I might venture a few guesses. I might suggest a few models (most famously, Aula). But above all, I'd be interested in hearing about the places you think worldchangers are to be found...

This is clearly an idea whose time has come. Katrin Verclas explains why:

Social reformers should heed the role great gathering and community places play in bringing us together as people and as movements.  People want to come together -- writ meet-ups in the Dean campaign; there is a yearning for human interaction and community which is arguably the precursor of political activism. ... Amazing, open, warm and lively community spaces where people congregate, meet, converse, share, and have ideas and enthusiasm for each other

As she points out, networked American progressives are suddenly all a-clamour about the need for more epicenters.

Examples continue to come in. There's of course the aforementioned Aula, and London's the Hub. There's the215 Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto; Location1 and The Tank in New York; to a certain degree the Capitol Hill Arts Center in Seattle, Cafe van Kleef in Oakland and the Odeon in SF; perhaps the Forest in Edinburgh, as Jon believes. I bet the telecentros of Sao Paolo are pretty hopping, too.

When discussing this topic a few weeks ago, a friend wondered if conferences aren't where the network meets -- and as I said before, to some degree I think that's true. But I still think that every community needs the space where people who do innovative, creative, risky, noble, worldchanging things get together and fuel each other's ardor. Meeting your allies -- shaking hands, sitting down and eating together, talking, laughing, getting to look one another in the eye, getting to know someone in all the rich, primate non-verbal ways which can only happen in actual physical proximity -- is powerful. Epicenters are tools.

Some, too, suggest that various networking events -- for example, Green Drinks or the PlaNetwork meetings -- are epicenters, but I think they lack a key informal, drop-in element. I think for an epicenter to really be the tool it ought to be, you should be able to show up any afternoon or evening and find someone worthwhile and interesting with whom to strike up a conversation.

So, where's the epicenter in your town?

If you don't have one, what do you wish it were like?

What's the best one you've ever visited?

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Comments

This is more on the wish side, but I think such cool places to meet are also those where we see visionary things put into practise. In this way I felt very attracted by Arcosanti in the Arizona desert (www.arcosanti.org) since they wanted (and still want) to build the cities of the future.

We are starting to work on a directory of places that we call "Global Villages", which means authetic living places which have managed to become more attractive and liveable by global cooperation. See our modest attempts here:

http://www.globalvillages.info/index.php/GlobalVillages/Directory

not very much yet, but maybe an open opportunity to fill in, grow, have gravity and become - an epicenter.

Franz Nahrada, Vienna


Posted by: Franz Nahrada on 8 Feb 05

Gil Friend recently pointed me to the WorkClub blog, which is an ongoing discussion of just how these sorts of places can function.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 8 Feb 05

The above link is clickable here: http://www.globalvillages.info/index.php/GlobalVillages/Directory. I highly recommend it - as I also "work" there!

I would word the challenge as "going local". We read, we think, we're "sensitised" to "issues". But then we try to "go local", connect others locally and act locally, and how do we do it? We need such "epicenters"! It's probably what we need most!

A disco or a pub just won't do - they need a bulletin board and maybe an internet connection. Maybe we can use existing groups and do some "social hacking"? Maybe ciber-cafes will get more business if they leave some square meters without computers, so people may meet and chat - maybe some chairs and a bulletin board for the ciber-cafe's "wait until there's a free computer" place?

Those places need to have an "open enough label" such as "world changing". You don't want a closed label such as "ecology place" or "community currency place" - as those will drive other world-changers away. Also, you don't want to make it too open - or you will get all kinds of wishful dreamers that ... well, not exactly practical world-changers.

There may be need for an exercise in creativity to create or label places. Perhaps we can do what "wireless warriors" do when they "label" places: they use chalk to mark a place as a "there's an open connection here" place.

It's even more difficult in languages other than English.

Any help or ideas will be welcome! Thanks!

And DO look at www.GlobalVillages.info!
Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 8 Feb 05


Not to be negative, but I kind of think that this is actually a backwards way to think about it. Epicenters are only epicenters when an actual epicenter is there -- the epicenters being those people who form the hubs of networks.

An example, when my wife and a friend was first in SF, she started a gathering of non-profit workers at the Make-Out room. It slowly grew, and after 6 months we'd get people we didn't know showing up, and once or twice even people from out of town told by a friend of a friend.

A year later it was gone. The organizers grew a little tired of it, some of the core group had moved on (driven off by the dot com boom).

My point is not that places can't be created to foster networks, or can't live on, but that it ain't really about the place, but the people in it.

The hubs that I see in SF:
826 Valencia, all the volunteers and literary celebrities rubbing and gleaning inspiration from David Eggers energy.

Zeitgeist, the bar where hipsters and motorcyclists and bicycle messengers meet.

Cafe Centro used to be a hub when South Park was packed full of dotcoms (or maybe South Park was the hub).

Cellspace: perhaps, the prototypical burning man hub

For me and my friends its a baseball field in Golden Gate park where we play frisbee, and an couple email lists -- galvinized by the person who started the email lists, and two or three frisbee players who've been playing together on an off for 10 years.


Posted by: adrian cotter on 8 Feb 05

I'm not convinced that the word "epicentres" will be reassuring to "networked American progressives" in the post-tsunami age :-) But your timely discussion of real-world meeting points raises an interesting design dilemma. Meeting places which emerge, like mushrooms, among ruined or neglected spots in the city are often more edgy and dynamic than official meeting places are. In Europe we're debating the importance of so-called 'free zones' (which are, in effect, design-free zones) to the social fabric of cities. Urban Unlimited published this report on the subject last year. http://www.urbanunlimited.nl/uu/urbanltd.nsf/12 addressing%20brussels. Maybe we can make the 'where' of social innovation - as well as the what and how - a discussion point for Delhi?


Posted by: John Thackara on 9 Feb 05



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