5 Nov 2011

On November 5th, the final day of the Oaxacan Forum on Social Innovation, I was invited to speak at the first TEDx Oaxaca. It was a strange thing, to stand up and talk about a project at such an early stage, but it was also a good opportunity to think through what "transformative culture" actually means to me. Here is a slightly-edited transcript of the talk I gave.


1. Once upon a time…

Me llamo Dougald y soy narrador de historias.

Every story begins as a journey. Every journey leaves a map, which others may follow or take as a warning to try a different route.

Sometimes my stories become words in a book. Sometimes, they become communities of people, coming together to make something happen. The process is not so different.

Let me tell you about two cases.

At Brixton Village in south London, my friends and I told a story about how twenty empty shops in an indoor market could become a hub of social and cultural life, a space where people would start new independent businesses that grew out of their passions. It caught people’s imagination, and within a year, the market was full for the first time in a generation.

School of Everything is a website, but also a dream: what if we could index the human library? Because when you develop a new interest – in comic books, or philosophy, or 1920s jazz – the chances are that there’s someone living in the next street or the next town who got interested in it a few years ago and from whom you could learn. We wanted to make it really easy for you to find each other and meet up. It became a network with thirty thousand members around the world, organised around the idea that everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach.

These projects are like fungi: visible and colourful, but the connections between them are not so obvious. What is the link between an educational web startup and a project to regenerate a local market? Like fungi, the connections are below the surface, in the mycelium: the web of ideas and stories that I have been talking and writing about for years.

And, interwoven with this, the network of conversations and friendships, spaces for thinking together, sharing and probing, playing with our ideas, which make up the cultural context from which these projects have grown.  I think of the Truth & Beauty evenings taking place twice a week at the new Hub Westminster; or Luminous Green, the gathering in Belgium last year at which I met many of the artists who would make up the European end of the Euroaxacan Initiative for Transformative Cultures.

If I try to make sense of what “transformative culture” could mean, then I have to start with gatherings like these and the conversations they make possible.


2. The Power of Culture

Before I come to our collaborations in Oaxaca over the next two years, I want to say something about the power of culture: how we often underestimate it, and why it is particularly important at this moment in history.

Culture is a complex word: sometimes we use it to mean arts and literature; at other times we use it to refer to the whole range of beliefs, traditions, jokes and stories, customs and practices which make up a way of living.

In modern societies, we tend to have a geological model of the role of culture. We treat it as a soft surface layer of human existence, on top of the hard material and economic realities which determine our lives. Culture is treated as superstition or as entertainment, a way to distract or protect ourselves from those serious realities which we can do little to change.

But this is misleading. When I tell a story, I am not just entertaining you: I am drawing your attention to particular things, and away from other things. If I tell a new story about a situation, and that story makes sense to you, then you will see the situation differently, and you will feel and act differently, as a result, in ways that may change the economic and material realities of that situation.

The owners of that market in Brixton had a story about it: it was a problem; there was no demand for all those empty shops, and the local community wouldn’t allow them to redevelop it. Our task was to tell a different story, which said that there was no real shortage of talent, energy or ideas within walking distance of that market, that there were people who lived locally who had money to spend but didn’t spend it on their own doorstep, and that a community which wants to keep a building you own doesn’t have to be a problem: if you take the right attitude, it could become a supporters club, that wants the market to succeed.

Telling a story is as powerful as drawing a map: it is a way of reframing a situation, bringing new possibilities into view. Even our economic system – which is often presented as a natural phenomenon, governed by rules as fixed as the laws of physics – is more like a collection of stories, or a set of maps, full of cultural assumptions, drawing our attention to certain possibilities for how we live together as humans, pushing other possibilities out of view.

All of this matters right now for two reasons.

First, because our societies are lost: the maps we have been following have led us into a whole lot of trouble. The world is on fire, and our leaders don’t know how to put it out. I do wonder how much longer it will seem credible for experts from Europe and the United States to come to countries like Mexico and tell stories about social innovation and economic progress, when our own societies are in turmoil and our governments are going cap in hand to China to support lifestyles and social structures we can no longer afford?

We need new maps and new stories to make sense of this situation. Meanwhile, my experience has been that the decision-makers who control sources of investment, funding or political support are still operating to those bad maps which got us so lost. Not because they are stupid, but because they are in an incredibly difficult situation. A bad map seems better than no map at all.

What this means for me is that the cultural domain feels like a more powerful place to operate than the domains of business or social innovation. Rather than pushing to scale the projects I’ve created and build them into larger businesses or organisations, I choose to concentrate my energy on helping to make new maps.

The second reason why it makes sense to operate within the cultural domain right now is the power of networks. Today’s technologies make it possible for stories and ideas to spread without permission from the centres of power, and without building businesses or organisations.

Last week, someone sent me an aerial photo of this year’s Burning Man festival, covered with red dots. Each one marks the location of a hexayurt: over 500 of them, scattered across the Playa. The hexayurt was invented by my friend, Vinay Gupta. It is a free open source shelter design that can be built for a hundred dollars a unit from materials already in the supply chain all over the world.

Back in January, some friends of ours built a hexayurt village on the banks of the main canal in Brussels, a connection which came about through that same Luminous Green gathering I mentioned earlier.

Meanwhile, the same kind of shelters are being built in Haiti and Sri Lanka, and by the Pentagon’s appropriate technology team. Not long ago, the World Bank funded an Alternate Reality Game called Urgent Evoke, which pictured a scenario later this decade in which the hexayurt has become the default shelter solution for disasters around the world.

What you have here is an innovation which is spreading around the world, but it’s not spreading the way that a business, a social enterprise or an NGO expands; it’s spreading the way that a joke or a story travels. And is there much difference between that and what we are seeing right now, with the Occupy movement?

So here’s how I see it: we’re living in a time when the transformative power of culture is needed, because of the mess the world is in, while, at the same time, networked technologies are amplifying this kind of cultural power.

Yet I want to be cautious about the power of these technologies, too: they offer new ways for stories to travel, but they do not help us to tell good stories. At best, they may help us reveal the bad maps and false stories by which our leaders are operating, but that is only the first part of the process of change, and by no means the hardest part. If we’re to make a decent job of living through the difficult years ahead, we need to look deeper into the roots of the stories we have been telling ourselves. To ask how we ended up with such bad maps in the first place.


3. The Lost Hero

One story has fascinated me more and more over the past couple of years. An archetypal story; a story that echoes around the world, and whose echoes may be caught in the most unexpected places.

‘The Hero’s Journey’ is really the skeleton of a story: a pattern described by Joseph Campbell, one of the grand theorists of mythology. He believed that this pattern could be found in the epic stories of cultures all over the world.

It is a story of a quest: of a hero who sets out from his home, leaving behind the world in which he has grown up, in search of a sacred object or to fight a great enemy. He goes through adventures, meets strange beings, passes tests and reaches his goal – but the story never ends there. It always turns out that the hardest part comes afterwards. The most dangerous bit is not getting to the giant’s castle or the depths of the underworld, it’s making it home again, because so often the bag of gold will turn to dust as you cross the last hill and your village comes into sight.

At one level, this makes for a gripping story, keeping up the suspense right to the end. But it also reflects a deeper truth about human experience and about what happens when we acquire knowledge and wisdom. The hardest part of the journey is not acquiring new knowledge, but integrating it into the social reality you left behind: weaving the old and the new together, without losing the meaning of one or the other.

I’ve been thinking about this story, because it feels like one of the ways that modern societies have ended up with such bad maps is that we have forgotten the challenge of the journey home. We’ve fallen into the habit of celebrating the half-finished journey, seen getting “far out” as an achievement in itself, when — as plenty of Sixties veterans could tell us — the hard part is finding your way back, without losing your mind.

And so, ignoring the rhythms of life, the need to breath out as well as in, we committed ourselves to the goal of endless economic expansion; we treated new knowledge as making old ways of knowing irrelevant; we turned the world into a giant game of snakes and ladders, in which the aim is to scramble over each other to get to the top of the board, to London, Paris, San Francisco or Shanghai. And we organised our economies and societies in such a way as to force people to play this game.


4. Heading for Home

These thoughts had been echoing in my head when Robert and Geska invited me to get involved with this “initiative for transformative cultures.” To help tell the story that would weave the project together. In Ancient Greece, the oral storyteller was called rhapsodoi — “one who stitches together” — joining things up, mending what is broken, making the connections.

And so, over the next two years, as the other artists and artisans work together to explore the possibilities for “transformative culture”, I will be gathering material and looking for patterns. We are just at the beginning, but there is already one thread of story which I want to explore.

The first time Robert and Geska told me about Zegache and their collaboration with the community workshop there, I was struck by the story of a place whose young men had gone away, leaving only the women, the children and the old people. It is a little like something from a fairytale, where a dragon has put a curse on the land, or a pied piper has led a whole generation away into the mountain. Except that the comparison is too picturesque, and it is a story repeated in a million towns and villages around the world, hollowed out by patterns of economic migration.

Yet one that is, surely, far removed from the experience of this collection of artists from the rich countries of Europe? Except that there is a strange echo in the pattern of cultural migration that has defined the artistic career in modern Europe. Because isn’t it the classic story of the artist or writer or music star, that you are born in some small, “nowhere” place — but you are bright, talented, determined, and so you escape to the big city, to the bohemian centres of cultural life? And should you find yourself going back to your place of origin, this is a sign of failure, that you didn’t “make it” in the big city. Once more, the broken pattern: the celebration of a hero who never makes it home.

So another thing that caught my imagination when I heard about Zegache was the story of Rodolfo Morales, the painter who had made it big in Mexico City and who chose, in the last years of his life, to return to his home region and initiate the project which led to the restoration of the church of Santa Ana and the creation of the community workshop with which we have come to work. Here was a model of the artist’s career which included a positive vision of the return home.

And so, I wonder, can it be a starting point for us to reimagine the shape and direction of our lives; to seek possibilities beyond the one-way, extractive patterns of migration and movement, towards a richer flow of people and ideas, within and between countries? Together, can we find new ways of seeing and new ways of making a living, which start from remembering the richness and depth of cultural memory in the places from which we begin, which open the possibility of weaving together the old and new, and of finding our ways home?

Every story begins as a journey. Every journey leaves a map, which others may follow or take as a warning to try a different route.

This journey began five days ago, when we left Europe, and it is too soon to say where it will lead us. Who can say where the world will be in two years time? Who can say whether the Euro will still exist! The stories we end up telling may be quite different to those with which we set out. But it’s a privilege to be here, to feel welcome, and to have the possibility of sharing our stories, comparing our maps and redrawing them together.


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