The current discourse around sustainability has a tendency to focus on either the level of the individual or the level of “society” as a whole. This way of thinking is not working. We need to take into account the level of the collective. So far this level has been approached through the lens of a minority-majority dichotomy. This doesn’t work either. We need to understand the workings of our everyday life connections in larger and smaller circles and find ways to connect them in smarter and more sustainable ways.
First of all, we must find out what mechanisms make us establish collectives in the first place. And what keeps them going. It seems that what initiates and sustains a collective is that people in it have some activities in common.
At a basic level of human interaction, we are producing and consuming things together.
First level of building collectives
At our workplaces and educational institutions, we engage in activities around production. Producing goods, services and knowledge is the main common motor, in these places, that will drive the collective – in a sound direction or not.
In our spare time, we are consuming things together. We go shopping, watch a movie, eat, drink and take drugs. Consumption is the driving force in the collectives we build in our spare time, and again this may go in a sustainable direction or the opposite.
What about playing football, dancing, playing music, painting, making jokes etc., where do these activities fit in? I suggest we add a second layer of activity:
Second level of building collectives
With this model, I am suggesting that there is a connection between what we are doing when we are playing and what we are doing when we are producing and consuming: Our playing activities draw and feed back upon our activities around consumption and production.
Playing is not a form of interaction that attracts much attention in the general discourse in these years – unless when it allows for commercialization. Nevertheless, it has a huge importance, I would say, when it comes to building sound collectives. Playing can play a role when the collective is under pressure. Humor and satire is a way of letting out steam for instance when we are facing ridiculous bureaucratic procedures. Physical activities, like dancing in front of the inbox, can help us sharpen our attention, create a better work flow and sync our rhythms in a team.
Also read this: What Maslow missed
By building a playful environment around our daily activities, we create space for creativity and innovation. This is because playfulness gives us the capacity to take elements from our basic level of interaction and open new spaces, mental and physical, where we allow ourselves to experiment with them in new ways. In an environment of sensuous well-being.
I guess that if you agree that the activities of production and consumption are what brings us together in the first place. And that since we are continuously repeating these activities, they are a reason for us to keep on seeing each other. You would probably by now add that this isn’t enough. Something else is going on, that makes the collective evolve, – in a good or bad direction.
I suggest that we view this something else through the lens of the words depth, narrative, and ritual.
The more activities a collective shares, the deeper the connection between the participants will be. In the good old days, we were all consuming, producing and playing together in family-production units. Around the fireplace. This is sort of not the case anymore. Our activities are divided between an increasing number of circles, all of which are dealing with a small part of our everyday life activities. We are producing with our colleagues, but we don’t see them after work. This is typically the case in Denmark, at least. We divide our spare time activities between family, friends, and the stamp collector’s club.
Most people are probably OK with this atomization of collectivity. It’s a matter of choice, and a consequence of the prevailing tendency towards marketization of human interaction. Does a successful development towards a general sustainability require that we rewire these atomized loosely knit circles into more compact interwoven entities?
Also read this blog post: Can social media help us build our collectives?
How did you meet? How did it start? The origin myth of a collective plays a significant role. “All groups start with some kind of originating event”, writes Schein. It tells the story about what made the framework for the collective come to existence. And it continues to be an important glue binding the participants together. Sharing narratives is important for a collective, and these narratives will be enforced through repetition, debate and controversy.
Are narratives only textual? I would say that we store a huge amount of elements from our activities in the form of patterns in our body language and our way of interacting through sound, ie. prosody. These non-verbal narratives are important in the sense that, neglected and ignored as they are, they can provide the collective with valuable elements for positive changes. Interaction through movement and sound is a key that opens up to our playfulness, and as such it will enhance creativity, innovation and well-being.
Also read this blog post: How can we build collectives through sound?
No learning without repetition. Rituals play the role of reaffirming what we already know and do in our collectives, and they are breaking down our activities in intervals in time and space, that are easier to handle. Mentally and physically. We are composing new rituals, and affirming existing ones, all the time, whether conscious or not.
Rituals allow us to sync and reformat the rhythms – from small scale to large – of our interactions. In order to build sustainable collectives, we need access not only to the rhythms of our collaborations. These are handled via clock time, and can be dealt with using spreadsheets and school bells. The rhythms of our bodies – unfolding in the domain of lived time – are at least as important. Our access to these rhythms is dependent on our capacity for expression through sound and movement, ie. prosody and gesture.