Friday, April 28, 2017

Three Challenges

I am working on an idea of building a community of 150 people. I want to simplify what seems like a bottomless pit of issues to something that feels manageable. Here are three challenges I am chewing on.

1) Scalability

The traditional tool to solve big problems has been Government. I have grown a little cynical at our ability to gain consensus for big groups. We don't come at the problem with a recognition that we are searching for common ground. Instead, voting tends to be about picking the candidate who represents our view, and mandating them to fight for our interests. As soon as groups become very big, this becomes incredibly difficult. That is why I like the idea of focusing on a small, holey group. However the idea takes shape, it still needs to be easy to copy, and likely to be copied, for it to be of 'big' value. The benefit of Big Government is its scale. It might be slow to move, but when it does, it can have a big impact. For better or worse. A bottom up idea can better control for unintended consequences, but needs to be catchy and easy to spread.

2) Common Ground

Most communities grow around a feeling of having deep common ground with people. There are lots of examples of functional communities that are incredibly powerful. My concern is the lack of understanding, conflict between, and inequality of opportunities between communities. If what I want to build is, by definition, a community that is built on the idea of challenging a lack of common ground, then that becomes incredibly difficult to build around. Poking our bubbles is uncomfortable, and something that requires deep wells of discipline. There may be some people who push deep into stressful territory to build strength, but most people take the path of least resistance. For ideas to spread, they can't just be the right thing to do. They also have to be a nice thing to do. The preferred thing to do. Easy common ground feels good.

3) Selection

Who gets help when so many need help? I find the Universal part of the idea of Universal Basic Income very appealing. It is a bit of a misnomer in the sense that the target is not people with money already. It is universal because 'means testing' (1) costs/wastes money, and (2) adds a stigma with recipients having to prove they need help in order to get help. If I manage to figure out how to fund 150 UBIs, the vast majority would not getting anything. It could be funded in part through Capital and in part through voluntary contributions. For the idea to be scalable, how that money is raised has to represent willingness of people to be a part of the idea. Otherwise it is just a vanity project. For something to truly be universal, it needs to be very simple and be something we recognise, and buy into. Selecting those in need may be easy, but selecting those who will help can't give false hope.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Happy 23rd Birthday South Africa

Happy 23rd birthday South Africa. It can be tough to take a pause from the traumas we are wrestling with, to celebrate. We are too busy trying to fix things. 

Many enter the workplace, and adult world thinking they have the solution. They have read a book. They have heard a profound talk.  Now they just need to make it happen. By 23 they may be realising they have more questions than answers.

They have learnt lessons from their teachers, only to find that the work place is often more raw than that. The first 100 days at a job is an interesting time to listen to new employees. They come up with lots of ideas, and are full of energy. Sometimes they come up with a gem. The sad truth is normally, the ideas and energy meet the real world. The ideological zeal gets an understanding of the challenges. We can still do stuff, but we need to chip away. We need to build. We need to tidy. We need to listen. It isn't about having the answers, it is about improving the questions.

They have learnt lessons from their parents, and want to unlearn many of those lessons. It is amazing how many people's greatest mistakes are the ones they make trying to unmake the mistakes of their parents... only to do the same. It is often worthwhile listening to the stories of parents, and grandparents, again and again as we age. It is easy to criticise, but we can hear differently as we gain the adult view of having tried (and sometimes failed at) the very thing we got cross about. Life is hard. People do their best.

They have learnt lessons from their friends, but gradually their paths diverge. We know our friends from particular times in our lives. Increasingly we then scatter. The common flavour will let us recognise their path as a 'If I had gone that way'. That can be dangerous as we tend to compare in small snippets. Just the job. Just the house. Just the relationship. Old friends do help anchor us with beautiful questions that give perspective. Too much perspective and we are just a pale blue dot - nothing we do matters. Too little, and we focus excessively on the fires we are fighting while missing the things that do matter. Make time to think about the whole picture.

Learning doesn't end at 23. Our teachers, parents, and friends give us a start. Birthdays are a time to celebrate. A reminder to make time for those teachers, parents and friends. Reflect on battles won and scars earned. Blow out the candles, and make a wish. Then get on with it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


A Community is a group of people sharing a particular characteristic, or certain attitudes/interests. Community is a trust tool that immediately establishes rules of engagement with someone you don't know, or allows you to build a life with people you know deeply. In the clash between global and local, this is a difficult challenge. How do you create trust, in a global world with lots of different local conventions? The 'global community' has to, by definition, be quite superficial. It has to accommodate very different communities

Defining a community by particular characteristic is an arbitrary rule, but it is useful as a signal that is harder to fake. The underlying attitudes/interests are the more important thing.

I am deeply uncomfortable with my community being based on people I share attitudes/interests with. I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, where the lives of people on different sides of a road can be vastly different. The idea of self-determination where a community takes on the role of self used those 'arbitrary rules' in order to embed trust. This allows communities to extend their 'circle of care' beyond themselves, but selectively, and destructively.

The world has 7.5 Billion people. We can't know those people. We can't build the kinds of relationships you need to trust people when there isn't thousands of years of deeply wired understanding to help. If the world were 100 people, we could put names and faces to those people, and start. Still, would there be enough common ground to develop deep relationships? Only 5 would be English speaking. Three English guys would mean they were over-represented. Add age as a filter and no one can be 'like me' on just three criteria.

Somewhere between the wide of Global and the deep of Local lie some beautiful questions.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


I like the idea of 'unconditionality', particularly when it comes to love. But conditions affect behaviour. 

'Moral Hazard' describes the way people respond to risk being shifted to someone else. If you have no car insurance, you are more likely to think twice about where and how you park your car. The risk of loss tends to keep us honest. 

If you love someone unconditionally, they can also test the boundaries of the absence of boundaries. They can break boundaries far beyond where they would have. 

Games work better with rules. All rules are, are negotiated relationships. Agreements on how we will treat each other. Agreements on the stories that define us.

There is subtlety in how those rules evolve. They can't get too complicated or they lose meaning. But they can soak deep so that we understand the rules without knowing why. Like muscle memory. We don't have to consciously think of the steps involved in walking. We don't have to search for words we use often. We just know.

Deep soaking requires time, conversation and intent. Eventually, conditional can feel unconditional because it is so natural. It becomes a part of who we are.

Hadrian's Wall
How do we choose our boundaries?

Saturday, April 22, 2017


Tacit Knowledge is powerful. We should push decisions as close to where the understanding lies as possible. Often we understand, but we don't know how we understand. As soon as decisions are extended beyond intimate groups, they lose nuance, and people get summarised into 'the people'. Although central decision making can allow for a much bigger impact, the world is complex, unambiguous and uncertain. Whether we go left or right can have unintended consequences. Making small, micro-ambitious decisions allows us to learn with the only certainty that the engine of that learning will be our mistakes. The four freedoms of movement (people, goods, services, and capital) are learning tools that partner the written word, numbers and money. We learn and empower through exchange and sharing. Democracy should be a tool of empowerment, not a tool of power.

Single Market
Freedom of Movement of People, Goods, Services and Capital

Friday, April 21, 2017

Local is Lekker

I believe in the Four Freedoms of the European Single Market - goods, capital, services and people. I also recognise that all these freedoms create strains that require buffers. Buffers protect what is important to us, while giving us breathing space to learn. 

Globalisation has created strain. It sucks that as a Soutie, living in the United Kingdom, with much of my family in South Africa my community is so stretched. It also means I hop from very different sets of issues when I am in each place. Earning, and re-earning the right to call myself 'local'.

The consuming issues in the UK is Brexit. 'Great' Britain of the past was the colonial overlord of the world. Britain and France each have one of five permanent seats on the UN security council, and GDPs that put them in 5/6 place globally. Don't blink... that is going to change. 

After giving each other a snotklap in the World Wars, the European Powers had to learn to work together rather than being heads of Global Empires.

As part of the European Union, one of the great frustrations of many who wanted to leave was the 'lack of democracy'. The EU has 28 member states and an estimated population of 510 million. The European Council comprises the heads of states, and defines overall political direction. The European Commission acts as the cabinet - proposing legislation and implementing decisions. There is one member per state, but they represent the general interests of the EU rather than their member state. The European Parliament is directly elected, and seats are allocated according to population, but larger states have more citizens represented per MEP. Seats are allocated by proportional representation.

It is clear that the UK is going to have far less control over Europe than it would going alone. Luxembourg has population of 576,000 and the same seat on the Council. It is also going to have far less control than it had when it was an empire.

Those in the UK who voted for Brexit would have wanted more decision making power. 'Taking Back Control'. Ironically, the other big issue in the UK is Scottish Independence. Many in Scotland also want more decision making power... mainly from London, and are more content with Brussels.

The big challenge going forward will be letting go of the idea of government as a centre of power, and democracy as an instrument of majority (whether by population, GDP or fire power) rules. Somehow we need to create agreed common frameworks in which people and communities can feel empowered, rather than ruled.

A big issue in my other local place is decolonisation. South Africa was from 1910-1961 a dominion of the British Empire. It would be useful perspective for those talking of taking back control to read a little of the history of what that control meant to the controlled.

Perhaps I have lost the right to press to hard in either area with my views. My two cents from how my different bubbles bump is that we need to be very aware of unintended consequences, and push conversations more toward accommodating each other than overpowering. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Vatican City

The Vatican City is the smallest state in the world by both population (<1000) and size (0.44 km2). It is not 'sovereign'. Sovereignty is held by the Holy See which is an entity in public international law. Like money, languages, religions, relationships and other agreements, some things exist by law if enough of us say they exist. These concepts take on a life that unlike human life, normally doesn't have an end date. All of us die. The relationships we create can live much longer if their flavour embeds deeply enough. The Papal States were territories directly ruled by the Pope from 754-1870. Gradually this territory was lost to the emerging Kingdom of Italy. The Vatican City became an independent state by agreement between Italy and the Holy See in 1929. The Holy See speaks for the whole Catholic Church diplomatically, even though it doesn't meet other criteria of statehood (permanent population, defined territory, stable government, and capacity to enter into relations with other states). It has diplomatic relations with 180 countries, and the Vatican estimates there are 1.2 Billion Roman Catholics worldwide.

Papal States - 1700

Foreign Relations with the Holy See

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Turkey and Russia both straddle Europe and Asia. Ukraine is the largest country entirely within Europe. The people of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine all claim the powerful medieval state of Kievan Rus' as part of their cultural heritage. This was a loose federation of East Slavic tribes, under a family which ruled for 21 generations. The state disintegrated after a Mongol invasion, and its successor principalities paid tribute to the Golden Horde. Between the 13th and 20th century, the area has been contested between powers including Lithuania, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Kievan Rus' is part of the founding identity of Russia too. The 2014 revolution was driven by whether relations were deepened to the left with Europe, or to the right with Russia.