Reflections on Bologna - it's all about the Social
I have sat down to write this post a bunch of times, and can't seem to nail it.
I have now been back from Bologna a few weeks, and parts of it are receding into memory, but other parts are still extremely fresh and current. I have been trying to make sense of it all, but am having trouble summing it up succinctly. If someone asks me about the trip, I can either smile and say it was amazingly interesting and inspiring and then stop, or I can go on for a good ten minutes fumbling to explain what I experienced (check out parts 1 and 2 of my journey, or all my blog posts about it).
So, writing this post - in which I want to sum it all up coherently - is proving a challenge.
What I know is, it was all about the social. The connections we developed among the group of participants are strong and deep, and will serve a great purpose as we all struggle to make full sense of, and take action on, what we learned. The personal social connections made the greatest impact on me; but I also come back with a greater sense of the social fabric of our society and how it can be both fragile and incredibly enduring and forceful.
So, it's led me to think a lot about what social is.
I have struggled for a while now with my definition of the word social in contrast to the way most of my colleagues at Vancity define it.
For me, terms like social finance and the social economy refer to emerging social tools that allow people to connect in new ways to collaborate and share information and opinions. To me, the social economy means that in today's world the water cooler is suddenly global as our purchasing decisions - decisions that drive our consumption-based economy - are increasingly driven by how people connect and influence each other on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. A brand can be glorified by and benefit from intense word-of-mouth marketing, or get beaten up and badly bruised because of the power of social media.
Social finance means the collaborative power of sites like wesabe.com or social lending sites like CommunityLend to harness the wisdom of crowds so people can better understand how they spend and save their money. In a capitalist society, where we spend our money is how we vote with our feet and social finance tools can help us be better citizens of that society.
At Vancity, the word social doesn’t imply connecting and collaborating, but refers to the social fabric of our society. The social economy refers to the segment of the economy driven by not-for-profits and social entrepreneurs working to make our society more just, equitable and sustainable. Social finance means leveraging the tools of the financial system - such as credit - to fund projects that improve our communities (an increasingly important part of the way we do business).
I felt caught in the middle, and decided a while back to just go with the flow and adopt the Vancity terminology. It is important to me that I speak the same language as my peers and colleagues, and don’t create confusion or a bunch of unnecessarily long explanations in meetings.
Recently the light finally came on for me: we are all talking about the same thing.
In Bologna, we saw the power of the network. People are connected by their shared history and culture, and have a strong degree of trust, which enables them to work together cooperatively.
We learned a lot about reciprocity. Everywhere we went - people at co-operatives, professors in economics lectures, leaders at labour unions, presidents at not-for-profit foundations - referred to it directly or obliquely as a way of doing business.
I would describe reciprocity as delaying some details of a transaction until a later date. For example, if I have something I want to sell, I would work out the details of the deal with the buyer up front. We would negotiate the good or service being sold and the price for that good or service simultaneously, and then exchange money for the product in one transaction.
In a reciprocal economy we can agree that you want the good or service I have to offer and I will give it to you, trusting that you will give me something of equal value at a later date. Of course we do this with close friends and family all the time. I invite you for dinner at no cost, trusting that somehow you will repay me in kind. That is the very act of friendship. We don't work out a contract; we don't work out the repayment. We have the trust to let the transaction occur over an extended period of time.
Time and time again in Bologna we saw this in action. People working together without creating a contract first, because they trusted it would work out. People behaving in a way that showed they had trust and reciprocity and a network that would keep them honest in their dealings. Those connections kept them honest, because their reputations were on the line.
It occurs to me that the two definitions of social I struggle with at Vancity are actually two parts of the same equation. For people to build a more equitable society, we need trust, and a way to increase trust is to connect people, and the way people connect today is through online social tools. Social media can help people find other like-minded people, place an emphasis on reputation, and make society a little less anonymous and a little more personal.
This very site where you are reading these words is proof positive of that relationship. Three years ago Vancity saw a reason to create a community focused on change. One piece of feedback we hear all the time is that ChangeEverything.ca enables people to connect and work face to face on events and projects that have a social context. That strengthening of our social fabric leads to people working together, investing in their reputations, and creating trust and reciprocity and - in some very small way - a society in which people work together more harmoniously.
As we at Vancity investigate our vision of Redefining Wealth, I believe we need both kinds of social in play. We need to create networks enabling people to connect, collaborate and cooperate to increase trust so that we can create a more reciprocal economy in which fewer people are left out or left behind.
It's nice to know we were talking about the same thing all along. I just had to go to Italy and immerse myself in a progressive, equitable, co-operative environment to finally realize it.
ps - I am a long time ChangeEverything member, and head up the WEB (Web Engagement & Banking) Team at Vancity, meaning that I get to work with all the amazing people who bring our members Online Banking, our employees our intranet and the community ChangeEverything.ca. I am a recovered filmmaker, soon to be living in Strathcona with my wife, son and cat. You can follow me @wazaroff or at azaroff.com.