An Update from Cardus Social Cities
I have been pursuing an understanding of how we organize ourselves for a long time now. It began by asking questions in school about how and why things were done the way they were – like why did the Grade 5 class always have to get its half of the lunch-hour gym time first? In hindsight, that isn’t a very important question but the instinct to ponder why things are as they are can be fostered and grown over time.
I’ve also had to learn that the interest in such questions is very uneven. Mostly, other people don’t share the intensity of interest in these things that I have. Happily, however, some do. And I’m convinced that our current cultural moment is making literacy about such dynamics increasingly important. Cities are, at least in one sense, an intensively complex collection of individuals, groups, organizations and institutions – they are a massive strategic puzzle. Here are some of the ways that I’ve been taking on these puzzles over the last while.
First, I participated in The Gospel and Our Cities conference in Chicago in mid-October. It was a privilege to be on two plenary panels with people like Tim Keller where we reflected on the current and future state of churches in the city with people who have invested their lives pursuing the establishment of faithful and fruitful communities. I also had a chance to lead a crowded workshop on “The Church as Institutional Citizen.” I think there is an interest in these questions for people who are developing new congregations.
Second, I wrote an essay for Comment magazine that will be coming out in the new Minimalism issue. Organizations are tricky. If we exert too much control, we can make them fragile and very unhealthy. If we have too little direction, they may disperse. Noble mission statements can often be undermined by good intentions that lead to institutional patterns that dehumanize us – even when those leading are good people. I’m convinced we need to become more capable of understanding and dancing with these kinds of dynamics whether we run a car dealership or a food bank.
Third, I attended the Computational Social Sciences Society of the Americas' annual conference in Santa Fe. As a member of the Program Committee, I had a chance to review papers as well to co-author a paper on how institutions may emerge in urban settings. The presentations at the conference explored extremism, solar panel adoption, bot detection in Twitter, idea flows in networks, and many other things from social psychology, physics, engineering, sociology, peace studies, political science and other disciplinary vantage points. The common element was the use of computer tools that act like labs where we can experiment with these complex interactions. We need this kind of work to support decision making for small and large scale social dynamics.
Finally, I presented a talk at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa in this last week called “Conspiring Together for Good: Institutional Science and Religion” where I explored what their common good overlaps may be. You can see a simple model of how we sort ourselves into very distinct groups here [works best in Chrome]. This is a case of daring to cross well-drawn institutional lines tactfully, carefully, and, I hope, thoughtfully to see if we may gain ground on solving some problems where working separately just isn’t working. Treating people or institutions with respect rather than understanding is a key institutional literacy and, like reading, won’t happen by itself. We will need to be courageous and creative in weaving across such gaps.
Developing institutional literacies does not mean mastery or control. Learning to read doesn’t mean you know all things written. In the same way, deepening our understanding of social and institutional dynamics and patterns does not mean we have a grasp of all their forms and contexts. But learn to read we must, and it is my hope that the resources you find at Social Cities will inspire and encourage you in your own long labour of figuring out how things work in your world.
As always, send me an email or give me a call if you want more about these four areas of recent activity. I’d love to talk.
Program Director, Social Cities
What is Milton Reading?
Talent: How to find it. How to keep it., by Tom Peters remains an important reflection on the central role that human capability plays in our collective projects. We get it right some of the time, but have a long way to go if we want to even begin to think about transformative change. Almost all energy is expended in the 'business as usual' mode, including in how we build and develop teams. Tom will knock the dust off the the old habits.
Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place, by Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro. These authors argue that educational formation should first be for helping us to make the places we come from better. This is in opposition to the almost universal sense of education as a means out of where we are, as a ladder of success (mostly material success) that higher education lives and breathes. I had a chance to have lunch with Jack and Jeffrey on their home turf in Spring Arbor, Michigan on my way to the Tim Keller conference.
So Simple a Thing as a Star: The Eddington-Jeans debate over astrophysical phenomenology, a British Society for the History of Science paper by Matthew Stanley. I found this paper as I was randomly browsing the journals at the Gerstein Science Library at the University of Toronto between meetings. It is a very significant story of how research and science balance carefully detailed work and exploratory risks and conjectures as exemplified in the lives of these two early Twentieth Century mathematicians/astronomers. Lots of lessons for other areas of life.
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