A “Collective” Obsessive — Part 1

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In my year notes for 2017 I ended the post by saying my motto for 2018 was all about the collective. It’s been a theme of my work and conversations throughout the last year and in to this one— from being part of the Point People team that curated Collective City, running a workshop about the role of design in Collective Intelligence at Nesta’s launch event, joining the advisory group for the Collective Psychology project, to planning how we might design some collective responses to the level of demand we’ve had for the TNL Community Fund, Digital Fund (ecosystem design), and writing this mammoth blog post on emerging (collective) design practice. I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface too.

Hence this being part 1 of a series of 3 blog posts.

The importance of the collective

In this first one I wanted to share a few thoughts about why the “collective” feels so important. We’ve individualised so much in western societies and this individualism has left many feeling isolated and left behind among all the consumerism and commodification. We were lucky to have Lynn Segal speak at our Collective Cities event last year as she writes so well about this in her book Radical Happiness.

As much as technology can connect us, it can also encourage us to experience the world alone— as everyday life becomes more screen-based and automated we’re insulated from the world around us. And the internet and data are changing “the social glue that held local communities together”— it has become “differently stuck”.

We’ve also allowed a narrative to weave its way in to our collective psyche that denies how the prevalence of misery might have a public dimension, and hence a political one too. In her book “depression: a public feeling” Ann Cvetkovich thinks about depression as a cultural and social phenomenon, rather than a medical disease. Daniel Busso from the Frameworks Institute speaks of the importance of “showing individuals in context. We need to inoculate against the idea that people’s life outcomes are solely the result of their willpower or whether they make good choices. Members of the public need to be reminded that, if someone is thriving, it’s because they are tapped into a network of community support and social resources.”

Alongside this, there is a loss of collective story — as Alex Evans says “we’ve lost the old, collective stories and rituals that used to bind us together, explain the world, provide belonging and identity.” And as Mark Kramer wrote in an SSIR article, “The challenge today is not merely that we have dysfunctional systems nor that we lack innovative solutions to our society’s problems. Instead, it’s that our country has no unifying narrative that binds us all to a common fate.”

The need to act more collectively

Something that Hannah Arendt held dear was “the power that arises out of joint action and deliberation.”

In her book, Lynne Segal talks about how people are drawn into collective resistance in a multitude of unpredictable ways, usually fighting for shared personal issues rather than energised by formal political parties. She runs through some stories from the women’s liberation movement —my favourite example was a slogan from 1968 — “Form Dream Committees” which they used to begin imagining anew how to change every aspect of life. We don’t just need to act more collectively, we need to feel together, experience life together and most importantly, imagine and dream together.

“An oceanic feeling — a feeling of indissoluble connection, of belonging inseparably to the external world as a whole.” — Sigmund Freud

Whilst there are many people and communities trying to build alternatives to the status quo, for new forms of ownership to stick and the creation of shared assets to become a reality, trust is required between people, as well as some sense of commonality. For the commons to exist and thrive, and a new social (collective) contract to develop, people need to want to take care of and be responsible for something larger than themselves.

And for us to act together on issues that transcend any other because of how they connect (and effect) us — like regenerating and taking care of the planet — we all need to see ourselves as being responsible for that.

Designing for the collective

If we do want to act, feel and imagine collectively, without reaching the kind of catastrophic state described in the quote above, can we consciously design for that? Below is my first attempt at thinking about how we design for the collective over the individual.

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So what’s missing? And is there a better way of segmenting this so it’s not an either or — self care is important for example! I’d love to hear from you, in the comments or — cassie@cassierobinson.net

Written by

Senior Head, UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.

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