A few years ago in San Francisco, a charitable landlord granted a group of maverick social innovators access to a 14,000-square-foot warehouse in one of the city’s less desirable neighborhoods for $1 a month. In that shell of a building, they created [freespace], described as “a temporary place for lasting change”—a place for fostering civic innovation, art, learning, and community. [freespace] welcomed anyone who wanted to participate and contribute, including hackers dissatisfied with their dot-com jobs and the homeless people who frequented St. Vincent de Paul’s kitchen next door. Within days, volunteers cleaned up the building and opened the doors. Artists created beautiful art. Participants offered classes and sought help on myriad artistic and community endeavors. [freespace] members developed a set of basic governance principles prominently displayed at the entrance.

The basic governance principles of [freespace]. (Photo by Marina Gorbis)

In addition to remaking the space itself, the [freespace] community seeded several other projects. Mark Roth, a formerly homeless man, launched The Learning Shelter, a mobile classroom that offers training courses for residents of local homeless shelters. SF Yellow Bike Project established free bike sharing for up to two days in San Francisco, with operating costs at a fraction of a similar city-run project. Participants produced a mural art installation and a documentary film about the space. Extraordinary things happened quickly, with little management, no paid staff, and virtually no money.

Three years later, Michael Zuckerman, one of the original founders of [freespace] took the lessons he learned in San Francisco to a very different place: a refugee camp in Greece. There, he became a catalyst for the Elpida project, rehabilitating an abandoned clothing factory and turning it into a humane shelter for refugees. In a remarkable departure from prevailing approaches, he used the same principles of self-organization he pioneered at [freespace] to engage migrants in the process of designing and running the new space.

“We wanted to try something different,” Zuckerman says, “maybe the opposite of what is being done. Instead of creating dependency, create independence. Instead of being top-down, let's see what happens when you make it happen from the bottom-up.”

Cultural spaces as seeds of larger societal transformation

Zuckerman is one of thousands of innovators pioneering new sets of behaviors, practices, and technology-usage patterns to drive inventive social and cultural experiments. Pia Mancini, for example, has cofounded DemocracyOS and the Net Party in Argentina to engage the larger public in the policymaking process. Nikiko Masumoto combines art, community development, and organic farming to create new models of farming in California’s Central Valley. Paul Radu and Drew Sullivan, leaders of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), have built a distributed network of journalists who work to uncover large-scale global crime and corruption. And there are many more.

These innovators are creating new cultural spaces—physical, digital, and metaphorical—in which people can explore new ways of doing things, together and individually. These spaces often inspire individuals to rethink themselves and their own capabilities. A homeless person starts seeing himself as an entrepreneur and a teacher. A helpless refugee girl becomes a journalist and a storyteller. A venture capitalist discovers herself as an artist. A disengaged citizen gains a voice in the political process.

Why do such spaces deserve attention today?

At this moment in history, many of our institutions and beliefs no longer suit our material reality. Education no longer guarantees young people stable and good paying jobs. Fewer and fewer people have full-time jobs and instead patch together earnings in the “on-demand” or gig economy, leaving many without security or access to benefits. We increasingly see political parties and elected officials as captives of big-money interests rather than true representatives of the people, and ideals of creating a more equitable society clash with the very real experience of growing income polarization. In times like these, transformation and confusion tend to give rise to new beliefs, new ways of doing things, and new cultural norms and heroes. This is a critical process of societal evolution, and it mirrors how evolution happens in nature.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould used the term “punctuated equilibrium” to describe this process. He argues that “edge” populations—often isolated populations that develop unique characteristics quite distinguishable from the mainstream—drive evolution. These unique characteristics give them an evolutionary advantage when environmental conditions change, enabling them to survive and thrive while other populations die off. During periods of turbulence or “punctuation,” these “edge” populations spill out of their enclaves into the larger environment to increase the survival of the whole.

People like Zuckerman, Radu, Masumoto, Mancini, and many others are doing just this. Operating on the edges, they are creating new cultures: new values, new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing the world that can become the genetic material for a larger social transformation. In the process, they are seeding a reinvigorated cultural prosperity that long-standing institutions—whether they are philanthropies, economic development agencies, educational institutions, corporations, or governments—cannot build. Their thinking and the tools they are using are strikingly different from the ones most traditional organizations employ.

Designing for evolve-ability

Radu once observed that an unfortunate side of institutions, political or corporate, is that they are highly susceptible to corruption and decay. “Just like a stale pool of water tends to overgrow with algae and become a breeding ground for disease, institutions that develop external walls around themselves become stale,” he says. Regrettably, there is an abundance of bureaucratic institutional stagnation in the world of development today at scales large and small. Far too many groups, including donor agencies and NGOs, end up invested in perpetuating the very problems they originally aimed to solve. After all, such problems justify their very existence.

While economic development, refugee resettlement, and other social change efforts shouldn’t necessarily shy away from creating enduring structures, cultural innovators are showing us what can be done with minimal structures, minimal management, few or no paid staff, and very little money. In a future world of 8 or 9 billion people, the path to cultural prosperity is less about designing well-funded programs for the masses and more about creating spaces for the intelligence of the crowd to emerge—and for individual capacities to catalyze new kinds of communities. How are they doing it? By skillfully synchronizing the efforts of multitudes.

Bottom-up synchronization

Stigmergy is a concept from biology that describes a process of coordinating actions between organisms to produce complex patterns of behavior. Ants, for example, release pheromones as a way to communicate the location of food to other ants. The complex network of trails that ants produce connects the nest to sources of food, enabling the entire colony to thrive.

In a similar fashion, many of today’s cultural innovators create spaces—both physical structures and digital platforms—that enable people to efficiently synchronize activities by knowing where help is needed, what needs to be done, and how they can contribute. Unlike traditional resource delivery structures, these approaches establish interactive platforms of all kinds that allow recipients to respond with individual actions that, in turn, add up to coordinated solutions. The most familiar examples are online social platforms—such as Twitter, Thunderclap, and Indiegogo—which seamlessly synchronize vast numbers of people around a cause or activity. But beyond these general-purpose, crowd-catalyzing platforms, stigmergic spaces are proliferating in all the nooks and crannies cultural innovators occupy. OCCRP is a prime example of a digital space occupied by a group of cultural innovators—journalists around the world can build on each other’s work. [freespace] notably used physical walls as surfaces for community collaboration. When we shift away from managing people to creating spaces for synchronizing efforts, we free up vast amounts of human creativity and capital that anyone can redirect to the mission at hand.

Leveraging the abundance of the commons

Economic markets are built around scarcity, and prices are the main mechanisms for allocating scarce resources. But cultural prosperity taps the often-overlooked wealth of the commons. For the people catalyzing new cultural spaces, the commons offer up a pool of physical and digital resources, as well as capabilities, that the community itself—rather than the government or private sector—owns. The stewardship of such resources brings together a community and supports the evolution of new cultural norms.

It is not surprising that many cultural innovators cut their teeth in the open source software movement, virtual communities, and digital commons, such as Wikipedia and Github. Far from creating a tragedy of the commons, where large groups of people gradually deplete common resources, digital culture has expanded the repertoire of commons and the strategies for making them work for everyone, in digital and physical settings

As soon as migrants began moving into the Elpida complex—a blank canvas just waiting for their contributions—they began self-organizing to take care of their newly constructed commons, coordinating chores and activities ranging such as composting, replanting vegetable plots, and teaching language lessons. Residents even re-envisioned Elpida’s underutilized ambulance service so that it it could be used outside the camp when residents did not need it internally.

Digital commons have also taught the new cultural innovators that they don’t need institutions with long reach or buckets of money to scale the value of a commons. While plenty of money flows through the Internet, much of what drives the value of a commons is the individual voluntary contributions of people, whether it’s answers to questions in health forums or homemade YouTube videos about how to install a microwave above your stove. And these are the types of abundant resources—time, knowledge, ideas, community—that catalysts of cultural change tap into to support their work. When asked what he would do if someone gave him a million dollars, Zuckerman replied,

“I would rather take one million people.” Massive participation turns scarcity into abundance, and in the process it creates a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and a sense of doing something greater than oneself. It engenders a sense of cultural prosperity.

The new paths to prosperity

For decades, governments, philanthropic foundations, and nonprofit organizations have dedicated themselves to economic development around the world—to alleviating poverty and integrating marginalized communities into a global economy. They have taken their cues from global corporate practices, seeking efficiencies of scale, standardizing products and services, creating markets to support those products and services, and assessing returns on investment. Those who have been most successful in the world of business have worked to bring their big-business know-how to a vast array of social and economic problems.

The paths many cultural innovators are pursuing—designing for impermanence, growing and leveraging the commons, coordinating from the bottom-up, and doing things without money—fly in the face of such approaches. And yet, these are precisely the strategies we need to take seriously today. Multiple studies, including those by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, have come to the conclusion that traditional development frameworks either have largely failed to deliver results or have delivered results at a high human cost. One reason is precisely because traditional economic development approaches tend to underestimate the role of individuals and culture in catalyzing change. Culture is not something economists and development professionals are comfortable talking about, and it is not easily measurable. And yet, culture is perhaps the most powerful lever for catalyzing change.

This is what cultural innovators understand viscerally; they do not see poverty only (or even primarily) as an economic phenomenon. Individuals and even entire communities today are suffering from a poverty of relationships, knowledge, social and legal structures that can support fairness and justice, and perhaps most importantly, guiding visions for the future. Taken together, these represent a poverty of culture, and this is the kind of poverty that cultural innovators are working to eliminate in the new cultural spaces they are catalyzing.

Innovators of cultural prosperity aren’t development gurus or community professionals. Rather, they are amplified individuals—people often working in small groups empowered with technologies and connections to one another—that do the kinds of things large institutions simply can’t accomplish. In the process, they are re-writing the fundamental principles of what prosperity means and how to achieve it. And they are perhaps our best hope for discovering how to build prosperity that is in sync with our rapidly changing environment.