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The limitations of community as a vehicle to solve problems together

“Life isn’t a problem to be solved, but a gift to be explored” — Roohi Radparvar.

Photo by Kaleidico

Michel and I are currently re-reading Peter Block’s foundational book “Community” and its second edition feels more applicable than ever. At the center of the book is a belief that a certain type of community can help create a new, better future. Community as a vehicle for true transformation.

Block differentiates between communities that exist to solve a problem and communities that exist to explore a new possibility together. The first time I read Block’s book, I didn’t appreciate the profound meaning of this distinction and here is how I’m making sense of it now.

Community to solve problems

I have experienced this many times. We get together and we ask ourselves: what’s wrong and how can we fix it? We believe that we together have a better chance at fixing it, and often that is true. This approach can be powerful. Block writes: “It values the ability to implement, is big on doing, has a certain honesty about it, and worships tangible results as the ultimate blessing”. (pg. 33) This is often the core motivation for communities started by philanthropic or non-profit organizations. Let’s fix an issue and let’s do it collectively.

There is nothing wrong with that approach. But what I have come to understand is that this approach sells the transformative potential of community short. Block writes: “It is not that this […] context is wrong; it just does not have the power to bring something new into the world”. (pg. 33)

The limitations of the problem solving mindset

Block lays out some underlying assumptions that center problems, especially prominent in Western culture: We believe that “an alternative or better future can be accomplished by more problem solving. We believe that defining, analyzing, and studying problems is the way to make a better world”. (pg. 33) That’s how engineering works, that’s how technology innovates, that’s how we are trained at school. If we see a challenge, we figure out a plan to solve it.

But Block points out that this approach “may actually limit any chance of the future being different from the past. The interest we have in problems is so intense that at some point we take our identity from those problems. Without them […] we would not know who we are as a community. Many of the strongest advocates for change would lose their sense of identity if the change they desired ever occurred”. (pg. 33)

From problems to possibilities

Problem-centered communities keep us stuck in the past. What allows us to move into a new future is to change the conversation. Block lays out some questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Are these problems symptoms of something deeper? What is it?
  • Could it be that the root problem is “breakdown of community”? How can we heal the deeper breakdown of community?
  • What becomes possible when we come together? What happens when we gather as a community of possibilities and not a community of problems?

How does this resonate with you?

Thanks for reading. What do you think about this distinction of a community to solve problems vs a community of possibility?

Thank you

Thank you Peter Block for his powerful work and book. And thank you to my collaborator Michel Bachmann for deepening my understanding around the possibility of community.

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in Amsterdam, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute, fabian@together-institute.org | together-institute.org

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