When did you last invite a neighbour over tea or plan a neighbourhood gathering?
When was the last time you stopped to chat with your dhobi (laundress), sabziwaala (vegetable vendor) or road-cleaner?
Sometimes, these small gestures have the biggest impact in creating communities out of neighbourhoods.
About two years ago, my family and I moved into Bengaluru’s oldest neighbourhood, which was once vibrant. Around the same time, a group of housewives and pensioners came together to tackle the garbage problem in the area. They broke out of the humdrum and started to think beyond their own backyard.
Soon after, it was no longer the quiet, boring neighbourhood. Kids and teenagers joined the drive in teaching households about composting kitchen waste. Slowly, the campaign also began talking about the virtues of car-pooling and public transportation. The neighbourhood became alive and more welcoming to its fellow people like the road-cleaners, waste pickers and auto-drivers. It was transformed into an ever-buzzing, welcoming society of happy neighbours.
Finding all this hard to believe? Wait, there is more…
In another pocket of the city, a group of concerned citizens met to ponder over a question: how do we get people interested and engaged in thinking about the future? The question was posed by a 75-year-old gentleman, who had volunteered in a ‘segregation drive’. He had undertaken the hard task of convincing people in his neighbourhood to change the way in which they disposed of garbage. Through his efforts, several households began segregating their waste and started donating dry waste to the local recycling centre.
I was part of a coffee-table discussion on the nonchalant attitude that urban dwellers take towards the issue of wastage of food articles. Think about the fact that the farmer goes through many struggles to produce the food which we take for granted. While we enjoy our ‘fine-dining’ experiences and are privy to hospitality, the farmer sees very little either of the money we spend or the extra services that we receive. This is a discomforting thought, especially when one thinks of the risks in the business of agriculture.
From these discussions and thought-provoking tales, it seemed like everything was coming to a head. Communities are on the precipice of engaging and staying connected – in ever new ways! Today, communities are culturally heterogeneous. They are ‘melting pots’ that bond over similarities that extend beyond traditional structures like religion, creed or race. It is evident that the communities of the future will be very different from the ones in which forefathers were raised.
At this juncture, our next move will therefore determine whether we will live in connected societies or fragmented ones – in ‘inclusive communities’ or in ‘disconnected silos of privilege’.
Enter the University of Commons (UoC)! We are a community of citizens, young people, social entrepreneurs, and engineers connected to each other and committed to achieving scalable, sustainable, social change.
The UoC envisages engaged citizens and volunteers as community entrepreneurs. Armed with this new identity, they can re-imagine society and create a road map to achieve the change they wish to achieve.
Whether it’s a ‘waste segregation campaign’, a ‘lake rejuvenation drive’ or a ‘Walkathon’ for women safety and awareness, no change is possible without the active involvement of citizens and volunteers who care!
The other demographic that is key to our goal are the young people (preferably aged 30 or below), who make up a majority of India’s population. In order to involve them, UoC opens its doors to partnering with colleges across the country. This endeavour takes learning beyond classrooms, by engaging them in unique ‘service-cum-experiential’ learning initiatives.
For instance, if one wants to learn more about the techniques of sales and marketing, he/she can learn it by working with a waste-picker to set up business or by asking a neighbourhood to employ the waste-picker. If one wants to get their hands ‘dirty’ with the production process, they can do so by reconfiguring the ‘farm-to-fork’ supply chain and market system to ensure that the farmers get their fair share of the profits.
UoC is also developing service-learning volunteer programs, internships and fellowships with our partner organisations in the fields of agriculture, waste, community engagement, creative manufacturing, education, skilling initiatives, among many others.
Social entrepreneurship is at the core of UoC’s vision. Adopting an entrepreneur’s mindset will power the change in society. This journey will entail bringing social enterprises to life and nurturing them in the areas of business processes, operational support, product-to-launch guidance, business-building, and mentorship.
Our final target is the engineers. After all, they are the ones who methodically approach problems faced by businesses, societies – and come up with meaningful solutions to resolve them. In fact, UoC is powered by the principles of a community-driven technology which has been assembled and erected by a team of 70 passionate engineers.
At present, it has taken the form of a cloud-based mobile application that bridges stakeholders across the board.
The University has various departments, each of which will be supported by expert mentors and program leaders, who will facilitate learning experiences.
The Department of Stories is a product of the belief in the power of storytelling. It aims at inspiring and guiding aspiring children to be creative and become the storytellers of our future.
On the other hand, the Department of Journeys is all about allowing the student to embark on a journey of self-realisation. It also aims to allow the students to engage with society, so that he/she can work for its improvement. The university has partnered with social enterprises and field-work organisations for this purpose.
The Department of Entrepreneurship focuses on the grooming of potential social visionaries and social enterprises mainly through mentorship and tech-support.
Lastly, the Department of Engineering is geared towards building the ‘right technology’, which will serve as the building blocks for ‘social solutions’.
All departments have a common aim – to ensure sustainable and scalable social change!
The University of Commons is formally launching its flagship resource centre in Bangalore, at the Communities of the Future Summit and Ideathon, 2017. Learn more about the event here. The event hopes to bring together people from all walks of life to share ideas, prototypes, and designs on how we can make societies more inclusive and sustainable.
PS: This sounds exciting and we have our work cut out for us. Consider this an open invitation for all of you to join UoC on this journey. Watch out for announcements about admissions, volunteer calls, intern requirements, and full-time fellowships.