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Communities In Space: How Re-Framing Our Spaces Can Reshape Our Future

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On September 16th, Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan was much like most public spaces in the city. Lined with trees, granite sidewalks, and a handful of benches, its only real distinguishing factor was Mark di Suvero's 70 foot tall Joie de Vivre sculpture.

Five weeks later, that public space is now the epicenter of Occupy Wall Street, and it's hard to imagine that it was ever just a quiet piece of city space.

Envisioning an indistinguishable piece of land as a center for revolution was instrumental in catalyzing the movement. As Devin Balkind of the free/libre/opensource working group plainly points out, "Without the space, there'd be no occupation."

Regardless of your feelings towards the Wall Street occupation, it stands as a model for how much value and potential can be unlocked from reframing a particular space. This is important because even in our economy's lowest points, two truly scarce resources still exist: time and space. Our ability to create economic and social value depends on our ability to re-imagine what our existing spaces can be.

That is precisely what Reverend Robert Jackson was able to do. As CEO of the Brooklyn Rescue Mission, Reverend Jackson is responsible for developing creative solutions to food justice, community health and the economic challenges his community endures on a daily basis.

Perhaps his most valuable contribution came from a vision he had for a neighborhood dumping ground behind his mission. In 2005, he broke ground on that land and developed it into an urban farm that has now served hundreds of members in his under-served community with fresh produce. Over time, the farm developed into a nutritional education center as well as a classroom for neighborhood youth to learn about food growing and community service. After partnering with McArthur Genius Grant Recipient Will Allen, Reverend Jackson has new plans to unlock the full economic potential of what was once a wasteland.

Now, it's hard to find a neighborhood in Brooklyn without some form of a community garden, but in 2005, Reverend Jackson was treading in uncharted waters with only a vision of what could be for a space that wasn't.

These lessons of community building and unlocking value through space don't just apply to nonprofits and social movements. They have also taken hold in the technology field. The Collaborative Fund is a new venture capital firm that sees the value in repurposing our existing spaces through collaborative consumption. One of their portfolio companies, Airbnb, connects people who have space to spare with those who are looking for a space to stay.

The site empowers people to see their empty rooms and vacant houses as a unit of economic value. According to the Collaborative Fund, the average New Yorker makes $21,000 a year renting their space on Airbnb. The Collaborative Fund calls this underutilized value "idling capacity," and they invest specifically in technology companies that help us mobilize our different idling capacities.

Of course, re-imagining something as something else is no easy feat. In fact, it gets harder and harder with age. In his address to the Royal Society of the Arts, Sir Ken Robinson makes this very point. He calls the ability to see multiple possibilities and solutions "divergent thinking."

One of the most common tests in divergent thinking is asking a person to come up with as many uses as they can for a paper clip. This test was delivered longitudinally to 1,500 people in the book Breakpoint And Beyond. First administered to kindergarteners, 98 percent of the test takers achieved a level of genius in divergent thinking. However, as those same students aged, their scores consistently went lower and lower.

It appears that as we get older, our penchant for possibility decreases, and we start to see that empty room as just an empty room, that abandoned lot as just an abandoned lot, and that public park as just a public park.

It's therefore essential that we keep our minds fresh and train ourselves to be open to all the possibilities of the space around us. On November 15, myself, Reverend Jackson and a panel of other distinguished community leaders will be hosting a class on precisely this topic. If you know of a space near you, whether its an abandoned lot, a kitchen table, or a good bar, and you want to develop a plan of action around it, you can purchase tickets to this class here.

Our ability to create our desired future depends upon our ability to reimagine what we already have in the present. That ability can liberate us from economic injustice and free us to pursue our greatest passions.

Space is the best place for us to start. As Balkind made clear, "First we take back our space, then we take back our time."

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