“Community is probably one of the most overused and misused words alongside innovation,” says Catherine Bischoff, Chief Relationship Officer at Factory Berlin. But as she explores over the course of the Community Driven Futures panel discussion, it’s not just a glut of buzzwords and business jargon that makes “community” a tricky word to define. Traditional notions of community have faced fresh challenges in recent years – none so acute as the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re in an increasingly stressful and digitally driven world with a blurring of private and professional realms,” Bischoff explains. “There’s been a reassessment of our value sets, especially over the last fourteen months when we’ve had to readjust in our whole way of being.” When physical meeting spaces are replaced by remote, and in-person interactions are drastically limited, the desire for a sense of community only intensifies. As companies and creators look ahead to collaboration in post-pandemic life, it’s all the more important to unpack this slippery catch-all term and explore what constitutes and sustains community.
For Maximilian Waldmann, founder of a Stealth Venture in the healthcare space and a business angel in digital health, communities can’t operate within a rigid system. “We believe that there needs to be a common set of values and beliefs,” he tells the panel. “This sparks a fire within a community to do something, and everything that happens after that is a bit like an avalanche in a positive way. It creates a mass of movement and a mass of power.” In Waldmann’s specific field, that belief is in an integrated holistic healthcare model with a digital angle. But this understanding of community is a popular one. Entrepreneur and founder of the Holistic Foundation Janina Lin Otto also likens this shared set of beliefs to a “spark”, one which draws people together and motivates action.
“There needs to be a common set of values and beliefs.”
Discover for yourself what the Factory Berlin community is all about.
Rhea Ramjohn, co-founder of Black Brown Berlin, agrees that communities thrive best when organised around the values you’d like to support. “In representing the black and brown community of Berlin, I would say that it’s not just about skin colour or phenotype or place of origin but rather it is about a common set of values and beliefs,” she says. As someone whose work focuses on BPoC empowerment, anti-discrimination action and the amplification of marginalised narratives, Ramjohn’s community consists of people who believe in creating and identifying safer spaces. As she explains: “Once a place is safer for the most marginalised peoples… it’s a safer space for everyone.”
“The roots of the concept of community are always based in those who are looking for one another.”
Mixing it up
As much as common values unite a community, there’s also strength in diversity of perspectives. This is something that Thomas Bachem is working hard to harness. As founder and chancellor of CODE, a state-accredited university of applied sciences that is embedded into the vibrant network of Berlin’s digital economy, Bachem encourages cross-cultural collaboration among young people across the world. “One of the most important parts [of our community] is for them to inspire each other. I always develop best based on what I see others doing,” he says, referring to CODE’s peer-to-peer learning and interdisciplinary approaches. “It’s about bringing different people and different skills together.”
Embracing the unfamiliar is essential to progression in Bachem’s eyes. “We’re thinking a lot about the role sub-communities play within our bigger university,” he explains. “When is it good to align people based on their specific interests and niches, and when do we as a university have a responsibility to nudge them out of their comfort zones and develop?” As Bischoff remarks, it’s a compelling question for Factory Berlin, whose 4000 odd members often self-organise into smaller groups and circles.
Online or in-person
It’s no secret that the greatest challenge to communities over the past year has been the loss of physical spaces. “Our community is not here for the buildings, our community is here for the network,” Bischoff says of Factory Berlin. “But while there are communities that flourish online, we are of the belief that physical spaces add a certain layer of trust, collaboration and inspiration – you see things, you get inspired by colours, you get inspired by the people you meet, you smell things.” Bachem agrees, highlighting the importance of everyday interactions like having lunch together: “It’s seeing that your co-community members are also humans and have many different facets.”
“Our community is not here for the buildings, our community is here for the network.”
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Looking ahead, a key challenge for communities is how to strike a balance between the digital and the physical. This is a question that Black Brown Berlin were forced to address long before the pandemic began. “We as the black and brown community always feel the effects of the toughest situations in the world first; all marginalised people feel those effects first,” Ramjohn explains. “That’s why we’ve had tools in place from the beginning that really help to serve our community.”
Available online through blackbrownberlin.com is a directory and interactive business map, which identifies black and brown-owned businesses in the city. It enables customers to show solidarity and financial support to those family-owned and independent businesses hit the hardest by the pandemic, and also provides products and services specific to BPoC folk. “Yes, community is a very overused word, but I’d say the roots of the concept of community are always based in those who are looking for one another, and there’s a reason that they’re looking,” Ramjohn continues. “For us, we were looking for one another and the products and the services that we need.” For Black Brown Berlin, bridging the gap between physical and digital “didn’t come out of a business sense but [out of] a sense of need and this concept of serving one another.”
Waldmann is also positive about a hybrid model as life re-opens after lockdown. “From a virtual/physical split perspective, there was one positive thing that Covid brought along, which was the surge of telemedical services,” he says. “Often, hybrid brings something which neither the pure virtual nor the pure physical has. It’s this ideal blend, this cocktail which is tasty because it’s a well-rounded model. In terms of healthcare, it’s an enhanced quality of care.” Lin Otto agrees. “It’s good to have a mix,” she says. “And you can’t say it should be 50/50 or 60/40 or whatever. If you have a framework, you can be flexible.”
Despite the unprecedented tests faced by communities over the past year – be they social communities, political or professional – the speakers are positive about what’s to come. As Waldmann concludes: “This combination is a whole new level, and it’s something we hadn’t experienced previously. I think this will light all of our lives going forward.”
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