The year is 2010. The area was Silicon Valley. A motley crew of people, most of them young adults, casually dressed, from all over the world, don’t exactly “fit” at a restaurant in Atherton, a place “regularly ranked among the most expensive zip codes in the United States”1. Some are engineers, others are scientists, philosophers, designers, but all of them are entrepreneurs, bootstrapping different startups.
They can afford to live in the area mainly because an unused mansion was given to them cheaply by a venture capitalist to turn into a next generation incubator and accelerator for technology startups, an effort that eventually turned into what Blackbox.vc is today. I was one of them, the philosopher-in-residence at Blackbox and an entrepreneur running a startup called Patent Safari that helped you track IP that eventually morphed into a boutique patent firm. Blackbox mansion had become a bit of a social hub in the area and people from all over the world would visit to see what we were up to. One of them was this animated Associate Professor from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Dr. Gino Yu, who couldn’t stop passionately talking about “How do we use media, interactive media, biofeedback, and inter-subjective experiences to facilitate personal transformation and induce awakening?”
Seven years later, I had sold my share of Patent Safari. I had co-founded TheGlint, originally a live-work space aiming to redesign heroism that morphed into an “art collective and experimental lab for artists to explore and play with all modalities of art to create experiences that can transform and connect”2. I had gone to Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and Japan considering the possibility of becoming a monk. I had become certified as a sailor and served my mandatory service at the Greek military. I even went back to the Bay Area and worked as a full-time patent specialist for a while. But the pull of philosophy and practice strongly re-emerged and around 2015 led me to an old summer home in Greece, a monastery of one, where I had been writing, and meditating for two years, occasionally traveling to do the Philosophical Fight Club, while inviting others to live with me in an Academy Reborn.
Then one fateful mid-August day I get a message from Gino: “In Athens? I’m here tonight and evening day after tomorrow.”
We took a long stroll in the ancient ruins of my beloved Athens. We sat at Pnyx, the birthplace of democracy where the ancient Athenians assembled, debated and voted on issues, and talked about consciousness. The idea of a contemporary, urban monastery emerged from our conversations. As we walked back to the place Gino was staying just before we parted he said: “You should come to Hong Kong”. We shook hands.
A few months later, I am working at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. We end up traveling together to the Bay Area and New York, visiting places like the Transtech Conference at Sofia University, Mikey Siegel’s consciousness hacking house, the Assemblage, the Open Center, the Prime Produce cooperative, the Chogye International Zen Center of New York, while being generously hosted at places like the Art of Coexistence.
During those travels, Gino kept trying to make a point with two of his favorites keywords: intention & emergence. He kept asking: “Why do things around us happen the way they do?” he didn’t believe it was accidental. Like Castaneda’s Don Juan, traveling with him ends up being like a Journey to Ixtlan. For Gino, setting an intention is like asking a question to the universe. When you do, the universe responds. “Don’t listen to me, listen to this” he keeps repeating while pointing to the environment around us. When an intended trip from San Francisco to Palo Alto, which usually lasts about an hour, ends up lasting four wherein truly bizarre sequences of events occur, which include robberies happening around us, missing trains by seconds, conversations by strangers finishing our sentences and seemingly homeless people avoiding us thinking we are crazy, you start being inclined to listen.
Meanwhile, at each location, with each conversation, the idea of a contemporary, urban monastery develops. I even gave it a new name, calling it a polystery, mainly because in contrast to traditional monasteries that usually belong to a single tradition, a polystery would draw from many3 traditions, philosophies, arts and sciences to aid humanity in the universal quest for wisdom, meaning and purpose. Ironically, the “monastery of one” was now becoming a monastery of many. Moreover, the polystery, in virtue of its structure, signifies a reunification of the ancient philosophical academy and the monastery that succeeded it, the latter historically documented to be inspired by the former4, but now re-integrated and re-imagined with an entrepreneurial twist after the influence of six and a half years as an entrepreneur in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley etched into my soul the transformative power of entrepreneurship.
But where should such a space be built?
My experience at TheGlint had shown me that when it comes to community spaces, there are usually two typical approaches you can take, each with its own set of risks. You can follow the Field of Dreams approach of “if you build it they will come”5 which runs the risk of too few people supporting the space for enough of a period of time that at some point there simply aren’t enough human or financial resources to keep running it. This approach can sometimes work especially if there is a competent team with a compelling vision and enough resources to support the project till the community is strong enough to sustain itself and its infrastructure.
The other approach is to grow the community before burdening yourself with the costs of running, building, buying or renting a space, till the community becomes robust enough that getting a space is not only natural but easy given the accumulated will, intention and resources, like what happened with Summit Series, that started of as a conference and ended up purchasing an entire mountain in Utah for a reported $40 million6. The risks there may be fewer in number, but they exist. Without your own space, you may not have the ability to meet whenever you like, or change the space in whatever way is suitable for the activities you want to perform, let alone being responsible for the vibe or energy of a space by being in control of what happens in it is often overlooked, but is rather important.
At Shanghai, where Gino and I spoke at a conference on Consciousness, Science, Technology and Society (CSTS), a small group of speakers started, after the conference ended, discussing the possibility of a follow up conference on consciousness, with the “Edge of Consciousness” being suggested as a title. I was open to the idea, though doing yet another conference wasn’t particularly interesting to me. The question that was burning in my mind was still: “Where should I start the Polystery?”
But then it hit me. The Polystery had “untested hypotheses about its business model (who are the customers, what features they want, what channel to use, revenue strategy/pricing tactics, how to get/keep/grow customers, strategic activities needed to deliver the products or services, internal resources needed, partners needed and costs)”7. Memories of that breakfast with Steve Blank at Blackbox and the resulting conversations about the importance of customer development started resurfacing:
Customer development starts with the key idea that there are no facts inside your building so get outside to test them. The hypotheses testing emulates the scientific method – pose a business model hypothesis, design an experiment, get out of the building and test it. Take the data and derive some insight to either 1) Validate the hypothesis, 2) Invalidate the Hypothesis or 3) Modify the hypothesis.
What I needed to do was not arbitrarily choose a location for the Polystery, but go out there and start testing with something that would serve as a customer development vehicle for it. Instead of just doing another conference, we’ll travel the world and temporarily create conditions that instantiate aspects of the Polystery and see what partners, venues, customers, emerge in that location.
We are going to ask a question to the universe, invite others to play with intention and emergence with us, and do customer development for the polystery while listening to how the world responds.
While discussing this with Luisa Zhou who had helped in organizing CSTS and was going to help organize the “Edge of Consciousness”, the name hit me: Evolving Caravan.
The Evolving Caravan facilitates the evolution of the places and people it carries and visits while evolving through the interactions with them. It creates community before spending money on expensive real estate, eventually having the community demand infrastructure rather than infrastructure demanding a community. Infrastructure demanding a community has it backwards. It’s like a product demanding a customer or a house demanding a tenant. This idea puts community first.
The words of my friend, entrepreneur and investor Oussama Ammar of TheFamily, reverberated in my head: “Scalability is a matter of supply not demand.” The Evolving Caravan, while on tour, aggregates the supply around the evolution of individual and collective consciousness, it starts like a snowball but turns into an avalanche, and distributes it along nodes, some of which could be polysteries, of a Silk Road of human evolution. In fact, it can eventually direct that supply, making the trade route as it travels. And where the route goes, trade will follow. Where people go, business follows, and not the other way around. If you can get 70,000 people to a desert (Burning Man), you can do business in a desert. The problem is not the desert but getting 70,000 to it. Once they are there, business, which is the provision of value via products and services, spontaneously emerges. That’s crucial for creating thriving nodes of culture that contribute to human evolution.
Dear friends and readers, there is a global shift of consciousness in the horizon. Enlightenment is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Help the Evolving Caravan distribute it to polysteries around the world. Join us, as a participant, speaker or a node, and support our mission.
- Wikipedia article on Atherton.
- From TheGlint’s current homepage.
- Poly in Greek means “many”.
- See Pierre Hadot’s works, especially What is Ancient Philosophy? for scholarship supporting that statement.
- The original quote from the movie is slightly different, read this for more context.
- See their Wikipedia entry
- From the Wikipedia entry on Customer Development.