connectionspedia: a vision of rapid transformation

Connectionspedia: A Vision of Rapid Transformation

By Alice A. Holstein, Ed.D. February, 2018

*This idea was originally proposed in an essay titled, “Modelpedia, A Vision of Transformation,” published on the internet by the Social Innovation Forum under my married name, Alice Holstein Mack. This version is a considerable expansion and rewrite.

The world is full of models that suggest new ways to live on the planet. Why reinvent the wheel when others have created what can be copied or adapted? A Wikipedia type collection of “models, which if used widely, could help rapidly transform the earth. The Wikipedia concept would mean that a large staff and extensive financial resources would not be required.

Updating the original essay required a name change, from “Modelpedia “to “Connectionspedia” when I discovered that a present-day internet “modelpedia” entry described a data bank for securing the kind of models who walk down runways wearing gorgeous clothes or models for magazines and other media. The  new name, Connectionspedia, connotes that everything about healing the world is about the “connections” that can make us whole. The models that I envision as being such potent transforming agents, are those that are representative of a system or type of business or non-profit operation, or a process that yields innovative results or a physical model that illustrates a pattern that can be replicated. The design of a simple water pump in a small town in the developing world, for example, transformed a village where girls were prohibited from going to school because they had to spend the day carrying water. That limitation was lifted when a simple water pump was designed and implemented so that the girls could attend school. Both the pump and the effect it had on the lives of the villagers constitute a model project that had immense transformative power. Educated girls become people in their own right; they have fewer children and they frequently become income earners. How many villages exist where water pumps could similarly produce such a profound effect? If there were a data base available to request information on water pumps or water carrying or water usage, then a number of other villages could learn about this innovation and apply similar strategies.

Another example of a successful model is the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco which for years has been a non-profit organization that works with prison rehabilitation and employment opportunities. Delancey has successfully graduated thousands from America’s underclass who have become taxpaying citizens leading productive lives. They have provided pathways out of poverty, crime and violence by teaching people at least three marketable skills in their training schools, such as a well-reviewed restaurant and a highly rated moving company. The entire organization is run by the residents themselves in six centers throughout the country. Why don’t we have more such foundations? Delancey has created the model over more than 40 years of experience. Copying or adapting it could turn around the lives of thousands more who have who have hit the bottom of substance abuse, poverty and either misdemeanor or felony crimes.

The impetus to collect information on models in my files dates back years. The concept seemed so simple. Why not copy or adapt something that was already successful? Given the difficulties associated with entrepreneurial start-up and technology innovation, why not shorten the time required to create something from scratch by using what already exists? Much of our capitalistic progress has in fact been enhanced by the spread of successful models, many of which are protected by patent and copyright laws which nonetheless stimulate mimicked products. Being able to launch a data base of models, however, never seemed practical until I quite by accident came across a New York Times article on June 17, 2006, about how Wikipedia works. Wikipedia is the name of a foundation that “aims to share the sum of all knowledge with every person in the world.” It is the largest collection of free, collaborative knowledge in human history and is viewed more than 15 billion times per month.

Beyond its immense size and its ambitious mission lies the uniqueness of how it operates. When I read that 2006 article it described a relatively small paid staff and a larger corps of some 1000 editors who oversaw the self-editing nature of Wikipedia entries that originated from thousands of people. Thus, only a small staff was required at that point in time to manage data from folks all over the world. They could add, change and update not only their own entries but those from others.

A Connectionspedia, likewise, need not have a huge staff nor a lot of money to function. Individuals or corporations or non-profits who have developed models could enter their descriptions and change them as they evolved, similar to updating websites today. They would benefit from having others help edit their entries as Wikipedia does. The model focus or label distinguishes this type of project from a Google or other search engine choice. People who are looking for a model of something are unlikely to think to do a Google search even though putting in just the right terms might yield some helpful results. Since they had not been labeled as models to begin with, however, they would not pop up as possibilities to copy. If the entry term were associated with a “models” data base, however, someone who was looking for “models about criminal justice reform,” which could be a heading in an index for the data base, would come up with the Delancey Street Foundation project. Other possibilities might include approaches such as drug courts, halfway houses and successful early release programs. All of these programs and projects, however, could be entered in the data base, which means that the existence of a “Connectionspedia” would have to be hugely publicized so that various entities, processes or programs would want to be included.

Today’s Wikipedia has grown considerably beyond its original capacity. As of 2015 there were roughly 280 staff supporting the work of thousands of volunteers who contribute content. Their annual revenues are in excess of 75 million dollars, but the average donation is $15 USD which comes from folks all over the world. (Wikipedia, 2015) But still, anyone can edit entries at any time. This self-editing feature as well as the start-up operational requirements of a Connectionspedia make a data base of models practical. Given the tools of modern technology, social media and other global attention, it seems that starting such a project would not be hard. Word about its existence could be spread rapidly. The model for Connectionspedia, the Wikipedia “dictionary,” has already been developed.

There is another “pedia” that attempts to do things similar to what I am suggesting. It is called “Appropedia,” which is a wiki website for collaborative solutions in sustainability, poverty reduction and international development with a particular focus on appropriate technology. But this approach leaves out the vast number of social inventions as well as some small scale process models like the spirituality center in La Crosse Wisconsin which knows how to put together model conferences without even knowing they possess such uniqueness. Another example is that just down the road from La Crosse is the small town of Viroqua which has, over the last quarter century, become somewhat of a model small town. A Waldorf school there became the magnet to attract progressives in search of small town quality life. Now their main street bustles with entrepreneurial shops; a thriving co-op provides quality food, and the nearby nationwide business, Organic Valley Farms, is a model agri-business, becoming America’s largest cooperative of organic farmers. Their mission is to save family farms, and they are doing so with some 2,000 farmers representing 12 percent of the organic farmers in the United States. This combination of assets is one of the reasons why the annual national organic farming conference attracts some 3,000 people annually to nearby La Crosse Wisconsin from all over the country. Viroqua does not bill itself as a model town, but it could very well do that and become a training center for “recipes” on how to rebuild small-town America. Such an entry, however, would never show up in Wikipedia, Appropedia or identified as a model in an ordinary Google search.

Organic Valley could also become an international model for other farmer cooperatives that want to ensure a fair pay price to farmers. In a world of divisiveness, greed and large farming operations that take the small farmer out of the market as well as create problems such as water contamination problems, Organic Valley has proven that cooperation is the key to success. Their democratic business model, not beholden to shareholders or outside investors, can prioritize paying farmers a stable price each month as well as providing other valuable shared services. What they have created bears much promise for other types of cooperatives and for the developing world. (See Organic Valley website.) As a company, they may choose which enterprise they will allow to use them as a model, but at least the choice by corporate decision would exist.

There are other examples of models that could help transform the world. From my older files comes the Seawater forests Initiative that uses seawater, photosynthesis and human intelligence to green coastal deserts, generate wealth and provide planetary ecological balance. There is also a model township in Auroville, India, that aims to be a universal town where diversity can realize human unity. A strictly for-profit example of a model is London’s St. Lukes ad agency, spun off from a major advertising conglomerate to become a model employee-owned business. Unlike traditional ad agencies, St. Luke’s helps organizations develop their “total role in society.” The company is owned by its managers. They are just one example of enlightened, conscious companies that need to be celebrated and duplicated to correct the corrosive income inequality of our society. There are also eco-villages, projects that utilize solar cells, peace programs for schools and whole bodies of knowledge such as conflict resolution strategies and expertise.

Habitat for Humanity is a well-known construction model that features building affordable housing with the help of volunteers as well as the sweat equity of the potential owners. Why don’t we encourage extensive efforts to use this model as a solution to the need for quality, low-cost housing for people who cannot normally afford such homes? Why don’t we build “tiny houses” in massive numbers for people who can live with limited space? Or even double the size of them to provide low-cost housing for a small family? A Seattle project combines the tiny house concept with homeowners who are willing to welcome homeless people to their back yards.

Another example of a successful cooperative is ACE Hardware. In the early 1970s, with 133 stores supplied by a headquarters operation, it was sold to its retailers and restructured to a cooperative. Independent retailers became the exclusive shareholders in the company. Its financial success has been outstanding. Our local La Crosse, south end store has a reputation for extraordinarily friendly, helpful employees. A much larger model of a successful cooperative is the Mondragon Corporation in Spain. Its member cooperatives, employing nearly 75,000 people in 257 companies are united by a humanist concept of business, a philosophy of participation and solidarity and a shared business culture. The companies share a mission, a number of principles, corporate values and business policies. At the end of 2014 those entities operated in four areas of activity: finance, industry, retail and knowledge. Despite its experience with some bankruptcies, Mondragon is the tenth largest Spanish company in terms of asset turnover and the leading business group in the Basque Country. (See Mondgragon Cooperative Wikipedia site.)

Other examples of financial models that assist developing countries are the microcredit programs that extend very small loans to impoverished borrowers who typically lack collateral, steady employment and a verifiable credit history. The concept originated with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983. Many traditional banks subsequently introduced microcredit programs that are now widely used in developing countries. Their presence receives mixed reviews, with some suggesting that they are an enormous potential for alleviating poverty while others suggest they are a privatization of welfare and do not alleviate poverty. Study of these programs, however, found that the number of new businesses increased by one third as compared to a control group. This model, while geared to the very poor, might be adapted to small-scale businesses in the developed world as well. Small business potential owners typically lack collateral and credit but could be helped by low interest loans, and be perhaps also supported by a cooperative model of support services, such as pooled healthcare programs, marketing help, accounting programs and Human Resource services. In addition, the incubator model, where start-ups share a common space and shared services, could be replicated widely. The number of small business failures is huge, but how many of these are the result of under-financing and lack of professional expertise? The list of business models could go on and on, from the large to the small, from the technological to the social.

A little known but important model of an important organization PROCESS is the one behind the creation of “The Natural Step” program that originated in Sweden in 1989 by Dr. Karl-Henrick Robert, a cancer clinician and scientist who was struck by the resources and compassion mobilized by families, care providers and society in response to the sickness of children in his cancer clinic. That response was swift, coordinated and comprehensive, which stood in stark contrast to the confusion between business, the environmental movement and government over our rapidly sickening planet. Dr. Robert realized that the heart of the problem was that so much of the environmental debate was focused on downstream issues and little on systemic causes of problems. How could a systemic, holistic approach be attempted in a way that is rigorous, comprehensive and concrete?

After watching so many scientists argue ad infinitum over these conditions and approaches, Dr. Robert conducted a novel process to break through the endless arguments and unproductive talk that led nowhere. He then sent out a list of system conditions to more than 50 Swedish scientists. (This is what is known as a Delphi process where opinions are collected from a group and then organized into a consensus document. Participants do not have to be face-to-face.) When he sent out the system conditions, he asked the scientists to tell him where the errors were. Being scientists, they willingly complied. Robert then synthesized these into a document and sent it out again. He went through 22 iterations of this participation process before he ended up with a consensus document. The system conditions are organized into four principles, including eliminating our contribution to systemic increases 1) in concentrations of substances from the Earth’s crust, 2) in concentrations of substances produced by society, 3) to systematic physical degradation of nature through overharvesting, introductions and other forms of modification, and 4) contribute as much as we can to meeting of human needs in our society and worldwide, over and above all the substitution and dematerialization measures taken in meeting the first three objectives. The principles are phrased in the negative, leaving the positives to be developed by an organization instead of stating the principles which specify what must NOT be done if society is to be sustainable.

The consensus document that Robert produced after 22 rounds of input was supported by the King of Sweden and was sent to every household and school in the country. It thus became a national program, implemented by major Swedish companies plus 60 municipalities that created a network of eco-municipalities. The Natural Step has since become an international effort to adapt these system conditions to various organizations and countries. Recognizing the unique challenges faced by government in each local setting, The Natural Step organization decided to license the framework to local not-for profit partners. The international organization acts as a steward of the framework, leading its further development and application while regional licensees work in active projects with local business, government and institutions. Natural Step organizations have been established in the UK, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Israel, Italy and France. (See “The Natural Step” website.)

There are several different types of models within the Natural Step success story. One is the repetition of the principles that was derived by consensus and are now applied widely by others; another is the decision to license the framework to local-not-for profit partners. What would happen if adoption of this framework were given to licensees throughout the developed and undeveloped world? What if the process of consensus-building itself was repeated in the U.S. in a wholesale way that would help end the fights about climate change? The unheralded model beneath all this is the Delphi process that Dr. Robert used originally used to develop his consensus. Imagine what might happen if this approach was applied to healthcare redesign to produce a healthcare system that would deliver cost-effective quality care? What if this would eliminate or at least decrease the endless opposition politics and lobbyist -influenced process that governs our present lawmaking process?

Another example of a spiritually-based small group ministry model might be helpful to churches concerned about their decline in attendance. The U.S. is rapidly becoming a society where nearly one-fourth of the population declares themselves as “spiritual not religious.” There is a new spirit afoot in the country that is disinterested in “normal” institutional religion. A Unitarian-Universalist based small group ministry program has been established in Carrboro, North Carolina to serve this population. Their model community, described at, features small groups of intimacy which form a support network for living well. There are monthly small group sessions, then the larger community of small groups that also gather monthly to share potluck, a ritual of togetherness and sharing of fellowship. They discuss what is going on in their community and the wider world, their ongoing work and upcoming events. They also do a monthly impactful social-justice type project that contributes to the community and gives participants the satisfaction of contributing to the larger good while they build their own sense of community. The Carrboro model builds deliberate communities that practice interdependence and solidarity, thus satisfying people’s needs for belonging, support and personal-group growth. They have developed an extensive curriculum of how to implement such a program and their ideas are being copied elsewhere.

Another promising model is one that also deals with the prison population. Catherine Hoke is Founder and CEO of Defy Ventures which addresses the social problems of mass incarceration, recidivism and America’s Father Absence Crisis by providing entrepreneurship, employment and character training programs to individuals with criminal histories. Her non-profit is based upon her work in several Texas prisons where she established a successful “Prison Entrepreneurship Program.” It grew into a statewide organization that graduated 600 students, helped launch 60 start-ups, achieved an employment rate of 98% and resulted in a recidivism rate of less than 5%.

Hoke left the program in 2010 with the intent to build a replicable model that would impact every urban community in America. Her “Entrepreneurs-in-Training” takes advantage of prisoners “hustle” capabilities by offering them intensive leadership development, Shark-Tank style business plan competitions, executive mentoring, financial investment and startup incubation. This intensive approach, which utilizes volunteers from business, serves hub cities of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Omaha Nebraska. She has received numerous awards for her work. It unlocks the potential of many with criminal histories who would otherwise be “lost” to society and their families. (See Wikipedia entry for “Catherine Hoke.”)

Beyond these examples of successful models that hold so much promise, a Connectionspedia organization could collect many more modest models that might be identified in the hundreds of thousands if there were an international data base. Many of us could probably find many models close to home. In my hometown of La Crosse, WI, there are several noteworthy examples. One is called “Integrative Therapies” which features community acupuncture as a major business while providing space for other practitioners who provide spiritual direction or Tai Chi and other spiritual or bodywork services. (“Community acupuncture” means that people recline in chairs in a large room where the acupuncturist treats a number of people at a time.) Integrative Therapies minimizes expenses with volunteer administrative help and is thus able to provide very reasonable sliding-scale fees. Its purpose is not to make a profit, but rather, provide services to those who cannot otherwise afford such treatments.

La Crosse also has a model Master’s degree in Servant Leadership based on the premier work of organization and management expert, Robert Greenleaf. It is operated by Viterbo University and has the potential to become an international program if it was identified as a model and saw its mission as being that large. Another local model is the Health Science Consortium, a collaborative partnership between the University of Wisconsin -La Crosse, two major health systems in the region, the community college, the local Catholic-based university, the county health department and the school district of La Crosse. Their mission is to facilitate collaborative efforts to improve population health and strengthen the healthcare workforce.

Still another program has been partially modeled on one in Michigan. It provides up to $50,000 in educational scholarships to families willing to build new or renovate a home in two of the city’s deteriorating neighborhoods. Lots and homes are cheaper than in other city locations and there is a “lending consortium” that makes financing easier. This is one of about 25 such programs in the United States. La Crosse also has a Sister City relationship with seven cities around the world in Ireland, Russia, France, Norway, Germany, China and the Republic of Cameroon in West Africa. In addition one of the local healthcare systems has developed a medical model, an advanced-care directive process that brings international visitors to learn about how to apply it in their own institutions.

Who might effectively mobilize the resources and know-how to launch a Connectionspedia project that would help rapidly transform the world? Mark Zuckerburg comes to mind with his technical knowledge and his financial resources combined with his philanthropic bent. More likely, however, it will be a small group of unknowns plus some volunteers with the marketing vision and resources to issue a planetary plea for submissions to a database that utilizes open-source technology. Like Wikipedia, it would grow on its own from there. The idea could even explode with success. Complements to the written entries might be a “how to build or implement” section and videos of “how to do it directions”, much like those that already exist on the internet. You can find out how to do almost anything there these days, but you cannot yet find a comprehensive compilation of models that could help transform the world in record time. “Connectionspedia” is needed now!

C) Alice A. Holstein, 2018 You are invited to share this document with acknowledgement of the author.