Community as Lens

When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail… until you get a paintbrush.

Every so often you get the gift of being able to see the world through a new lens. In my adult life, there are several distinct times when I was acutely aware of picking up a new tool, shifting to a new lens.

Engineering: The object lens

The first was when I was an undergraduate studying engineering. Every problem started to look like a puzzle of inter-related problems that could be addressed by a method of critical thinking. Every solution was rooted in the physical world with a set of “rules” that are embedded in the way that the objects behave and interact with each other. At a micro level, understanding was straight forward, at a macro level, beautifully complex. I came away from that experience with project management and systemic problem solving as my hammer - a model for breaking down a complex problem into its component parts. It is a way to explore if observed outcomes are always that way or only under the specific circumstances set up in this instance.

Business: The societal system lens

The next significant tool I picked up was during business school. During this time, I saw everything through the societal constructs that people have erected to attempt to support and stabilize the world. I came to appreciate the role of economic drivers on societal behavior. The impact of business motives. And, the control provided by governments and policies. I began to think of problems in terms of resource accessibility and control. If there was a problem to be solved, it might be addressed or caused by factors devised by a human-created system that could sometimes be influenced or swayed by those who could adjust the rules to achieve goals that suited them. Through this lens, the goal is to understand the players and their motivations, assess their levels of control, and then navigate these conditions to craft solutions to meet your own needs.

World: The community lens

And then several years ago I started thinking about the impact that individual action can have, particularly when that action is aggregated with those of others. This impact might be in addressing challenges, providing individual and personal support, or eliciting joy through celebration. Communities play an important role in aggregating these individual actions to achieve collective goals, and then reinforcing individuals’ commitment to participate through “a mutual concern for one another’s welfare”, as so aptly stated by Charles Vogl. Through this lens anything can be done if a community can be built to support individual actions and reinforce commitment. Building an authentic community with this level of intentionality is non trivial, but can feel like magic when it happens.

I have been thinking a lot about this lens of community - so much so, that I have decided to focus my writing this month on this topic. At the moment, there are so many examples available that challenge my understanding of what community means and how it is and can be used. I have started to do some informal workshops in the communities that I participate in to deepen my understanding of what it means to be intentional in creating and supporting community, and what the community can achieve when nurtured. If you are interested in what I’ve published so far on the topic, I suggest my blog post, Connectedness in Virtual-land and this month’s OmicsXchange podcast where I’m interviewed about what it means to build and support the intentional community of the Global Alliance for Global Health (GA4GH).


You might describe these three lenses as the Object Lens, Societal System Lens, and Community Lens. And for me, looking at challenges through each of these lenses and then comparing the insights that I gain provides the most effective ways forward.

What lenses do you use to make sense of what you see and experience?