Think Schools, Think Email?

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I spent yesterday at Think Schools, an all-day gathering of people looking for constructive ways to solve a crisis facing the local school district: given that we need to seismically retrofit the existing school stock, can we do so intelligently, not destroying the vibrant community hubs that many of these old schools have become, but instead build upon them?

I was struck by the similarities and differences faced by this group and by the people I work with whether when discussing email or Mozilla.

The differences are easiest to describe: The people involved in Vancouver schools are naturally roughly co-located (although some of the issues go beyond the city boundaries, it’s still a local issue), while the people involved in the future of the internet are stunningly distributed.

On the flip side, at least the people involved in Mozilla, are self-selected and hence roughly aligned on broad themes, such as the Mozilla Manifesto. We’ll argue vociferously on some issues, no doubt — but there is still a stated common goal, and a lot of shared culture. In contrast, the people involved in the future of schools span an wide gamut, including community activists and parents, teachers, principals, custodians, school board staff and elected trustees, provincial ministerial staff and elected representatives, engineering firms, architects, geoscientists, and more. Needless to say, initial thoughts about “ideal outcomes” across these groups are often not even close to aligned.

The differences in vocabulary, perspectives, timelines, budgetary and organizational scales that these groups have to span, and the emotional issues that lie very close to the surface (such as child safety, trust, reputation, integrity), make diplomacy a real requirement for forward motion. Overlaid on this, the governmental regulation and budgetary scale for capital improvements bring in old-fashioned political skills. (On that note, it was nice to see some city councillors in the room like Peter Ladner and Raymond Louie, clearly learning about the issues affecting their city, even though the city has little influence on school construction issues. It was disheartening not to see anyone from the Ministry of Education, who has the most authority over the issue.)

Still, there are strong similarities between the “school renewal” and “email renewal” exercises. The leaders in both cases are deliberately working on a collaborative community building effort, out of necessity as much as ideology. In both cases, there is a constant healthy tension between trying to be thoughtful and inclusive, and needing to make real progress quickly. Also, I am routinely struck by the realization that behind the differences in names, personality types, job titles, backgrounds, or level of commitment, there are such things as Good Ideas, and once they are explained carefully and understood, these ephemeral things can bring very disparate groups in alignment.

In the case of the Think Schools event, it was hard to find people who didn’t appreciate the elegance of an old idea: that our schools shouldn’t be thought of (and budgeted for) as single purpose “teaching boxes”, but instead as multi-purpose community hubs, leveraging precious real estate to provide a variety of civic services (libraries, gyms, meeting spaces, cafeterias, playing fields), with an appropriate funding model. We had a presentation from someone involved in that setup in Seattle, which was inspirational.

The possible synergies from such a model are appealing no matter which perspective you take:

  • From an educational point of view, it creates an educational environment that is part of a broader civic landscape, integrating childhood and education into the broader community, and by bringing in more users into a facility, can provide funding for essential non-funded spaces, such as libraries, music & arts spaces, daycare, and more.
  • From an environmental and energy point of view, you can build and maintain buildings that are used by different populations at different times.
  • From a civic policy point of view, you build neighborhood anchors in a city with few alternative assets to host them.
  • From a public health point of view, you encourage walkable neighborhoods and community sports & health facilities, neighborhood libraries and community centers.
  • From a maintenance and policing point of view, you have buildings and grounds that are in use almost all the time, reducing vandalism and the like.

The largest obstacle before this vision is the as-yet invisible path to that outcome past jurisdictional and budgetary silos, and, so far, a lack of political will. Everyone is aware that it is a huge obstacle. Still, getting 130 motivated people in a room for a day was a great start.

When it comes to the future of email, I don’t feel like we as an industry have yet figured out what the desired outcome is — we’re still at an early stage of visioning, with a rich cacophony of ideas, each one striking an interesting note, but without harmony yet. To stretch the musical metaphor, I’m hoping that what we in Mozilla can do is to provide both a “standard” (in the Jazz standards sense), and a couple of places to jam, and see what happens. Yesterday got me wondering whether having a face-to-face meeting on “envisioning the future of email” would be a good idea, even though the logistical challenges of doing so with a global community are enormous. Something to ponder.

One thought on “Think Schools, Think Email?

  1. David, loved your reference to the community hub model. It seems to make sense even from a basic economy of scale p.o.v. If you can (either as part of Think Schools or otherwise) outline a clear, scoped model of how this hub would look (for small, medium-sized and large neighborhoods), it’ll make it easier to goad stakeholders into making specific commitments. I’m sure they do a lot of that over on the F’fox or Moz. Messaging teams :)

    Speaking of Moz. Messaging and “envisioning the future of email”, an open forum on the lines of IBM’s Jams might be a better idea (to begin with) than a face-to-face meeting, given that things are so amorphous at present. The M.M. team could identify broad ideas and needs, narrow the scope, and then consider an F2F.

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