Crowds, Communities, And The Power Of A Service Philosophy

This past Saturday, we ran a TEDx event in my home city of Christchurch, New Zealand, focused on the future of the city post-quake. Seventeen speakers, ranging from local urban planners to Art Agnos, the former Mayor of San Francisco during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, gathered before a sell-out crowd of 700 to share their visions for Christchurch, to explore the possibilities before us, and to inspire us to emerge from the disaster better, stronger, safer, and more beautiful than before.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, dozens of initiatives had sprung up around the city and around the world. The Student Volunteer Army mobilized thousands of people to shovel liquefaction out of people's front yards. Comfort for Christchurch baked muffins and distributed them door to door. And WiFi for Humanity set up a mobile hotspot in a car and went around the neediest neighborhoods, connecting them with services and the information they so desperately needed.

The community rose to take care of its own, and that community wasn't only local. In London, Step Up 4 Christchurch has been organizing events like a race up the steps of the Gherkin, to raise money for the recovery effort. In Denver, they held fundraising concerts.



And that community isn't only about Christchurch. It's about Japan, about Joplin,Mo., about Alabama. It is the global community that springs into action for those whose need is immediate, great, and inescapable. It is our shared humanity spontaneously expressing itself at its most generous and empathetic.

The purpose of our TEDx event was to serve in support of that community. There are hundreds of ideas and dozens of projects happening in our city; our aim was to provide a platform to coalesce people around the crowd-sourced wisdom and momentum that is emerging.

And, to my mind, this is the most powerful function any of us can serve, whether we are operating an event in a place hit by humanitarian crisis or whether we are building a Web company. Yesterday, I attended a presentation by a representative of Amazon Web Services. And, yes, the company recently had a technical issue, but that doesn't take away from the extraordinary ability it provides for companies to access exactly the service they need, at the time and volume and price that works for them. It is tools like AWS that drive down the cost of innovation and pave the way for a thousand shoots to grow -- one of which may be the next eBay or YouTube.

The word "platform" gets thrown around so blithely, but what makes platforms so extraordinary is that they provide the space for us to explore our own potential. What makes Facebook incredible is that it gives millions of developers the framework to grow their applications. What makes eBay incredible is that it empowers millions of buyers and sellers to create their own experience and be the architects of their own success. What makes Amazon Web Services incredible is that it facilitates innovation -- from the largest company down to the smallest, garage-based start-up.

I went to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and the motto of our school is, "Life is service, and the one who succeeds is the one who provides a little more, a little better service." I thought -- and still think -- that that statement is a powerful way to live life at the individual level. But now I see that an organization that is built around that philosophy -- that it exists only to serve, to empower others to become better -- is also a far more powerful organization.

How does your organization serve others? Let me know, in the comments or on Twitter at @kcolbin.

2 comments about "Crowds, Communities, And The Power Of A Service Philosophy ".
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  1. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, May 30, 2011 at 1:17 p.m.

    How does my company serves others? Many, many ways; here's just one example: "A Second Chance at Life":

  2. Chas. Colburn from 3DMetalParts, June 5, 2011 at 5:10 a.m.

    Great article Kaila,
    I think you'll like Rosabeth Moss Kanter's writings and lectures, and especially SUPERCORP. She is a professor at The Harvard Business School and her book discusses the symbiosis a business can develop when providing proactive service to the world community.

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