Lucian Tarnowski is the founder of Civana, an ambitious non-profit that connects social impact entrepreneurs and empowers them through digital tools and communities. In 2019, he took that mission offline.
In the San Francisco neighbourhood of Alamo Square, a lavish, carefully-preserved mansion is celebrating its 110th year in existence. The property was built by William P. Filmer, who later in the 20th century would cut the ribbon on the Golden Gate Bridge as its president. To walk the same hallways and gaze out the windows of a visionary from a bygone era is certainly an intimate, enticing prospect.
For Lucian Tarnowski, the present-day occupier of this storied abode, this is just reality — and he seems to take full advantage of the inspiration available to him.
Millennials view the coronavirus crisis as a catalyst to drive positive change around the world.
Lucian is the founding curator of the non-profit foundation Civana, which launched in 2018 to connect social impact entrepreneurs and equip them with digital community infrastructure. In 2019, the project quickly grew to encompass its first physical location: Filmer's mansion in the heart of San Francisco.
Civana House is a blend of ideas and intentions. It's a trendy private members' club and a minimalist, eco-friendly co-living space, an experimental commune in the great Californian tradition, and a place where conversations are at the cutting edge. The project defies labels, but it had quickly become a gathering place for a global network of ambitious thinkers to host for dinners, workshops, off-sites, and other events before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Remote work is now the status quo. In the face of economic instability, companies are racing to give up their expensive downtown offices and planning for conferences and retreats to build their organisational culture. Large-scale, international get-togethers may be off the cards for now, but venues like Civana House will only become more important in the years ahead.
According to Deloitte's research, millennials view the coronavirus crisis as a catalyst
to drive positive change around the world, and they continue to expect business and government to prioritise people over profits. Civana House's decision to serve an impact-oriented audience, then, is smart. It's the way the world is heading.
In this interview, Lucian speaks with technology writer Lauren Razavi about the importance of physical connection, how collective intelligence unlocks human potential, and the lessons we can draw from the past to guide our future.
Civana is all about how we connect the people, the talent, the capital, and the knowledge necessary to create the wide-scale shift needed for real, global systems change.
Why did you decide to take on Civana House, and how does it relate to your overall mission?
Civana House came to me at the right moment in my personal life. Sadly, my wife and I had just separated, and a friend was looking for somebody to take over the mansion's lease. I realised it was the perfect location to bring to life the next stage of the Civana mission: to move from the online world to the offline world.
I just knew we needed more in-person meetings to accelerate our journey of connecting people. We needed a space for physical experimentation. So, at Civana, we went on an ambitious startup journey. We hosted around 3,000 people from more than 1,000 organisations in less than six months. We brought everybody together in different formats — sometimes big, open-ended communal dinners, other times more intentional, intimate gatherings around a particular purpose or point of inspiration — to discuss and dissect the fundamentals of system change. To talk about how we work together and build to get from here to there.
Why is the built environment - creating that physical space for people to meet and collaborate - so important?
Civana is all about how we connect the people, the talent, the capital, and the knowledge necessary to create the wide-scale shift needed for real, global systems change. At its core, that mission is all about helping people connect with their emotions, purpose, and community.
If you look to history, all the heroes and the greats hung out together. Everyone we remember from these different periods of time, everyone who did something that mattered, they met up and exchanged ideas. We need to create those same kinds of physical interactions in the 21st century to tap into our collective intelligence.
We can learn a lot about meaningful connections today if we understand the most powerful networks of the past.
Filmer was the president of the Golden Gate Bridge, of course, but he was also the president of the masonic club of San Francisco. He was actually an esteemed freemason. Think of them what you will, but organisations like the masons have been very effective at tapping into collective intelligence. I became fascinated with all this and started to look at knowledge traditions in the masons and templars, and their lodges and safe houses. We can learn a lot about meaningful connections today if we understand the most powerful networks of the past.
You talk a lot about hyperstition and the need for the 2020s to be a Golden Decade. What do you think humanity needs to prioritise to create a better world?
Hyperstition is the idea that when a group of people shares a belief system, the feedback loops created will propel people towards a desired outcome. If we can harness this decade's potential, humanity will achieve its potential and become a planetary civilisation. That's how we transition from our current win-lose system into a win-for-all system where societies are designed to work for the good of people and planet. Things will work for the common good.
What does system change look like?
The narrative is so important. It's the thing that's still missing in the world. Nobody's really created an alternative story to the circus-show we have going on in society right now with nation-states bailing and crazy people in leadership. It's like some terrible gameshow. We need new stories. Nobody has managed it yet because these new stories need to be told by a community, a group, and it needs to be about collective intelligence and how we live in harmony with nature. This is the incredibly exciting time we are at right now. That story is just emerging.
Because of competitive, capitalist interests, we've created a system primarily based on silos. But these silos are the enemy. Instead, we need to bring many different stakeholders together and rapidly prototype in collaboration.
We need new institutions, new ways, new cultures. We need distributed and decentralised systems.
Knowledge used to be power. Now sharing knowledge is power. Competition used to be the key – now it's collaboration. We need a radical shift to flip the model. In my previous life with Brave New [a technology startup that helps organisations tap into the collective knowledge of their talent through machine learning], I saw the potential and the perils of communities, where they fall short and where they succeed. Diversity is a big one. We need to stop “othering" and start getting into this space of having a true planetary identity. We need to identify ourselves as citizens of planet earth, first and foremost.
The democratic systems we have right now, based on the nation-state, are not fit for purpose. They will not rise to the task of the planetary challenges we face. They've got a terrible track record, time and time again. I don't think people can put their trust and faith in nations anymore. We need new institutions, new ways, new cultures. We need distributed and decentralised systems
; that are not owned by people but instead by communities. That's the story of this decade, and it's going to be amazing.
You've talked about Civana House as the world's first Planetary Embassy. What does that mean exactly?
Civana House itself is one of the oldest continuous gathering places in the Bay Area, and it's built on sacred land: on top of a well of the Ohlone people. What better place to imagine a world advanced beyond nation-states — a planetary-focused world where humanity is working equilibrium to deliver on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and give birth to a regenerative culture?
I hope Civana House will be one of many planetary embassies around the world where people gather to discuss urgent and essential ideas for the present and the future. I see planetary embassies as like masonic lodges or safe houses of a previous era. Where like-minded people gather to meet, share ideas, and shape the future.
Our core goal at Civana is to accelerate the world's transition to a regenerative culture
. Like any organisation or movement, we need a transition team to accomplish that. Together, we need to create a “win-for-all" system.
We're experimenting with the culture and the structures of tomorrow's world, seeing what can be copied and pasted to other communities.
How does this fit into wider co-working and co-living trends?
Covid-19 has made all the existing arguments for co-working and co-living that much stronger. We all have friends living alone and have struggled a lot with their circumstances during the pandemic. We're humans, which means we're fundamentally not supposed to spend lots of time in isolation. For most of human history, we've lived in communities of typically 150-250 people. We see less depression and anxiety in indigenous communities that live within the Dunbar number [an anthropological theory that humans can only maintain around 150 stable relationships].
During quarantine, there have been eight of us here at Civana House. We've been eating together, meditating together, working out together. It feels good, like a dream, to live in a community like this. We call it a prototype planetary embassy because we're experimenting with the culture and the structures of tomorrow's world, seeing what can be copied and pasted to other communities. We need planetary embassies everywhere. Everything that brings people closer together in positive ways is part of our movement.