Sofia’s sophists and the virtue in a Vespa

In September, innovation consultant, writer and speaker Georgi Kamov led a Street Wisdom event as part of a conference focused on ‘How to achieve quality of life in Sofia.’ It was organised by the Wellbeing Sofia project run by the Bagra Foundation in the framework of the Europe Program of the Sofia Municipality. 

Sofia was an interesting venue for holding a Street Wisdom event, given that the name of Bulgaria’s capital comes from the word “Sophia”, meaning “wisdom” in Greek.

The forecast for the day predicted rain and clouds – and it was indeed so for the first half of the day. Right before the event started, the skies cleared up and we had a lovely, sunny autumn afternoon. The group was comprised of 13 people with diverse backgrounds – City Council members, university professors, NGO activists, entrepreneurs, students. All of them went enthusiastically through the process, starting with a bit of skepticism. It quickly wore off after the first preliminary walks, when participants shared that time went really fast and they started tuning to the rhythm of the city.

Some of the observations of the city environment included “We really don’t realize how noisy it is because of cars and transport”, “We have so many hidden gems that we simply don’t take notice of – old house gates, trees, street signs”, “The streets are in fact divided in two – the lower half is on street and eye level and is full of life, the upper half is totally overlooked and barely noticed by us”.

Some of the stories were connected to questions such as “Should I end a long-standing professional relationship?”, “How can I create solutions for improving the city environment for children?”, “How can we create change more effectively”. Some of the participants did not want to share their questions, but instead shared insights on how Street Wisdom got them to think differently about them.

One participant mentioned that she did not find an exact answer to her question, but met an acquaintance on the street that she hasn’t seen for quite a while and was connected to the issue at hand. Another participant shared that she asked herself a challenging question connected to her professional future and did not find an answer – instead, she came to the conclusion that overthinking the question is not really beneficial and she should live for the moment, enjoy what’s happening right now and stop worrying.

A third participant saw that the communication between parents and children on the streets is limited to trivial matters (“Are you feeling cold?”, “Button up your shirt!”, “Watch out for passing cars!”) – instead, she felt parents should use their commuting time to create shared moments together and discuss the world around them.

A fourth participant (myself) had a really exciting experience. 50 metres from our meeting point found a red Vespa – coincidentally, we had used a photo with a red Vespa taken in Sofia for our “Wellbeing Sofia” quality of life conference. The Street Wisdom event was part of it. I have been seeing red Vespas on the streets of Sofia for a couple of weeks now.

My question was “How can we create change in our cities in a more effective way?” During my walk I decided to talk to a stranger – a saleswoman in a small, independent gift shop. I approached her and asked her to comment on my question, to which she replied: “I can’t really tell you anything, I just woke up” (it was 4 in the afternoon). This was my first insight – some people are just waking up to the idea of city change not driven from above, from city administrators and councillors. The next insight was a old sign on a building with letters made of metal. Usually you can guess what’s written by the remaining letters, but in this case I could not really tell. Second insight – if we help people fill in the missing blanks they might make better sense of the big picture. And the third insight came from the red Vespa – keep going, you are on the right track, follow the white rabbit 🙂

Georgi Kamov

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So a Social Change Maverick, a Human Technologist and a High Energy Particle Physicist walk into a bar in Bulgaria… David took Street Wisdom to TEDx

No it’s not the beginning of an elaborate joke.  It’s the night before TEDx and my fellow speaker from CERN Rob (@knoopsrob) is explaining that string theory is a way of understanding a 10-dimensional universe where 6 are hidden away in wiggly, squiggly worlds of their own.   Apparently the way to think about it is like an ant walking around on a water bottle…  Got that?

It’s something I am still thinking about the day after my TED talk, wandering in a beautifully leafy square in Sofia staking out the area for a Street Wisdom event we are holding here with the Aleksander Foundation.   I always like to get myself tuned up before helping others tap into the huge database of insight that’s latent in our city streets.   As I start really paying attention around me (as opposed to just thinking stuff), I look up and it seems like the trees are sprouting – string.  Even by Street Wisdom standards, it’s a surprise.   I rub my eyes.   The strings are still there.  I know the climate is changing, but…STRING?   What is going on?

As so often happens in a Street Wisdom experience the answer is nearby.  I spot some environmentalists holding up their Sofia Green Tour sign.    One of them explains.   Yes, this is a sign of climate change, but not as we know it.   It’s a Bulgarian tradition.  Old as time.  On March 1st – Baba Marta – or Granny March day – Bulgarians give each other these red and white bracelets – martenitsi – from their loved ones.   White signifies  male energy, red the female.  It’s a talisman against evil and a symbol hope for the future.   You wear the bracelet until you see the first Stork in the sky.  With that proof that Spring is on the way you cut the string and tie it to a tree.

In two days I have been connected to deep science and ancient ritual.   The very new and the very old.   As I wander off down the streets wearing the red and white bracelet the environmentalist has tied on my wrist as a friendship token, I am reminded of another TED talk, by the wonderful Philippe Starck who reminds us to lift our sights, not to get clogged in the everyday and remember that we are only halfway through the human journey.  We’re at the mid point between humanity’s past and future.  Let’s keep going.  It is, as they say, a wander-ful life!

I’ll let you know when the TEDx event organised by Roman and his wonderful volunteers at the American University in Bulgaria is online.  (Great event guys!)  You HAVE to hear what my fellow speakers have to say.