Digital screens are the portals to our always-connected world. We check the news and weather on them when we wake up. They make us ever more productive at work. And we unwind with them at home by binge-watching our favorite TV shows or scrolling through our social media feeds. It's a development that has made information ubiquitous and easily accessible, and made connecting with people all over the world as simple as a few taps on the screen or clicks of a mouse.
However, as we bolster our connections in the digital world, they can come at the expense of meaningful "analog" interactions. Now, companies and individuals from a wide range of industries, including some from unlikely quarters, are beginning to address this uniquely modern phenomenon. For instance, car-maker Lincoln is pondering how to use technology to augment real-life connections and examining how driving itself can help to reinforce those links. "We know that our clients' most valuable commodity is their time," says Becca Anderson, Client Experience Manager at Lincoln. Anderson is charged with understanding what makes customers tick at the Dearborn, Michigan-based company. She looks at tech as a building block of relationships, something to be embraced when thinking about how we bond with each other. "The kind of tech we're developing at Lincoln is all about giving people back more time so they're able to take a step back and spend more time with family or get the face-to-face time at work they need."
The following entrepreneurs discovered that by stepping outside their comfort zones they could bolster their digital bonds and make lasting connections. In doing so, they discovered something even greater--that not only are physical connections important, they are essential.
GIVING (NEW) MEANING TO "OOO"
After nearly a decade of working in every corner of the Chicago tech scene, Ryan Jeffery was eager for a change. He had worked as an analyst at a major venture capital fund before moving on to business development at Belly, a customer-engagement startup. He also advised and mentored other hopeful entrepreneurs, building a network of curious, ambitious emerging leaders. Still, he felt something was missing. "I was searching for my own meaning and purpose in the world," Jeffery says, "and the opportunity to build a business around it."
Jeffery had always had the travel bug, and he recruited a group of other Chicago-area professionals to join him for a cultural immersion in Nicaragua, led by Chicago social entrepreneur, Rich Johnson. Over the next six months, Jeffery and Johnson strategized on how to bring the powerful connections and leadership development cultivated on that experience to more people. The result was Ignite.
Scrappy start-ups and industry titans alike need to develop and retain their top talent, and experiential leadership training that both develops and rewards employees can help companies do this. Ignite takes leadership training off-site and injects it with purpose. These mission-driven experiences, with titles such as "Strengthen Communication" and "Foster Inclusion," range from a one-day immersion in Chicago to a three-day retreat in a picturesque beach town a few miles north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The experiences are equal parts leadership development, community engagement and team bonding, with activities ranging from improv soft-skills training and collaboration with local refugees to a regional cooking class and hike to a secluded beach.
What ties these disparate activities together is the theme of real, tangible connection between people. "People have an urgent desire to connect outside the office, out in the real world," Jeffery says. By putting people into real-world situations to learn and connect with others, Jeffery and Johnson have broken through one of the most intractable problems of the digital age. "The phones in our pockets and the screens on our computers aren't a replacement for real-world conversations and bringing people together," Jeffery says. "There's no way you can replace that."
THE GAME OF LIFE
It's becoming increasingly clear that our insatiable appetite for social media is having negative effects on our general health. The constant stream of well-curated, unattainable imagery and the fire hose of information we try to absorb every day may be damaging our emotional and physical well-being in ways that we are just beginning to understand. Lisa Rueff and Jen Mazer sought to counter these toxic effects and discovered that the solution could be as simple as playing a game--specifically, a board game the pair invented called Sparked.
"I wanted to create a way for people to get together in person to create more inspiration and community, as well as provide opportunities to share dreams and feel more elevated," Rueff says. Rueff has always had a knack for connecting people. She leads massive fundraising campaigns for nonprofits, built a 12,000-square-foot children's home and school in Haiti, and founded YogaVentures, where she leads yoga retreats focused on sustainability and volunteering with local charities. Mazer is a best-selling author and a manifestation guru--a true believer in the power of positive thinking to change lives.
That desire to connect and affirm is at the very heart of Sparked. The concept was born out of a long, laughter-filled night that Rueff and Mazer shared with some girlfriends. The positivity flowed freely and the two entrepreneurs saw a glow in their friends they knew they needed to capture. They wanted to turn this feeling into a game, and Sparked was the result.
Players spin a wheel and draw cards with themes like passion, opportunity, and gratitude. They then answer the questions posed on the card, sharing positive anecdotes and lessons with the rest of the group. The result is galvanizing, a set of bona fide affirmations in a world dominated by ersatz engagement.
That doesn't mean Rueff and Mazer disdain technology. They know that Sparked can serve as a physical meeting point for communities that might develop in digital spaces, serving as an antidote to interminable obligations and responsibilities. "It's about balance," Mazer says. "Balancing the technology part and being outside in the world. We're doing something to bring people back together and get off their phones. To get families and women doing things in person--to realize it's not just about the connections we have on the computer and on Facebook, but so much more."