Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 20 January 2013
For a year, this column has explored the power of ideas – some proven and celebrated, others still emerging and experimental but worth watching.
We have been especially interested in innovation: ideas applied to solve problems and make life better.
Today, in this 50th column, I want to share two uncommon yet charming ideas that, in their own way, defy conventional wisdom. That’s how change often starts – as a bright spark in unlikely places.
Why bother with outlandish ideas?
One of my Asian heroes, the Malaysian social activist Anwar Fazal, put it so well: “In a world that is increasingly violent, wasteful and manipulative, every effort at developing islands of integrity, wells of hope and sparks of action must be welcomed, multiplied and linked…”
Pay It Forward
You help someone who is really grateful for the favour. You ask him or her not to pay it back but instead, help three other (unspecified) people in need. Who, in turn, must sustain the ‘chain of good deeds’ to three more persons each…
This sounds quite idealistic, but the process works if we have enough faith in the essential goodness of human beings.
This is known as ‘Pay it forward’. It has been around, in various forms, for more than two millennia, in fact from the time of ancient Greeks. It was rediscovered by Benjamin Franklin and later, highlighted by the American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882).
In his 1841 essay titled ‘Compensation’, Emerson wrote: “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”
During the Twentieth Century, a number of fiction writers and at least one Marvel comic book creator have used this idea in their stories.
Notable among them was the science fiction author Robert A Heinlein (1907 – 1988), who popularised the concept in his 1951 novel Between Planets. More recently, it formed the central theme of a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, titled Pay It Forward (2000).
In it, a thoughtful teacher challenges seventh grade students to come up with ‘an assignment to save the world’. One proposes a scheme where a person has to carry out three good deeds for others as repayment for a favour or help received. These should be acts that the beneficiaries cannot manage on their own.
When sustained, this chain spreads exponentially through society, creating a social movement. Its implementation requires trust, honour and imagination. No payments or rewards are involved.
I first came across this idea through the Warner Brothers movie Pay It Forward (2000), directed by Mimi Leder. It inspirational drama starred child actor Haley Joel Osment as a boy who launches a goodwill movement, with Helen Hunt as his single mother and Kevin Spacey as his social studies teacher.
There is now a Pay it Forward Movement and Foundation, anchored in the US, founded by novelist Hyde. It seeks to create a positive ripple effect of kindness acts in many places around the world.
Pay It Forward movie trailer
Pay As You Feel
Pay-as-you-feel is another idea that has triggered social innovation. Again, it isn’t new: our traditional (Ayurveda) doctors have followed a variation of it for generations. But can it work in a modern, capitalist economic system?
In 2006, an Australian musician and filmmaker friend, Andrew Garton, introduced me to an extraordinary dining and social experience in Melbourne that modernises this cherished value.
Lentil as Anything (LAA) is a restaurant with no cashier or payment counter. No menu with prices. Customers are asked to eat first, and pay whatever they feel the food was worth.
That’s right: they just trust you to do the right thing. You may even donate towards that philosophy — if you feel like it. Their credo: “We believe in the power of humanity to create change and that everyone deserves a place at the table.”
Oh, these aren’t soup kitchens or dan selas. The one I visited, at Melbourne’s scenic Abbotsford Convent, had plenty of character and ambience. It was bustling with people from all walks of life. The food was diverse, tasty and well presented — with emphasis on healthy eating.
Today, several LAA restaurants are run in and around Melbourne by a not-for-profit community organisation cum youth training enterprise. It employs over a 400 staff — including many refugee migrants.
“We extend our hospitality offering you vegetarian cuisine cooked with love and gratitude,” says their website. “Our unique financial model functions independent of any government funding and we rely on your generosity in order to pay our rent, utilities, wages and stock.”
That financial model is centred on the values of trust, generosity and respect. It allows anyone to eat out and be social regardless of financial situation.
Why do this? “Because everyone has a right to feel valued and respected, money should help bring people together not divide us,”
2009 video intro of Lentil As Anything, made for Australia National Volunteer Week:
The idea was originated by a Lankan migrant: Shanaka Fernando. I’ve never met him, but he sounds every bit a maverick. His uncommon venture has literally added spice to Melbourne’s community.
Born into a wealthy Lankan family of Irish and Portugese ancestry, Shanaka grew up witnessing social disparities and ethnic tensions including Black July 1983. He first arrived in Australia in 1995 to study law at the University of Melbourne. But instead of becoming a lawyer (and driving a BMW as his dad wanted), he dabbled in various pursuits – including being a rollercoaster operator, podium dancer and stand-up comedian – before setting up the first LAA in St Kilda, a Melbourne suburb, in 2000.
LAA aimed to re-engage those who where left behind by society’s pursuit of consumerism and material goods. The first restaurant was staffed by people living in tents, idealists and other self-confessed ‘economic irrationalists’.
As they reflect: “It seemed that money was often a barrier to people participating. It was decided that we would have no fixed prices for food. Instead of a cash register, a box was placed on the counter. We used the money left in the box to run the restaurant.”
The journey hasn’t been a smooth one, but they have prevailed. Shanaka was once declared bankrupt and his original business liquidated. The local council and regulators struggled to come to terms with this ‘oddity’. In 2007, LAA won a landmark tax ruling that exempted it from having to pay GST.
The same year, Shanaka was honoured with The Australian of the Year ‘Local Hero’ award, which recognizes “extraordinary contributions made by Australians in their local community”. Lentil as Anything was called a “bold social experiment that respects difference, promotes trust and defies a consumerist society”.
A dozen years on, the idea is firmly rooted. LAA’s first money box is now on display at the Museum of Democracy, Canberra, because it gives people the freedom to eat as equals. LAA has also taken the concept to schools, opening the first vegetarian, pay-as-you-feel canteen at Collingwood College in 2008.
Shanaka is often invited to speak about Lentil. He met the Dalai Lama in 2011 when they both appeared on MasterChef Australia. A book, “Lentil as Anything: Food, Culture, Community” (Ilura Press, 2011) carries profiles of key chefs at Lentil restaurants, their favourite recipes and interviews with staff members.
Watch Shanaka speak at TEDx Melbourne 2012:
Shanaka Fernando on Social Enterprise and the Purpose of Money (2010 video)
A good interview by Time Out: http://tiny.cc/SFTO