Original publication: Sheikh, Aisha. 'On Curiosity.' On Community - A Modern Manifesto. Mok, Karen, et al., editors. Mountain View: Thousand Network Ltd. on Behalf of Sandbox, 2017. 93-95. Print.
It’s 1990, and I am five years old. My family and I are on our first flight to our new home in Canada. We’re embarking on a journey to create community in a vastly different culture than the one we’ve come to know as home. The flight attendant puts a tray of breakfast foods in front of me, and my eyes tickle with the novelty. In our Kenyan family home a typical breakfast consists of porridge or ‘mandazi’, a sweet coconut bun. I cautiously inspect the tiny packets of jam and butter; I’ve never seen this kind of packaging before. My eyes grow wide when I remove the cover from the main dish. There’s a massive glob of yellow that bounces when touched. It looks peculiar. Soon my curiosity gets the better of me and I sneak a bite of the yellow glob from my brother’s plate. I learn that it is called an, “egg,” and to my surprise and delight, it is delicious.
In the book Curious, author Ian Leslie states that curiosity is "more of a state than a trait”. One can become curious through exposure to new facts, opinions, and experiences, and curiosity allows us to make connections to others and, ultimately, cultivate a sense of belonging. Psychologist Abraham Maslow explains that we are led by human motivation and innate curiosity to find needs such as belonging, love, and safety. We need our deep curiosity and childlike wonder to create communities that bridge cultural differences.
In my new life in Toronto, I found myself situated between different cultures (Canadian, Kenyan, Yemeni) and languages, identities and histories (Swahili, Arabic, English, and French). Exposure to this multiplicity of worldviews prompted questions about how we as humans navigate inter- and intra-cultural values.
Sometimes, my cultural values are at odds. My North American identity emphasizes individuality and personal achievements, while my Yemeni-Kenyan culture encourages a focus on the collective good.
Culture is like wearing glasses -- how we see and relate to the world shifts according to the frame we’re wearing. When designing communities, we must be willing to take off our glasses to see and experience the people and world around us as they are, without judgment or preconceived notion.
When we commit to understanding different viewpoints, possibilities emerge. In design, we call this “needfinding”, a process for the designer to learn about the desires of the intended audience and then co-create solutions together. When we ask questions that provoke and open conversation and listen closely the answers, we create room for community members to get involved and take responsibility for how their community is built.
Gestalt is a term in psychology that means “unified whole,” and it relates to visual perception. ‘Similarity’ is a gestalt principle that allows us to perceive an object’s relation to another object. Through training, we can learn to deepen our vision of similar objects. Curiosity allows us to apply this theory in order to see similarities with people, form connections that may not be immediately visible, and be open to what could emerge over time in the relationship. We create communities through a deep form of acceptance that begins with a commitment to being curious, seeking to understand, and cultivating a genuine interest to learn from other perspectives.
It is 2017, and I’m thirty-one years old. I’m in my home dining with a community of female designers, environmentalists, and investors. I am sharing and learning from the experiences of my peers. We are talking about the value of community based on the understanding of each individual’s strength. I listen, facilitate, and encourage the women to share, to receive recognition for their efforts, and to be heard. The food arrives. It’s Thai, and I don’t think twice. I devour the meal.
Aisha Sheikh is a design & strategy consultant at Stanford ChangeLabs, and educator at The Nueva School. She is a Third Culture Kid; originally from Mombasa, Kenya; raised in Toronto, Canada; and based in San Francisco, California.