#27 Epilogue / Your Slow Lane

It's a wrap! Here is how you can practice the Slow Lane Principles as a parent, leader, volunteer, movement, government. Thank you.

#27 Epilogue / Your Slow Lane

You have read The Slow Lane. What now? I started this book by saying that the Slow Lane offers new answers, whether for your family life, your work, or your engagement or activism in society.

In this book, I have written about my personal relationship, over almost fifty years of my life, with the Slow Lane. It is not that my life is all that interesting, but I wanted to share with you how there are many paths to the Slow Lane – large or small, direct and long-winded. Some of my earliest childhood memories were of the Slow Lane. Not about participating, but about how I was brought up with a prejudice against Germany's environmental movement, a prejudice that took me decades to overcome (see Story #6). I remain grateful that, for decades, that movement waited for me without judgement. Later, as a student of architecture, a field trip to the Soweto township in South Africa inspired me, to chart my course into the Slow Lane. It led me to Caracas, where a single day with a young architect, Yuraima Martín, taught me all I ever needed to know about the Slow Lane (see Story #8). It blew up all my preconceptions about what being of service means, and what excellence should really look like. A few years later, I initiated a new Slow Lane movement myself, by co-founding Citymart, to put the spending of cities around the world to more meaningful use (see Story #14).

The more I saw of the Slow Lane, the more it began to challenge me. How should I go about my job, how could we reframe my mission, what does success look like? It really was my relationship to my daughters, that brought it all home to me. As I tried to be a good father, I realized how hard it was to put trust into action (see Story #9), to liberate myself from the false comfort of the conventions of success. I could not have made sense of this, if I hadn't seen this in action in the least trusting of places: a notorious prison in London. If Kevin Reilly, the prison governor, could trust enough in the capabilities of his inmates to ask them for help to make his prison safer (see Story #1), then surely I could do the same at home with my daughters. None of this is easy, not because it is hard to do, but because our mindsets have been framed all our lives to trust the promise of the Fast Lane, that dominance works, more than the people around us.

The Slow Lane Parent

"Listening comes down to this: do you trust others to know what is right, or do you believe that you are superior in your vision or ability to make that judgement?"

I wrote this sentence in Story #11, the conclusion of my chapter on listening. If you believe, rationally, that this is true, do it. I noticed how I had been cheating myself for years, making myself believe that I was listening when really I was being judgmental, or passive-aggressive. My daughters, of course, saw right through it and rolled their eyes. At one point, I looked at myself, questioning my justifications for being the benevolent dictator in their lives. Seeing this, was the first step in a process to find face my fears, to get to the bottom of the simple question: Do I really want to empower those around me? And if I do, is there any better way than showing them my unconditional trust?

“Maybe there was also something else that caused me to react the way I did. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think I felt a bit overwhelmed, put on the spot. Vulnerable. It was a terrible feeling. I may have felt that I don’t have any real answers to the threat climate change poses to our children. But at the same time, as a father, I am supposed to protect them, know all the answers.”

My conversation with my friend Georg revealed all the kinds of fears we store up in ourselves, that push us to do the opposite of what we believe to be right: The fear of losing our credibility as a leader, as a protector (see Story #2).

The Slow Leader

What holds true for our relationships at home, holds true for our professional behavior also. I found myself living through the same challenges in my professional life, until I asked myself what professional success looks like. I began to realize, painfully, that I put a ton of value on being seen as the smartest person in the room. Success for me wasn't about money, but being right. I justified this with my pursuit of a good, important social mission. All this proved unsustainable as a way of organizing change, and it was unsustainable for me as a person. It reminds me of Albina Ruiz realizing that her movement would stagnate for as long as she didn't allow everyone to lead, and create their own solutions (see Story #5). This inflection point forced me to look for new ways, to correct course. Like Albina and many others, I found the answer in letting go and opening up, to support others to contribute and take charge.

The Fast Lane is tailored to a society that celebrates dominance as a means of success. A perpetual cycle of solving one problem by creating another.

Whether you work in business, government, or an organization, the journey to meaningful change will lead through the Slow Lane. Time and again, the traditional forms of leadership by executive decision, have delivered terrifying quick-fixes. When public leaders rushed to action following the 2007/8 financial crisis, they chose not to involve the people they serve, trusting in experts instead. The result, tens of millions remain impoverished, and unemployed even fifteen years after (see Story #3). Business leaders do just the same, in their quest for speed to succeed in the Fast Lane. They don't want to do any harm, but in their race to the top they cut corners. They avoid anything that slows them down. Much of our public narrative celebrates this style of decisive leadership, and the disruption it creates. But with every problem, this kind of leadership solves, it creates another, deepening the divides in our communities (see Story #4).

What you can do is embrace the truth that slowing down will get you there faster. Whether it is success in business, or in a non-profit, the quick-fixes cause more harm than good. For me, that meant a reckoning with my ego. Did I really believe that success was about me coming out looking smart? Eventually, I realized for myself that I had much more fun solving with others, often stepping into supporting roles myself. This is consistent what everyone from Albina Ruiz to Dr Sanjeev Aurora described as the joy they felt when empowering others. Whatever the chemistry we release when solving not for, but with, it works. As you invite others to contribute and lead with their ideas, you will begin to unlock the magic of social imagination (see Story #7). Remember that reframing is the central skill here, looking for new angles to find a radically different question. Dorica Dan, took her daughter's disease of one to build a movement for a million rare disease patients by focusing what they all had in common: an experience of never fitting into any system (see Story #20). All stories, for example, reframed the people who suffered the consequences of a broken system from being passive subjects in need, to seeing them for their capability to contribute. All stories reframed problems into assets.

What you can do is embrace the truth that slowing down will get you there faster.

If that feels hard to do, it is! Our brains are wired to want just that, quick results. But the magic in the Slow Lane is unleashed when you dare to think slow. That is inconvenient at first, for everyone. However, behind that initial temptation, lies the opportunity to discover a new frame of reference around which you can organize to find truly transformative new answers.

The Slow Volunteer

Chances are, that you are volunteering already. A billion people do so, every year, contributing the equivalent of 125 million full-time employees. That's probably about five times more than all the armies in the world put together. How could you apply the Slow Lane Principles to your volunteering practice? A good starting point is to think about what value the Slow Lane could add to your contribution. It could help you become more discerning about where and how you volunteer. The Slow Lane is all about listening and sharing the ability to solve, with the goal of empowering those who are suffering to become contributors. Many times, volunteering work lacks that aspect of empowerment, focusing more on servicing a problem instead of solving it. An example of that would be how Rosanne Haggerty started her work, working in a homeless shelter. She soon realized that the work she was doing wasn't actually helping people solve their problem. Instead, she was helping the shelter run the shelter. Her insight came from listening to the people experiencing homelessness, who kept asking for help to find a job, or a home. Following this insight, she changed course and invested time in helping where she actually solved homelessness. And went on to solve homelessness in fourteen cities (see Story #21).

Being discerning, can mean that you choose carefully where you contribute. Or it could be even more transformative, if you apply the Slow Lane Principles to improve what is already happening around you.

I am sharing Rosanne's story here not to put you under pressure to become a systems-changing social entrepreneur like her. Naturally, that would also be great. Denisa Livingston told me what many others also said: that she doesn't judge people by how much or how they volunteer. She welcomes everyone to their abilities, and makes sure there are many fulfilling ways to contribute to build a healthier Navajo Nation (see Story #16). I would love for you to experience your volunteering in this way. Over time, who knows what can happen. Remember, this is the Slow Lane, after all. Being discerning, can mean that you choose carefully where you contribute. Or it could be even more transformative, if you help apply the Slow Lane Principles to improve what is already happening around you. If, for example, you work in a shelter that doesn't really solve a problem for the homeless, you could start involve other people and organizations, to help them find a job or a home. At Ashoka, where I work, we call this the 'teams of teams' approach. You get more done by combining different groups to truly make a difference. And this, by the way, was precisely how Rosanne brought many important support services into the Prince George Hotel.

The Slow Lane Movement

I have used the term 'movement' generously in this book. At first, I was tempted to refer to them as 'communities' instead. Sometimes, there is a strong collective identity around what people are doing, as is the case with Denisa's Diné Health Alliance, to improve community health or the German environmental movement. In other cases, many participants will barely know that they are part of a movement for change, like the learners who participate in a Project ECHO training. Identity can be a powerful tool to build a collective sense of belonging, as was the case with the waste pickers in Peru who became recyclers, valuable to keeping the environment clean. When I refer to movements, I simply want to capture all those who are involved. In the case of User Voice and their work in UK prisons and the probation system, this involves: the team working for the organization, the prison and probation system, many other government agencies, local governments, ex-offenders, prisoners, their families, corrections officers, funders, independent evaluators, prison inspectors, and volunteers.

Few movements embrace the long journey ahead of them, treating every week like an urgent battle to be won right away. The result: stagnation, burn-out, divisive tactics, and the obvious temptation to prioritize quick wins over slower practices of inclusion.

As a movement, you may represent anyone role in the community that is pushing for change. The stories in this book offer many nuances as to how you can apply the Slow Lane Principles in practice, depending on your purpose. They may also encourage you to further develop your listening, empowerment, social imagination and scale practices. For example, in 2021 a meeting in Germany brought together Fridays for Future activists with young activists from complicated social backgrounds, including youth who had lived as street children. They came from very different backgrounds, and the street children had challenging questions for the Fridays for Future activists: what was their place in the movement, how does a climate strike relate to challenges of extreme poverty, or domestic abuse? Together, they created new common ground, building bridges. Both groups came out stronger.

One of the most valuable lessons from the Slow Lane may be its sense of time. Social change rarely happens in less than forty years, in many cases it may take generations. Few movements address the long journey ahead of them, treating every week like an urgent battle to be won right away. The result: stagnation, burn-out, divisive tactics, and the obvious temptation to prioritize quick wins over slower practices of inclusion. They end up in a hamster wheel. Successful Slow Lane movements adapt their strategies, to become more sustainable and inclusive for the long-haul. Or lie in wait for their window of opportunity to achieve big change peacefully, as the gay and abortion rights movements did in Ireland (see Story #18). Albina's story is a textbook example of intentionally avoiding divisive actions to lay the ground for the next phases in on their path. Focusing on sustainability and resilience unlocks the power of permanence, represented powerfully in the stories about Yuraima, Denisa.  

Movements can also think hard about how they can be of service. In our stories, many communities succeeded to win the long game by being of service. Yuraima, her father César, father Joseito, and Doris Barrento have been fixtures in Catuche, the slum in Caracas, for over three decades. Every day, they support the community on their path to growing self-determination. That matters in a country, that has been in free fall decades, and has helped the community overcome many setbacks from floods to gang wars. Sonya Passi echoes that approach when she describes her movement to free people from abusive intimate relationships as a journey that will take generations. A perspective echoed by Denisa, who sees herself as one of the current custodians of a generations-old struggle to recover her tribe's rights, dignity, health, and culture.

The Slow Lane Government

I see the role of public servants, and the government more broadly as integral to the Slow Lane. If that is you, I hope that you will find value in these stories. The Slow Lane offers a variety of insights for governments, and public servants.

"Frustration turned into a mission: Sefton’s leaders would invest themselves in making the best of a situation they could not control. They did this by becoming a listing government."

The first, is revealed by Story #10 - The Slow Lane Government, about two local leaders, Peter Moore and Paul Cummins, in Sefton, a city near Liverpool in the UK. They show a path of a government, struck by deep austerity measures after decades of economic decline, embracing the Slow Lane Principles. The result: a listening government, that empowers people. Made possible by not just a set of principles, but the deep personal engagement of local leaders and public servants. Their journey, provides valuable insights to public servants anywhere.

"What is our contribution to the experience of people who are working up the courage to act. Will they experience our actions as encouragement, or another form of rejection?"

The second insight, is about the great pain caused by what I call Zombie Systems, bureaucracies that work not just against the public interest, but even the interests of government leaders (see Story #12). If we can withstand the temptation to simply blame government, we can uncover intricate root causes, like public procurement, that cause dysfunction across critical public services and infrastructure, like traffic signals for the blind (see Story #13). When public servants, governments and other Slow Lane movements work together, they can flip these Zombies, turning great pain into a delightful force for good (see Story #14). People in government should be alert to dig up and reveal these Zombies, because of their outsize effects on meaningful social change. Hopefully, the story of procurement delight helps imagine ways in which such projects generate excitement. To do that, don't be afraid to create an environment where imposters are welcome (see Story #15).

Broken systems can hide in plain sight, gigantic and invisible at the same time.

The third perspective is about the dangers of Fast Lane leadership. This book is intentionally framed against the background of politicians' rushed response to the 2007/8 financial crisis. We can learn a lot from the political mishaps, not only in the immediate response to the financial crisis (see above, the Slow Leader), but also in the divisive politics that followed years later. It was the poor handling of the financial crisis that laid the ground for divisive politics, like nationalism in Catalonia, Brexit, and the Trump presidency. Ireland stood out for finding a path out of this divisive climate, by turning the rough hand history had dealt it into an opportunity to rebuild the democracy. Going slow proved a much faster way to reform the constitution (see Story #17). I conclude the chapter on healing democracy with a call to action that should resonate with public servants in particular: focus on wins that guarantee everyone a better future, instead of racking up short-term victories that only deepen divides (see Story #18).

The take-away for governments and public servants here is simple. Don't shy away from engaging with the messiness of human relationships. In particular, when your impulse tells you to rush into action. The answer is always to get involved with people, the better if you can spark their creativity.


It's a wrap! This second part to the Epilogue concludes The Slow Lane. If you have read until here, I want to thank you. And I have one favor to ask. Please take a moment to reflect on this book, maybe take a peek at the collection of all 27 stories. And now, please send me your thoughts. What thoughts did The Slow Lane trigger in you? How can we put these stories to good use?

Thank you.


Acknowledgements:

This book is for Julia, Sofia, and Olivia. You have been part of all this, sacrificed, shared, and inspired me.

I want to send special thanks to two people. Jim Anderson has been an incredible friend and mentor to me for years, and without his support and trust this book would have not been possible. Jan Weetjens has been my coach, helping me discover that you cannot ask someone their favorite color, if you will only accept blue as an answer. If you know Jan, you will spot his wisdom in countless paragraphs.

I also want to thank Hana Schank, Cecilia Muñoz, and Karen Bannan at New America, Leigh O'Neil and Stacey Warady Gillett at Bloomberg Philanthropies, my dear friend Anthony Townsend, my Ashoka colleagues who have so kindly cheered me on over the past months: Laura Haverkamp, Katharina Hinze, Judit Costa, Oda Heister, Odin Mühlenbein, Milena Leszkowics-Weizman, Olga Shirobokova, Maria Zapata, Irina Snissar, and Manmeet Mehta. Thank you Astrid Mania at Karuna Kompass, Christopher Swope, Charles Landry, and my dear friends David Lubell, Georg, and Hae-won Shin. I want to thank all the people featured in these stories who were generous not only to take time out of their busy, Slow Lane lives: Mark Johnson, Albina Ruiz, Yuraima Martín, César Martín, father José Virtuoso (Joseito), Doris Barrento, Paul Cummins, Peter Moore, Denisa Livingston, Katherine Zappone, Prof Jane Suiter, Dorica Dan, Rosanne Haggerty, Kassa Belay, David Harrington, Sonya Passi, Simon Köhl, Eric Dawson, Dr Sanjeev Arora, Elisabeth Harsanji. Also thank you Sanjay Purohit, Catherine du Toit, Peter Thomas, Marco Steinberg, Chelsea Maudin, and Jorge Fiori for many early and late seeds of inspiration.