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The Spaces that Connect

Shifting cultural values by creating spaces for deep and meaningful connections with others that inspire individual transformation.

Photo of Eric Wilburn
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

In the US, we have a a culture that endorses and rewards individualism and a society that is becoming increasingly polarized. In a country and world that is so interconnected whose systems are rich with interdependence, this individualism threatens to unravel the societal fabric key to a just and sustainable future for humanity and the biosphere. But how can we shift cultural values in the U.S. to be inspired by hope and opportunity to collectively develop solutions to current issues instead of reacting in fear and fracturing into every human for themselves? We hypothesize that this societal transformation starts with the individual. An individual intrinsic transformation catalyzed by deep and meaningful connections with other humans. But given the near impossibility of forcing someone to change their core values or two parties to create a rich connection, we create the environment, a space in which individuals have an opportunity to genuinely connect their inner self and others. We explore the science of spaces; developing spaces that combine the physical and the psychological. Our design challenge is to develop spaces in which people are inspired to be vulnerable with themselves and others to explore their own values and forge meaningful human connections. We seek to understand what is the combination of natural or built environment, experiences, technology and human interaction that establishes physical and psychological safety. Ultimately, we seek to affect the psychological and socioemotional drivers that underpin human behavior. The drivers that push us into conflict and cause us to consume resources for our own pleasure, unconscious of how our consumption affects the prosperity and well-being of others. In a culture with so few spaces for deep and meaningful connection, we aim to provide these spaces and inspire a re-awakening of individual intrinsic values and a revolution cultural norms.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our initial pilot program focuses on creating spaces for Stanford University undergraduate and graduate student cohorts and research groups. The sense of competition and individualism at Stanford has a drastic effect on mental health and ruined opportunities for collaboration. Through this project, Stanford beneficiaries will have more rewarding collaborations, a feeling of belonging and improved mental and emotional well-being. These young adults are likely future leaders and if these spaces can re-awaken the oft dormant core values of compassion, humility, gratitude and interdependence, many people beyond Stanford will benefit. We have chosen to pilot the project at Stanford as it allows for rapid prototyping of low fidelity spaces in partnership with University groups keen on improving student and employee well-being. But we are committed to developing spaces for a much broader population beyond the privileged of Stanford as resources become available.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Many social activism movements and furthermore public policy has attempted to influence human behavior extrinsically, using the carrot or stick approach to prompt behavior change. But few have explored how to stimulate the intrinsic motivation (internal desire) to reduce conflict, reduce your environmental footprint and reduce income equality. We meet people and organizations where they're at. For example, an individual with anxiety or an organization wanting to increase productivity can both be treated by our spaces. These spaces are a sort of Trojan horse because no matter what problem they are designed to influence, they result in individual intrinsic and organizational transformation of core values. Furthermore, our programs go beyond the normal one-off experience to be composed of a series of spaces because transformation requires sustained engagement.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Initial Design: I am exploring the idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere is shifting from an organization that focused on defining the problems facing humanity in the 21st century to actively developing platforms and programs to understand and influence the underlying psychological and social drivers and this project represents the first step in this transformation of the organization. (

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

I experienced three blindsides in November of 2016 – Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, my PhD advisor stopped supporting my PhD endeavors and I had my heart broken which pushed me into a state of depression contemplating suicide. My realization during this period of pain and suffering was all I had agency over was creating a space, the environment, in which I had a chance at forging meaningful relationships with other individuals, connections that were so key to my well-being.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

In the coming years, society will likely face human and natural stresses the likes of which we have never before seen and our systems and our societal fabric will be stretched to its limits. This project seeks to increase the limit to which our societal fabric can be stretched. A society that mindfully responds to external stressors inspired to come together and develop solutions to these challenges. A society that comes back twice as strong and united from an external shock instead of splintering into factions and competing for limited resources. We aim to inspire a society that has the values of compassion, humility and gratitude at the core of individuals. Creating intrinsic motivation within individuals to work together to develop solutions to ensure peace, prosperity and a healthy planet in the face of a growing population, increasingly scarce natural resources and climactic shocks. We start with the Stanford community and will grow from there.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We are forming a partnership with the newly formed Flourishing Research Initiative within the Stanford Vice Provost for Graduate Education to pilot these spaces within the Stanford population. We are also working with Stanford’s Executive Education program to develop spaces for that context. The Stanford d.School informs the development our process for creating and piloting these spaces. We have relationships with student groups and research groups on campus who are interested in participating in these early stage pilots. We have Stanford academics on our advisory team who work in the areas of psychology, sociology and human behavior – from those researching how to inspire vulnerability to inspiring pro-social behavior to creating resilient communities. We also have key input from practitioners who have been creating these spaces whether physical and/or psychological for many years in the fields of mindfulness, wellness and spirituality among others.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

The Stanford community, and, particularly the young men and women who will soon be graduating, has significant influence on the function of our systems and institutions. Given that undergraduate and graduate students are much more malleable and still forming their personal set of values and relationships, it is a wonderful opportunity to determine if it is possible to shift value systems shifting away from egotistically individualism and towards a humble collective.

Geographic Focus

This idea targets cultural values in America.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

We envision that the Stage 1 pilot at Stanford, focusing on completing a series of rapid prototyping and design iterations, will take ~12 months. In Year 2, we will develop higher fidelity spaces/programs ready for full implementation in the Stanford context while beginning to pilot programs in other contexts. We will continue to iterate on these spaces and programs with the goal of having a fully operational and vetted space/program for the Stanford context and other contexts by end Year 3.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Nicole Ballou

Hi Eric,

It sounds like your goals are really grounded in human connection and the power of vulnerability. I think college campuses are a great place to start this exploration to authenticity. Donna Hicks is a leader in the field of dignity and her work is grounded in the values of compassion, humility and gratitude, as you mentioned in your application. I think her work aligns really closely with yours. She wrote a book called Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict and I think it would be a great resource for your project!

Good luck!

Photo of Eric Wilburn

Hi Nicole,

Thank you for your support and the connection with Donna Hicks! I just watched her TEDx talk and she is clearly very keyed in on how to create safe psychological spaces in conflict resolution contexts and beyond. I'll reach out to her as we continue to build out our idea.

Thank you! Eric

Photo of Angi Yoder Maina

Thanks Nicole Ballou for the link to Donna Hicks.


Photo of Nicole Ballou

Happy to share! She, and her work, are quite incredible at helping to rethink the way we actively validate others and treat them with dignity.

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