In an office overlooking Marina Bay, Singapore, Mrs. Tan calls her teenage son, Kevin. She tells him she has to work late.
“Don’t worry,” Kevin says. “I’m on my way to the dining hall already.” He walks down Orchard Road with his neighbor Daphne.
Daphne checks the dining hall app on her phone. “They have chili crab tonight! And one of the table topics is the article in The Straits Times about school stress."
The pair arrives at a restaurant in their neighborhood. At the door, Kevin and Daphne swipe their cards and pick up name tags. Inside, the restaurant has been transformed from its usual state into the neighborhood dining hall. Tables have been pushed together to create larger groupings and more walking space.
At the entrance, a diagram of the restaurant shows table numbers and topics. Kevin considers going to a Social Table to talk about the Olympics, but decides to go with Daphne to the Challenge Table on school stress instead.
As they make their way to a half-filled table, the teenagers stop by the dining hall’s bulletin board. Flyers advertise talks and meetings to discuss issues of local and global importance, opportunities for activism and community service, fairs, parades, tutors, babysitters, furniture for sale, and more. The dining hall website, set up much like Nextdoor.com, includes an online forum for these postings as well.
Kevin and Daphne sit down with a multi-generational group that discusses the pressures on students and ways to reduce stress. The table host, the community member who submitted the topic, guides the group through refining their ideas and planning how to realize them.
People pass dishes of food down the table to the teens. As Kevin spoons broccoli onto his plate, he sees a six-year-old, Franklin, wrinkle his nose.
“What? Broccoli is great!” Kevin takes a bite. “Mmm.” Franklin covers his face and shakes his head. Kevin asks, “Daphne, you want any broccoli?”
“Sure!” Daphne accepts the bowl of broccoli from Kevin. After serving herself, she asks, “Franklin, you want some?” Franklin pauses, then nods bravely.
Franklin’s father, Mr. Koh, asks the teens how school is going for them. Hearing that Daphne likes chemistry class, Mr. Koh introduces her to a young chemist at another table who tells Daphne about summer jobs in the lab.
Kevin notices that an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Ang, isn’t there like she usually is. He gives her a call. She’s all right, but she forgot to eat dinner. Mrs. Ang thanks Kevin for checking in on her. She says it’s nice to have a community that looks out for one another.
While we live more densely than ever before, proximity alone does not create the conditions for close friendships to develop. According to Alex Williams’ July 2012 New York Times article, two other conditions are also needed: “repeated, unplanned interactions” and “a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” It is no surprise that many people meet their lifelong friends in college, where all three conditions are present in settings like dorms and dining halls.
Why limit the dining hall experience to college students? Community members should partner with local restaurants to set up weekly or twice-weekly neighborhood dining halls. You could eat and commune with others without the social investment of extending invitations, the effort of making plans, and the stress of figuring who will pay the bill. At a dining hall, you could casually bump into neighbors and catch up, circulate among several groups, and stay much longer than a restaurant would allow. Unlike restaurants or coffee shops, neighborhood dining halls would be laid out to encourage dining in larger groups than most nuclear family units. Name tags could have conversation prompts to fill in (e.g., "Ask me about... coaching my daughter's chess team," or "I like... posting videos of my cat on YouTube.")
Neighborhood dining halls would be conveniently located close to home. Families and individuals would purchase meal plans allowing them a certain number of meals per week, month, or year. Low-income members of the community could apply for subsidized meal plans. Members could bring guests who would pay a higher, non-member price for a meal.
In partnership with the restaurant, members could vote on whether to boycott certain food suppliers, or only buy organic, local, or healthy ingredients for the meals served in the dining hall. They could establish types of foods that would be regularly served on certain nights so that members would know what to expect when signing up.
Neighborhood dining halls would have three types of tables:
1) Challenge tables. Through the dining hall website or app, members submit issues for the community to address. Issues can range from the local (e.g., “How can we reduce traffic congestion?”) to the national or global (e.g., “How can we prevent overfishing?”). When members arrive at the door, they see the challenges labeled with table numbers. If a challenge piques their interest, they sit at that table and discuss it over dinner. The member who submitted the challenge acts as table host. With the help of a printed guide or app, she guides the participants through analysis of the problem, inspiration, concepting, and refinement. White boards on wheels provide a chance to diagram solutions and develop action plans. The table host records the action plans and follows up with those who volunteer to take action. Some challenges span several nights or several tables.
2) Social tables.The list of tables at the door also includes tables with social discussion topics or themes, also submitted by members through the website or app. Examples include: “international travel,” “advice for new parents,” language tables, newspaper articles, and book club discussions. As with challenge tables, the member who submitted a social table topic is the table host for the evening. He invites newcomers to join and makes sure that everyone feels welcome at the table.
3) Open discussion tables. A number of tables are left with no assigned topics for those interested in normal, unguided conversations.
The dining hall could calibrate the number of tables in each category based on experience and the number of topic submissions by members.