is the founder of ServiceSpace, an incubator of projects that works at the intersection of volunteerism, technology and gift-economy
Reading Time: 10 minutes
What if your cheque read zero after you had an excellent meal in a restaurant?
And what if you found out that a person who ate here before you paid your bill?
Would you then pay it forward for those who dine after you?
Many people would as it left them with a very warm feeling of gratefulness for the excellent food but even more for the stranger who gifted them anonymously with a meal.
KarmaKitchen is the name of such a restaurant and it exists internationally in 23 venues but also acts repeatedly in popup kitchens like lately in Vienna hosted by www.markhof.wien, cooked by Sebastian Müller, www.nasesiebzig.com and the incredible crowd of www.dreamacademia.com.
Special guest Nipun Mehta is the founder of KarmaKitchen but also of many other volunteer based initiatives like www.ServiceSpace.org, www.kindspring.org, www.dailygood.org, a network that meanwhile encompasses more than five hundred thousand members and delivered millions of dollars in free services.
From its very inception, the focus of these endeavors has been on the inner change that comes when people take the opportunity to act selflessly. Its founder Nipun has received many awards like Dalai Lama’s Unsung Hero of Compassion and has been appointed in 2015 to President Obamas council on poverty and inequality. His work is in the now – yet he has a very strong sense of how groundedness in your own foundational values and changes in education will be our back up to navigate the terrain of the unknown future. A future where work will be redefined as we have no experience of working in an environment that consists of very different entities like artificial intelligence, augmented human beings and a whole arena of biotech.
You started as four people and built an international ecosystem run by volunteers aiming to bring more kindness to the world. How did you begin?
Nipun Mehta: Service Space never really tried to create itself. It just happened. We started in 1999 in Silicon Valley, where greed was in the air. Everyone started dot-com companies and dreamt of selling it for millions. We wanted to do something different. We were four people who wanted to serve without strings attached. We went to a homeless shelter to offer help. As we didn’t exactly know how to help, we offered to build them a website because we knew how to do it. I was an engineer from the Silicon Valley, and at that time, nobody knew what a website was. It was very innovative. So we had to explain to the people from the shelter what it was about and convince them of the advantages.
I remember once a woman gave me a screwdriver and said: You guys look like good people, here’s a screwdriver, here’s my computer, you can put in whatever you want.
(Nipun smiles) When I said: No, we’re going to do it from home. She frowned and asked: What kind of volunteering is this?
With this act a revolution began and as a side effect you built a market for volunteering in developing websites?
Nipun Mehta (laughs): Yes. In a way. This is how it started. We soon got a lot of press coverage, because at that time to start volunteering like this and not looking for a way to monetize our service was not very common. We didn’t even build a nonprofit organization, it was just love. And it grew. Thousands of volunteers took time off from their fancy jobs – even if it was for a few hours a week – and signed up for the simple, no-frills idea of helping nonprofits building websites. No money was charged, and no money was given. Everything was free.
and a whole network of volunteers evolved…
Nipun Mehta: Over the next dozen years, we delivered millions of dollars in free services and organically grew our programs into over a dozen core projects. More than five hundred thousand users joined as members. We never held any intention to grow an organization or create systemic change.
We had no plans, no agenda, no strategy, and yet, everything emerged. Like the flashlight principle. If you shine a flashlight at point Z, you’re not going to see point A, B or C. But if you just take that next step, you get to the next step, and then the next and then the next. I would have never thought that in 20 years, we would be where we are today. But here we are. It’s just one small step at a time.
How can one become part of this network?
Nipun Mehta: Tag someone with a Smile Card, sit in silence in an Awakin Circle, sign up for DailyGood, volunteer on a ServiceSpace project, start a gift-economy endeavor, host public an event with everyday heroes, or simply do an act of kindness that makes you come alive. In serving others, we stay connected.
Do you have a plan where the future will take you?
Nipun Mehta (laughs): The real answer is no. But if you want me to sound intelligent, I can give you some answers.
Maybe just an idea?
Nipun Mehta: One of the things that I’m very excited about, which will launch soon, it’s the idea of multiple forms of capital. We think that wealth equals money, but there are numerous other forms of wealth. We have many systems that keep the wheels of money spinning, so many markets, derivatives, people trading in all kinds of ways.
We haven’t really started to do that with other forms of capital like time, or community, or nature, or even attention.
There’s a million different kinds of capital.
How do you start to engage with these different forms of capital?
Nipun Mehta: We want to create a marketplace that accepts multiple forms of capital as payment.
How could that look like?
Nipun Mehta: For example, let’s say I make a little beanie. For making and selling a beanie, I could get financial capital, and I do need financial capital for a certain percentage. Normally when you purchase something online at the check out you can choose between different forms of payment like credits cards, paypal or other financial payment options. But it could also show a list of alternative payment options that offers multiple ways to contribute to this beanie.
What options could that be?
Nipun Mehta: You may say: I’m willing to receive community capital for my beanie. So I go out, do an act of kindness, tell you the story and you’re happy with that.
Or you may say: I want meditation capital. So I meditate for an hour, write a reflection and share it with you. Or you want to be paid in kindness capital. So I may say: I do an act of kindness with my kids, take a photo and I’ll send it to you. I may as well donate to a nonprofit, and send you the receipt.
All these things have value. And the beanie, that you have knitted by hand, also has a certain value, but it doesn’t always have to be financial value.
Imagine you would have all these other options to choose from and what would that look like?
The idea that you don’t want anything in return for yourself would create a beautiful connection. I think there’s a lot of people who care for connection more than they care for financial capital. And I think this portal will allow that to happen. The idea is not trading favors and hence trading in alternate currency. It’s actually paying it forward and trusting that process.
How did this idea come up?
Nipun Mehta: A lot of people that ask us where they could share their gifts. At the moment there’s no space for these gifts to be shared, because our market economy is very narrow.
Like this we can liberate these gifts and put them into circulation in society. That’s something that I’ve been excited about, and I think it’s going to be a game changer.
Do you think basic income could help in this process as it could be a way to change the perception of how we value work? If we had basic income we wouldn’t be respected for how much money we have as it is now the case for many people. The respect could come from how much we contribute to society.
Nipun Mehta: I think, by the time we’ve got basic income, the only reason we’ll get it is because robots have taken over our jobs. Which has been a main motivation for people to have this conversation even now. I don’t think it’s out of making people equal, I don’t think it’s giving people space to explore their purpose or passion, I think it is coming as a defensive measure. Because we are seeing that robots are going to come, and already a lot of jobs are being displaced and many more will be gone soon.
Basic income does sound good, and I think it’ll be necessary. But it’s not that we’re offering poor people to come alive. Ultimately we’ll have to change people’s mindsets and hearts if we are going to have a truly revolutionary way of looking at life.
How will we achieve this?
Nipun Mehta: I think meaning and purpose is going to be an increasingly relevant conversation.
Up to a certain point during the history of humanity it was just survival. Now that we have that taken care of in many parts of the world, what is the meaning and purpose?
The edge is that on one side you have power and on the other meaning. The more power we have, the more we dominate nature with all our technology, the less meaning we have. In times when we had less power, we created stories and myths that helped us to navigate a world that we weren’t in control of – like the thought that weather is controlled by the gods.
Now the rise in technology gives more control over many things, and as we are controlling more, we see the serious lack of meaning.
As we proceed, we’re going to see redundant conversations come up more and more. I think work is going to be completely redefined in the coming decade as we have many open questions for which we have to find answers.
What questions are those?
Nipun Mehta: For example when it comes to our working context
we don´t know what it means to work in a setting where you’re cooperating with very different entities like artificial intelligence, augmented human beings and a whole arena of biotech.
We don´t have experience to rely on, when it comes to this field.
Our education system is designed to prepare us for a known future, it doesn’t prepare us to handle the unknown.
With the rate of exponential change we are soon facing an unknown future. And not a future of 50 years but an unknown future of five years.
Ten years ago, we had no Whatsapp, it was just barely starting. It´s amazing what happened and we could have never predicted any of these things.
We are almost at a point where we’re facing an unknown future, but we have a population that is educated to handle the known.
Soon we´ll reach a point where the capacity you’re going to need, the person you want to hire will be the person who’s able to navigate the unknown.
And I don’t think we have a sufficient supply of people who know how to navigate the unknown with skillfulness, because there’s no recipe for it.
This will bring in the conversation of values. If you have a strong set of values, and you’re grounded in your own foundational values, you’ll be able to navigate the terrain of the unknown.
How could we change our education to learn how to navigation the unknown?
Nipun Mehta: Grounding the educational experience in values could be a strategy. The former process of education was based on the thought that students are empty buckets that need to be filled with knowledge. A different approach could be to think about education as lighting a candle, that will lighten that flame within. That flame is already there, it just needs to be ignited, and then it’s going to do its thing.
It’s not like you’re born bankrupt, and I need to dump all this education stuff on you and now you have it. It is about helping to awakening what was already there.
I think if we move to that model, we will have a population that says: Oh, I understand what this is about and that the circumstances are changing, but I’m going to make sense of it through that inner flame, through those values that have been my guiding light.
It took 38 years for radio to hit 50 million users, for TV it took 13 years, for android operating system it was 18 months – the timeline is shrinking and shrinking. It’s happening so fast, the only way to navigate it is to have a foundation of values. And I think we’ll do that once we understand that teaching is not filling an empty bucket, but about rekindling this inner flame. That makes me optimistic for the future.
Nipun Metha is the founder of ServiceSpace, an incubator of projects that works at the intersection of volunteerism, technology and gift-economy. What started as an experiment with four friends in the Silicon Valley has now grown to a global ecosystem of over 500,000 members that has delivered millions of dollars in service for free. Nipun has received many awards, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service, Wavy Gravy’s Humanitarian award, and Dalai Lama’s Unsung Hero of Compassion. In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed him to a council on poverty and inequality. Nipun is routinely invited to share his message of “giftivism” to wide ranging audiences, from inner city youth in Memphis to academics in London to international dignitaries at the United Nations; his speech at UPenn commencement in May 2012 was read by millions. He serves on the advisory boards of the Seva Foundation, the Dalai Lama Foundation, and Greater Good Science Center.