How to Launch People in Poland

03/23/2015 07:26 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

Most NGOs focus on building and winning campaigns. They might have specific legislative goals. Or they might serve a watchdog function. Or they might amplify the concerns of a marginalized segment of society.

Stocznia, which is Polish for "shipyard," is a different kind of NGO. It functions like a university. It focuses on transforming people. And in that sense it's an educational institution -- but not like any educational institution you might have encountered in the past.

"With this educational institution we are trying to recruit people, mainly from academia, and organize them for two or three or four years," founder Kuba Wygnanski explained to me at the Stocznia headquarters in Warsaw in August 2013.

We call it a PhDo as opposed to a Ph.D. The first day they are here they know they will leave. That's a big difference with other organizations. But like many other organizations, we have to run programs and protests because nobody's going to fund us as an educational institution. We're also incubating projects. But the idea of Stocznia is to equip people with the skills that will stick with them over the long run, for another 20 years.

The name of the organization is important in this respect. The name "stocznia" connects the initiative to the original roots of the Solidarity movement -- the Gdansk shipyard. But the metaphor also applies to the organization's style of work. "We try to provide people with what you would find at a shipyard: the slope that allows you to launch a ship," Wygnanski observes. "So, we launch people."

Stocznia works in five fields: civic participation, volunteerism, social innovation, local community development, and providing a bridge between academia and real life. "We have our own theory of change that is pretty close to what you call in America a think tank, which generates knowledge," Wygnanski explains. "But we're also a do-tank, which means that we train people here along the lines of an open-knowledge model so that they can pass the knowledge to other people. We also work for systemic change through political brokerage. In all these five respective fields, we're trying to do as much as possible to create space and do the rule-setting for everyone."

The aim of Stocznia is to recreate the spirit of solidarity that animated Solidarity. "I'm very much into something at the moment called the 'script of cooperation,'" Wygnanski concluded.

During the time you were in Poland, it was a necessity, which was very sad in a sense. Your car broke down every winter, so you had to rely on other people. There were so many needs because we were not self-sufficient. I'm not trying to turn back the clock of history and say that that was a better time. But now we live in the worst possible time because we believe that we are self-sufficient and even mentioning that you need help from other people is kind of embarrassing. We believe that we can buy everything. This is like a children's illness that goes with the first phase of transformation.

We talked about the impact of privatization, the importance of social trust, and the sheer unpredictability of history.

The Interview

Tell me when Stocznia -- Shipyard -- began. Obviously from the name it seeks to establish some connection with Solidarity and the origins of Solidarity.

The Shipyard is a new organization, only four years old. I have in my life created and ruined many organizations. One of my problems has been a kind of hypertrophia of de-organization. This maybe is about my time and my age. I was looking for an organization that is resilient enough to be always open to new ideas. Otherwise we are very well-trained, also by Americans, in terms of mission statement, vision, blah blah blah. Basically, you have to have a target and go that way. This organization, and it's hard to see from the web page, is an educational institution. After all these years, I have realized that the best thing you can do is invest in people, and I know it's so naive, so banal to say that. But the big truths are usually banal. With this educational institution we are trying to recruit people, mainly from academia, and organize them for two or three or four years. We call it a PhDo as opposed to a Ph.D. The first day they are here they know they will leave. That's a big difference with other organizations. But like many other organizations, we have to run programs and protests because nobody's going to fund us as an educational institution. We're also incubating projects. But the idea of Stocznia is to equip people with the skills that will stick with them over the long run, for another 20 years. We're trying to train people not so much in skills but in attitudes. We are very careful not to be sectarian. But we are trying to work with people on a different set of values, on a different organizational culture that is very democratic and very fluid. We try to provide people with what you would find at a shipyard: the slope that allows you to launch a ship. So, we launch people.

We basically work in five fields. One is civic participation. The second is volunteerism, doing things for others. Then there's social innovation and local community development. Last but not least is providing a bridge between academia and real life. We have our own theory of change that is pretty close to what you call in America a think tank, which generates knowledge. But we're also a do-tank, which means that we train people here along the lines of an open-knowledge model so that they can pass the knowledge to other people. We also work for systemic change through political brokerage. In all these five respective fields we're trying to do as much as possible to create space and do the rule-setting for everyone.

Let's imagine that everything goes the way it's supposed to, at least in terms of the work here of Stocznia. How would Polish society look different in 20 years?

I'm not that omniscient, even though we train people in this kind of predictive technology and we're obviously analyzing those trends of political, economic organizations. My biggest lesson is that beyond a few things, like demography, we live at a time that is completely unpredictable, starting obviously with technology. We should be suspicious of anyone who says something about what will happen in the future more than three years from now. We know so little.

For us, at Stocznia, crisis is not a small change in the trajectory of growth: it's a permanent thing. We are Schumpeterians, in the sense that we believe that you have to live with crisis as a permanent feature. So, there is no single life skill you can have. For example, our approach to innovation is not an extravaganza for academics. It's a survival skill for smarter societies, communities, and so on. So, we have a very different approach.

I very often quote this famous prophecy of Ralf Dahrendorf that the transformation will take six months to change a political system, six years to change an economic system, and 60 years to change a society. That's on the one hand aspirational. On the other hand, it's not going to happen during my life! But probably in this country we did as much as possible. I'm not trying to overestimate the work of many people to create the overall structures and conditions for the work of third sector organizations, but we did a lot of that. And I was part of almost all of the work in building this synthetic or organic civil society -- the legislation, funding, everything -- but you can go only so far with that, obviously in terms of deeper cultural changes. The clock is ticking in generations. That's what I understand from my own kids. So, 20 years from now, the whole concept of civil society will be completely different, less institutional and more of a process, more personal than organizational, more of a network than a hierarchy. It's become all about communication. Here in Poland, we have a lot of institutions. But in terms of communication, of being able to listen to each other -- as opposed to shouting or even speaking slowly or in monologues -- we have a long way to go.

Otherwise, there are a few things that are certain about, such as what the demographers call the grey avalanche: the aging of the population. The biggest problem for Europe, and I'm not very original in arguing this, is probably demography and the dignity of the dying. I have the privilege of going every two years to Yale University, a privilege I don't always use. There's always this moment when you arrive from Poland, where you have this feeling of exceptionalism. Even Europe and the United States have that as well. But Europe is becoming a much smaller part of the world. The simple fact is that in 2045 the GDP per capita in China will be bigger than the average in the EU. Geopolitics is changing so fast that you get the feeling that you are living, possibly, at the end of time. My main preoccupation is distinguishing between things you can prepare for, things that are unavoidable, and things that are unexpected.

I'm writing something right now about the disease of short-termism, which is something that you can find in a lot of different structures. But I'm talking about it in terms of our political structures and our economic structures, which are largely liberal in character and basically short-term in their perspective. Regardless of how any individual might look at the world, we're forced by elections every four years or every two years to focus on short-term results. With the economy, we're increasingly focused on short-term profit.

That's true. When it comes to consumer habits, you have to satisfy yourself immediately. Then there's the political short-termism. Everything has to be now and fast. It's hard for us to think about humankind, because that's over the long term. You can sacrifice lots of things in terms of your own life. But you basically are unable to localize yourself in the right moment of a trajectory. That's why it is so difficult to address the dignity of dying, of being old.

If everything is increasingly unpredictable, that undercuts our ability to make any long-term plans. So maybe "short term" or "long term" is not the way to look at it but rather simply in terms of predictability and the impact of technology and everything else on that predictability.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.