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November 18, 2011

In the land of dreamers

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/in_the_land_of_dreamers_20111118

NIcholas and Elisa Frank, a father-daughter team with big dreams and eLABORATE plans to change the basic structure of our society. Photo by Courtney Raney

NIcholas and Elisa Frank, a father-daughter team with big dreams and eLABORATE plans to change the basic structure of our society. Photo by Courtney Raney

In early 1945 in Hungary, as the Nazis were being routed out of Budapest by the Soviet army, 8-year-old Nicholas Frank came out of the Red Cross shelter where he, his mother and his older sister had been hiding. He looked at the destroyed city around him and realized that this devastation was not an act of nature. National leaders and influential decision-makers had caused it to happen. Even at 8, he sensed there must be a better way for human beings to live together.

That 8-year-old — now 74 — has devoted much of his life to finding that better way. Frank’s decades-long search has included intensive study of economic and environmental sustainability, alternative energy, urban design, new technologies, innovative engineering, land use, climate change and many other related topics. He’s also devoted a lot of serious thought to how we can live more harmoniously, with less stress.

His travels have included a period of 18 months in Europe, as well as visits to other lands, where he has closely observed how people live and work. Along the way, he has written and self-published two volumes on synergy — how interacting elements in nature connect with one another. The first was about how synergetic concepts apply to the individual, the second about how synergetic thinking functions in society — all precursors to the work he is doing now.

Frank’s lifetime obsession to find a better way for human beings to live has culminated in an urgent call to action, which he and his daughter, Elisa, call the Holigent Plan. On their Web site, holigent.org, as well as in a book that the father-and-daughter team recently completed, the Franks argue that our society is in a “race against time.”

On their Web site, the Franks make their case that our current way of life is “nearly bankrupt [and] unsustainable … threatened by depleting resources, coupled with our ever-expanding need for energy and materials.” If we don’t take bold steps to change this trajectory, they argue, we face a “probable socioeconomic and environmental collapse.” 

“We need to reorganize society while we still have options,” Elisa Frank, 28, said in an interview. She completed her master’s degree in geography and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2009 and has worked with her father for the last two years on developing the nonprofit Holigent. She said the Holigent Plan promotes the notion that our future is “not just about being green, or about water conservation. Those are important, but what we also need is a comprehensive economic solution that proposes a way for people and businesses to survive and thrive.”

Beneath the Franks’ dense social-science jargon — “Holigent,” a word they invented, is an amalgam of holistic/emergent; and they use phrases such as “sustainable hybrid socioeconomic operating system” — is a potentially revolutionary plan to “redesign” the way we “live, work, commute, consume and govern ourselves.”

The Franks’ Holigent Solution is complex, but boiled down to its essence, it envisions a future where society is restructured, at least partly, into small, manageable villages — urban or rural — where residents work, live and spend their leisure time in a cohesive, largely self-sustaining and self-sufficient mixed-use community that is mostly car-free and scaled comfortably to fit a lifestyle low in environmental impact and energy use. These villages would be run by an on-site nonprofit organization, which would rent out spaces to businesses and living quarters to those businesses’ employees and their families. 

A Holigent Village, the Franks write in their book, is a “walkable community that consists of low-, mid- and high-rise mixed-use residential and commercial structures. The village will provide office, light industrial and commercial spaces, a shopping promenade and parks with recreational facilities.” The Franks’ plan would limit sprawl so that each Holigent community retains its human-scale, accessible nature.

Further into the future, the Holigent program envisions several urban villages that could be clustered together or “strung out to include a range of socioeconomic groups ... as well as industrial areas.” This group of villages would then form a Holigent Town, which would include a downtown area, all of which would be connected by “high-speed train or monorail.”

At the heart of the Holigent Plan is a trifecta of complementary entities that together sustain each village: a nonprofit that manages the village, the businesses that locate there, and the employee/residents who live and work in the village. The Franks call it the Holigent Delta Plan.

The first step on the agenda to realize the plan would be to build a demonstration village that would put into practice the Franks’ theories and serve as a model for other such communities. “Such a development,” the Franks have written on their Web site, “will facilitate and demonstrate the transition from suburban sprawl and car-dependency” to a life that is “safe, affordable and sustainable.”

Nicholas and Elisa Frank met with this reporter in the sunroom at the Franks’ modest, comfortable house in West Los Angeles. Nicholas — with scarce salt-and-pepper hair, rimless glasses, a thick mustache, a quick smile and a sophisticated, self-deprecating sense of humor — is full of cheerful energy and looks younger than his 74 years. He has a soft, accented voice, a gentle Old World manner, and he pauses thoughtfully before choosing the precise word or phrase. There’s a light in his eyes, which could be a sign of eccentricity, or the mark of a visionary genius focused on what mankind needs to do to create a sustainable future.

Nicholas’ father, a Budapest attorney who also delved into social analysis, died of natural causes in 1942. Nicholas spent the war years in Hungary, with his mother and older sister, in a ghetto where he wore a yellow star, and later managed to dodge death by hiding in cellars and attics, obtaining false papers and finally finding refuge at a Red Cross shelter. After surviving World War II, the family remained in Hungary under rigid Soviet rule.

In 1956, Nicholas, then 19, escaped to neighboring Austria, crossing a muddy field under cover of darkness. Eventually he made his way to Canada.

In Hungary, Nicholas had learned the craft of instrumentation, assuring that measuring devices function as they should. He worked in the same field in Canada, then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in aircraft instrumentation for Continental Airlines. Earning a decent and steady salary, Nicholas and his wife were able to buy income property, which allowed him to retire from his airline job while still in his 40s.
With much more time on his hands, Nicholas devoted himself entirely to considering mankind’s existential problems and possible solutions. 

He has had no formal education in city planning, the environment, social sciences or anthropology. He is self-taught,  his research self-directed. He jokes that his lack of formal training gives him an advantage. “It’s easy for me to think outside the box,” he said, “since I never entered the box in the first place.”

Elisa, who serves as managing director of Holigent, acknowledges that her father — because of his nonacademic path — may meet with resistance when he presents his ideas to potential investors, developers and politicians.

“I understand the comfort some people feel knowing that someone has this piece of paper saying that this degree was awarded by an institution,” she said. “People look for credentials, what degrees you have, your previous accomplishments. So it’s a little harder for my dad,” she said, adding, “maybe it’s helpful that I went through the process and have those degrees.”

Elisa said she and her father have been influenced by many engineering books and articles devoted to energy use, carbon footprint, community development and so on. But, for her father, the most formative source of inspiration has been nature itself.

“The Holigent Village is built on human scale,” Elisa said. “This village uses well-established science in order to achieve a self-organizing sustainability that, like nature, would evolve and adapt to future situations. … Nature always tries to do the most with the least. And the Holigent Plan takes that as a guideline.”

Nicholas explained why he calls the Holigent Plan a “hybrid”: It combines elements of capitalism (businesses are free to locate there and to make a profit) with a concept not normally discussed in capitalist theory: using community service hours as currency.

“Residents participate in community service based on their skill and abilities,” he explained. This service, which is entirely voluntary, and is coordinated by the nonprofit management, earns the residents “community credits,” which they can use to pay rent.
During severe economic downturns, businesses have the option of slowing down or even shutting down altogether, which the Franks refer to as a “dormant” phase. During a dormant period, the employees/residents go on unpaid furlough. Employees can weather these dormant periods, when they are out of work entirely, by doing more community service to pay the cost of living. At the same time, all participating employers must be able to show they have the resources to survive a dormant period.

According to Nicholas, “This aspect of the Holigent Plan provides a kind of insurance that would preserve a business’ workforce and assets, and it would also preserve the employee/residents’ housing and essential quality of life.”

An underlying belief in the Franks’ book is that “people will come to live and work in Holigent communities attracted by cost-of-living advantages, job security, housing security, physical safety and stress-free healthful living.” According to the Franks, the Holigent Proposal “has no foreseeable negative aspects.”

Asked about issues such as education, health care and social services, Nicholas said they would be handled by “an unconventional combination based on prevention and reducing social, economic and environmental stresses.” He added that the detailed solutions to these complex issues are in the book — titled “The Holigent Solution: How to Win the Transition Race to Economic Security, Quality of Life, Peace, and Sustainability” —which he expects will be available on Amazon by January 2012.

Nicholas pointed out that the Holigent Plan differs from other planned communities for two main reasons: 1) The Holigent Delta Plan takes economic downturns into account; and 2) each Holigent Village will be run by a nonprofit management organization, which — the Franks believe — would be less subject to corruption. Also, because members of the management team live in the village, there would be a sense of pride in the success of the community as a motivating force.

Because the Holigent Village model bears some resemblance to an Israeli kibbutz, Nicholas explained the key differences.

“In my opinion,” Nicholas said, “the kibbutz is too regimented; it does not take into account the individual need for self-expression and creativity.” He explained that in a kibbutz, the entire community — not the individual kibbutz member — decides on what businesses or factories to build and develop. In a Holigent Village, an individual entrepreneur can establish any business — an essential capitalist tenet — so long as that business’ owner agrees to abide by the Holigent rules.

The Holigent Plan has not yet been subjected to peer review or assessed by those who have written and thought long and hard about what future sustainable communities could look like. But that may soon change. The Franks expect that once their book and ideas become known, experts from various fields of study will weigh in with their thoughts, suggestions and critiques.

The Franks, meanwhile, are charging ahead. Their next step, now that their book is completed, is to launch a fundraising campaign to attract large donors to support the building of the demonstration village.

Elisa, soft-spoken and articulate, realizes she and her father are going to meet with dismissive doubters, those who suspect the Holigent Plan is some sort of scam — after all, we now live in the post-Madoff era. Elisa said she understands the skepticism, given that their plan is radical and untested, and that it doesn’t come from a well-known, wealthy developer or the established academic world.

“We’re aware that what we’re proposing sounds pretty far-out to a lot of people,” Elisa said. “So we’re attempting to be an open book. What my dad wrote opens all the doors, gives people much more background, much more of an inside story. We’ve got nothing to hide, so [if] anybody wants to know anything, it’s there.”

In spite of the resistance and disbelief they’re sure to encounter, father and daughter are unwaveringly optimistic. They’re convinced the Holigent Solution can change mankind’s trajectory. Their book’s original subtitle says it all: “How I Hope My Children and Yours Will Survive and Thrive on Our Wonderful but Troubled and Endangered Planet.”

The Franks, by all appearances, are a typical nuclear family: Nicholas and his wife, Marsha, have been married for more than 30 years, and Elisa and her older brother, Devin, grew up in a family-friendly middle-class neighborhood near the Pico-Robertson area. They are, by any measure, people we’d all recognize as friends and neighbors.

And yet what’s jarring is the contrast between this conventional family and the radical ideas that have been developed here — ideas which, if put into effect, could dramatically alter the way people live. Sitting in her family’s home, Elisa leafed through the manuscript of their book.

“This is very personal for me,” Elisa said of the pages that contain not only their far-reaching ideas, but also her father’s family history. “It’s such a powerful story ... several times I broke down sobbing.”

Nicholas was also moved to tears as he carefully turned the fragile pages of an old notebook: the writings of his father, who died when Nicholas was 4 years old. Choked with emotion, Nicholas said that his father was a dreamer, too, who wrote about how to improve the lives of European workers.

Grandfather, father, daughter. Three generations of dreamers.

As history has often proved, the line between dreamer and visionary depends less on the substance of the dream than on whether that dream gets carried out. Who knows if, generations from now, someone will look back at these ideas as a turning point in the history of mankind?

Great societal shifts — from communism to Zionism to democracy, from social networks to personal computers, from public transport to public libraries — all begin with a seemingly wild dream, a castle in the air.

But as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

That is exactly what Nicholas Frank, a retired Hungarian Shoah survivor, a solitary thinker living in a modest home in West Los Angeles, is now doing. After spending decades building castles in the air, he and his daughter are putting out their ideas for public scrutiny, hoping that others agree with — and support — their vision.

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