Zita Cobb has long treasured the isolated geography of her native Fogo Island, and its unique culture. A fleck of land off Newfoundland’s northeastern edge, Fogo’s tiny economy was devastated by the decline of its cod fishery. Its luck changed when Cobb—who made her fortune in the tech business—returned home to establish the Shorefast Foundation and the renowned Fogo Island Inn, aiming to rebuilding her community’s economic resilience.
She spoke to John Stackhouse and Naomi Powell about communities in a digital age and why the pandemic has made the world seem more like a zero-sum game.
Zita, where have you spent the pandemic?
I’m in Ottawa. I’ve been in this frickin’ chair for 15 months, and it’s like a cockpit. I’ve been faced with the choice of ‘where do I put myself for this time?’ And I elected to put myself where there was the best Internet.
How has our notion of community changed in a digital age?
Community, I’ve always maintained, is not something that happens online. These are networks. A community is a physical geographic place where people live in some kind of tangle. They have a shared fate. And if a community is going to survive at all, it needs to have an economy. If there’s no community economy, we’ll all live in Toronto. It’s as simple as that.
Community, I've always maintained, is not something that happens online.
Do you believe places like Fogo or Iqaluit can have people working and communing with people from anywhere?
Absolutely. We now have a very robust, supercharged investment economy and a very small production economy. How can we start to get some investment capital flowing into a production economy in Iqaluit? That won’t happen all by itself. That requires public policy. That requires us as citizens to think about what we’re optimizing for.
And what do you think we need to be optimizing for?
Nature and culture—the two great garments of human life. Business and technology are the two great tools that can and should serve them: that’s E.F. Schumacher. What is culture? Culture is nothing more than a human response to a place.
Are you suggesting that the prototypical software coder, should they or their team situate in Fogo, actually become different over time?
I’m saying exactly that. We have an artist in residence program for contemporary artists, most of whom are very urban and highly conceptual in their work. We do not prescribe any kind of project or subject area. They just come. Almost to a person, you put them there for a few months, and the work becomes about a human relationship with place.
How have we changed in the last 15 months?
I think our fears have become amplified and our dreams somewhat diminished. And you either let your life be ruled by your fears or your dreams. I also think those of us that may have tended to be selfish before we got into this mess are even more so. We’ve been using our brains too much and we’ve been separated from each other in meaningful ways. When we’re disembodied, the world feels more like a zero sum game.
I think our fears have become amplified and our dreams somewhat diminished. And you either let your life be ruled by your fears or your dreams.
In this crisis, we’ve been able to get dinner with two taps of a thumb. There is no friction. It’s all transactions.
Yes and friction is very good. At some point we’re going to have to make a decision about whether we’re going back to the bumpy, sticky, smelly world of relationships and meaning. I’m optimistic because humans are actually meaning-making creatures. I think we will make a decision to return.
How has your organization’s work gone through the pandemic?
At the Fogo Island Inn, less than 5% of our guests come from within Atlantic Canada. So we had to close. Our work is about economic dignity, so for us to have to lay off people because we simply couldn’t open was the most gut-wrenching, heart-destroying thing. We live in Canada, so there were enough programs that people didn’t starve to death, but nobody wants to be thrown out of work for 15 months.
What went well?
What’s flourishing are our efforts to take our community economic development approaches to the world. We’ve commenced a pilot project with Community Foundations of Canada. The thesis is that the basic unit of change is a community—and communities have been hollowed out over the last 50 years by wrong-minded globalization. So what does community economic development look like? What are the best practices? Coming up with the platforms for policymakers, businesses and communities to work together on these things—that’s the key.
Vaccines are now rolling out, what does the future of travel look like?
I think travel has a bright future but it will be very different. I don’t think business travel has the same future in terms of size of market, and I think that’s a good thing. I think the future of travel is community-based and carbon light. One of the things we’ve done is to move to a model of longer stays, so fewer people jetting in and out, staying longer.
Is the longer stay primarily about the carbon footprint?
It is. But travel is also about getting a shift in perspective. The longer people stay, the better it is for them and the better it is for us because it’s just less churn, fewer transactions. Travel should not be about transactions. What we need is travel that is about relationships.
We live in the most abstract age in history. Why aren’t we better at it?
I think it all came too fast. I’m not advocating going back to live my father’s life. I just think that in many ways, he was better off than I am. He had very rich relationships with nature, very rich social connections. He knew who he was. People didn’t go shopping for identities. The possibility of money and technology, we let it run away with us too fast. We could have everything if we could just grow up fast enough to understand these things are just tools. We need to hurry up and figure out how to reconcile our physical embodied selves with the increasing presence of abstract forces in our lives.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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