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  • Harry Hobson

How Glimpse Project got started – personal account from Harry Hobson

Harry, looking a bit worried (can’t remember why) outside Westminster Abbey. This is the nearest church to Neighbourly Lab’s offices and I sometimes go to services there.

I’m Harry – one of the Directors and founders of Neighbourly Lab. This post is about the zig-zaggy journey that led to crystallising the Glimpse Project.

Between 2015-2020 I was working as a researcher at Stripe Partners, working for big tech-firms in California (like Facebook and Intel) and I was at the forefront of their application of advanced research methods to help those firms better anticipate their users’ needs and concerns. My work for them focused on how ethnographic techniques (deep listening for intuition or unconscious motivations) can leverage the power of “big-data” analysis and Machine Learning to generate commercially actionable insights. This work covered deep attitudinal issues such as privacy, polarisation and social-alienation. So that was my work-life.

Meanwhile, back at home in London, I was (and still am) a regular church-goer. I was teaching Sunday School for a dozen kids at my local church; and with that I felt a responsibility to introduce and explain Christianity properly, and to answer their (searching, brilliant) questions.

The kids’ questions made me realise, to my alarm, that I had minimal grasp of my own spiritual or religious beliefs, in spite of years of church-going and some academic study in theology.

So I started trying to apply the techniques from my work-life (distillation, analysis) to elicit from my own head what I actually believed. The first go at this was called “God on A4”, meaning I had to try and write down my whole belief-system on one side of paper. I found this very helpful and rather satisfying. I talked a lot about this with my friend Nick Turner (a friend from our strategy-consulting days) and he also was exploring his Christian faith in a similar way.

At the same time, I was feeling two things about my religious-worship. I didn’t like saying the “Creed” and felt unsure why I should have to sign up wholesale to a big list of beliefs I didn’t really understand. And while I was in church I’d often look around at my fellow-worshippers when they said “I believe in God” and I wondered what we were all thinking when we said that - what is it that each person actually believes in? Is it all the same? (probably not) or all totally different (again, probably not).

What are we all thinking?

This process of “getting it down on a page” then led to doing this same exercise with many friends and family, and we saw its simple power: that people are capable of answering in just a few words what their God is like. We played around with lots of different ways of framing the “Magic question” and we’ve settled now on this “If you believed in God, what would your god be like?”

We found that people liked answering this question! It tended to feel powerful and satisfying for people: taking them from a position of deficit (overwhelmed or muddled or feeling like “is it just me who’s not getting this?!”) to a position of positive affirmation (“this is my Glimpse, and it’s mine and it’s valid and I can take it from here”).

And at the same time I was surprised by how religion or spirituality had fallen away from the everyday public-conversation – and it puzzled me that something that matters for millions of people had no “oxygen” in everyday conversation. In particular it struck me in 2019-20 as I founded Neighbourly Lab with two other partners (one Jewish, the other Muslim). We three friends and partners talked about all about social-attitudes and division and cohesion etc, but somehow we didn’t touch religion. Why? Why had religion become (in a very English way) a topic “best avoided”? I realised that I was worried about talking to other people about their faith or spirituality in case I inadvertently caused offence, or embarrassed myself.. It was odd to feel this anxiety about a topic that’s so core to everyone’s experience. So I started to hope that this Glimpse method might offer a way to rehabilitate it back into the cultural conversation and into everyday conversations between friends, colleagues and families.

This led Neighbourly Lab to pursue this project, to see how we can combine the power of data-science and social-science to illuminate what’s going on the heads of people, when it comes to spiritual-yearning or religious-belief. We joined up with our partners at Woolf Institute because of their leadership in empirical research into religious attitudes. See this article here for more about the Glimpse project and how it fits into Neighbourly Lab’s mission.

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