In the land of dreamers


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.”