25 October 2013
The Brave New World of Empowered People
Brooklyn Beta was inspiring. The conference had a great message. Make what you love, follow your passion, build it and the rest will come. However, there was another common thread naturally emerging from the talks. Scott Barron recognized it, and it resonated with me.
Scott was inspired by a talk that I missed. It was given by David Marquet, a Naval Sub Commander who transformed his leadership style after discovering his sub had the worst performance record in the fleet. He turned it around by enabling his crew. He vowed never to give another order. He pushed for leadership at every level. He relinquished his control. He enabled to those members of his crew with the information to make decisions, and to great success. On a subsequent inspection, the submarine and its crew received the highest grade ever seen.
I recognize an emerging cultural shift towards succeeding through giving. Adam Grant keynoted Bold Fusion this year here in town. His book is “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success”. We were encouraged during an ice-breaker to “ask for help with something”. I left there having found an apartment to live in. The Internet perpetuates this exponentially. It’s changing the way that people think about how they can succeed, and enables them to collaborate and contribute on a huge scale.
AirBnB co-founder Joe Gebbia described the phenomenon in his talk. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the commercial platform transformed. AirBnB enabled people with resources to connect quickly with people who were in need. In the days following, fourteen hundred homes were offered up by AirBnB hosts in New York, for free. AirBnB did not promote this. Seeing it happening, the company scrambled to facilitate it.
We’ve found that if there is a platform for people to contribute, they will. This article on Cincinnati’s Open Data movement describes Boston’s Adopt-a-Hydrant program. Code for America developed a system in which “Citizens volunteer to dig out the city’s more than 13,000 fire hydrants after heavy snowstorms, a task traditionally reserved for the city’s fire department.” The Open Data movement is enabling access and participation in civility on the same scale that the Open Source enabled it for software.
Anybody who has worked in Open Source software is not surprised by this phenomenon. Open Source is a social experiment that has been going on for decades now. We’ve proved conclusively that given a need, software developers will step up and contribute without a promise of compensation. Recognition, accomplishment, and being a part of something is rewarding. We have found that the quality of software created in this way is, at worst, on par with software created proprietorially. At best, it’s almost twice the quality.
What happens when you mix Open Source with Open Data? I can assure you, there are hundreds of highly talented, highly motivated software developers salivating at the thought of tackling Healthcare.gov. I have no doubt The American public would have developed, transparently, and for free, a product vastly superior to the failure it paid thirteen billion dollars for.
It was not always obvious to me that Open Source was going to work. I credit Tim O’Reilly with having the vision to recognize it and confidence to push it. Terms like Open Source and Open Data don’t just emerge out of the ether and catch fire. These are ideas that are recognized, branded, and actively marketed by people who realize they are powerful and important. We all have to fly the banner and spread the understanding of these ideas.
The Rise of The Makers
Another Tim O’Reilly marketing legacy is the Maker Movement. The Maker Movement is about figuring out how to make or do stuff on one’s own, rather than purchasing pre-packaged goods or services. The core idea is to created more value than you consume. People have been making for years, why is it now a movement? Passionate people engaged in incredibly niche-y pursuits have direct access to each other, and to fans of their work, through the Internet.
In this century, regular people have access to resources and audiences that used to require the combined efforts of an institute or corporation. Elizabeth Naramore told me about a woman she encountered online, an Internet rockstar with a gigantic following. This person was presumably making thousands of dollars designing outfits for virtual cats in Second Life. Meanwhile, we’re still in an era where most of the worlds “Makers” are waiting for their cousin’s wife’s cousin to finish their e-commerce website. It’s only a matter of time until the world realizes that selling things online is a solved problem.
Rockford Illinois is a city facing seemingly insurmountable problems of unemployment, crime, and dropping property values. Rockford’s Mayor Larry Morrissey recently shook things up by reaching out to Etsy. He tweeted at the company, asking for help. How could Etsy help educate Rockford’s residents to take their livelihoods into their own hands and apply their skills towards an entrepreneurial path. To create an economy from the ground up, rather than push it from the top down. Government bureaucracies don’t have the resources or creativity to create economies where they don’t exist, people empowered by the Internet do.
Defy Ventures is an organization promoting just that for people who have arguably the hardest time entering the workforce. Those with criminal records. In many cases, these people have demonstrated an impressive drive and hustle to succeed in their illicit activities. Defy identifies those who have exhibited that drive, paired with the willingness to turn their life around. They get them started running small, legitimate, cash generating businesses, with a goal of turning that success into bigger and better things. The early results have been stellar. Small businesses are generating revenue, and recidivism rates have dropped by an order of magnitude. It’s never been easier to teach someone how to fish, the gear is cheap and available, and the pond is larger than it’s ever been.
Take the Keys
We are finding that we can solve problems and create prosperity in a whole new way, by handing the keys over to people. In most cases, the people are just taking the keys anyway, and that’s a beautiful thing. The Internet is changing the world. This isn’t really big news. However, personally, I’ve not experienced and internalized this new truth to the extent that I am now. We’re moving towards economies financed, owned, and controlled democratically by the people they serve. We’re moving towards communities that are improved by the direct actions of citizens, using platforms that empower them to share and contribute. We’re moving towards a world in which people can realize themselves, and are free to engage in the things that provide them the most satisfaction, most of the time.