6 posts categorized "Small Changes. Big Difference."

February 06, 2013

A Pixar University for the Rest of Us



We hear about internal “Corporate Universities” at Pixar and Apple, and even at some of the high profile Silicon Valley startups – all organizations that want to be known for their innovation, creative problem-solving, success rates that exceed the industry norm, and engaged employees.  But what about the vast numbers of people at organizations that do not provide access to such programs internally (or otherwise through university-based executive bootcamps), or the growing number of individuals around the world who run smaller businesses (both tech and non-tech) and see themselves as “creative entrepreneurs?”  How can they design or access a program for themselves and colleagues that can provide them with both new perspectives and problem-solving skills that can rival, if not exceed, that of the corporate universities in terms of both content and integrated design?  The solution may well be in a combination of online continuing education platforms (synchronous and asynchronous) and facilitated/engaged real world realtime groups (e.g. meetups and discussion groups).  Different than signing up for a single technical course from a Udemy or Coursera (specific industry skill development), or listening to a TED Talk (largely inspiration vs. action focused), there might well be an orchestrated road map of several classes that in sequence add up to a powerful whole that bridges new ways of being with new skills.

What follows is a proposal of what one such road map might look like.  And it is one that is completely possible with technology and platforms available now.

What Is the North Star That Guides You?

As indicated by the infographic that opens this post, the touchstone for all of the classes in this model is an understanding by the individual of what their “North Star” is.  This is what guides, frames, and makes specific and actionable to them – all of the material in the other classes.  So it is only natural that the opening class in this approach is to help people begin to understand or verify their “North Star” – meaning that "internal compass that can guide you successfully through life."  It is that rock upon which your point of view and way of being in the world is built or checks into on the journey.  It is what is truthful to you, without needing permission from the rest of the world.

Sound a bit soft?  Perhaps, but that does not make it any less important.  And some of the leading agencies in the world of “challenger brands” talk about this on the level of definition for a company or brand (see the global consultancy “eat big fish” that calls this a "LightHouse Identity" for brands).

So how might we describe that foundation class?

In large part it is about the concept of path to authentic leadership and being an authentic human being – and entering the metaphorical crucible that burns away anything extraneous and untrue to reveal true intentions, character, values, principles, and path – and defines for each indivual what motivates them beyond making money.

Finding Your North Star – Your Personal Brand Truth 

Every individual’s path is personal and unique. There is no universal map that will guide us through life.  So how do we answer the questions: What do I do next? How do we deal with inertia?  Is there a necessary and irreconcilable division between the head and the heart? Can only impoverished poets follow their passions? How do we live a life that matters?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." - Joseph Campbell

Program Components and Structure

Four classes each then fall into two supporting categories of “Ways of Being” and “Skill Development.”  And an additional two classes fill a category that is focused on bridging these two categories.


“Ways of Being”

Traditional definitions of work culture, leadership and organizational values, along with the relentless urgency of most businesses, has resulted in an undermining of quality, creativity, engagement, and ultimately performance and productivity.  How do we redefine “ways of being” in business and other organizations to reclaim both personal and group performance levels, along with greater satisfaction and meaning?

Courses inlcude:

  1. Peak Performance
  2. Creative Confidence
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Compassionate Leadership


“Skill Development” 

There are a number of skills that can be learned over time – that have been mistakenly defined as the native talents of the few.  While some may come to these skills more easily than others, all can be learned and honed with practice and guidance.  All are relevant to those regardless of their walk of business life or left-right brain orientation.  And all contribute to powerful approaches to problem solving and the generation and realization of new ideas and approaches.

Courses inlcude:

  1. Humor and Improv
  2. Storytelling and Presentations
  3. Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
  4. Design Thinking 



There are two classes that fit neither solely in "Being" or "Skills" - but that actually serve as the actionable glue between the two categories of learning.

  1. Networking and Mentoring
  2. Habits and Behavior Design

Ways of Being

1. Peak Performance 

Is sustained high performance in the face of increasing pressure and rapid change possible? Can we take the learnings of elite athletes and apply them in the business world to individuals and teams?  Is there power in minding and feeding the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental/cognitive self and the connections between them?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“We grow the aspects of our lives that we feed – with energy and engagement – and choke off those we deprive of fuel. Your life is what you agree to attend to.” - Jim Loehr


2. Creative Confidence - Creativity Expanded

What exactly is creativity?  Just as there are multiple types of intelligence, creativity takes many forms.  What can the “creatives” and otherwise creative individuals learn from each other about tapping into that process?  How can we deal with “writer’s block,” find ways to step outside the box, and get comfortable with coloring outside the lines – as individuals, in groups, and as organizations?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“The mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this arises from within … and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or of its departure.” ― Percy Bysshe Shelley


3 and 4. Emotional Intelligence and Compassionate/Authentic Leadership

What if we began to see how the understanding of emotions in a business environment (one's own and those of others) was actually a net positive?  Emotional maturity and understanding have been shown to directly correlate to performance and the bottom line, as they travel from leaders throughout the organization.

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“The most successful business leaders are often experts in emotions.” ―  Chip Conley

Skill Development

1. The Serious Business of Humor and Improvisation

Not everything needs to be, or even should be, planned. Inspiration can come from many unexpected sources and improvisational techniques can help surface these and increase adaptability, creativity, and flexibility - even when you don’t know what’s coming next.

So how can we rediscover a sense of play and humor and apply them to the most serious or mundane of endeavors?  We often think about improvisation in terms of comedy, music, or acting, but the art of improvisation can be applied to all sorts of pursuits – from scientific exploration and experimentation, to the subtle diplomacy of peace negotiators, to sports, to business leaders and owners who must mix long-term planning with on-the-spot thinking as the landscape around them shifts in unexpected ways.

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“Basketball, unlike football with its prescribed routes, is an improvisational game, similar to jazz. If someone drops a note, someone else must step into the vacuum and drive the beat that sustains the team.”  ―  Phil Jackson


2. Storytelling and Presentations

We are creatures of the narrative, as little is more powerful than a great story. Great presenters need to be great storytellers - as a presentation is essentially a story with a purpose - to engage the audience, and eventually have them take ownership of the story.   The art of storytelling is not limited to the world of professional actors or writers, nor is a great presentation defined by how compex a slide deck may be.  Storytelling and presenting are skills that can be honed by studying and practicing the techniques and structures of the greats, and can be a game changer in business.

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“Structure is not a template. It’s not a cookie cutter. It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it… When I was young, I was so bewildered about how to cope with all that material. Leaning on structural planning is what got me out from under a 50-ton rock that was lying on my chest.” ― John McPhee

“Consider the kind of relationship you want to have with your audience. Do you want to be their hero? Their mentor? Their cheerleader? Like these characters, good presenters aren’t in it for themselves; they’re in it for others.”― Nancy Duarte


3. Negotiation and Conflict Resolution

Can we reexamine the roles of logic versus emotions/perceptions in the process of negotiation, and by making more powerful human connection with "the person across the table" actually become a more successful negotiator?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“We know - intellectually - that confronting an issue is the only way to resolve it. But any resolution will disrupt the status quo. Given the choice between conflict and change on the one hand, and inertia on the other, the ostrich position can seem very attractive.”  ― Margaret Heffernan 


4. Design Thinking  - From Inspiration to Idea to Invention to Innovation

Where do ideas come from?  How do they evolve from a thought into an invention, and from there through continuing phases of innovation.  How is the birth of a big idea different from that of an incremental refinement?  What is unique about the process of generating groundbreaking concepts, and then bootstrapping them into the physical world?  How do you build a culture of innovation to birth and support this?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“Defer judgment. Encourage wild ideas. Stay focused on the topic. The most important of them, I would argue, is ‘Build on the ideas of others.’ “ – Tim Brown


Bridging "Being" and "Skills" to Facilitate Change

1. Networking and Mentoring

How do we challenge the conventional understanding of networking and mentoring, redefining and implementing it in a way that is both personal and purposeful with an equally meaningful "give and ask".  How do we organize our relationships around our true beliefs?  What value do we want to bring to those with whom we connect in sometime murky situations?  How does this bring about measurable change?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.  

“The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaptation to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are. “  ― Daniel Pink


2. Habits and Behavior Design

Are we stuck in our current way of being and addressing problems and challenges? Or can we begin to redesign and reengineer our behavior as well as that of others?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” ― Charles Duhigg  


Moving Forward

This particular idea of a "Pixar University for the Rest of Us" is based around the concept of understanding and supporting a "Personal North Star" with actionable classes that challenge conventional thinking by (1) redefining ways of being in the business world, (2) teaching new skills that transcend job titles, and (3) developing the creative glue that bridges the two.

What would you change or add to the mix in terms of topics or instructors?  And do you think this could be achieved via a year long program (one topic per month) facilitated via an online learning environment with optional real world gatherings?   Favicon 


November 09, 2012

Technology and Live Events: Using Twitter to Reimagine a Woodstock for 2013


The Question

What might one of the iconic music and cultural events of the past century – Woodstock – look like today with the integration of digital and social technologies, especially with Twitter as the network?  And how might this compare almost 20 years later to the first experimental integration of digital consumer technology into the 25th anniversary of that live event?  (If your reading time is limited, go to the sections in this post labeled "Using Twitter to Reimagine a Woodstock for 2013" and "Woodstock-Twitter Schematic Elements.")

The Background

In 1969, Joni Mitchell said, "Woodstock was a spark of beauty" where half-a-million kids "saw that they were part of a greater organism." Without any real outside media coverage during the event, that experience was initially limited to those camped out for 4 days at the 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York.  The true size of that “greater organism” and the full impact of the cultural experience that transformed and energized a group into the “Woodstock generation”  - came later, delayed by limitations in distributing and sharing the experience.

Cut away to the present time, and we see widely adopted consumer media creation technologies and platforms like Twitter that when creatively deployed (with smart production values and rock solid engineering) in areas such as politics, entertainment, and sports  - create real-time living breathing “organisms” (we might now say audience or community) that are “Woodstock worthy” in terms of the potential for impact - and that powerfully bridge the physical and digital worlds for both those at the event and others geographically separated from the event and each other by even thousands of miles.

So it’s not surprising that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently told the Wall Street Journal that the company is evolving to "more closely tie the shared experience on Twitter to the actual event that is happening."  And the proof of that is certainly found in the company’s track record of just the past 6 months as Twitter has made some bold and successful partnership and production moves into the live event integration arena with examples such as:

  • NASCAR – Launching a relationship with the first sports organization to create an enhanced live event experience on the platform.  (May 2012)
  • The London Olympics – Partnering with a major main stream media company, NBCUniversal, along with major brands such as GE, to create an infrastructure and experience that aggregated and parsed millions of tweets from athletes, fans, and commentators. (July-August 2012)
  • The US Presidential Debates and Election Night Coverage – Redefining the relationship between first and second screen in terms of information, conversation, and delivery of candidate announcements.  (October – November 2012) 

The Experiment

So what if we now take Woodstock - one of the most surprising and culturally redefining live music events of the past 50 years - and use the lens of technology powered media and engagement – to see how the spirit and experience of the 1969 original was translated with early digital technology in its first “reissue” at the 25th Anniversary in 1994, and what a “reimagined Woodstock” might be in 2013/2014 with the kinds of technologies and experiences we have today, with twitter as the empowering network.

A quick comparison table here with frameworks, specifics, and flowcharts following.   Download Woodstock Comp Grid

The 25th Anniversary of Woodstock 

In August 1994, the 25th Anniversary of Woodstock was held over a three-day period at the 800-acre upstate New York farm that had been initially intended for the first event.  This was the first time that the iconic brand had ever been revisited as an event, and the producers who had also set the stage for the original phenomena, wanted to remain true to that initial vision while also adding relevance for what they described as “a generation who was reading William Gibson and getting up on the Internet.”

(NOTE: This was quite a statement to be made at that time. In 1994, there were only 1500 Web servers online, the Mosaic browser had just come out one year earlier, Earthlink was launching, and Yahoo was about a browser and content index. No Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube. There were no smart phones, and consumer digital still and video cameras were expensive and limited in resolution.  Platforms to distribute media were limited to videotape and CDROM, with containers and authoring systems being jerry-rigged around software such as Macromedia Director.)

But what was the same then versus now?  The drive to create and share information and experiences.

An 8-acre area of the festival field was carved out and named “The Surreal Field” with interactive experiences from artists like Todd Rundgren and Peter Gabriel.  This was also where a 4000 square foot tented production facility (plus an adjoining semi truck with mobile video editing bays) was built in which Woodstock concert goers could observe the behind-the-scenes creation of the twice-daily Woodstock News “video magazine” by a team of two dozen videographers, editors, animators, blue screen operators, composers, programmers, onscreen talent, field reporters, producers and directors working nearly round the clock.  Story types included Woodstock history and event pre-production, behind the scenes interviews, artist interviews, concert audience “ambush style” interviews, “question of the day” blue screen interviews, creative and gaming tech stories, and the concert schedule for the day.

Additionally, limited amounts of text-based reporting were sent out each day via an Apple Web Server.  Yes, limited Internet access was pulled into this portion of the 800 acre cow pasture for this purpose.

A simple flow chart (click image below for larger size image) of the creation of the Woodstock News in terms of people, equipment, and infrastructure. Almost two dozen people, more than 12 Macintosh computers and 24 monitors just to handle acquisition, digitizing, and output to a distribution format from “professional” sources.  No opportunity for “audience” contribution or feedback other than the limited offering in field interviews and blue screen “question of the day” segments.

Framed WoodstockProdFlow


  • Woodstocknewsroom
  • Woodstock_jumbo_Blog
  • Woodstock News Storyboard
  • *band schedule image
  • WoodQuestionDay 2
  • Woodpress
  • Woodstockk Logo
Woodstockk Logo


My observation at the time on the people and the technology, and live events as platforms for testing creative and technical boundaries. I think it’s very relevant no matter the year – then or now.

"Sometimes it’s almost more about how well your team will coalesce and how they will deal with the elements and difficult situations - mud, crowds, thunderstorms, close-quarter housing - than if the technology will work.  Rock and roll festivals are great places to test the boundaries of multimedia, both from a technical as well as a creative sense.  From a creative perspective, you have to create something that will really grab and maintain people’s attention - from the front row to the guy standing half a mile from the stage watching the Jumbotrons.  And technically, you never know what you might face in terms of the elements causing problems with your equipment - dust in the video deck heads, thunderstorms during which you have to power down, rain coming in through AC vents - and there is no local Apple dealer around when you are out in the middle of what is essentially an 840-acre cow pasture."

Using Twitter to Reimagine a Woodstock for 2013

There are innumerable ways that one could reimagine and engineer a Woodstock  with the wealth of broadly distributed digital and social technologies available to both professionals and the “consumer” audience today, the user experience, design and technical skills that have developed from experiments on many platforms, and the mobile element – which did not exist for anyone at any price before.

Framed WoodstockTwitter2013Infographic

This is a simple flow chart (click for full size image) showing the sourcing of various forms (created by both pro and user) of media content and conversation directly and indirectly into Twitter, and then the moderation, curation, and filtration of that along with the tweet wrapper content itself -  based on both human editorial and rule sets – to create output, visualizations, and control streams back out to various distribution types, displays, and devices.

The description and schematic above in this post represent just one possible “reimagining” (with Twitter as the primary network).  It is meant more as a sketchpad for thinking more deeply from creative, technical and business perspectives of what we can do now in bridging the physical and digital worlds (in both real-time and asynchronously) in ways that were never before possible.  And those new kinds of experiences may well create the “sparks of beauty” and connection to a “greater organism” that Joni Mitchell talked about in the opening of this post. 

  • It  - and that which it surfaces and displays by separating the signal from the noise - can become part of the event/show itself;
  • It can take a deeper show experience to other people outside of the event space (geographic independence synchronously) and time (asynchronous);
  • It can change the “planned” nature of the event itself, by content and conversation created by the audience locally and in other areas;
  • It can spark unexpected cultural shifts.

Woodstock-Twitter Schematic Elements

(1) Content Input Sources into Twitter

How might media of all forms come into Twitter at a major live event such as a reimagined Woodstock?  Significantly different from the 25th Anniversary of Woodstock, media comes from both the pros and the audience.  And depending on the synchronous nature of the event, that audience may not be geographically determined or bounded.

From the event producers, pros, and the artists themselves, we might see:

  • Video elements such as live streaming, edited packages included historical and behind the scenes stories, video bits from location-based monitoring cameras (like DropCams), and timelapse;
  • Audio delivery via live streaming, asynchronous stream or download, edited and packaged interviews and commentary;
  • Individual iconic photos and high quality photo packages;
  • Engagement activities constructed around live tweet chats, polling, alerts, and announcements;
  • Information and data generating devices automatically generating data to a “Tweet card” output based on some behavior by attendees.

For the “audience” both geographically near and far, the ability to create media and commentary is unprecedented.

  • Visual media creation from smart phones, DSLRs, and GoPro cameras, loaded directly to Twitter or attached via intermediary site (e.g. video to YouTube or photo to Instagram).  Short video bursts via perhaps Vine or Viddy.  Longer form via YouTube, Vimeo, and other newly emerging video distribution platforms.
  • Comments and text posts

(2) Separating the Relevant Signal from the Noise

As software advances (including Mass Relevance and other custom software) and real-time human curation skills develop, the effective (from both production and engineering perspectives) moderation, curation and filtration of the vast sea of tweets and associated media from such an event can be parsed and routed to the right people and devices (both private and public) that not only enhance, but change the very nature of a live experience such as a Woodstock

(3) Experience Outputs and Destinations

Twitter content may then be filtered and edited into dynamic media packages, or the underlying data translated into infographics, guides, and maps.  For example:
  • Event page curation as was seen at the 2012 Olympics, with in the not too distant future, the option to add another layer of personal filtering based on geography, demographics, or interests;
  • Tweet streams, editorially selected tweets, and tweet visualizations sent to venue-based displays, as well as out to various broadcast and Web partners;
  • Tweet activity informing real time maps and “programming guides” to optimize the experience of both on-site attendees as well as those at a distance; (See Twitter's Director of TV Fred Graver’s talk including comments about Twitter creating real-time programming guides – a live event is not that different;
  • Tweet activity and conversation turning into data that controls onsite or remote devices, offering up new forms of activities and entertainments that the “Twitter audience” creates intentionally or unintentionally through it’s actions.

More than a moment in time. It’s a way of being in the world.

This is true not only for a major live event with deep cultural influence, but also for Twitter itself.

Beyond the ideas sketched in this post, fully conceiving a reimagined Woodstock size live event would also require looking deeply into engineering issues, brand engagement opportunities, and revenue models including and beyond creative advertising and sponsorship. This party is just getting started, so to speak.  



August 07, 2011

The “Summer of Love” Grows Up to Become the “Summer of Smart” – Reinventing Government One API at a Time

“ In the ‘60s we protested the establishment.  Today we write an API to it.” - Peter Hirshberg, Board Member GAFFTA, San Francisco CA

The Rise of Gov 2.0 and the Smart City

Technology and politics have been interesting and increasingly intimate bedfellows over the past 7 years – starting at a national level with the Howard Dean bloggers in 2004, the Obama digital team in 2008, and today’s live-streamed and tweeted town halls - to on the local level, the rise of urban hackathons like San Francisco’s Summer of Smart designed by and for citizens to address issues in their own city.

During this same period, there has been the explosion of ownership of mobile electronic devices and smart phones beyond the tech population into the hands of the general community across all age groups. And within cities, the deployment and embedding of sensors in a variety of places and products has led to the development of and research into the concept of the “real-time” city at places like MIT’s Senseable City Lab.

With these developments in place, and the announcement of the Open Government Directive in December 2009 by the White House, there have been a growing number of technologists and political/community activists asking "Are there ways that diverse groups of everyday individuals can use technology to change and improve local and national government and empower and provide direct control to the individual in the community?"   This is the evolution of the concept and practice of Gov 2.0, eloquently described by Tim O’Reilly in his post “Government as a Platform” as:


“…a new generation has come of age with the Web, and it is committed to using its lessons of creativity and collaboration to address challenges facing our country and the world … Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time …  (It) is the use of technology—especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0 — to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.”


Much of the Gov 2.0 movement that has been written about has been at the national level.  In addition to the Open Government Initiative, there are sites such as Data.gov and Apps.gov.  Organizations such as Code for America, Sunlight Labs and Expert Labs have served as incubators for the funding and development of data access and technologies that are designed to bring citizens and government closer together. 

But now, led by cities like San Francisco with its own Open Data Executive Directive, the philosophy and possibilities of Gov 2.0 are manifesting at the local level to deal with everyday issues.  Groups such as The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) are facilitating this movement by organizing a series of urban innovation-inspired gatherings and hackathons called “Summer of Smart.”

The Summer of Smart

The Summer of Smart (SOS) is an intensive, three-month experiment in urban innovation that has evolved in part out of the city data visualization and art projects of GAFFTA, and also draws inspiration and foundation from four other main sources:

  1. The evolution of the hackathon concept to include non-technical participation,
  2. Grassroots community activism and its similarity to hacker/DIY culture,
  3. Gov 2.0 open data initiatives at the local and national levels,
  4. The birth of the real-time sensor-powered city with work pioneered by MIT

The various hackathons, presentations, and mayoral debates of SOS are part of a new model for how citizens and government might work directly together to address urban issues – in essence to begin to build an extensible platform for local government, an urban operating system.  Examples of addressable issues: mass transit inefficiencies, building energy efficiencies, and better means and measurement of citizen engagement with elected officials.

Within Summer of Smart is a series of 3 hackathons, one each month addressing a different topic area. The three areas:

  1. Community development and public art - June
  2. Urban innovation and Sustainability - July
  3. Public health, food and nutrition - August

And GAFFTA’s hopes for results from the hackathons?

  1. The prototyping of new ideas with opportunities for the best to find continuing development and real world deployment.
  2. The expansion of “bottoms-up” Gov 2.0 innovation from a small niche of activity to become part of the greater urban conversation and reality through the gathering and empowerment of self-organizing multi-disciplinary teams of technologists, artists, writers and activists.
  3. The meeting and collaboration of two previously distant and often adversarial cultures – politics and grass roots innovators - and providing a platform for then to learn and work in tandem. GAFFTA smartly optimized the chances of this outcome by scheduling its activities in the months leading up to the local election with candidates anxious for new ideas, while simultaneously intimidated and interested in the prospects of Gov 2.0.


“…there are people in the city bureaucracy that have interesting ideas .. but you just can't express them there as there are budget limitations and bureaucracies … But if you can connect them up with the creative tech community, that’s when it can become very interesting.” – Peter Hirshberg, GAFFTA

The Hackathons – 100 People + 48 Hours of Innovation

If one believes that innovation often happens at the edges of expertise and is fueled by constraints, then a 48 hour hackathon with multi-disciplinary teams of people who have never met each other before seems like a good starting structure for participatory democracy. 

“Hackathons are good in the same way that design charettes are. You give people too little time, too little resources, and too big a goal… that leads to a whole lot of creativity, and forces the creation of something that is “good enough” while keeping people from becoming too bureaucratic. This is the opposite of just about everything else that goes on in a city.” – Peter Hirshberg, GAFFTA

Hackathons and the Importance of Data

Data is at the heart of Internet application development at hackathons like SOS. The goal is to go beyond simple government data access in order to establish simple frameworks and tools that make it possible for citizens, not just the government, to create and share useful data – and drive action based upon that data.

“We are at this moment in time where there is this huge surplus of data. What do we do with it?  In the past, most of the effort was on just visualizations and art derived from city data. But now, we are looking at how do we create a feedback loop that makes something actionable.” – Peter Hirshberg, GAFFTA

Hackathons and the Importance of Redefining Citizen Participation

Gatherings of diverse groups of people - both tech and non-tech -  at hackathons like SOS, provide a forum for citizens to connect like never before and to leverage their respective skill sets and passions to identify and begin to solve problems directly affecting them.

“The success of a hackathon such as SOS is highly dependent on the diversity of the teams. It’s when you get journalists, designers, coders, policy types, sensor experts, and activists who understand the communities – that’s when this exciting stuff happens. You always need programmers … but the bottoms-up “maker energy” that we associate with hackers is similar to the energy that you see with community activists and artists.” – Peter Hirshberg, GAFFTA

The ideas, approaches, and apps that can come out of this type of gathering can redefine collective action in a way that goes far beyond “collective complaint.” Collective action and citizen participation can go beyond the boundaries of “input” (that may or may not be considered by government entities and officials) and enter the arena of direct measurable engagement and control, with potentially new interfaces to government entities and politicans.

Hackathon Project Outcomes

The best projects from the three weekend hackathons will be presented to city officials and mayoral candidates at Summer of Smart’s final public forum at the Commonwealth Club in early October.  Some may even become “productized” in the sense that a home base and ongoing support structure are found for the work. A list of projects can be found here, with some examples:

  • GoodBuildings.info - Helps individuals compare commercial spaces based on their environmental performance.
  • The Call Wall – Makes calling a representative more transparent and collaborative.
  • Public Art Mapper - Assists in locating and cataloging San Francisco’s public art from the street.

Moving Forward

In the near future, will technological advancement contribute to government working better for the average citizen? And more importantly, will the result be not just a more effective way for government to source questions and concerns from the public, but more importantly for citizens to provide and drive solutions, ideas, and true two-way engagement and accountability?

If GAFFTA’s Summer of Smart and its hackathons are an indication of what is possible, the chances are good that at least at the city-level, Gov 2.0 practical innovation can happen.

“... every man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.”– Thomas Jefferson

Additional Resources

Background information on Grey Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) and Summer of Smart (SOS)

Summer of Smart (SOS) Launch Press Release

Video: Summer of Smart- Democracy in the Digital Age

Open Government Initiative (Obama Dec 2009)

San Francisco Open Data Directive (Gavin Newsom 2009)

Video: Smart, Smarter, Smartest Cities from MIT Forum on Future Cities

Tim O’Reilly’s  “Government as a Platform”




April 17, 2011

Words of Wisdom for Finding "What Really Matters"

The words of individuals as diverse as Buckminster Fuller, Jon Stewart, Lawrence of Arabia, Eleanor Roosevelt and Yoda tell a story about "Finding your vision and making it true - That's what really matters."


What Really Matters?



Choose who you are ...



... and live that life ...



... by imagining a difference ...



... and taking a risk ...



... to seize the moment ...



... and do it all.



What Really Matters? Choose who you are and live that life by imagining a difference and taking a risk to seize the moment and do it all.



What's your vision and how will you make it true? Favicon


October 29, 2010

Why Space Matters – An Argument For Truly Creative Environments and Against Cube Culture


Which of these images is not like the others?

(answer at the end of the post)


If one wants to give more than lip service to the concepts of collaborative creativity and innovation acceleration, then caring about the “micro-environment” of the individuals involved in those processes is required. "Micro-environments" are the spaces, both individual and common, over which we have control to some extent, and are different in the level of effort required to change them from the macro-environments of the location that surrounds them (ranging anywhere from a city to a scenic wilderness). That thoughtful engagement with and design of the immediate work environment must go far beyond many organizations’ concepts of trendy design directions or gimmicks like indoor slides.

In his book "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention", Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that:

"Even the most abstract mind is affected by the surroundings of the body.  No one is immune to the impressions that impinge on the senses from the outside.  Creative individuals may seem to disregard their environment and work happily in even the most dismal surroundings … But in reality, the spatiotemporal context in which creative persons live has consequences that often go unnoticed." (p.127)

This group of “creative individuals” is not limited to “artistic” creativity, but to the broader definition of creative thinking and action that also includes science, technology and the practical arts.  One might argue that these, even more so than “fine art,” are collective creative endeavors where idea and information exchange and innovation often grows much faster in specific “hot spots” where the work of one person builds on that of others.

So what creates – or reveals -  those “hot spots,” the elusive right place at the right moment for the right pursuit?

  • Why Italy and Renaissance art?
  • Why Paris in the early 1900s for writers?  Or why Gertrude Stein’s salon in particular?
  • Why the University of Illinois and the physics of superconductors in the 1950s?
  • Why Silicon Valley and the personal computer in the 1980s and the Internet in the 1990s?

It would be overly simplistic to say there is only one factor that drives the rise to greatness of density of creative thought for certain geographic locations (macro-environments) for specific endeavors, but as to why a particular place (macro or micro) may accelerate and spread creative work within its boundaries, Csikszentmihalyi said:

"Certain environments have a greater density of interaction and provide more excitement and a greater effervescence of ideas; therefore, they prompt the person who is already inclined to break away from conventions to experiment with novelty more readily than if he or she had stayed in a more conservative, more repressive setting."

So if one theme extracted might be about the density of appropriate interaction presented to the “prepared mind,” what might be some current real world examples of how this can be taken to the micro-environment level of the common and personal spaces we inhabit in the structures in which we work?


Here are two.

1. Randy Pausch’s Stage 3 Laboratory in Wean Hall at Carnegie Mellon University (lower left image at the beginning of this post)

This is about setting the stage for fun, comfort and contentedness to fuel collaborative work from teams with diverse disciplines who don’t usually work together. And this does not have to happen in an expensive, high design space.  It can be in a humble university lab.

"Instead of a traditional laboratory, the Stage 3 lab more closely resembled a toy store. The space was awash with color and filled with games, toys and stuffed animals – lots of stuffed animals, some hanging from the ceiling.  Randy had wisely banished the use of fluorescent lights, so the colorful stuffed animals were illuminated by incandescent lamps.  The theme was clearly one of fun, comfort and contentedness. … Clearly Randy intended his lab to inspire creativity and out of the box thinking. – “The Comet and the Tornado” by Don Marinelli (p 37)


2. The Atrium at Pixar Animation Studios (upper left image at the beginning of this post)

 This is about maximizing the opportunity for the informed serendipitous encounter.

"Our building, which is Steve Job's brainchild, is another way we get people from different deprtments to interact.  Most buildings are desgined for some functional purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertant encounters.  At its center is a large atrium, which contains the cafeteria, eeting rooms, bathrooms, and mailboxes.  As a result, everyone has strong reasons to go there repeatedly during the course of the workday. It's hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounter are." - Ed Catmull in "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity" in Harvard Business Review


Takeaways Beyond the Common Space

It is important to note that neither of these examples is about creating chaotic environments where one has to be an aggressive extrovert to survive. Nor are they about taking away personal and quiet spaces with a practice some call "hotelling" where individuals have no assigned personal space, but "check-in" each day for an open desk with their personal materials kept in a box on a shelf they move around each day.  (Thanks to Allison Arieff for pointing out the “hotelling” example, and to Michelle Kaufmann for reminding me about the need for beautiful open personal space.) What they are about is both personalization and optimization of the prepared mind for inspired moments as well as the chance encounter and exchange.


Points beyond physical attributes of the micro-environment

1. The importance of bringing a prepared mind

It is essential to have a “prepared mind” if an environment is to have a chance to impact creativity.

“…what seems to happen is that when persons with prepared minds find themselves in beautiful settings, they are more likely to find new connections among new ideas, new perspectives on issues.”  - M. Csikszentmihalyi (p 136)

2. How you do what you do

How you spend time in the right setting also has impact on the creative process. Sitting may be acceptable, but being able to walk around seems to be even better. Why?

"… when involved in a semiautomatic activity that takes up a certain amount of attention, while leaving some of it free to make connections among ideas below the threshold of conscious intentionality.  Devoting full attention to a problem is not the best recipe for having creative thoughts.” - M. Csikszentmihalyi

3. The personal space

Beyond the common space designed for the serendipitous event,  personal micro-environments, the immediate setting in which a person works, can and should be transformed into a way that those spaces enhance personal creativity.  Successful creative problem solvers manage to give their surroundings a personal setting that reflects the rhythm of their thoughts and habits. What you place around yourself whould reflect what you intend to become or create.

"In order to think more creatively, imaginatively and strategically, we need to cultivate a more intuitive, metaphorical attention that calls preeminently on the right hemisphere of the brain … The parallel challenge for leaders and organizations is to create work environments that free and encourage people to focus in absorbed ways without constant interruptions.” – Tony Schwartz in “The Way We're Working Isn't Working"

4. The exterior macro-environment

 External macro-environments set the social, cultural, and institutional contexts of our lives. Most of us can’t do that much about changing them on a daily basis.  However, access – even on an irregular basis – to environments that present unusual and complex sensory experiences (Big Sur, Grand Tetons, the beach - as in upper left image at beginning of post) can be very beneficial to the creative process.

"...one’s attention is jolted out of its customary grooves and seduced to follow the novel and attractive patterns.  However, the sensory menu does not require a full investment of attention; enough psychic energy is left free to pursue, subconsciously, the problematic content that requires a creative formulation.”  - M Csikszentmihalyi  (p 138)


The Takeaway

The belief that the immediate physical environment deeply impacts our thoughts and feelings, and hence our work, is held by many cultures - and ours should be no exception.  Building micro-environments that up the odds of creative thinking and work , for both the individual and the group, needs to be a thoughtful process that goes beyond surface trends and gimmicks.

And to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post: "Which of the 4 images is not like the others?"  The answer is the lower right cube farm.  It is neither a micro or macro environment that enhances creative collaboration.  Favicon


Additional Resources

The Economist: "Fun and the Office Environment"

Randy Pausch's office and lab

Michelle Kaufmann's post on Twitter office space - a mix of private and public spaces

Fast Company: "Where Work Is Play"

Steven Johnson in GOOD Magazine on future working spaces

Business Pundit: "8 Coolest Office Spaces Ever"

Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker (added Nov 5) "Why your bosses want to turn your new office into Greenwich Village"



October 03, 2010

When A Comet Meets a Tornado – The Power of Creative Partnerships




In a world that seems to crave the solitary archetypes of the lone hero, the rugged individual, the anti-social nerd and the alpha wolf, have we forgotten the magic, mystery and power that can be found in the story of collaborative creativity? How is it that two people or a “small” group, with individuals capable and talented in their own right, can create together what they could not have done on their own?  These are important questions for both the artistic and entertainment community, as well as that of science and commerce – both in search of “that which is the new” and the illusive innovative breakthrough.

Take, for example, the unexpected “love story” between Professors Randy Pausch and Don Marinelli, who together created the Carnegie Mellon (CMU) Entertainment Technology Center in a unique marriage of science and art.



Many have heard of “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. Less known is the story of the unique partnership between Pausch and Marinelli (the Associate Head of Drama at CMU),  in the building of the CMU ETC.  Pausch (the comet – an illuminating astral body) and Marinelli (the tornado – a whirlwind of energy and creativity) were two dynamic men who met each other with polar opposite personalities, skills, life experiences and perspectives, but still found a way to powerfully join forces, create something much bigger than themselves, and unexpectedly change each other in the process.  Their premise: that the false divide that often exists between engineering and art could be bridged by showing that the two actually think surprisingly alike and can work together in trusted collaboration without mastery of knowledge in the other’s domain. Their work resulted in the definition of a unique interdisciplinary approach to the creation of technology-driven interactive entertainment founded on premises of team dynamics that provide valuable lessons for individuals and companies far beyond the walls of academia.

 “…while we were both alpha males, we were from vastly different cultures.  The battle for domination was essentially neutralized when we realized it wasn’t about which lion would rule the pride, because we were actually two distinctive breeds sharing the same enclosure.  And that environment was unfamiliar to both of us … “ - Don Marinelli (p. 42)


Defining the Individual

For Pausch and Marinelli, in order to understand and maximize the dynamics of the group, one had to first define two major dimensions of importance of the individual.

(1) Defining the value one uniquely brings to the team : A unique (self-understood) skill set and a predisposition to making others successful (vs just being smart) are paramount.

“Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.”  - Randy Pausch (p. 33)

“Smart isn’t enough.  The kind of people I want on my research team are those who will help everyone else feel happy to be here.’” Randy Pausch (p. 118)

(2) Acknowledging the value that “the other half” on the team provides: Defining what you don’t know, and that you don’t need to know it because other trusted members of your team have that knowledge.  Admitting the “lack of knowledge” held by “the other half” tends to clear away many of the opportunities for egos and attitude triggered by a fear of comparison.

“When we’re connected to others, we become better people.” - Randy Pausch (p. 176)

" When I collaborate with people, the further apart they are from me, the more I learn.” - Don Marinelli (p. 80)


Defining the Dynamics of the Group

Pausch and Marinelli believed that the best innovative (and inherently risky in terms of predicted outcome) work would be done by groups defined by a significant diversity of skills and experiences among members, mixed with a strong commonality of “teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, the value of hard work, and ability to deal with adversity.”

“When we’re connected to others, we become better people.”  - Randy Pausch (p. 176)

"When I collaborate with people, the further apart they are from me, the more I learn.” - Don Marinelli (p. 80)

Married with this philosophy of the creative team, was a set of simple “rules” for optimizing group dynamics:

  • Meet people properly
  • Find things you have in common
  • Try for optimal meeting conditions
  • Let everyone talk
  • Check egos at the door
  • Praise each other
  • Phrase alternatives as questions

Equally important was a set of guidelines for giving and taking feedback.

  • On giving: “Showing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other.”  - Randy Pausch (p. 151) 
  • On taking: “When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”   - Randy Pausch (p. 37)


New Research and Writings

Beyond the story of Pausch and Marinelli, there is some interesting new research and writing on this topic of “socially powered creativity” that echoes and amplifies their practical lessons from building the ETC.

Writer Joshua Wolf Shenk has begun a series of posts on Slate.com as well as a group page on Facebook to examine the story of “creative pairs”  (he’s limiting his “group size” to the number 2). His premise:

“The stereotypes of miraculous breakthrough moments—and the incessant drive to locate them in the head of epic individuals—are slowly yielding to a portrait of complex, meandering, inherently social paths toward innovation… there’s an experimental foundation now to demonstrate how our cognitive structures morph when we’re very close with other people, so that our ideas of “self” literally expand to include another person.”

Beyond face-to-face creative collaboration, some like Steven Johnson are writing about the amplification that the Internet provides in its role as a connector of diverse and remote relationships.

And others, like Daniel Pink in “Drive” are writing about what motivates us – and surprise – it’s not about “carrots and sticks”, but about mastery and purpose, something that Pausch and Marinelli learned early on in the forming of ETC.


Lesson Learned

So what happens when a comet meets a tornado – when the creative state successfully moves from the solitary to the collaborative?  In his relationship with Pausch, Marinelli observed that:

 “… (there is an) importance of being attuned to more than one’s personal desires and ambitions.  If you truly believe the answer is blowing in the wind, then you need to go outside to feel it.  I stepped outside my previous existence and, in doing so, discovered an alluring vortex.  The funnel-cloud of creativity would soon develop into a veritable tornado of innovation.”

When it comes to creative endeavors, we should all hope for this kind of “stormy weather.”  Favicon





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Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.