Where I Think The Bus Should Go: Communities Of Innovation

[Author’s Note: TL;DR – This is a really long blog post that outlines a vision for the future of innovation based on nearly a decade of my experiences as a community organizer, and relates some of my feelings about the StartupBus event and the community that arises from it. I hope you’ll give it a read. This post also appears in a slightly modified form on LinkedIn Pulse.]

On Community, Organization, and Innovation

Over the last six years, I’ve thought a lot about every aspect of communities – their formation, their growth, and their ultimate success or failure; and lately I’ve thought a lot about the future of the community that comes from the event called StartupBus.

I should say up front that I am not currently holding and have never held any kind of position in the organizational entities that run the annual StartupBus event, and I have never held any formal title in the previously mentioned community beyond “conductor”. I first rode with the New York City 2011 crew, and I made it my mission to volunteer and conduct the 2012 New York bus to give back and inspire other people with the same kind of experience I had. Since then I’ve been a judge and a mentor, and have generally acted as an adviser and guide for the people doing all the hard work of actually running the StartupBus event and for members of the community at large.

So let it be known: my opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of anyone else who has anything to do with organizing the StartupBus event. I have no particular personal agenda, but I do have an overwhelming desire to see the positive effects of everything that’s come out of it continue and multiply. And I think there are tremendous opportunities to make even more amazing things happen not just with the community that comes from StartupBus, but with other communities we interact with and with future communities we will all go on to create.

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The community that comes from StartupBus has always held a tradition of being a “leaderless organization”. One of the most core values of the group is that our people step up and get things done. Our community works because our members select themselves to take part in the event, and join our organization; they take the first step, then the next step, and take every step, all the way to the end. We are aspirational people, and we want to be among others with the same creative, entrepreneurial motivations – or, to borrow language from the vision that Elias shared in Nashville – the same spirit of innovation.

So really what we mean by “leaderless” is that anyone who is a part of the organization can do anything they want and the community around them will decide what is best for itself. If others in the group like what that person is doing, they will rally around that person, and pretty soon you’ve got a movement. This is how the indigenous Apache tribes operated, as described in the book The Starfish and The Spider. In general, the tribes were all autonomous collectives and called their “chiefs” nantans – these were the members of the community who were the most effective and the most respected, and even functioned as spiritual guides; but no member of the tribe was ever obligated to follow them, and that structure held its own for quite a long time (even under the relentless overpowering assault of the American army… the Apaches survived the longest).

Just like the Apachean tribes (which were many, and varied), the form and function of our community is fluid, and the subgroups within it grow themselves organically. I’ve written before about how I’ve seen our community self-organize… when conductors select their crew, they’re picking from the best applicants in their region; and when they conduct, they’re teaching the lessons they learned from their conductors, and from their own experiences, and they’re contributing the unique flair, style, or attitude that comes from their region and tribe. In a very real way, this is effectively a form of natural selection. This zeitgeist produces some incredible results, a true “best of breed” approach that literally gives us insight into future innovations; StartupBus companies very frequently get cloned or recreated later by others, if their teams don’t continue pursuing them on their own.

It’s an incredible recipe for innovation, and it works fantastically well.

What is a Community of Innovation?

I was so excited to be a part of this year’s StartupBus North America event. Like Elias and many of the people getting things done in our group, I advocated early and often for the StartupBus event to move away from The Texas Festival That Shall Not Be Named. Deep down I knew it was time for the StartupBus event to stand entirely on its own, and for many reasons – the most important of which being that it gives us a chance to focus entirely on connecting all the prior and all the new members of our community. And I think it worked spectacularly. This year saw the biggest gathering of alumni in the history of the organization! I hope we can say the same thing again next year (#StartupBusFOMO). And I feel that the convention we held after the road trip – where alumni told their stories to the new 2015 crews, and everyone from every bus had loads of opportunities to meet and connect – will result in creating the most social, most community oriented “class” we’ve initiated since the event began five years ago.

There is such enormous, incalculable value in connection and in community. I could write pages and pages and pages about all the great things that members of our community have done for one another over the years. But I want to step back to take a longer and broader view with this post, and to look outwards at other “communities of innovation”, as I’m calling them. The two other communities I’m referring to are the International Space Apps Challenge, and the MakerBiz collective.

In 2012, NASA began what they called an “incubator innovation program”; in their own words:

 

The International Space Apps Challenge is an international mass collaboration focused on space exploration that takes place over 48-hours in cities around the world. The event embraces collaborative problem solving with a goal of producing relevant open-source solutions to address global needs applicable to both life on Earth and life in space…

At the International Space Apps Challenge, we opened up challenges of space exploration and social need and empowered citizens around the world to solve those challenges. This is a bold risk. NASA is collaborating with organizations with whom we have often not previously worked. NASA is empowering local leaders and planners in cities around the world, with the vision for contributing to space exploration and social good. We ask passionate citizens to find and share their solutions to the challenges. In the process of planning and implementing the Challenge, the team recognized the power released when we work together with others committed to changing the way the world works. Space Apps exemplifies a model for accelerating technology. We hope that business and government alike will help carry the story forward.

The connection between our community and the Space Apps community is well known. And the worldwide Space Apps program demonstrates success year after year. Thousands of people all across the world are part of an incredible community of innovation that arose from a NASA inspired event, and they have produced nearly 2,000 open source projects to improve life on Earth and in space.

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What is not as well known is how much of a positive feedback loop exists between our global community and the Space Apps community worldwide. Members of the community that comes from StartupBus have taken part in the Space Apps Challenge at sites all over the world – in the UK, in Mexico, and all across the United States. A number of members that have joined the New York City tribe in recent years came to us from the Space Apps NYC event: Alice Ng (2014 conductor), James Wanga, John Oquist, and this year’s StartupBus NYC conductor, Edwin Rogers. Notable NYC community members like Kevin Galligan and StartupBus national director Ricky Robinett have supported Space Apps NYC with sponsorships for several years in a row.

And now we have another great community that we’re intersecting with. The other community of innovation I want to talk about is the awesome MakerBiz collective, currently operating under the leadership of the amazing Chris Bue. It was her initiative that led to forming the very first StartupBus Makers bus, riding out of the Midwest region to join the rest of the buses in Nashville.

For those who missed this year’s StartupBus competition: the StartupBus Makers actually built physical prototypes of products on a three day road trip. I had the great fortune to be one of the mentors to the teams on that bus this year, and I can say with enormous pride and pleasure that the StartupBus Makers made StartupBus history by having every one of their bus’s teams enter the semifinals. Those teams worked their asses off; not only did they plan and hustle and create on the moving bus, they also spent entire nights working out of TechShop locations in Detroit and Pittsburgh actually building, soldering, 3D printing, and laser cutting their physical products.

This is no joke – we are talking about an incredible, stupendous thing here. StartupBus event organizers performed the most ambitious experiment to date: making real consumer products during a road trip. I think there’s still a ton of processing and discussion to be had about the successes and failures of that maker bus; we need to figure out what the right kind of experience for makers is. But I believe that an entirely new event – and a whole other community of innovation populated by those who go through that unique, inspirational event – can be born from Chris Bue’s initiative. And I very much hope that our community, and the community that will come from whatever that maker event is, will stay connected and create the same kind of virtuous feedback loop that we have with Space Apps.

This is the primary thrust of what I’m writing: I have seen great things come from collaborations between communities of innovation, and I want to figure out how we can make more of that happen in the future.

Looking Towards the Future

You may have noticed while reading this massive post that I’ve gone to great lengths in my writing to establish a distinction between the event called StartupBus and the community that comes from it. This is intentional, because I believe that our community is a greater thing than just an annual road trip, and it’s time now to make that crystal clear. There are many members of our community who don’t care about “startups” and “startup culture” as they’re being lived and writ large in our mainstream media. Many of us are entrepreneurial, and all of us are innovators – but there is SO MUCH MORE out there than just the “startup scene”. Those of you who attended in Nashville this year or watched our livestream may have caught StartupBus 2013 alumna Marianne Bellotti (see her talk at 3:39:30 on the archived livestream) and her great talk about starting a business that began as a startup but ultimately didn’t follow the traditional path of capital investment and instead became a successful consulting firm for governments and the United Nations.

Though the framework of the StartupBus event and competition follows a particular model (and it functions extremely well within the constraints of that model) it is still limited in its scope and the outcome of the event ultimately has little bearing on the later success of the members of the community. Even though some companies do go on to greater success, the primary output of that event has been, and always will be, new additions to the community.

The truth is this: the end of the StartupBus road trip is actually just the start of something incredible; it is the beginning of all the awesomeness that the next crew of empowered buspreneurs will create. Over the last five years, the StartupBus event created multiple generations of innovators on four continents, and has grown that community to over 1300 people worldwide. The people who have been through that event come out the other side of a life changing experience ready to take anything on: they become more empowered, more confident, more capable. It is a “people accelerator” not a “startup incubator”.

I’ll say it again, to be entirely clear: The community created by the StartupBus event is not about startups. It is about connecting innovators to each other, creating a support network between innovators, and sustaining an environment where innovation can flourish. The community that comes from StartupBus really should have a different name, or at the very least, be completely understood to be a thing that stands entirely on its own, without any required association with startups and buses.

This separation of event and community is already a fact, and many of us know this to be true. The startup “thing” is not, and should never really be, our community’s focus; when it is, that ends up being the reason a number of members in our community are less active than they could be… because they don’t care about startups, they care about innovation.

Innovation does not come from large corporations. It does not come from governments. Innovation never really appears sustainably in any kind of hierarchical structure. I’ve seen over and over and over that innovation comes from the skunk works, it comes from the rogue group, it comes from flat structured organizations; small, cross-functional, multidisciplinary teams who think laterally. People working out of garages, warehouses, basements. And innovation isn’t by any means exclusive to “startups” – though a startup may share many of the same characteristics of innovative groups… until it becomes bigger and more successful and evolves itself away from actual innovative practices and toward profit-milking. Innovation does come from communities – loose collectives of passionate individuals who share with and support each other, who learn and grow with one another. Where would we be today without the Homebrew Computer Club? And everywhere I look today, I see communities of innovation popping up to gather together and work on really cool things.

The way I see it: if there is great value to be had from being a part of a community of innovation, then an even greater amount of value can be had from creating and fostering more communities of innovation, and encouraging them to interact with each other. I have seen this firsthand with the overlapping and intersecting nature of the three communities of innovation I’ve described in this post. The communities that arise from StartupBus, from Space Apps and MakerBiz, from all the events and workshops and campuses and physical spaces out there that foster innovation… they are a new and special thing, and more and more of them are cropping up all over the world. If a community of innovation is like a network of computers, then I want to build the Internet of communities of innovation and network all the networks.

Conductors have a saying: “A B C – Always Be Conducting.” And the reason we say that is because we know, deep down in our hearts, that WE ARE ALWAYS ON THE BUS. The bus is LIFE, and we are all riding in it together, and it is up to each of us to step up and bring the things we want in the world into existence. And that is truly what it means to innovate: to grasp for something new, to pull it forth from the fires of creation, and use it to mold the world into the shape it must become.

This is why I now propose the creation of a non-profit organization that will provide outreach, guidance, and support for all the communities of innovation that are establishing themselves today.

I see this non-profit functioning as a touchstone for all such communities, connecting and nurturing them, and initiating those amazing virtuous feedback loops between them. Imagine a new biohacking focused space has opened in an area; wouldn’t it be great to partner them with a national organization that promotes STEM to underrepresented youth? That’s just the least thing I can envision… all kinds of wonderful things can happen when communities of innovation intersect.

Entrepreneurs, makers, creators, space hackers, engineers, teachers, artists – we are the aspirational ones. We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. So I am putting out the call, today, right now, and I’m asking all the people I know from all the communities of innovation who are reading this to help me turn a dream into a reality. I think the next steps are talking more about the mission and vision of an organization like this, and maybe thinking about creating a directory of communities; if you’re interested, please click the link below to join a mailing list where we can talk further about the topics in this post and how we can connect communities of innovation:

http://eepurl.com/bsmwkn

There is so much to do and there are so many truly great things ahead – the journey is just beginning. I hope you’re as thrilled as I am to be alive during this incredible time and be a part of this amazing story.