Category Archives: social innovation

Spawning The Reef: re-inventing communal working and living (again)

Reposted from Edgeryders

A few years ago we started paying close attention to care. Ready-to-go, affordable health and social care was – and still is – unavailable. Not for some unknown person in some distant land, either. For friends and family members, people in our communities, right here. Something had to be done.

We see people coming together, stepping into the breach. Communities are taking up the role of care providers, making it work where neither the state nor private business could. They are doing amazing things. Hackers make open sourced, internet-enabled glucose monitors for children with diabetes. Belgian trauma therapists set up mobile studios and drive them to refugee camps in Greece, to help bereaved refugees. Bipolar 1 patients find and help each other fight back suicidal tendencies. Biologists and biohackers are trying to invent a cheap, open source process to make insulin. Activists in America encourage each other to eat healthy food and exercise by doing it together.

We started a research projects to take a good look inside these and many other stories. We wanted to learn what these initiatives have in common, and how we could make more. That project is called OpenCare; it is now in its second year. Results are still coming through, but one thing is already clear:

It’s all about humans.

Community provision of care services needs humans:  more, better prepared, volunteers. People prepared to teach each other skills.  Therapists to help volunteers in need of trauma support. So, the highest-impact technologies are those that help bring people together. Share knowledge. Distribute human resources across different care contexts. These technologies are connectors: they help string together and coordinate human efforts.

This intuition is fundamental. It goes even beyond care. And it makes sense: we are, after all, the 99%. We have little money and power. We have no large companies, fancy foundations, prestigious universities. But we do have each other. We will thrive, if we can collaborate. Collaboration is expensive, and hard to monetise. Any technology that makes it more efficient is going to make a difference.

At Edgeryders, we have resolved to put this lesson into practice. We are doing it by hacking the most fundamental connecting technology of all: the home.

We dream of a new kind of space, that can be the hearth for our families but still be open to the broader world. Where the door is not a gate to keep the wolves out, but a bridge to a global network. Where we can live, and work, and sometimes work with the people we live with, and live with our co-workers. Where people are welcome to stay for one day, or a lifetime. Where spending even just an hour in good heart ensures you will never be a stranger again. Where we can develop our talent, learn new skills, get better at what we do. Where we can create for each other a healthy, friendly, cosmopolitan environment and, yes, take care of each other.

We have dreamt this dream before. In its previous iteration, we called it the unMonastery. We prototyped in 2014, in the Italian city of Matera. That experience taught us much. The most important lesson was this: a life/work space can not be too close to the needs of a single client. Neither can it be dependent on the grant cycle. It needs to be financially self-sustaining, and benefit several projects and lines of business. We also learnt how important it is to be diverse, open and outward-looking for fresh air and fresh ideas to circulate at all times.

But the unMonastery also got many things right. The one I am proudest of is this: we went ahead and tried it. Planning and due diligence are necessary, but trying things out makes for richer learning.

So, we are not going to keep dreaming about a new space. We are trying a second iteration. Right now.

We are calling it The Reef. Coral reefs are structures built by tiny animals, corals. They serve as the home, anchoring point, hiding place, hunting ground to thousands of species. Algae, seaweeds, fish, molluscs all cooperate with, compete with, eat, feed each other. As they do so, they benefit the corals, who gain access to nutrients (reefs exist in nutrient-poor tropical waters).

Like coral reefs, our new space will draw strength in diversity and symbiosis. Different people will bring in different skills, access to different networks, different personalities. And Edgeryders (a social enterprise, so a creature of a different species) will live in symbiosis with the space and the individuals that live in it. It will pay rent, subsidising those who live there; in return, it will be able to use the space for its own purposes: office, coworking space, venue for small events.

And like coral reefs, our new space is going to be an ecology – a network. There are many ways to take part in it. Some people will want to live there full time, others will show up once or twice a month, or a year. Some will use it on building projects with us, and with each other. Others will work on shared learning and professional development. Of course, we already have a network: the Edgeryders online community itself. This will not go away, in fact it will become ever more important. But now The Reef will give it a permanent offline presence. Reef members will be the kernel of the Edgeryders community. Everyone is free to join the kernel or not; everyone is free to play the role she feels most at home with.

We ran the numbers and we are sure we can make it work. We are going to start with a small-scale prototype: a Brussels loft, with four bedrooms, common living area, office, courtyard. Noemi , Nadia and I are going to be full-time residents; one more room will host temporary residents. We are going live on May 1st 2017, and try it out for one year. We are already looking for a (much) larger space to move into in spring 2018 if the experiment goes well.

Are you considering being part of the experiment, or just curious about it? There are three things you can do.

  1. We are planning a side event to OpenVillage Festival dedicated to The Reef. There, we will design the physical space, its financing model, and the activities therein – from business to physical fitness and personal development. It is restricted to members, because this is our future home we are talking about. It’s up to people with skin in the game to make decisions about it. Info here.
  2. We are running our first personal development event in The Reef itself on 26-27 May. We will learn to be better public speakers in the Power Pitch weekend. Info here.
  3. Get in touch! Write, or join our community calls, or come over for coffee.

So: a place-based symbiosis of some inhabitants of the edge, a mutant company, and no book to do it by. It’s not going to be easy. But it has the vibe I was looking for: the excitement of building, and the pleasure of doing it with good, solid people. It is in the sweet spot between ambition and achievability. And I, for one, am going to give it all I’ve got.

Derelict urban landscape

Is social entrepreneurship still viable in the age of Trump and Brexit?

Does anyone remember social entrepreneurship? It was all the rage from the mid-2000s until recently. Social entrepreneurs are risk-takers with broad vision, like Schumpeterian entrepreneurs; but they care about fixing problems more than about making money.  For them, making money would be not  a goal, but a way to be independent from handouts from the Powers That Be. The theory is that they have the right skillset to attack the world’s problems.

This would happen through disruptive market solutions. Take housing. A social entrepreneur’s solution would be a cheap, eco-friendly houses that you could build yourself, with the help of your friends, for – say – ten thousand Euro (yes, people are working on it). This would make housing affordable to everyone, and break the tyranny of the mortgage. It would also disrupt the hell out of the real estate barons. This does not bother the social entrepreneur. Creative distruction is a good thing.

The idea took hold. An ecosystem (though not a very good one, at least not yet) emerged around it: impact investors, social accelerators, social entrepreneurship-friendly policies. Two powerful political players, above all others, backed this idea: José Manuel Barroso’s European Commission and the UK government during the Brown and Cameron-Clegg administrations.

Despite the hype and some real support, no one ever believed this was going to be easy. Even if you do get a brilliant idea and the resources to deploy it, disrupted industries won’t go down without a fight. Things would get ugly. But the social entrepreneur would hold the line. Entrepreneuring is always difficult. Yes, commitment to social betterment adds some complications, but she knows she’s making things right for the people.  That’s a big non-monetary reward.

Some people bought into the idea and had a go at building financially viable, socially beneficial companies. I guess I am one of them: I co-founded a company called Edgeryders, a not-for-profit company. We have our own market to disrupt, consultancy. We do it by delivering expert advice by smart communities, rather than professional consultants. As we go, we generate meaningful, paid work for the brilliant misfits in the precariat.

And then Brexit happened.

The Brexit vote has negative implications for social entrepreneurship.

  1. It goes in the direction of breaking up the European single market. If your company, like my own, starts by colonizing a niche this is bad. A niche in a large market might still be large enough for you to survive, thrive and expand. The same niche in a small market might be too small to support your business.
  2. It throws a wrench in the free circulation of people. This is also bad, because our talent pool is already limited. It takes a certain kind of person to fit well into a social enterprise. Employees take more risks than in ordinary companies, but without the pay offered by commercial startups. Free circulation gives us access to more smart, dedicated, hireable people. Many social enterprises tend to have both an international mindset and an international workforce.
  3. It creates instability, which is bad for business if you are selling anything new. Investment in innovation gets deprioritized during turbulence.

But Brexit has an even more important implication. It shows that many people do not want to live in the world we are trying to build for them (and ourselves). Social entrepreneurs tend to be urban liberals. They rejoice in diversity, and many of them are themselves expats. They are committed to meritocracy. They respect facts, and attempt to uphold them over beliefs an prejudices. They dislike the thought of living in the “Little England” evoked by the Leave campaign. They worry about the disregard for factual truth displayed by the whole Brexit debate. They – we – are simply not the right people to help disgruntled Brexiters to build the world they want.

Smart people have been trying to make sense of the Brexit vote, and  of the parallel rise of Donald Trump (exampleanother example). The prevailing narrative goes something like this: the white working class feels left behind. There are jobs, but they are not “good” jobs. They don’t offer “a sense of community and self-worth”. They think the world owes them (but not Syrians or Iraqis or Italians) a certain kind of life. They are  not interested in alternative paths to community and self worth which our society does offer, like cheap or free access to art, entertainment and learning opportunities.

Skilled demagogues have been working on this dissatisfaction. They were able to convince white people in Deep England to express it by “breaking the system”. In practice, this means voting for nativist political parties who target immigrants and ruling élites, in this order.   They simply don’t care what they break, or who they hurt to make their point. The loss of opportunities for social enterprises are not intentional, just more collateral damage. .

I will resist passing judgment on this stuff. It is what it is, and we need to factor it in. What I do have to pass judgment on is this: is it still worth it being a social entrepreneur? Big business is our enemy on the market. The people we were meant to help are our enemies on the political arena. Is our mission still achievable? Is it even worth anything to society at large?

Photo credit: Geoff Llerena – Reposted from CheFuturo (Italian)

Innovation needs the frontier: notes from a conversation with Fabrizio Barca

Fabrizio Barca is one of the most interesting policy makers in Europe. He receives a lot of media attention since 2011, when Mario Monti appointed him Minister of territorial cohesion. People interested in public policy, though, have been following him for much longer. He has a track record of delivering well-thought through, ambitious, elegant policy packages. I have been following his work for almost twenty years. Initially I read his writings and discussed them with friends and colleagues, some of whom worked with him. Later, we started meeting up in person. When I am in Rome I like to look him up and check what he is up to.

In 2013 the experience of the Monti government ended. Fabrizio went back to his job as director general of Treasury and turned his attention to inner areas (“aree interne”). Aree interne are territories that happen to be far from certain key public services: high schools, hospitals, railway stations. They include four thousands villages an small towns, accounting for 60% of Italy’s surface and 25% of its population. They are hamlets in the hills and mountains, meadows, fields, grazing areas. They are often places of beauty, rich in local culture and history. Just as often, they experience trouble. People leave; employment decreases; services get harder to find. Marginal land is abandoned, paving the way for environmental problems like landslides or flash floods.  Innovation stagnates.

Inner areas are clearly important. It is understandable that the Italian state wants to improve their conditions. What I don’t understand is why Fabrizio feels the need to work on them himself. In the last fifteen years, development economists have looked in the opposite direction. Cities, they say, are of strategic importance. In 2014, they were home to 53% of humans, and produced 80% of the workd’s GDP (World Bank). For developed countries, these percentages are much higher still. For example, in the Euro area 76% of the population lived in cities in 2014.

Italy is a little less urban than most developed countries (“only” 69% of Italians lived in cities in 2014). But there, too, cities are strategic. Consider Milan. Its metro area is home to a little over five million inhabitants, one Italian in twelve. In 2004, this area had a GDP of 241 billion Euro: that’s more than the whole of Austria, and 13% of Italy’s.

It’s not just GDP. Milan and the other urban areas produce almost all of Italy’s exports, that is, at the end of the day, our contribution to the world’s economy. Chemicals. Textiles and clothing. Rubber and ceramics. Vehicles. Industrial automation. Italy is a manufacturing economy, one of the most important in the world. The agri-food industry, too, likes to represent itself with images of green fields, but it sells transformed products. In 2014 Italy exported transformed food products, beverages and tobacco for about 28 billion Euro; it imported some for about the same value. The Italian trade balance for food products, so, is about zero. The industrial automation industry exported 74 billion worth of production, and recorded an active balance of over 50 billion Euro (ICE). Most companies in these industries are in urban areas, not in remote areas.

Italy is no exception. Cities produce more per capita wealth then the countryside; and large cities produce more than small ones. Two physicists, Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West, have found an exact mathematical relationship between the size of cities and their production (PMAS). The average citizen of a metropolis produces and earns more than that of a smaller city. A city with n inhabitants pays wages proportional to n to the 1.12-th power. This means that, as city sizes grows, per capita income grows too. All other things being equal, the average wage in a 10-million inhabitant city is about 30% higher than in a 1-million inhabitants one; and about 75% higher than in a 100,000 inhabitants one.

This sort of growth is called superlinear. It surfaces in many aspects of urban life, from banking deposits to electricity consumption. In particular, it is typical of variables tied to innovation, like number of patents per year or R&D employment levels.

Why are cities so successful? According to Bettencourt, cities are “social reactors”. They behave more like stars (that are nuclear reactors) than like living creatures (Science). Their ability to produce innovation and wealth depends on the number of connections  that they can bring about. Commerce, science, manufacturing are all network phenomena, because they depend by the exchanges across people and organisations. Just think about it: as more peoplem get involved, the number of possible exchanges across them grows fast. One individual can have no exchanges. Two people, Alice and Ben, can give rise to at most one exchange. If we add a third person, Charlie, we get three possible connections: Alice-Ben, Ben-Charlie and Charlie-Alice. If we add a fourth one, we get six connection, if we add a fifth one, we get ten. As we get one million people, we’ll have close to five hundred billion connections (check for yourselves!).

The wealth of possible connections enable specialization; the presence of specialised people and organisations enable a higher productivity. The mathematics of connectivity points to cities as humanity’s future.  The world’s poor seem to agree, as they are moving there en masse. According to ecologist and digital pioneer Stewart Brand, they are motivated by access to better services (especially education); and the sharp increase in personal freedom that city dwellers enjoy with respect to villagers. This is especially true for women. Brand claims these benefits accrue to all city dwellers from arrival day, even if they move to slums. His data are clear: upon arrival, urban migrants tend to stay afloat by being active in the gray economy. In a couple of decades, though, they tend to become legitimate. Their children almost always attend high school, and aspire to enter the middle class.

This brings me back to my conversations with Fabrizio Barca. Why is the most interesting policy maker in Italy not working on cities? Why this fascination for hamlets, mountains, and valleys?

A few weeks ago I asked him a direct question. He answered that he thinks inner area are the future – not the world’s, but Italy’s. For three reasons.

  • They make up most of the country’s surface, and they are similar to one another. Val Basento in Sicily and Val di Vara in Liguria face similar problems. Their local leaders understand each other, and can collaborate, exchanging notes and know-how. A policy for inner areas is well placed to scale to the national level.
  • Italian cities are not like that. They are different from each other, and from cities elsewhere in Europe. Naples is the only true metro area in the country. Milan has some of the functions of first-tier European cities (design, finance, creativity), but not their size. Rome is a touristic-bureaucratic-religious conglomerate. No generalization is possible. Each city needs its own set of recipes.
  • Above all, Italian inner areas show signs of being vital. They are generating top-notch initiatives in culture, tourism, agri-food. School is holding  out, and often even makes progress, adding new technology to the mix.  Even the territory’s partial abandonment becomes an opportunity, because it means that inner areas have space. The local communities pay attention to what you do there. They hunger for innovation. There are low-cost physical spaces, often beautiful or interesting, to host new ideas and new people. For example. you could get  1,700 decommissioned railway stations for free. Honest.

In these terms, Barca’s story seems convincing. He does have tons of data to support it. So, humanity’s future is in inner areas. But then, the story that emerges from the works of the World Bank, Bettencourt and West, and Brans is also convincing – and it, too, has data to support it. So, the future is in cities, their universities, their labs, and their slums. Can these two stories be true at the same time?

I think they can. I propose that territorial innovation needs freedom. And that means places where you can try new stuff out without too many constraints. Where social norms approve, or at least do not condemn, who tries to walk the road less travelled. Where not every single inch of terrain is already claimed by powerful, well-organized stakeholders. If I look around, I see that the innovative spaces tend to be more free than average. You’ll find freedom in the slums described by Brand, because the state gives up on maintaining a tight control on every aspect on their economic life. You’ll find it in Silicon Valley’s web farms and data centers, because their activity is too fast and too global for traditional regulation. You’ll find it in outer space, where Elon Musk and the other space billionaires build their own piece of the future. And yes, you’ll find it in inner areas, disclosed by the availability of cheap, beautiful places and by low population density. These places are the frontier of contemporary society, our West, our Lebensraum.

If  I’m right, then the unifying narrative of  2015 goes something like this. Smart, ambitious, restless people are on the run from closed spaces, where powerful organizations (political actors, the state, corporates) limit their effectiveness. Where do they go? Where they always have: they go to homestead the frontier. Frontiers are weird places, full of contradictions and merciless at times. But they do offer chances of social mobility to individuals, and R&D labs to society as a whole. Italy has an extra frontier: inner areas. We can use it to innovate on the environment, tourism, leisure, culture. It’s a nice card to have up your sleeve. I hope we’ll play it well.

Photo: Mauro Mazzacurati su

An Italian version of this article was published on the online magazine CheFuturo