Tag Archives: innovation

Changemakers where you least expect them

It turns out crisis-ridden Greece is abuzz with innovation: resistance to bold, radical moves tends to melt away when it becomes clear that business as usual is not an available alternative. Perka, in Thessaloniki, are running a 200-people strong urban gardening operation in an abandoned military base. Anosi, in Volos, have set up an ingenious cut-out-the-middlemen food distribution system; Spithari are building a self-sustaining community “in the middle of nowhere”. There’s more where these came from.

I know this because my friend Petros at FreeLab found out. In the early stages of a project called Expedition Freedom, he combed mainland Greece for interesting stories, made contact with the people running these projects, and convinced them to share their experience for the benefit of all. This is a very respectable achievement: it denotes high-grade research skills and prowess at diplomacy in winning their trust over (some Greeks are not feeling overly friendly with respect to research efforts from Europe, as you might expect). This is even more impressive when you think Petros is not Greek and does not speak Greek.

You might be forgiven for imagining that Petros is some kind of hotshot development economist. And he is, in deeds – Expedition Freedom is sterling silver economic development, at least as much as “my” OpenPompei project. But he does not work for a government, an international organization such as the World Bank, or a large NGO. A former IT small entrepreneur, when his company went bust and he found himself owning nothing, he decided to become a “full time social contributor – a travelling commoner, anarchopositivist, political writer and homeless activist”. He stood on his own two feet for the first reconnaissance mission of Expedition Freedom, hitch-hiking for more than a thousand kilometers across mainland Greece. He raised some very modest funding for things he could not replace with his own time and work – myself and other people in the Edgeryders community put in a little help in this, buying things off a shopping list he had (the most expensive item was a bus ticket from Greece back to Poland for € 100).

What gives? For several years now I have been exploring the fringes of the economy, fascinated by human ingenuity at the edge. I have become convinced that hackers, activists, DIYers are a real force for development – perhaps the only fresh resource we could conceivably deploy after decades of failures and ineffectiveness. If you think of society as an ecosystem, these people are the variation part in the variation-selection engine: they build and unleash into the world strange artifacts like open source software, soft IPRs, 3D printers, cryptocurrencies. Like pioneer species, most of these innovations will go extinct. But some will colonize the economy, and shape the world we will all live in tomorrow. It is really important for any self-respecting government to engage with them; and yet, they seem to live in a blind spot of pretty much any official or credentialed expert I ever talked to. Petros, however, knows they are important. He can find them and engage them.

Make no mistake: this is public policy at work – except for coming from an unexpected direction. It is aimed at the common good (distill and circulate the practical knowledge for bottom-up innovation to thrive); it is guided by a clear vision (seed society with as many robust groups of innovators as possible, and let them compare notes to accelerate adoption of whatever works); it deploys tools off the policy makers’s shelf (research, networking and diplomacy). And it is several orders of magnitude more efficient than anything I have ever seen in the public or corporate sector. Any well-funded government project would hastily declare success even with the results Petros has achieved already. In fact – though I have something of a reputation myself for this kind of work, in some circles – his results on almost zero resources humble me, and prompt me to try and get better at what I do.

My takehome point from this story: development policies, traditionally a province of Big Government and Big Nonprofit, are now amenable to being rolled out by networked individuals – with uncanny efficiency. No longer a monopolist, if public policy is to make a meaningful contribution, it needs to enlist people like Petros; not divert them from what they are doing, but helping them to do it, lending it the state’s legitimacy (and maybe a little of its resources). From the point of view of the state, this looks like wielding a fishing rod: thick and rigid at the handle, where full-fledged Weberian bureaucracies interact with cabinet ministers, thin and flexible at the end, where people like Petros engage hackers and innovators as they try to patch together a viable societal model for a crisis-stricken country. The intermediate section of the fishing rod ensure that the policy has the necessary latitude at the end, while still being tightly compliant with regulatory requirements at the handle. Petros might make an unusual ambassador for a state (he would be the first one to say so!), but hey – we are not mass societies anymore. Better get used to it.

Petros is now fundraising for the second phase of Expedition Freedom.

Are you serious about lifestyle innovation? Collaborative living in Brussels

At the end of June Nadia and I will leave Strasbourg and relocate to Brussels. We are picking up good vibes about the city: it feels vibrant, it offers interesting professional and learning opportunities and – critically – we know quite a lot of people from all over the world who have moved there and have felt welcome. So why not us?

The thing is, we would like this relocation to be somewhat different from last year’s, when we moved out of Milan to set up camp in Strasbourg. In France, we are the typical migrant nuclear family. We rented a nice apartment overlooking the river, it’s great but we feel very lonely. Our families are scattered over two continents and four countries, none of which is France; many of our common friends are back in Milan, others are dispersed all over the globe. Our life here is simply too isolated. So, this time, we would like to rent a large living space and share it with others. We have been hosting people, on and off, for a year now, and we have grown to appreciate the company of our guests in our apartment, so we know having others in the living room does not feel like an invasion of privacy.

Now, this is lifestyle innovation we are talking about. We all shared apartments as students, or at the beginning of our working lives: that was great, but we now are adults, we have a greater need for personal spaces to balance with our need for socialization. We also have a bit more money than we did as students. So, ideally, we would want a 3-4 bedroom, and at least two bathrooms apartment to share with another person, or two. We would have one bedroom each (or two per couple); a bathroom per family unit; and share the living room, the kitchen and the terrace (if any). We would interact with our housemate(s) with the greatest respect and consideration, but allowing – and actually hoping – to grow closer to them as we live our lives. We have been looking at available housing in Brussels, and we have found several possible solutions.

There is no book to do this by: we were raised in a context of nuclear families, where adults simply do not share living space unless they are married to each other. But the world is changing fast, and we are happy and proud to try to break new ground, exploring living arrangements that make sense with our ever more globally mobile professional lives. If you feel the same, maybe you will consider moving in with us. We are a Swedish-Italian couple, no children, friendly and well-traveled. We speak mostly English to each other, but we are able to communicate in several other languages. If you are curious to know more, you can have a look at this Facebook page, where we post some interesting living spaces we have come across If you are interested, leave us a comment here, on the Facebook page, or just write to alberto[at]cottica[dot]net. If you think a friend of yours might be interested, please feel free to pass the links along. Brussels, here we come!

Beyond the three Fs: basic income as innovation policy

Three months into Edgeryders I am in awe at the generosity and the creativity with which so many young people take their journey through life. Some leave the career path that seems easiest, even at considerable personal sacrifices, insearch of something deeper; most desire to “do something useful”. They think big, and are not afraid to confront global problems like food security, the redesign of social ties, access to housing. All this energy is channeled into innovation, often marked by a refreshing radicality: urban farming, co-housing, social currencies, open public sector data, urban games to reappropriate public spaces, home schooling, peer-to-peer learning, you name it.

Innovators are a minority, as they always have been. But this minority differs from those of the past in two ways: it is numerically large, probably up in the millions, rather than the tens of thousands of a century ago; and it is self-selected, and internally very diverse. Though many innovators are members of the élites, with immaculate academic credentials, others are free spirits, university dropouts intolerant of departmental hierarchies, self-taught. The best indicator of the distance between young innovators and the élites is simple: so many of them are poor, barely able to make a living but not of amassing any wealth (hat tip: Vinay Gupta). There is a joke going around: if you are looking for the capital to launch a social innovation initiative, don’t waste your time asking banks, venture capitalists or governments agencies. The only people who support this stuff are “the three Fs”: family, friends and fools (hat tip: Alberto Masetti-Zannini).

The scale and diversity of the minority of innovators opens up the way to a completely new perspective: an adaptive innovation policy. Current public policies for innovation operate by selecting a priori, with the help of famous academics, a limited number of strategic research strands, normally framed in big science terms (like cold fusion or nanotech) and throwing money at them. A different approach has just become possible: do a great many small investments in a logic of diversification, letting a great many innovators choose which issues to tackle and how; monitor for lucky breaks or interesting solutions; and then scale the investiment on those that have already yielded something tangible. The idea is to reward innovative activities not for their direction, but for their results. This approach has the advantages of depending far less on the a priori wisdom of policy makers; and of discovering a posteriori which issues the innovators community finds more worthy of their efforts, and which lines of work are more likely to yield concrete results. It is a low-cost approach to evaluation, which can be very costly if you do it properly.

I was thinking about these things on Sunday, as I participated in a conference on basic income. Basic income is income decoupled from work or wealth: everybody has a right to it, just for existing. I am no expert, but I understood it is framed as a measure targeted at establishing the dignity of the individuals, making them more safe and harder to intimidate. All of this makes a lot of sense; still, I can’t help thinking that basic income could also be seen as an instrument of innovation policy: free from immediate need, (mostly young) citizens would be enabled to take some extra risks and try out more new ideas. Most would fail, as is always the case, but failures would be effectively too cheap to even meter, while successes could have large impacts, easily able to pay off the whole operation. I suspect the social cost of basic income would be near zero: people are surviving anyway, so the whole thing amounts to a reallocation of purchasing power from the wealthy and employed to the poor and unemployed.

All of this translates into an innovation policy mix that invests less on activities (lab research) and organization (corporate R&D units or universities) and more on people. The basic idea is give them the means to attack problems they care about solving, then get out of their way and, later, evaluate their results. It’s common sense, really, unless you think people – young people, in this case – are generally cynical, lazy or worse.