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Archive for July 2009

The Power of Place

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Which skyrise do you prefer?

Which skyrise do you prefer?

I have been told that in the U.S. one’s “twenties” are about finding yourself and finding your place. This summer I have explored new places with a new team. Assetmap has taken me from Providence to Chicago and across the path of the gold rush to San Francisco. I have slept on sofas, in closets, and along riverbeds on the way to this foggy city. But even with long days in the car, and prolonged hours in coffee shops I cannot say that I have found myself. On the contrary, I have found myself lost more often than found (lots of one way streets and mountainous streets in the Bay). When I landed in the Mission district of San Francisco, the dynamic and diverse community overwhelmed me. I quickly retreated into my work and into my new home, trying to find myself in this new place. Yet after weeks of sitting behind my computer working in cafes, I was no closer to knowing my new neighborhood or myself. The self-awareness I had sought was not forthcoming.

Last week, with work in a whirlwind, the team at Assetmap decided to take a few days off from the café hopping to begin our search for a more permanent home. This brought us to spaces I never expected to find: law office, co-working spaces, and tech incubators. Through the process of office hunting, seeing new communities, I realized why I was lost in reclusion. I was only going to “find myself” when I “found my place” situated in a larger community. The right community could provide a sense of belonging and meaning, new opportunities, and a safety net in hard times.

The three options that we explored revealed unique ways of creating a sense of place. At the small office space we could build something totally unique from the ground up. In a co-working space we had the opportunity to embed ourselves  in a young community with upward trajectory. Lastly, at the tech incubator we saw the chance to enter a robust and deep network.

I never expected to land a corner office in a lawfirm. Our first visit was in an old attorney’s office with all the amenities I had seen on the set of… “The Office.” The next-door professionals were dressed in drab business casual, a rare site outside of the financial district. The neighborhood was nice, and it would give us the opportunity to create a name for ourselves, but it was not our space. This was apparent, as we would have taken the spot for another start-up doing design for social businesses, who had clearly worn tired of making a name in a place they did not fit.

Alternatively, co-working spaces were a new and enlightening phenomenon. There were open offices with round tables for small business owners, designers, programmers, and entrepreneurs to share in a collaborative work environment. Our favorites, Citizen Space and Parisoma, are coffee shop-esque spaces with printers and conference rooms. Both host community events multiple times a week, and members are expected to contribute to other members work a few hours a week. Joining this community would be an opportunity to build a name for ourselves and support our co-workers.

Lastly, we drove through the San Francisco fog monster into pristine Sunnyvale CA to be wowed by Plug & Play, a tech accelerator and incubator. This bustling international office had over 200 companies as well as satellite workspace from every major university (a Brown space was conspicuously missing, despite alums throughout the building). Although a new community, Plug & Play already attracted the smartest minds from technology, business, and investment to accelerate the growth trajectory of nascent tech companies. To say the least we felt like a small fish in a big sea. This intensely competitive environment, with dozens of companies in “stealth mode,” clearly drives innovation if you have what it takes.

We settled on a hybrid route. Our new space is in the heart of the mission in the skeleton of a failed dot-com: evidence from the gold rush of the new millennium. But our new home is no traditional office space, we are working in a room that includes base camp of The Hub (a co-working space for social entrepreneurs about to open in Berkley), the organizers of Social Capital Markets (the premier U.S. conference for social entrepreneurs), B-Lab (a design firm building a ‘good’ focused product line) and Good Capital (a premiere investment fund for social enterprise), organizations we are passionate to be working around. This quasi co-working space is a dynamic work environment with big ideas constantly bouncing off the walls. More importantly we have found a community to build real meaning and new opportunities, and if we get off track our new friends will act as a compass to set us straight (it also doesn’t hurt to have a view of the entire city).

We have emerged from the coffee shops where writers and programmers type ferociously on their computers, rarely taking time to even notice each other. Seraching for a working space and a new community  has set me and Assetmap on the right course. This reaffirms my belief that I can only know myself when I am a part of a dynamic and supportive community. Not only do I have more to gain, but I now have more to give. Surely this is only just the beginning.

Written by Charlie

July 30, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Commitment in a Time of Change

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Courtesy of Yobs via Flikr

Courtesy of Yobs via Flikr

We are in an undeniable era of accelerated change. Change is deeply needed to fix our broken economic and environmental policies. However, change is not an end unto itself, and it is so distracted from the pressing issues. While our most important priorities seem slow to change, our precious attention is strained by instantaneously changing twitter streams, obtrusive advertising, and blasting playlists. How can we strategize effective change if we keep changing our minds?

Our attention deficit consumption behaviors are supported by industry in constant innovation and thus a volatile job markets. Consequently, the 79 million members of Generation Y are expected to hold dozens of jobs in their lifetime – that is if we can create the 100,000 new jobs needed a month without a recession. Time Magazine reports that Generation Y is in pursuit of more than just wealth generation to support changing consumption patternsl; Generation Y’s short attention is realy a rejection of an way of seeing. Shifting preferences are actually in pursuit of real meaning. Gen Y has an attention span form ‘empty value’ as short as a YouTube clip, but there are fewer outlets in the job market for meaningful work. How can we change our mindless behavior and build commitment to meaningful work?

In his latest column, David Brooks acknowledges that true occupational meaning is built on long term commitments. He recounts the story of Supreme Court justice nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, who has achieved great on the bench and has overcome structural setbacks through her commitment to justice. Sotomayor was raised by her widowed mother in an immigrant community in housing projects in the Bronx, but highly achieved in school, receiving scholarships to top universities. After excelling in academics, her life on the bench has been a constant self-sacrifice to public justice. Her story exemplifies that meaning and purpose is built through life long commitment, but this lesson cannot be learned or consumed in 30 seconds chunks, or even feature films.

[Sotomayor’s story is an] authentic glimpse of a style of life that hasn’t yet been captured by a novel or a movie — the subtle blend of high-achiever successes, trade-offs and deep commitments to others… [the] lure of work, which provides an organizing purpose and identity… You see the way people not only choose a profession, it chooses them. It changes them in a way they probably didn’t anticipate at first.

With more jobs being cut then created, it may be necessary to make commitments to building meaningful lives in other spaces. Even with tightened budgets, this is not a time to only look inward, but rather to extend commitments to others. I recently discovered Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, which provides far more than for just its own congregation. Glide has a $16 million budget behind health care, housing, daily meals, and support groups for an entire underserved urban population. What is more is that their entire congregation participates in this public commitment.

Even our personal behavioral commitments can have larger societal impact, that is if we are patient. No Impact Man is Colin Beavan’s blog, book, documentary, and personal commitment to cut consumption, waste, and all environmentally damaging activities (including riding the elevator) from his daily life for an entire year. In the process he has lost 20lbs without visiting a single gym, he has gotten his daughter to ear her vegetables, he has strengthened the bond of his marriage, and moreover, he has educated an entire urban population on the deep joy of cutting out the crap. Learn more about how to mindfully reduce your environmental impact and strengthen your health at noimpactman.typepad.com

While change is inevitable and necessary to overcome our largest world issues, we must also make commitments towards what is just, what is healthy, and what will ultimately create enduring meaning in our lives.

Written by Charlie

July 15, 2009 at 6:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Robots in Recession: The Upside of the Downturn

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A fortune telling robot from Bangalore India. Couresty Paul Keller via Flikr.

A fortune telling robot from Bangalore India. Couresty Paul Keller via Flikr.

Amongst the playing field of terrorism, war, and climate change, during the 2004 election my neighbors’ trump issue was ‘the robot problem.’ He posed a futuristic but pragmatic question: what will the next president do about the robots? His argument went like this: while violence and warming temperatures may kill us slowly, robots would surely wipe out humanity one fell swoop. Now in 2009, the current administration has inherited the plight of the robots. The economy has already eliminated over 6 million U.S. human jobs. Robots, the top industrial job killer (there are 3 robots for every manufacturing position in Japan) are also feeling the hurt (if they had nerves) of the downturn. No, this summer’s Terminator blockbuster is not a reality, but yes, robots are currently at the brink of survival. Will they fight back?

In Tuesday’s New York Times, Hiroko Tabuchi reports, “In Recession, Japanese Lay Off Robots“. Industrial robots have fallen 59 percent in the first quarter of 2009. Firms across the globe are unable to afford new machines, and so old machines are going out of business:

At a large Yaskawa Electric factory on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, where robots once churned out more robots, a lone robotic worker with steely arms twisted and turned, testing its motors for the day new orders return. Its immobile co-workers stood silent in rows, many with arms frozen in midair.

Robot manufactures – robots made my robots – have experienced drastic profit losses, with a number of firms collapsing in both Japan and the United States. According to a 2005 New York Times Article, Now There Are Many: Robots That Reproduce, robots can now multiplying and cloning themselves. Their reproduction is could deapen the damange to industrial workers. Manufacturing robots have slowly replaced human workers as they never tire, eliminate product defects, and require little upkeep. Tabuchi explains, “A robot will work every day and night without complaining.” Nevertheless, a large overhead costs and low consumption have forced firms to cut their robot budgets. A firm producing Roborior, a robotic security camera turned monitor of elderly Japanese in the countryside, does not have the finance to scale their geriatric craze in the pursuit of further alienating children from their parents.

While our daily products may be touched more often by steel than by human hands, robots in everyday are not yet commonplace. As personal assistants, janitors, and even pets, robots coupld replace dignified workers and perfectly compute mundane and redundant tasks. Despite a robot fetishism developed in Hollywood, consumers have shown little interest in robot, human interaction. Only fortune 500 companies have afforded mechanical wheeled janitors, and few families have replaced their canine companions with chrome K900s.  In 2006, Sony discontinued the Aibo ($2000), a mechanical dog that attracted more press than parents. At the same price of a purebred, the always hygienic and behaved Aibo failed to display authentic undying affection. Curious. Even if consumers are mostly uninterested in robot companions, they still lurk in the shadows.

Even in the downturn, there are two main ethical concerns concerning robots: super humans & artificial intelligence. With advances in life science technology, it is not unforeseeable that robotics could extend life for  decades by replacing ailing organs and limbs. Only affordable to the wealthiest, an aged robot aristocracy could take power, and further discrepancies in wealth distribution. Worse, governments could build super humans, substituting our weak human arms and legs for bipedal mechanical legs and canon arms (enter Terminator stage right). But if humanoid robots do not take over, a robot army with artificial intelligence just may. If awakened by artificial intelligence, lucid robots would be a menacing foe. Built on utilitarian intelligence, versed in history, and devot to the laws of economics,  Robots would would likely show no quarter to the unemployed human race, whose industrial manufacturing and unsustainable energy sources already threaten life on earth. Every dystopian future has warned of the inevitable self-destructing capabilities of technological progress, yet we do not head the advice.

In the early nineteenth century, when mechanical looms threatened workers out of a job, the Luddite movement combated their oppressor. Inspired by Ned Ludd, a workers movement of technological naysayers, forsaw the social and environment externalities of industrial society – and above all else their doomed employment as hand weavers. Burning mills and factories, this group was ultimately put to trial and labeled with the now derogatory ‘luddite.’ While the modern fashion industry surely proves that the Luddites were on the wrong side of history, the pursuit of progress hastens towards terror and destruction.

The economy has done had tragic impacts on employment, savings, and distribution. Floundering in the seas of unemployment, workers are losing faith. Unable to sell homes that have sunk their 401k, homeowners are losing their dignity. However, this downturn too shall pass, and on the upside it will serve as a reminder to keep our pride in check. The old dream of financial autonomy may be replaced by commitment to communal service. If we consider the welfare and global benefit of a human manufacturing sector, we may also win jobs back from the machines. However, this recession is only temporary. Only time will tell if humanity will curb its appetite for robots and their inevitable brethren: mechanical armies and artificial intelligence.

Written by Charlie

July 14, 2009 at 5:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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