Innovation, Impact, a Darn Good Party and What Chicago Can Learn from Cambodia

If there had been a collective speech bubble over everyone’s head at last night’s “Founders” party for Impact Engine, a new social innovation accelerator program just revving up here in Chicago, it might have read, “Well, about time!”

In Boston and New York, techs, investors, ad execs, designers, scientists and journalists literally trip over one another. Seattle basks in the Microsoft effect. Silicon Valley is one big virtuous circle of critical entrepreneurial mass.

But Chicago has long been lost in the shuffle: a great place with loads of talent and the occasional big hit, but somehow lacking the alchemy that transforms individual parts into a larger, qualitatively different whole.  

Steve Jobs famously talked about “the intersection of technology and the humanities.” It is the sweet spot—and speaks right to the mission of the TrackerNews Project, which is all about the mix and the match of ideas, disciplines and perspectives. 

The Founder’s party fairly glimmered with that elusive alchemy. It was, in fact, a mixer, bringing together entrepreneurs (wishful wannabe’s to those well on their way), mentors and investors. People whose paths simply never cross were seriously delighted to meet. Technology, have I got a Humanity for you… 

Over the last couple of years, Chicago has seen the emergence of a number of such “centers of mixing.” Tech pitch nights now routinely sell out. So do Creative Mornings talks. Maker space Pumping Station One has seen its membership zoom past a hundred. Incubators have opened, accelerators have accelerated. There is even a entire TechWeek.

And then there is The Plant—a vertical farm in a massive Sinclair Lewis-era meatpacking facility on the city’s southwest side—that seems to bring out the innovative best in everybody. It will take years for the build out to be complete, but in the true spirit of Burham, there are “no little plans” here.

Beyond systems thinking, there is ecosystems thinking at work. Waste is never wasted and it all weaves together: an artisanal brewery, mushroom farm, commercial kitchen space, grid-independent biodigester power and aquaponics set-ups. Technology meets Humanities meets Food. Even better. 

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At what point does all the mixing start to turn magical? What does it take for an entrepreneurial culture of innovation to really take root? 

Three years ago, halfway around the world in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, my friends at InSTEDD* decided to find out. They helped organize the first BarCamp ever in Southeast Asia. Three hundred people, almost all with minimal tech experience, came. Clearly, this was a community bursting to be born. 

Next, they opened an innovation lab—an iLab—a place where the community could develop.

CTO Eduardo Jezierski:  

We set up the iLab in early 2008, with support from Google.org and The Rockefeller Foundation. We started in a large house, with a mix of bedrooms, open space workrooms, classrooms, etc. A lot of people would crash in the bedrooms during BarCamps and other events. We had a constant cycle of foreigners—both from the region and beyond—who helped InSTEDD set up in Southeast Asia, or just wanted to connect with the accelerating local tech community.

We have iterated the physical set-up and now the iLab occupies part of a floor in an office building with beautiful open spaces. One thing, however, has remained constant: The internet connection is awesome—and a large part of the cost of the iLab’s infrastructure!

…Something I hope distinguishes the iLab from Silicon Valley, though, is that it helps foster a broader focus, one that includes social impact as an explicit initial goal of a business and part of the bottom line.

It is easy enough to write a grant to set up a space. Funders get that. But the InSTEDDers were actually hoping to spark something more enduring, if too ephemeral to include in a funding request: a sort of “garage culture” esprit de tech that would expand beyond the iLab to develop as sector; and enduring relationships between techs and groups working on humanitarian projects.

Today, the iLab is humming along, completely Cambodian-run. Whether or not it survives as a self-sustaining institution beyond its grants (likely, though you never know), a matrix that strengthens local resilience is now in place. The iLab, along with more Barcamps and Hackerspace Phnom Penh, have provided opportunities to collaborate and network. 

EJ: 

One the key moments for me was the day one of the developers told me about “Hello World of the Month.”

It’s brilliant. The iLab developers were getting tripped up, worried about their speed whenever they started to work in a new programming language. They realized they kept reverting to “old ways” that were more comfortable. So they created “Hello World of the Month,” an exercise to take something they knew absolutely nothing about and figure out how do something useful with it. There is always a mix of curiosity, frustration, even trepidation when trying to do something in a new programming language. “We want to feel comfortable with learning new things. We need to feel comfortable not knowing so we can look for the answer.” Now that’s the right attitude. We could all learn from that.

So, yes, you need the money (philanthropy or investor). You need technical expertise. You need good ideas. But the “secret sauce” turns out to be…us—meeting, talking, sharing, doing. 

Impact Engine, then, is already having an impact. Sweet. 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

* full disclosure: The TrackerNews Project was incubated at InSTEDD

Think Bigger

It seems so sensible: Add voice to text messages. A smart phone is still a phone, designed to transmit sound. Which is why I found myself completely entranced by utellit, a small Chicago startup, at a recent “pitch” evening sponsored local website Technori

Founder Rishi Khullar’s epiphany? Profound annoyance at the rote Facebook response to the news of a friend’s birthday, i.e. “Happy Birthday!” scrawled endlessly on the celebrant’s wall. “Lame,” thought Khullar. Wouldn’t it be nicer to leave an old-fashioned voice message, but in new-fangled way? 

Wouldn’t it be in nicer still, thought I, to use the tech for humanitarian work or disaster response? Imagine emergency workers surveying a neighborhood leveled by an earthquake, recording detailed messages of the scene, then tucking them into geocoded text messages as shortened urls? This could take crisismapping to a whole new level. 

So exciting were the the possibilities, I whipped out an email to some of the best and brightest I know working in the humanitarian space. “Am I having a morning coffee moment, or is this really a good idea?”

It turns out it’s a really good idea. 

So much so, that many have been working on it, using open source tools. Eduardo Jezierski, CTO of InSTEDD* wrote:

…As ICT4D (ed. note: internet and communication technology for development) / social media / apps reach lower and lower swaths of the “pyramid,” voice becomes an increased need. Maternal child health services are not for doctors anymore: They involve mothers. The best, most valuable information post crisis is generated by—and curated by—the affected populations themselves, in their own language. 

Except from some privileged areas where text-based systems don’t run into the literacy, scripting, and dialect issues; voice is the key to involving a broader set of the population.

But what was fairly easy for the utellit team to set up here in the U.S. is much trickier elsewhere in the world, where smart phones are rare, telco infrastructure spotty and API’s come with lots of strings attached. 

All of this leaves a huge empowerment gap—communities can’t invent and deploy their own voice-like systems…

At InSTEDD our interest is in enabling a hundred apps like these bloom (without a dependency on iPhones, at least until they are common in rural india), invented by those that are part of, or close to, the communities with the needs; and (designed to be) integrated into the likes of Medic Mobile and Ushahidi.

We want any developer (wherever… in Nigeria…) that comes up with an idea like utellit to be able to implement it in days.

Working with Google.org and USAID, Ed’s team has been busy simplifying the creation of voice services to make them easier to build.  

We are building on top of open source switches (Asterisk/FreeSWITCH) direct VoIP integration and in some cases hardware integration to help folks build voice apps. 

These apps can span DIY-level for a few users; to national scale services by taking an approach similar to what we did with Nuntium

We are providing a simple HTTP API anyone can code to from any programming language to build almost any app they imagine; and then below that API  we allow a mix of rapid-deployment or operator-class “gateways” for the calls. 

Nicolas di Tada, InSTEDD’s Director or Platform Engineering provides more background and detail: Verboice - Listen and respond to the voice of your community.

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When Steve Jobs died, Wired writer Tim Carmody wrote eloquently about the profound impact of the iPod in the life of his young autistic son: 

…It may be a stretch to say Steve Jobs invented the iPod Touch or most of the technologies contained in it. But Steve Jobs certainly put it in my son’s hands, both by making it a sub-$200 device (and in our case, giving it away free with a laptop) and by helping to create an ecosystem of software applications for people with disabilities — perhaps especially communication disabilities…

The iPod wasn’t invented for people with disabilities, but nonetheless proved an answer to many prayers. That led to an interesting feedback look. The demo video for Siri, the new voice-command assistant, ends with a blind woman using her iPod to confirm a dinner date. 

Too often, startup tech pitches focus on a single, narrowly defined “haiku” problem: 

Hate waiting in line? / Pre-order equals happy / Download app today

Yet true breakthrough innovation demands taking the blinders off and noticing other possibilities (think Robin Williams pondering the potential of a pink scarf). A single brilliant insight can address many needs and trigger cascades of additional insights.

To think bigger, first you must begin to see bigger.

—  J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

* full disclosure: the TrackerNews Project was incubated at InSTEDD