Last fall, I was invited to TEDxMidwest, a TEDx on steroids that goes on for a day and half, after-parties included. In between the Big Ideas and the small food, I stepped back, looking at the 1,000+ crowd and thought, “There are a lot of interesting people doing a lot of interesting things here in Chicago.”
Professionally, my opportunities in recent years have been mostly with organizations on either coast and in Europe. My only project with Chicago roots has been a math musical I sparked into being (it’s really good…).
The big pull to stay? Family. But in truth, I could really live anywhere. In some ways, I know New York and Boston better than my home town. Still, this is where I imprinted as a young duckling. I love the Lakefront—nowhere is the interface between Big Urban and Big Nature more beguiling. And the people—these are wonderful people!
So I put on my journalist’s hat and set out to discover who was here, what they were up to and whether I should stay. For the last several months, I have attended just about every event I could that included the words Innovation, Creative, Accelerator, Makerspace, Incubator, Tech, Start-up, Design and Hack in the title.
It turns out Chicago really is having a moment. The buzz at 1871, the snazzy new tech incubator sprawling across 50,000 square feet on the twelfth floor the Merchandise Mart, is addictive. I spent an hour there on a recent Friday afternoon, sipping Intelligentsia coffee, MacBook Pro open, blending in with the crowd. All around me were people busy thinking, imagining, doing. I wanted to get to know every one of them.
The not so great news? There is little mixing between creatives—designers, architects, artists—and tech entrepreneurs. Creative Mornings is a sun-cycle and world away from Entrepreneurs Unpluggd evenings. Nor is there much overlap between Igniters and Pecha Kucha regulars. Design thinking and Lean Startup are two sides to the same coin, but speak to very different audiences.
Yet real innovation is in the mix. When Art is added to STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—it becomes STEAM. This fusion of science and art, tech and design was the genius of Steve Jobs. It is why MIT Media Lab is such a gusher of good ideas (according to Sal Khan, “the closest thing to being Hogwarts…” ). It is an integral part of the Silicon Valley alchemy and Seattle’s caffeinated culture, and how New York and Brooklyn stay in a perpetual state of reinvention. It is also why little Shreveport, Louisiana has become a hub of tech / art magic. State grants lured Moonbot Studios, whose founders include a Pixar alum, to, Louisiana. Their very first effort, a film/app book, won best short film Oscar this year: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.
The Henry & Balley Project was developed as a way to bring Chicago’s creative and tech communities a little closer together, designed for collaboration across disciplines and across the city. It was inspired in part by Morris Lessmore, in part by the social media-mediated success of Go the Fuck to Sleep (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson), and in part by a news story about makerspaces being built in or near libraries, (visions of books being digitized in one part of the building and sent heavenward into the ether, while downloaded digital files are turned into physical book objects via a 3D printer in another part of the building…).
So why not a digital children’s book complete with downloadable 3D patterns of the characters and the objects in the story?
Within the next few years, 3D printers will become a staple in schools, offices, museums. Indeed, the Chicago Children’s Museum is already developing a makerspace for kids.
From IIT to Pumping Station One, Northwestern’s School of Engineering and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 3D printers, ranging from high end industrial grade machines to tabletop MakerBots and RepRap units, abound.
The project also includes a crowd-shared storytelling website—”The Ballroom”— designed to go viral (and likely delight Chicago alum, Stephen Colbert…)
I have been mulling this idea for months, alternately energized by the possibilities and overwhelmed by logistics. A visit to MIT’s Media Lab a couple of weeks ago lit a fire. Why can’t Chicago be a bit more STEAMy? The relationships that could develop, the kismet of combinatorial culture (HT to Brainpickings’ Maria Popova), the joy of collaboration and the collective sense of pulling off something rather wonderful—let’s figure out how to do this thing!
— J. A. Ginsburg / jaginsburg (@) gmail (dot) com