Hacker Labs: Where do new communities, cities, and civilizations grow?

Mexico City, Washington DC, Tunis, New York City.

Also, what is TEDx?

A number of governments have jumped on the “let’s building a start up/hacker lab space to tackle some of our internal and external issues!” bandwagon, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps, one of the best documented in American media right now is the White House’s team that fixed the Health Care Website and the group tasked with “hacking” other aspects of government. Some of these projects are much newer and need time to pick the issues they want to tackle, find staff with the right vision for these projects, and get settled into the ecosystem.

This post is not about evaluating how well this program runs, rather, I am providing a basic overview of some of the different types of projects and systems that I have explored… and some praise for the “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson) that the TEDx program has created. 

Mexico City — Laboratorio para la Ciudad

 The Lab was designed and is currently run by a friend/mentor, Gabriella Gomez-Mont, who I met for the first time very whimsically in a favorite coffee shop at Yale while she was there as a Yale World Fellow. [She saw my messenger back from TEDx Summit and we talked about it… quickly realizing we had been looking for each other and hoping to connect on campus at some point.]

The lab started as a project out of the Mayor of Mexico City’s office in 2013. Described as a “think tank and experimental space” Gabriella was asked to build this project through an invitation she received by the (then) newly elected mayor Miguel Angel Mancera. Some of the themes the lab has tackled include “Open Cities,” “Creative Urban Spaces,” and “Civic Innovation.” They host collaborative hacking events in their spaces, and carefully document their experiments and results in beautiful ways as they go.

Every aspect of the lab is an adventure. They tackle issues ranging from making city spaces in the congested and intimidatingly massive Mexico City into smaller, approachable community spaces, the best ways to bring public art to the city, and how to teach marketable skills to a huge population in efficient and effective ways. The lab is constantly coming up with new things that it can do to improve the experience of Mexico City.

My own experiences with the group has been super positive, because Gabriella is brave and creative in the issues she wants to think about. Even when I mentioned wanting to map the informal economic networks of Mexico City… she didn’t flinch. Instead, opening the conversation with “sounds interesting, where would we start?”

Tunis — Cogite

I’m visiting Cogite this week during my trip to Tunisia (writing from one of their coworking spaces right now, in fact!) and getting to see all of the great work that Houssem and Fatene do here.

The coworking space turned skillshare lab opened the doors to its first coworking space in 2013 and has grown dramatically since then, with soon to be five coworking spaces in Tunis. Houssem Aoudi is the CEO of Cogite and the longtime curator/organizer for TEDxCarthage. Under his leadership, Cogite has grown into an amazing business space for the vibrant community that he and Fatene have built and supported with their team.

During some of their skillshare evenings, Cogite will invite local CEOs to talk about their experience building businesses in Tunisia. On Tuesday, for example, Cogite hosted Tarek Lassadi of Traveltodo, a major online tourism company for Tunisia. Lassadi answered questions from a room packed full of young entrepreneurs working in a variety of cool industries.

Cogite_Entrepreneur Discussion
Photo Credit: Houssem Aoudi (Cogite, CEO)

It was a cool experience — Lassadi was very warm and relaxed. Not at all like some of the NYC meet ups I’ve been to, where it is sometimes very difficult to connect to the speaker or the formality of the event makes the experience feel, all together, more “high pressure” to network. This was about similarly creative and business minded individuals meeting, connecting and sharing their experiences to help others grow in their own work.

Fatene (COO of Cogite) is a Branding and Strategy Whiz herself — so she has presented some tips at a skillshare event at Cogite before too.

The community that they’ve built here is so vibrant and full of great ideas, it’s not hard to imagine that soon their website will host a skillshare blog similar to the First Round Review. I’ve been here for only a little over 24 hours and already plotted out a slew of fascinating future research projects with some of the people in Cogite (from concepts to explore to the funding…).

New York City — Integrated Digital Media Lab at NYU Poly 

I’ve been able to see and an event highlighting some of the projects coming out of NYU Poly’s Integrated Digital Media and Ability Labs recently, and it’s pretty great stuff.

NYU Poly has a great coworking/classroom space in downtown Brooklyn, where students are encouraged by professors like R. Luke DuBois to build things that I could really only imagine coming to life. His classes and projects reflect the same interdisciplinary approach that he takes with his own work: he has completed advanced degrees in Music Composition (He did his masters and Doctor of Musical Arts at Columbia), he is a developer and product manager at software development firm Cycling ’74, and he is a visual artist working in a variety of mediums with work at the BitForms gallery).

While opening a box of cheap electronic parts and mini-LED screens with what could only be described as glee, he described some of the cool projects students at NYU Poly take on in the lab. Professor DuBois told me once, “I dropped these tools on my desk and then told my students, ‘here are some tools. I am going to buy a sandwich. Bug my office by the time I get back.'”

The center supports programs like the ConnectAbility challenge, which rewarded programers and product designers who were thinking about creative ways to improve lives of individuals with disabilities. Kinetic Mouse, the Grand Prize Winner, for example, is a software program that provides hands free access to PCs using video camera that detect changes in facial expression.

And… TEDx?

The TEDx platform has grown dramatically since it started 5 years ago. Some of the early organizers have become local celebrities and celebrated figures in the wider “ideas economy.” My hosts in Tunisia this week are among these amazing people [Houssem and Fatene are enormously talented and creative individuals with beautiful hopes for the future].

Beyond ideas sharing, TEDx has evolved into an “imagined community,” for me. It means that I always have something to talk about with other organizers and I frequently end up visiting/collaborating with them on projects. In fact, two long time organizers did the Mongol Rally to prove how strong this community is.

I met a number of other organizers while I was working on TEDxYale. I was with a few of them at TEDActive in 2012, right after our first TEDxYale event: A Twist of Fate, and then TEDGlobal in 2013, after we had successfully transitioned into a second team and hosted a second major event (Solve for Y). My role in TEDxYale since has been as an advisor, but I am still friends with many of the organizers running awesome events around the world.

 

TEDxYale

The best part of this community? Everyone asks about your projects and follows up with “sounds awesome. How can I help?” Even now, while I am in Tunis and explain what I study and like to think about, I receive a flood of stories and examples to help support my research and case studies. It’s wonderful.

TEDx has become a platform for collaboration on a local level — I love going to events in new cities and communities and seeing local heroes pull back the curtain on their projects and dig into the gritty pieces of their process and the ideas they have for the futures. It might not take place on the same massive scale that some of the TED speakers do, but many of the speakers DO talk about what it takes to “get the job done” here. Now. It’s about being present and growing together for many of these communities. The chance to celebrate a variety of locally grown concepts builds hope. I really love that.

I learn from TEDx organizers all the time. Steve Garguilo at Johnson and Johnson runs an amazing program, including TEDxJNJ, that supports creativity and risk taking within a traditionally corporate setting. He proves, regularly, that it is possible to “hack” the corporate space and encourage employees to leave their traditional roles within the company to develop amazing interdisciplinary work.

TEDx in itself begins to feel like a global ideas incubator… perfect for researchers like me who need to tap into local communities quickly to get a better sense of the questions I should be asking. Often when I find myself needing to think through a job transition, new research proposal, or am having trouble defining my questions, will turn to some of my friends in the TEDx community and pitch them concepts. My friends are extremely responsive and the feedback I get is always useful (…how often can we say that about any of our colleagues?).

I’ve collaborated on research projects ranging from “Hacking Sex-Ed” to “Mapping the Labor Structure of Baltimore” with friends from the TEDx world. And when I go abroad to do research… it’s like I’m never alone. There is usually a TEDx group I can connect with for coffee and tips about exploring the city.

I guess this all means we have a lot of work to do… but that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. I can’t wait to see what happens next with all of these creative instigators.