For many of us the last few weeks as we move towards opening has been an intensely inspiring, busy and nerve wracking time, filled with reflection as to how we got here and a look forward to where we want to go. This is intentionally a long and detailed reflection in response to questions we have been asked, that we ask ourselves and a journey we fear that if not captured now may be lost in our new found momentum. So how did this happen? Where is it going? What is your vision? How have you made this happen? It seems only right that we start at the beginning, which in our case was with a big idea.
We believe the role of ‘us’ is changing. Be it me, you or our family and friends, our dominant relationships with place, our neighbourhood, city, region and state is less and less that of an individual, consumer or user. We are citizens first and foremost and what makes us citizens as opposed to consumers and users is our fundamental democratic mandate to create and make society – not just use and consume it.
Democracy is increasingly recognised as not the vote, the vote is merely a proxy; democracy in our world is the democracy of power to create our society, our city – our Birmingham. Matthew Taylor has so eloquently articulated this in his speech, ‘Power to Create’. The challenge is how we actually manifest and infect our realities with this democracy and this freedom.
For us as a team, we have seen the start of this civic democracy flourishing in so many different projects, ventures, ideas and new technologies over the last few years. The #EpicBrum campaign showcased the power of citizens, purpose driven ideas and how new technologies can galvanise citizens to drive forward their ideas for change. It also highlighted an incredible appetite to collectively build, invest and aspire in a more prosperous future. Above all, it raised questions – not answers about what would make a truly powerful, democratic & civic Birmingham.
It was our deep-rooted belief in the city that led to many a coffee shop gathering and fired up a very passionate group of grassroots change makers who worked tirelessly as volunteers to host TEDxBrum and create a platform for a new type of conversation; one in which a brighter tomorrow took centre precedent. Admittedly this may not sound earth shattering to many of you but having spent many years working, studying and living in Birmingham it was incredible to see over 350 people upbeat about our city. Most notably, these weren’t people in suits in big offices making optimistic decisions about our future, but rather grassroots change makers from all walks of life: young, old, optimistic, cynical, fanatics and TED newbies all united by the desire to connect, share & imagine something new.
TEDxBrum was not our final destination – we were merely giving a platform to voices, the everyday imagineers and the hopeful. Building on the work of many before us who came up with and grew the global platform and community. Impact Hub Birmingham is not a single solution, but a platform to convene, build momentum and gather the collective intelligence and energy of those who believe a better tomorrow is possible. Our mission is to provide a home for a diverse and supportive community; a space where your goals, talents & missions can flourish and thrive. Together, we want to build a better Birmingham, one that is fairer, more democratic and more inclusive. Yes, we were full of beautiful and inclusive ideas, but how exactly were we going to bring this crazy bold vision to life? And now that we’re here, how the hell are we going to uphold this mission going forward?
How we got here….
How did we get here, really and truly? The answer is far more complex than can be answered by a single person, in fact the notion of placing a single person on a pedestal to answer that question creates authorship to a single person or entity, for a new-found reality that has been built on the shoulders of many whose journeys started decades, perhaps centuries ago. This is highlighted in every detail of our journey so far and whilst there are hundreds of examples that serve to exemplify this – many more than this blog could showcase – the following three stories really stand out.
1. Hub Islington
Over a decade ago, Jonathan Robinson and friends believed in a different world. Dissatisfied with what they saw around them, they wanted to create a space for people passionate about changing things, borrowing the best of what we know from the likes of think tanks and international development to create a unique environment; Impact Hub. As we shall dissect later, the explosion of spaces, communities and momentum that the Impact Hub global movement has catalysed around the world is clear to see, but having had the honour of spending time with Jonathan Robinson, it’s through exposure to his journey that we really sparked our interest and got us thinking about what could be here in Brum. From humble beginnings in a leaky top floor warehouse in Islington, Jonathan and his team were receiving 100’s of enquiries within months from people looking for a similar stimulating environment in their own cities and at a rate unanticipated by the early founders. The network went through a whole series of questions and crises, from which the distributed network went on to find its feet as a global movement of what today stands at over 70 spaces and more than 10,000 members. Read its full journey here.
Every founder has similar stories about the level of personal, financial and / or emotional investment of the early days; Jonathan and his friends dreamed of a better world and saw their worlds and dreams travel and emerge through crises. The foundations of this journey stand not only on the successes of visionaries, but also thanks to the toughest, darkest moments of their journeys during which they invested their all for a better tomorrow, one where we were able to build on their brilliance, experimentation and bravery. We have the utmost respect for all those who built the foundation for others to build their missions with courage and confidence.
In the last few years we have been privileged to see open-making platform OpenDesk grow from an incredible crowdfunding campaign that saw over £350,000 raised to a global distributed network comprised of hundreds of makers across more than 30 countries. Founded by 00 – the Open Desk team have taken an idea begun here and built a global network linking designers, makers and local manufacturers on an unprecedented scale and fashion. When Architecture 00 and OpenDesk came together to work on the Impact Hub Birmingham fit out, we were privileged to hear and ingest the stories and learnings that brought them to the designs and details that we have had the honour of seeing unfold. When a visitor walks in and says wow – how did you manage to create a space like this, we struggle to share the detail of how the founders of 00 left their comfortable architectural practice to discover a new possibility; how they went on to bring together a group of people who were willing to build a different reality together, one that focuses on the collective instead of the individual. We came across this early PDF of an open source table design that was distributed globally for ‘hub – like’ spaces to make their own, many years before OpenDesk even came into being. What did the simple notion of sharing an idea generously and boldly for others to learn from end up galvanising? What could an open organisation galvanise?
For us, it isn’t that a particularly innovative table design, making platform or hub will change the world. Instead, it is the journey of a group of people who created a community, a platform and a broad mission that allowed many to build their dreams and missions on that matters. Upon realising The years of courage, confidence, bravery, sharing and investment shown from those passionate about exploring a better world, we asked ourselves how do we this in Birmingham? From a simple early PDF, from some belief to a global making platform, from a group of inspired graduates to a global network of 10,000 purpose driven people – how do we share our mission – a mission that is about creating a space for the many to dream and reach for the stars?
Click here to take a look at the design process and thinking behind the petal table.
3. The community at large
Here at Impact Hub Birmingham, we sit amidst the four walls of a building that has a rich, innovative and philanthropic history and as a community are constantly reminded of that which brought us here, the spirit with which all progress occurred. Founders of 58 Oxford Street, Thomas Walker and family served its community with a bold, entrepreneurial and generous spirit that we are constantly humbled by and it is within the essence of these successes that we catapult ourselves to new heights. However, it is not merely the beautiful success stories that need to be talked about. Behind many of the successes we admire lie not only glamorous stories of great achievements, but stories of hardship, sacrifice and a type of courage that comes not only from heroic individual efforts, but from the many who made humble ideas a reality, creating foundations and platforms for communities like ours to learn, grow and build based on the best practices of those before us. The single story takes us down a simplistic route of understanding how we got here; it doesn’t account for the mass authorship of those who bring ideas to life. These are just some of the many stories that surround and inspire us.
Impact Hub Birmingham was born from the ideas, generosity and investment of the crowd and it is now time to collectively imagine what our mission for Birmingham could look like. Building an Impact Hub is much more than assembling bricks and mortar and the following is our learning to date. Every one of the 78 Hubs built across the globe has been lucky to learn from the Hubs built before it and having spoken to a number of founders from across the network, some principles of what constitutes an Impact Hub have stayed constant since the original opened in Islington in 2004. The most powerful and noticeable constant lies in the fact that the Hub is an open network – a people network and emergent community of individuals with a shared purpose to discover a better world, city and neighbourhood. What these networks needed was some shared infrastructure, a physical location to work, imagine, conspire and collaborate – a place they could call home. At Impact Hub Islington, whilst each individual worked on their own idea, venture and project, they shared a common purpose for wanting to see the world change.
Our journey is not that different and in all honestly we did not know our journey would bring us here, to ‘Impact Hub’. Many of us living in Birmingham felt a different conversation was not only possible, it was necessary. We thought a different idea, vision and conversation for Birmingham in which we celebrated the amazing citizens making a difference here was essential and those who were quietly working away in the background needed a platform to share their voice. We never quite realised exactly what we would begin to discover. TEDxBrum highlighted that citizens in their hundreds wanted to explore, build and create new ideas, solve challenges and work together in ways they hadn’t before, and, as each TEDxBrum went on we started to realise the beauty and magic in the team behind it. There was something unique about so many diverse personal and professional backgrounds working together with a deep passion for a better city. We soon realised that ideas weren’t enough, one day a year wasn’t enough, volunteering alone wasn’t enough, and not having a sustainable revenue generation through TEDx events, would eventually mean the energy would run out as other pressures were faced by the team. We also knew that a time would come to introduce the TEDx license back to the city for new organising teams. It was then we realised it was crucial to build something more long term, a more permanent way to showcase possibility, build, create, prototype and scale solutions as we worked on the pressing challenges facing our city.
We embarked on 2 years of exploring opportunities, discovered the Impact Hub network and talked to many across the city and the world for their experience and advice. All of these stories share some of the lessons that we have been reflecting on and which challenge much of the dogma we see around us. Here are some of our many lessons so far:
5 Lessons Learnt
It really isn’t about individual Hero’s or the Co-Founders – its about the Micro Massive:
Hub’s are not made by heroes. Too many people think of us – Indi, Dan, Joy, Andy, Indy or Immy – as making the Hub, but this does not reflect the actual reality of how things are made or even how the Hub came into being.
This is a story of micro massive, this is a story of many contributors and authors and at best we are editors and curators of passion, mission and purpose. This is a story which began without anyone knowing that its chapters would lead to the Hub. From the first coffee shop meeting gathered by Anneka (original founder of TEDxBrum) to the top floor of a leaky warehouse in Islington, our current reality was set in motion by others before us, in many cases, decades ago. If it wasn’t us, there would be another group of passionate citizens doing it. We have just found ourselves in a privileged position to convene and curate this chapter.
What the Impact Hub network, Open Desk, and Impact Hub Birmingham stories show are micro massive endeavour. Many do and did not know they were contributing, and the ‘co – founders’ did not know what the result or outcome would be. We gave our everything to a mission as did many others with us and many wonderful things emerged of which the space is just one. What is more interesting for us is the community that is growing – a community driven by a shared mission and that is built on trust.
Be backed by purpose not ego or power.
The best decision we made was to crowdfund the Hub and seek support from all aligned to the purpose. By not being driven by an ego trophy for the great and dependent on good power brokers, we behave with an accountability to the crowd, are built by the many and have a level of freedom that meant together we could build the kind of space within which we can operate and also prototype a new type of open governance crucial to our long term sustainability. Many thousands of pounds went into the project from hundreds of you, and with the addition of our own money to hope to build a sustainable platform at the service of the city, rather than shareholders. People pledged not to a space, but to a collective effort for a better Birmingham. Without knowing what was coming everyone gave time, energy and skills. As time went on we realised through first hand experience that much of the unseen generosity, time, investment and effort given was because people were truly driven by a collective purpose over individual glory.
The magical things are all built obliquely
The thing that became obvious to many of us who have been on this journey is that the best things are built indirectly. Often, the final destination, the check points and the journey is unknown. We can often have to pivot rather quickly, and endure periods of extreme uncertainty, scarcity and exposure to the rather brutal and unforgiving opinions of others. This obliqueness requires trust and generosity, leadership becomes a hope machine with an eye on each task ahead whilst continuing to uncover possibility. With a mission bigger than anyone can imagine, we’re trying to create stepping stones and enough certainty to move forward each day, taking many with you. It has made us think quite deeply about what conditions are required for a large group of people on this journey, what is required in building a platform, convening a community and creating the spaces to allow this to flourish. We aren’t certain of it yet, but know that trust, collective investment, enlightened generosity, and embracing of the open ended and empathy is at its core. Its easy to invest in single ideas, what we are interested in is investing in collective purpose.
Things made in the open
A more transparent and open future is widely talked about. From emerging open business models we are seeing many examples of new forms of contracts forming between society and businesses offering deep transparency, open access and scaleable contribution to the commons. We ourselves have seen what happens when you openly make ideas, co-make your vision with the many and do this live in real time using a wide range of convening platforms and new technologies. However, what we have also learnt is that such open spaces can also be quite dark at the best of times. Many of those pioneering the open movements have build world changing ideas, but many have succumbed in a range of ways with stories as tragic as that of Aaron Swartz. It is vital to understand the dark side to openness and through a range of examples we ourselves have seen the effect that exposure, constant critique and building / creating in public had on many of the team and those around us. We must understand and respect the intimate scales & journeys of openness. We must back and host the spaces which allow contrarian perspectives, encourage paradox and conflicting ideas, disagreeing ideologies and in-completeness, vulnerability and doubt whilst maintaining and accelerating empathy.
Taking just one step out of your comfort zone is quite enough
We hear many heroic stories of how innovators and entrepreneurs take bold leaps to achieve dreams that many of us just sit and dream of. What we have learnt through this journey is that whilst creating a vision thats big enough to fill the rest of your days, what is crucial to progress is taking just one step out of your comfort zone. The long investment into a mission means that rather than huge bold leaps, just one step each day will mean a rather big and seemingly impossible dream becomes tangibly closer and real. This step is relative to each of us; for some it is openly sharing an idea regularly, for others it is waking up on a Saturday morning and paying to come to a TEDx event and for others it’s dropping everything to pursue the big idea. The secret is in bringing people together gently on this journey, ensuring that everyone’s contribution is valued and valid. Konda Mason, of Impact Hub Oakland shared this nugget about the journey of their community, one that exudes confidence, courage and some serious size too! She told us about signing her lease right before they had enough money to even make it happen, setting up the crowdfunder for 1/10th of the figure they needed, knowing that the 30 days of the Kickstarter would attract the rest and taking the extra step of faith for their and community. It is not always the heroic leaps, but just one step further than what feels comfortable that can propel you forward.
5 Plans & Big Questions (for now):
We recognise this mission requires many people, the Demo.B festival seeded the questions we wish to collectively explore. Demo.B will be extended throughout 2015 with weekly Open Making / Open Project nights to grow a community of imagineers building new models, projects and ideas for the city. This is the start, but wholesome words are not enough. We want data, metrics and both qualitative and quantitative evidence of impact to hold ourselves accountable. We feel that the current methods of measuring impact are at best unrealistic and that a more progressive approach is needed. To create the fertile ground needed to increase employability, bolster value creation and reduce child poverty we need to look at measuring the impact we have on our own community.
Initially, we will look at measuring the betweenness and connectedness of the network as well as its resilience and capacity. Focusing on these metrics allows us to build a sustainable route to a future for new, disruptive ideas that are formed within the network and will in turn impact on larger system metrics. As we build this impact together, we feel it’s important that we all play a role in deciding how this is measured and communicated. For further information and to help us build a more comprehensive Mission Data guide, watch this space – it should be available very soon.
Business models beyond desk rental.
We know it is essential to reinvent our business model from a desk rental real estate model to a model with programme delivery and community support at its heart in order to become a 21st Century town hall for local change. Our ambition is to stop robbing Peter to pay Paul and evolve the Hub business model from being a tax on Social Entrepreneurs & changemakers, by structurally aligning our purpose, impact and outcomes generated. This means shifting the Hub from a proxy real-estate derivative business model to one financed by the collaborative impact generated. How do we become a host for talent not customers? How do we build a network of communities not on the basis of who can pay – but who can drive outcomes and make real change?
…we could build an Impact Hub driven by collaborative entrepreneurship where social entrepreneurs and changemakers actively collaborated to deliver and implement local change.
… the Hub was a place where social entrepreneurs are rewarded based on the collective outcomes they achieve to address local challenges.
…the Hub provided a home for social entrepreneurs to raise investments for new social platforms, products, services and intervention with structured access to a lead market
…we could build Impact Hubs with the capacity to increase youth enterprise, local educational attainment levels, ecological diversity, healthy living levels – addressing all the systemic challenges our local communities face today.
We have the start of a plan and structure that needs you to help us grow and realise it. (More on this soon!)
Our accountability needs reinventing.
Impact Hub Birmingham – prototyping an rOpen Company
How do we build and preserve a new micro massive accountability to you all, one that is not just based on the published open, but one that looks at the relational value of being accountable to those that built the Hub, and those we must serve?
At Impact Hub Birmingham we want and need to explore a new model of accountability – one built on the footsteps of openness and radical transparency. A model which can play an integral role in the running of our organisation and the everyday challenges it presents. We want to be as open as possible, in part to be accountable to the city and citizens which funded us, but also in order to explore a way of exposing our intrinsic values and for you to help us maintain them.
We are a micro organisation with a massive numbers of stakeholders – we are in many ways a micro-massive organisation – empowered by the web and its capacity to reduce the cost of bureaucracy to virtually nil in order to create a new class of small organisations backed by the civic will, passion and desire of the many.
This concept of many small acts of change by small organisations is encouraging us to re-imagine our framework of accountability and governance both for the organisations that fit within this sphere but also for the larger civic administrators and organisations who play a similar & crucial role in creating the environment for massive small change to flourish.
Our new modes of management and organisation.
Whilst much has been written about our journey of democracy and our journey of reorganising power from the centre, to one where it can lie at the edges embracing the emergence of an increasingly interdependent world, perhaps the part least discussed is the democracy of our means of production. It remains a bastion of power, centralisation, authority, autocracy – a world where the means of organisation is evolved from the age of slavery to Taylorism and management theory in an unbroken chain.
The journey of Control has only moved to being organised around direct means (with the obvious threat of force) to being data & target managed, fear and needs driven, organised around a systems of control and designed through a behavioural bias for coercion. However, the central narrative of control as the powerful means of organising our civilisation has remained stable & core to the means of organising.
The core question we now face is can we shift our means of organising from control and instrumentalisation to unleashing a democracy of mission and purpose organised around our humanity.
This challenge is a systemic challenge and one which is not resolved by singular interventions such as tools for collective project management, a mechanism for collective decision making, or technology for driving decentralised accountability. Rather it is fundamentally rooted in our capacity to redesign our organising language; our means for accentuating empathy not sociopathy; our capacity to see the venture capital as human as opposed to financial; our confidence for operating in a boundless world formed through interdependency as opposed to articulated by the other; our capacity to navigate the old world industrial institutional economics & instruments without stumbling into a retrograde future.
This is a worldview which seeks to unleash the extraordinary humanity of the 99% as opposed to undermining the 99% to control the sociopathy of the 1%. This is a world view which needs us to believe in the possibility of ourselves not being structured by the fear of the 1%. Ours is a world which makes the avant garde of this future. Vulnerable to the tyranny of fear and the managers of fear, it is our responsibility to empower the hopeful and the possible, support the open democratic makers and shun the fear makers for they are the final managers of a world of control. Impact Hub Birmingham must organise around hope and collective mission, this we believe to be a key drive at the heart of the community.
A space to bridge voices.
We need to be a place of bridges, not the home of self referential influencers. Increasingly we are seeing discussions, ideas and communities become self reinforcing, we need to be a place where paradox and contradictions can come home. A recent article on US Congress highlights how in organising around polarising viewpoints, we are stifling innovation.
How do we make sure we are structurally open, open to the new, open to contradictions and paradoxes? We risk becoming our own echo-chamber becoming self-referential; believing our own hype and subsequently devolving into an ossified closed network.
Our start is that the team, the founding community and hosting capacity are coming into play. The role of the hosts is to constantly challenge the network as much as reinforce it. We believe the heart of innovation lies in looking for the contradictions in what you believe, not in the reinforcements in what you believe. The role of a Hub is to look for contradictions between the theory & practice of what is being done locally and situate it against the wider world. Impact Hub Birmingham must ensure that contradictions are aired and can be manifested within the space. There is no assumption that we or the contradictions that we air are correct, indeed they could be wrong. Our role is to allow them to foment in that space.
The above presents the next beginning of our thinking; an open narrative of our strategy and the questions and provocations we are holding. It is also an invitation to join us to expand what is possible.
We have the foundations and we stand on the shoulders of many years of experiences that have brought us on this journey. Now it is our challenge to organise hope, daring, plausibility and innovations focused on addressing the most challenging issues our city faces in recent history, together.
Addressing these challenges is not about adding to the squabble of us all finding our place in the dirt but in us all discovering our place amongst the stars. By genuinely doing our small part in seeding an inspired Birmingham and by standing on the shoulders of giants that came before us, responsibly making our collective contribution in the journey of time.