I am currently taking the edX course “u.lab: Leading from the Emerging Future.” One of the choices for the week 2 assignment was to take a learning or sensing journey, which is defined like this:
Sensing journeys pull participants out of their daily routine and allow them to experience the organization, challenge, or system through the lens of different stakeholders. Sensing journeys bring participants to places, people, and experiences that are most relevant for the respective question they are working on.
I chose to make Boston’s Hubweek my u.lab learning journey. Hubweek is, “A weeklong celebration of innovation and creativity in Greater Boston, founded by MIT, Harvard, Mass General and The Boston Globe.” This blog post is a slightly edited version of the journal entry I wrote to complete the assignment. I went to dinner this past Friday with friends and one was so genuinely interested in my Hubweek experience that I decided to publish it here for her and others to read.
There is no question in my mind that Entrepreneurship is on the rise and people are looking to engage with emerging technologies in new ways. In my view, a subtle shift has also taken place: the libertarian / Ayn Rand vibe, where the focus of every start-up was “getting rich,” has transformed into discussions of inclusion, community, sustainability and impact. Although everyone may not appreciate the accelerating nature of technological development (artificial intelligence, genetics, robotics and others are called “exponential technologies”), there was surely an awareness that the ground is shifting under our feet and the only solution is to adapt together.
Monday began in Roxbury, which is one of the most economically challenged sections of Boston. Nevertheless, the event was hosted in a new “innovation center” where teams of high school students were showing off their innovations and talking about their plans to start a business. One young man was such a good salesman that I bought his product: a simple rubber holder for an eyeglass wipe that can attach to a belt or key chain. I keep it in my car now. A young woman had studied the use of sunlight to fight depression in the winter and was showing off a window valence for a bedroom with a built-in full spectrum light (patent pending). I learned about BUILD, which is, “dedicated to proving the power of experiential learning through entrepreneurship, and igniting the potential of youth in under-resourced communities.” I talked to the people at the booth, and was struck by a couple of facts: 1) 97% of kids who graduate from Build’s 4-year program graduate from HS on time, and 2) 95% are accepted to college. This is impressive considering that all these kids remain in public school, significant since the charter school question is on the Massachusetts ballot this November. I also ran into NuVu Studio, which is an educational program based on the studio model. This school sounds interesting and MIT News answered a question on my mind:
Such programs are difficult to implement broadly, Arida (NuVu Studio founder & MIT alumnus) admits, and private institutions tend to favor them, rather than public schools. But this fall, NuVu is entering its first public-school partnership, with Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which will send 10 students for the entire semester — and those 10 students will earn credit. It’s a step in the right direction, Arida says.
Starting on Tuesday, I was joined by my friend, Chitra Dwarka, which made attending the events even more fun. We began at “Expanding Opportunity in the Digital Age,” hosted by Hubweek, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (MIT_IDE) and MIT Solve. Leading the discussion were Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew Mcafee, authors of The Second Machine Age (a book I reviewed in detail back in 2014). Given that MIT_IDE is a sponsor of the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium (Chitra and I are both on the organizing team), and the background reading that I’ve done, I felt more or less at home with the topics and messages in this session. What struck me most was the parallel goals between this session and the one in Roxbury, yet the very different vibe, academic reasoning vs. in the trenches transformation. For example, “inclusion” was a topic at both events (and a topic that came up later in the week); MIT_IDE sponsored an Inclusive Innovation Competition to, “inspire and reward entrepreneurial solutions that enhance the economic prospects of workers in the Second Machine Age.” The Boston Globe reported on the winners. Some of the organizations represented at this talk were The Joyce Foundation, which strives to “develop and advance policy reforms that promise to improve quality of life, promote community vitality, and strive for a fair society,” and Opportunity@Work, which is “dedicated to re-wiring the labor market so that all Americans can work, learn, and earn to their full potential.”
One track that I did not make was MIT Solve, which is described as, “an organism for solving the world’s most challenging problems.” Looking at the website, the mission and tracks remind me of Singularity University (I attended the summit in San Francisco this past August). Although I did not make any events during HubWeek, I signed up for the newsletter and will keep my eye out for future events.
On Tuesday afternoon, I went to the Broad Institute, “a collaborative community pioneering a new model of biomedical science.” They hosted a talk about the intersection of art and science and they have an artist in residence, Naoe Suzuki, who engages with the scientists. I was really impressed with how Naoe looked at science through the lens of an artist, for example, transforming whiteboard scribbles (equations and diagrams) into an artistic collage. She is also crowdsourcing her investigation into our relationship with water, and you can participate here. I’ll highlight a few other points from this discussion. Naoe’s perspective of exponential technologies is the compression of time, although it is an emerging thought for her. All the speakers noted that the processes of innovation are not that different between art and science. Finally, one person said that, as scientific data became more freely available on the web, the term “data parasites” emerged to describe researchers who leveraged this data to make new discoveries. Get your own data, said some. But, that position has been rebuffed as the larger community has asserted that freely available data sparks discovery.
Next, I went down the street to the Venture Cafe to hear a talk on, “Driving Startup Growth: Building an Innovation Ecosystem.” I’m familiar with this group as they hold a networking night every Thursday (very valuable, but fast paced, so you need to go with a clear objective in mind). The importance of ecosystems, as well as ESOs (entrepreneurial support organizations), were discussed at length. One of the speakers was Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, who is a researcher on the topic of inclusive organizations (and will be releasing a report by the end of the year). One of the interesting things that she said was that start-ups need to think about diversity prior to hiring employee #9. After that, the mold is set and hard to undo. Opening the lens a bit, other threats to the innovation ecosystem discussed were inequality, climate change, culture. Tim Rowe, CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center, said that, by far, the most net new jobs in the US are created by startups (see the pic here).
On Wednesday, I joined Chitra for a single late event, the Benton Throwdown, which features student teams, representing 10+ local colleges and universities, that have created start-ups. Audience members hear 3-minute pitches from each and then vote using monopoly money. Winners are announced at the end. The evening began with a bit of sage advice from venture capitalists — think of getting money as a sales process (don’t cold e-mail investors), they see proposals every day (don’t ask them to sign an NDA) and be sure to tell them what the future holds and why you believe in it. The winner of the contest was “Ask Molly” (MA College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences), which is a database of illicit substances and describes interactions with prescription drugs. The second place team was “DropZone” (Babson College), which is a search engine for Vets to ensure that they get all the benefits they deserve. The third place team was “Echo Me” (Boston College), which is an in-sync music service (you can subscribe to the music someone else is listening to). Other projects were also notable, but I won’t go through them all.
By Thursday I was getting tired, and almost decided to stay home, but pulled on my energy reserves to go to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to hear “The Hype and Promise of Blockchain.” On my way, I got a message from Chitra, who decided to go with her friend Steve, who works in the financial industry. That was lucky because I was late and they saved me a seat in the second row (the room was packed). Tom Ashbrook, from WBUR, led a panel discussion. A key point, predictable in many ways, was that banks like to talk about blockchain, but no one wants to be the first to adopt it: current systems work, so they are not motivated to risk switching. Nobody on stage wanted to stick their neck out and assert that block chain would transform our economy and society. As a counterpoint, watch this TED talk that I posted on my Facebook page almost a month ago. In fairness, the speaker in this talk wrote a book, but still I feel that the panel speakers were erring on the conservative side. Regardless of one’s level optimism, this is an important topic. My prediction is that this technology will not enter the mainstream via Bitcoin, or the banks, but rather will rise somewhere else, where there is less resistance. It is imperative that it does.
Besides the panel, there were a number of very good speakers. Anders Brownworth, who teaches Blockchain at MIT, did an excellent job explaining the fundamentals of blockchain, along with an online demo (try it yourself via this link). Chelsea Barabas, head of social innovation, digital currencies, MIT Media lab, made a lot of good points about how this technology would impact society (similar points are made by Don Tapscott in the TED talk). Her main story, that I liked, was about how the internet as started as a democratic constellation of people publishing their content, became a place where a few big players (Banks, Media, Google, Facebook, etc.) have too much control and may evolve into something very different — a place where people in the future will share power and control. This is of great importance as millions of people come online in coming years. Finally, I want to shine a light on Ariel Ekblaw, a graduate research assistant at the MIT media lab. She is a very impressive young women, working to use blockchain to make it easier to share medical records while ensuring patient privacy (abstract of her paper here). One last call out goes to Nimit Sawhney, CEO of Voatz, which is a blockchain powered mobile voting app. There were other speakers, but these were the best, in my opinion.
Hubweek ended for me at Demo Day at the Hynes Convention Center, which was a gathering of the “highest impact start-ups and companies” in the Boston area. I went to a talk about “Strategies to Accelerate Growth,” which was hosted by the IBM Global Entrepreneur Program. As it turns out, IBM has a blockchain offering for start-ups. I talked with the folks on the panel (and it eventually came out that I’m an ex-IBMer), got on their mailing list, and got a few pointers to educational materials. The core of their educational offerings is on the developerWorks portal (in my case the Architecture Center was of particular interest). The developerWorks portal hosts a variety of online education classes, including one for blockchain. Unlike Microsoft, IBM does not participate in mainstream MOOCs, such as edX and Coursera, which I think is unfortunate as I’ve found Microsoft’s data science curriculum on edX to be outstanding. Nevertheless, the IBM team did tell me of Coursera offering for blockchain, by Princeton University.
In the expo, there were lots of start-ups, and I will highlight a couple. To begin, there was Cambridge Blockchain, offering a blockchain platform. I did not talk to them, but I imagine many start-ups popping up, along with open source solutions. Of specific interest to me was Voatz, which is a blockchain based mobile voting app. The founder of this company spoke at the blockchain event on Thursday, so I was excited to meet him in person. I took an entrepreneurship class some months ago and had to make a list of 10 possible innovations for an assignment. Here’s an excerpt from the note I made to myself, “An app that provides secure and reliable voting from your mobile device; eliminates the need to visit the voting booth. Leverages technology from cyber currency. The benefits are obvious and there is a lot of desire.” Imagine how interesting it was for me to talk to an entrepreneur who had a similar thought, fully developed it, and now has a viable implementation! Nimit added me to his list of beta testers, so I’ll be able to try his app during the November elections. How much fun! Another app in this space is We the People, which attempts to increase voter participation. I’ve already downloaded it to my phone. Add these two start-ups that want to improve democracy to the three that I met at the Singularity University Summit and it becomes clear that change is in the air.
In conclusion, a lot of new voices have been added to my Twitter and Feedly feeds. These are exciting times and I’m glad to part of a movement to reimagine our economy and future. All I can say is that there are a lot of smart and inspiring people out there.