Helping you, help us. Part 1 from The Stanford D School

Six months ago, almost to the day, I received a message from a colleague and friend suggesting I should apply to the fellowship project at a “design thinking school” within Stanford University. This year’s cohort would focus on civic innovation and she thought it was a great fit with my experience on the ground and current fascination around digital technology at the intersection of upward mobility.

My work has spanned many disciplines and brick-and-mortar incarnations over the past ten years. I put my stake in the ground in 2006 with my first restaurant named “Boneta” after my mother on the block that intersects two distinctly different neighbourhoods: Gastown and the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver British Columbia (Canada, if you still aren’t with me).

The years moved on and I spawned a gallery, retail store, more restaurants in all different categories (from sushi to lobster rolls) and most recently a farm and brewery. All the while I watched the deep struggle of the people around me, feeling frustrated and helpless to impact it. Vancouver houses one of North America’s largest open air drug markets and has a dense and heartbreaking problem with homelessness and mental illness. Those are the neighbourhoods I live and work in.

One of my projects is a full-service butcher shop, diner and social impact incubator for food systems. It’s called Save On Meats and resides at ground zero of the issues, as it has for over 58 years (almost half of Vancouver’s age). Save On is where we dream and prototype interventionary changes then roll them out the front door. It’s where we hack food systems, business practices, and partnerships, from government to tertiary education and romaine lettuce suppliers. It’s where we’ve made a stand against segregation and proven that community still wants to intervene and save itself sovereign of government.

In this business, one of our creations was an alternate currency, or token, that you can give to anyone who is hungry, and they can exchange for a sandwich. When somebody on the street asks you for money because they’re hungry, most have these reactions: ignore, fake a phone call, cross the street, quicken their step, shrug and point to headphones, and the list goes on. The token breaks that barrier, giving you the opportunity to feed someone without the question of where your money is going. The token recipient can redeem that at our diner, in the center of the activity, at any time for one of 5 choices (including vegan). They are welcome to sit and eat or take it to go. Now that part is helpful, but in addition to feeding people, my real intentions were twofold. One, I wanted to test a “closed currency” that couldn’t be easily flipped into money; its value wasn’t high enough to engage the informal economy for addiction items. Two, conversation. Simple, human conversation.

Isolation is the single biggest cause of addiction and suicide. An exchange done out of compassion and love can be a game changer; through the token problem it has, over 90,000 times in 3 years.

Now, what If we could make that token digital? What if everyone had access to an alternate, closed currency that not only provided food, but housing, access to healthcare, connection, support, and love. We can, and for the last 18 months I’ve been creating it, leading me here as a fellow.

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically, and truly, all that comes under thy observation in life.” -Marcus Aurelius 169 A.D.

Given Aurelius’s words, what is it coming up on two thousand years later, that still resonates here? More importantly, what is it in 2016 that is a blockade to us understanding the importance of this lesson?

As I reflect on my first 10 days at the d School, on campus at an institution that is older than the city I live in, the juxtapositions of privilege and responsibility are at front of mind.

Those words themselves carry so much that they need to be investigated, or unpacked, to understand what it is to be a fellow here and now.

I’ve given myself the space to systematically investigate. To interview, rapid prototype, and dive deeper than ever before.

What I’ve learned in my first weeks here, is as important to the outcome of this project as anything I’ve done prior. Innovation and its allure can be dangerous. It can draw you away from the user, from the intended outcome, and may be the ultimate demise of otherwise great intentions.

I’ll dance with you for now innovation, even go for coffee. But you can’t drive me home, yet.

I’ll walk.

*token program video https://vimeo.com/173661086

*find my projects at http://www.markbrandinc.com

*talk with me on twitter: @eastvanbrand & instagram: @mark.brand