Designing for Politics in DC — Week 1

10 days ago I left San Francisco to launch a startup in Washington, DC.

It’s been a busy week. Catching onto the culture of our nation’s capitol has been an interesting experience. Silicon Valley has sharpened our ability to adapt to complex ecosystems; we’re quick learners. We come from an environment that moves fast and doesn’t stop for anything, so as a designer its an important part of my process to pump the brakes, take a step back, and scope out where things can be improved for everyone.

This a quick observation after a week designing inside The Beltway.

Relationships are everything

One of the big obstacles slowing down innovation in DC is that political professionals simply don’t have the relationships in place with the tech community to manifest the solutions they need. This problem exists in the tech scene as well. There are all sorts of tech companies that are taking their best shot at crossing over into politics, but the allies just aren’t there.

It may come as a surprise to hear, but Silicon Valley and DC don’t exactly have the best working relationship. We’re constantly reading about how juggernaut companies like Apple and Google deal with an immense amount of friction with the federal government on a regular basis. But law-making and regulatory struggles aside, the barrier to entry from both groups is depressingly more simple than that.

If you ask an average VC in Silicon Valley what their stance is on civic tech investments they might claim that ‘Civic startups don’t create wealth’.
And if you ask a political professional why their institutions have so many problems they may say “Everything is broken, and tech alone won’t fix it”.

But it gets worse.

The tech industry has a rebellious culture that historically clashes with organized systems. Disruption is almost always an indicator of ‘success’ for a startup. Meanwhile, other industries view technology as a mechanism for replacing jobs by automating tasks, essentially making humans obsolete, which is a reasonably scary concept. Not to mention the growing cultural differences and massive wage gap between tech and almost every other industry.

This tends to be the general sentiment on both sides, which isn’t tremendously productive considering the amount of good that could be achieved if we could all just get along.

That being said, its been a uniquely humbling experience to move to a town that typically devalues tech and be genuinely greeted as liberators.

Rolling into DC like …

Within hours of arriving in DC we hit the ground running. Our first week kicked off with our usual product sprint, followed by a gauntlet of action packed demos & meetings all over town. Between talks with news media, campaign managers, committee strategists, and investors we still managed to get a ton of work done on the product side. *phew

Its surprising how quickly the barriers to entry are being lifted. This may be because we’ve spent the last 12 months bootstrapping our product and developing critical relationships within the political sphere. Its a core part of how we design our product and make roadmap decisions.

We’ve learned, from observing the mistakes of others, that cultivating long lasting relationships can be one of the most important elements to achieving disruption without destruction. I can’t say for certain if our method is bulletproof, but as a team of outliers that had no real connection to the political world just two short years ago, things seem to be headed in the right direction.

The lessons we’ve learned in the last week only reinforce what we’ve suspected all along: Political professionals are craving innovation.

This is a city full of problems to solve, and if you happen to be in the problem solving business, well homie you came to the right place.


We’re building the future, want to see what happens next?

I’m Jon, a black man, designing solutions to problems that shape modern culture and improve society. You can find me on Twitter @umiworkshop. / also at umi.io

We’ll be releasing more information on our company’s progress and official launch in the coming weeks.

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