What inspired the founders of [freespace] to start the project?
The immediate inspiration for [freespace] was the National Day of Civic Hacking produced by the White House and NASA. They wanted to have a national hack-a-thon resulting in various apps and creative uses of datasets. Being veterans of hack-a-thons, we knew that 48 hours is typically not enough time to move from birth of an idea to actual implementation, so we decided to hack hack-day and create a physical space that would foster projects over an entire month.
Our knowledge of all the amazing things already happening in our community was a big part of our faith in embarking on this project — we knew that creating a locus point for everyone to concentrate their creative energy for a month or two couldn’t help but produce a heaping plate of awesome.
We also were more generally inspired by a similar project called 100 Days of Spring that took place two years ago — our friends got a building for super cheap and called on the community to fill it up with creativity and play. We were also, of course, inspired by the Diggers, a group of San Franciscans in the Haight-Ashbury heyday who really explored the power of free in “blowing minds” and shifting people’s “frame of reference” through free food, a free store, free medical clinic, and so on.
What outcome were you trying to achieve with [freespace]?
There were a number of different layers of intention for the project — we wanted to cultivate community, establish the value of creative reuse of underutilized resources, be a sort of incubator for civic innovation projects, have fun, help evolve and popularize the idea of civic hacking, and grow as individuals through the project. But ultimately our big goal was to establish the idea that, in the face of the planetary crises like climate change and financial collapse coupled with an exploding urban population around the globe, it is the responsibility of literally everyone to help move our cities and our communities forward. If you think voting once a year is the extent of your civic responsibility you are incredibly naive. For some people, contributing means developing an app; for others, it’s hosting a community art event; still others will find their passion in food. Whatever your medium, it’s important that you take seriously both your responsibility and your power to make your community a better place. It’s the only way we’ll make it through the coming challenges.
One thing we learned is that immersing yourself in a space where literally everyone is, as a rule, productively contributing is incredibly inspiring. We lost count of the number of people who quit their meaningless jobs to catch the wave we were riding. It would have been nice to capture all of those stories, as a way of spreading the contagion to folks who weren’t able to come to the space.
What was your favorite happening from the two months that [freespace] was open?
It all felt like one large happening — days bled into one another and it’s still tough to separate it all even weeks later. Even though I tended to be the guy trumpeting the ultimate meaning of it all, I found myself drawn towards the more whimsical events like cardboard battles and the impromptu charade and improv sessions we had. However, the period I’ll relish the most is really the first week to 10 days — everything was so fresh and exciting (and exhausting). We were all pulling 14-16 hour days and really getting to know each other and this crazy experiment we were undertaking. Every day brought incredible transformation for both the space and ourselves and it was a serious rush. Three weeks in things had calmed down and you were almost bored with the pace even though it was all still really dynamic. But those first 10 days… one of our team members remarked that it was like falling in love — you couldn’t eat or sleep if you wanted to.
What was the connection to Burning Man?
Burning Man was obviously a big inspiration for a lot of folks on the team. In a lot of ways we were trying to take the experience of the Burn and bring it into the default world — create a space of limitless possibility, step outside the pervasive commodification of our culture, help people awaken to the reality that everything is essentially a product of small decisions and actions taken by individual people and yes that means you. When coming up with our core principles we definitely kept the Burning Man principles in mind, although we weren’t trying to be a copy of Burning Man.
Having the blessing of the Burning Man organization was one of our first big revelations that we were onto something important. They basically don’t lend their name to anything for understandable reasons, but they really understood early on that we were fulfilling the stated goal of their Burning Man Project which is essentially to spread Burning Man culture in urban centers and around the world. And the fact that so many people in the Bay Area have had the Burning Man experience really helped people “get” what we were trying to do. I don’t have any way of knowing this, but we benefitted hugely from people spreading news about our project through word of mouth and sharing on social media, and I’d be willing to bet most of the biggest proselytizers were experienced Burners.
In many ways, [freespace] is prototyping a new type of community center. Can you explain why?
The typical community center model is a holdover from the 20th century — it’s all about quality of life issues, more concerned with marginally improving the status quo than being a place of real dynamism. I know the term “disruption” is becoming cliche in our tech-saturated city, but that’s kind of what we bring to the table. [freespace] does provide some of the classic community center elements — a space to do art, a place homeless people can drop in to and sit down for a bit, a free meal on occasion — but our secret sauce is really the challenge that we throw down: what idea, big or small, do you have kicking around in your head and what are you doing to bring that to reality? It’s less a place to help fill in the gaps in a particular community (although we do some of that) and more a place to help take a community or city to the level it needs to be in 5-10 years. With the challenges coming to our planet and our cities, it’s pretty clear we need more spaces like this to help get on top of problems that weren’t even anticipated 30 years ago.
How would you define civic hacking?
Civic hacking, to me, is really about activating the latent power of every day citizens in shaping cities and communities, and often that activation comes in the form of intensely focused work sessions over a brief period of time. We’ve historically had this idea that the way to create civic change is to elect some capable people to pass laws to solve problems. On the national level this formula is tragically broken and even on the local level the government moves way too slowly. The bureaucracy integral to governmental institutions makes it effectively impossible for change to happen at an adequate pace. Add in the fact that most government workers maintain their employment based on how strictly they fit inside the decades long established box and it’s an almost hopeless situation. At the same time, especially in a place like San Francisco, the citizens of the city derive their very livelihood from creating new forms, whether it’s a new business, a new technological tool, or a new service. Governments need to develop ways to harness the immense power of the citizenry, whether it’s tech based or not, and, in truth, governments need to take a step back and evaluate whether their systems are dynamic enough to keep pace with the coming changes. As of right now, governmental institutions are woefully unprepared for what is coming.
Congratulations on being named one of the White House’s Champions of Change. What did you learn from the NDoCH leaders?
We got to meet with a bunch of great people, from Leader Pelosi’s Chief of Staff to UNICEF to NASA to the head of DC Planning to local DC folks interested in starting their own [freespace] — all of which will hopefully pay dividends going forward. However, one of the biggest things we learned is that the vast majority of people who were at the White House for the National Day of Civic Hacking awards were too enamored with the tech elements of civic innovation. We joked that we should play a drinking game where you had to take a sip every time somebody said the word “data.” In the Bay Area, we’ve kind of already gone through that infatuation with the power of technological tools and realized that it’s not the solution for everything. We basically tried to convey to the leaders of cities around the country “Your primary challenge is to get every single one of your citizens to feel it is their responsibility to become an active part of making your city better, and the vast majority of those people really don’t care about datasets.”
You’ve been critical of programs like the Bay Area Bike Share pilot because of its timeline and overall cost. How does your public criticism impact the work you do when you’re interacting with public officials?
When I’m not at [freespace] I run the Wigg Party, a community organization that works to make the neighborhood around the bike route the Wiggle more sustainable and more resilient. A big part of our work is in bicycle advocacy, and we kind of play the bad cop to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s good cop — the SFBC sits at the table and plays nice, and we get to stand outside and tell the politicians the truth — that the bike projects aren’t ambitious enough and they are taking way too long. The Bike Share program is a great example: it was delayed for years and now that it’s finally launching we’re only getting 350 bikes in San Francisco. This is embarrassing. CitiBike launched in NYC with 6,000 bikes. Part of the reason we only get 350 bikes is because a bunch of the money is being spent on the salaries of people who are doing a really poor job. This isn’t acceptable and we let people know that.
I personally have a great relationship with a lot of government officials — the ones that actually know me know that I’m a nice, reasonable human being. But they also know I’m going to call them out if they don’t live up to the responsibilities of being a human being alive in 2013, let alone a person in a position of power who has a particular ability to move the city forward. I don’t know what they say about me behind closed doors, but I think they all have a healthy respect for somebody who is willing to speak truth to power.
As a successful community organizer, you’ve worked for the past 7 years on the ground making all kinds of projects happen in SF. How is technology impacting community organizing?
At the Wigg Party we run a successful facebook page that really helps us disseminate information and keep our people up to date about things happening in the neighborhood or public meetings that we need numbers for. A lot of times I’ll meet people who find out I help run the Wigg Party and the first thing they’ll say is how much they enjoy the links we put up. So that’s one element that just didn’t exist 10 years ago but it’s a big part of what people think of when they think about the Wigg Party — especially since we don’t really have a physical HQ. Then there are of course tools like Neighborland that allow you to engage with people who you’ve never met but who share your passion for making your community and city better. But at the end of the day there’s really nothing that can replace the face-to-face interaction that is the lifeblood of any community organization. It’s cliche at this point but it’s true — technological tools allow you to develop lots of weak-ties, but it’s the personal connections you make IRL that create the strong ties that will ultimately determine the success of your organization.
If a group of citizens wanted to replicate this project in their city, what would be your top three points of advice?
Find a group of people that you work well with and who bring different skills to the table. [freespace] is obviously a great concept, but we had an equally amazing team making it happen. The only thing that could have stopped us from succeeding was us. Luckily we didn’t really have to deal with interpersonal challenges. It’s good to have different perspectives, but there’s also the “wavelength” test — if somebody is consistently on a totally different page than you, it’s going to produce problems along the way.
Prepare to be surprised. Don’t try to control everything — the whole point is to provide a platform and let other people fill it out. They will come up with amazing ideas that your team would have never considered. It’s important to have basic rules of conduct, but those rules should serve the function of creating an environment that allows people and ideas to prosper. You will be blown away by the latent creativity in your community.
Most importantly, believe in yourselves. If we are to have faith in the future, we must above all have faith in ourselves. The first step in doing something important is believing you are capable of great things.