Revitalizing a Community through Citizens’ 100K Ideas

100K Ideas is not your average business incubator. In fact, they pride themselves on being different — on being accessible to all members of their community and welcoming to all who walk in their door. They like to describe what they do as “herding reindeers” rather than “chasing unicorns,” like most incubator and accelerator programs, because reindeer “are still mythical, but at least they exist.”

They also pride themselves on their mission to “relieve innovators of the entrepreneurial burden,” supporting community members from idea to concept in a pain-free process that leverages student talent, innovates education, and removes barriers to access.

This is our favorite type of model here at BIF because it taps into what we call “the gold in the grey space” — working across sectors and industries to meet true citizen needs while transforming each of the latter. When we heard what 100K Ideas was doing out in Flint, MI, we knew we had to go see it for ourselves. So Eli Maclaren, our Chief Market Maker, and I hopped on a plane this past month headed for Detroit and beelined it to Flint.

Flint, Vehicle City, Detroit, Michican

I had first heard of Flint from the headlines of its water crisis and had learned that it was the birthplace of GM. But despite economic hardship faced as a result of a declining auto industry and falling victim to the state’s criminal water management choices, Flint’s residents aren’t sitting around waiting for things to sort themselves out. In addition to the organizers and activists that contributed to getting the city’s crisis on the national radar, the Flint community members we met are committed to addressing some of the root causes (i.e. inequality) and systemic challenges (i.e. lack of opportunity) of which the water crisis is just one more symptom.

100K Ideas, Citizens First

When we arrived at the Dryden Building in the heart of downtown Flint, we were greeted with a banner proclaiming #FWDFlint. A quick walk around the block and we saw a shiny new Farmer’s Market, a spiffy transportation hub, a colorful childcare center, multiple churches, two university campuses, and a refurbished theater getting ready to open up. In the diner where we ate and even strangers on the street, folks were chatty, helpful and welcoming towards us New England gals — two outsiders in a new place. I realized immediately upon arrival that despite its national narrative and the assumptions it had created for me, Flint was full of treasures that I didn’t expect.

FostIr Coffee, Detroit, ME

When we entered the offices of SkyPoint Ventures, the parent company of 100K Ideas, we were personally welcomed and greeted by CEO Phil Hagerman, and were enamored when his Chief Innovation Officer David Olilla began to tell us their tales. Phil was born and raised in Flint and had helped grow his father’s family-run pharmacy into the multi-billion dollar Diplomat Pharmacy venture that it is today. David hails from Northern Michigan and is an inventor at heart — he created the first-ever helmet-camera, pre-Go Pro, and has several other products in the works. An innate problem-solver, he tinkers and toys with design challenges until he finds new ways to figure them out. Together, they are one dynamic duo that isn’t waiting for anyone’s permission to make an impact in their city and far beyond.

On its website, 100K Ideas explains itself as “community of student professionals [who] vet entrepreneurial ideas to provide a helping hand in business development to anyone regardless of their prior experience or background.” The concept is an answer to entrepreneurial elitism and the barriers that so often prevent people from getting their ideas off the ground. Rather than suffer through a grueling and exclusive application process, anyone can walk off South Saginaw Street in Flint and into 100K’s space in the city’s historic Ferris Wheel building, and be welcomed by the university students that staff much of the non-profit for a free consultation. The fact that their staff are students serves a double purpose — not only are they less intimidating to work with for your average budding innovator lacking a business or technical background, but the students themselves are also gaining real-world experience and learning through the shared process. The name of the organization comes from Flint’s 100,000 residents, fueling its social mission that “if we got one idea from every one person in Flint, we could change the world.”

The model not only democratizes entrepreneurship by making it more open, inclusive, and accessible, but it seeks to transform a city and its citizens as well. It not only provides a community and a validation system for budding entrepreneurs, but it leverages student power to create an expansive model that tackles multiple systemic issues: outdated higher education models, exclusive barriers to entrepreneurialism, inequality, and broader economic development challenges through new venture creation.

So what is 100k Ideas’ special sauce?

  • The model is open to all. Not only is it inclusive and accessible for those it serves, but the organization and its leaders are open to collaboration in all its forms: “This bus is for everyone,” David told us, “If you don’t want to get on now, it will come back around again and the doors will open back up…”
  • Dynamic leadership with an innovator’s heart: the 100K Ideas team is perpetually operating in beta, always open to improvement and iteratively working to get the model right. What they have now has been tested and tried, and David continues to tinker with the model every day.
  • The conditions are right: 100K Ideas serves a community where the need is great and there is a sense of urgency in their work. They firmly believe that “talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not,” and recognize that Flint is a community where more citizens should be enabled to act on their innate creativity and leverage their ingenuity to generate impact. 100K Ideas acts on their belief and is working to expand the opportunities for Flint’s citizens to do that.

Most business accelerators follow a single model, but 100K Ideas is not copying anything else. Phil, David, and their team learn every day from the entrepreneurs they seek to serve. They play with what works for them and what doesn’t, and have created something wholly new — at first, we weren’t sure if they were trying to disrupt higher education or economic development, but we quickly realized that the answer is both. This is just the type of citizen-centered innovation we seek to lift up — innovation that provides a public service, that unleashes citizen agency, and contributes to revitalizing a community. Visiting 100K Ideas was my first of hopefully many trips to Flint, but I hope to see more models like 100K Ideas in places all over the nation so that I won’t have to fly halfway across the country to find community-centered innovation like that. Citizen-entrepreneurs in communities across the US deserve it.

Join us in transforming public services.


Transforming the Loneliness Epidemic

Earlier this month, I kicked off our new work with Mass General Hospital’s Transformation Lab. On behalf of BIF, I couldn’t be more excited to work with such a landmark and important health care system, helping build core human-centered innovation capabilities.

With the opportunity to spend the day in Boston, I hopped on an early (early, early) train to join Design Mornings — creative morning conversations hosted by the Design Museum. The nomadic conversations are hosted by and for the design community, and topics fluctuate. The last conversation I joined focused on the design of relationships (which is killer subject if you’re designing innovative business models in health care, public service, and education).

The most recent talk was titled:

Play for All: A Boston Story

And it is a very Boston Story. The story begins with the Boston Marathon Bombing in April 2013. Martin Richards, an eight-year-old boy, was one of five who lost their lives that day. Martin’s Park is an inclusive playground, currently in development, nested outside that the Boston Children’s Museum. It will celebrate a message of peace, the mantra of a young boy — taken too soon, too needlessly, and to traumatically — by creating space for all children to play. It is a beautiful legacy.

Martin’s Park is designed as an urban playground to inspire our curiosity and exploration. What if we designed for adult’s curiosity and exploration as well? 

As I was taken through the design elements (at a high-level, at a model level, and at the site level), I was struck by the divide between children and adults. I was struck by the placement of benches (far away from the playspaces), the locus of activity (specific for children), and the opportunities for interaction (limited to play spaces). This is a space designed for children to interact, explore, and be curious, but not the adults who come with them. It invited me to consider how I use play spaces — my kids play, while I sit on a bench; I enjoy the outside but I typically devote more time to my phone than I do to my surroundings.

We answer to many masters and interests when we design, so this is not a critique of Martin’s Park, only a curiosity that the conversation inspired:

Our society is feeling so incredibly isolated and excluded that it is considered a public health issue. It is having staggering consequences on our communities, which are both fatigued and traumatized by the impact of individual disassociation and loneliness. Begging the question:

How might play spaces — which by nature are multi-generational and community placed — be designed to inspire exploration, curiosity, and interaction, and in doing so, cure the loneliness that plagues children and adult alike?

 

First, let’s examine the problem through two different lenses:

(1) Loneliness as a national epidemic; (2) The importance of play at all age levels.

First, attention to loneliness has been a growing area of study. Kavita Patel, in her 2016 BIF talk, points to the health care risks of loneliness — and the degree to which it is a growing epidemic. In their 2010 Loneliness Study, the AARP reports that 42.6 million American adults over the age of 45 suffered from chronic loneliness — making them at greater risk for heart attacks and making them less able to manage and cope with everyday illnesses. By 2012, that number was estimated to be between 25–45% of the US population. Further, increasingly people are becoming more isolated — marriage rates are down, children per household rates are down, 25% of the American population lives alone, and as our population ages, it becomes increasingly more isolated. In Britain, the epidemic is growing so systemic that they’ve appointed a Minister of Loneliness within the government.

Many studies point to the impact:

  • Infants in custodial care with little human contact fail to thrive and will often die
  • People who feel socially connected are 50% less likely than their lonely counterparts to suffer from premature death
  • Recent studies of middle-aged men point to loneliness as the leading cause of death — greater than heart failure or smoking.

In short, the body of a lonely person is emotionally and physically different than that of a non-lonely person.

Earlier this fall, I stumbled upon this blog post by Charlie Hoehn which connected the dots between the loneliness, play, and mass violence happening in the US. This really stood out to me:

The irony is that loneliness would not be a problem if we all got ample time to play. Not only would we have deeper friendships, we’d also have better relationships with ourselves. Play allows us to enjoy our own company.

There is a strong correlation with play deprivation and mental illness.

When you deprive mammals of play, it leads to chronic depression. When you deprive a human child of play, their mental and emotional health deteriorate. Play suppression has enormous health consequences.

 

Not surprisingly, play is a regular act and theme at BIF’s Collaborative Innovation Summit.

I had become interested in play when my partner — who designs play spaces — introduced me to some fascinating documentaries and books on the subject. Play then became an area of study as I worked on my thesis, and I explored how the tenets of play contributed to collaborative innovation. One those tenets underscored the difference between play and games.

In games, there are rules and an outcome. Play is more open-ended — driven by curiosity, exploration, and possibility. It is the difference between kids meeting in the street and figuring out how to make use of a random material (empty cans come to mind), and kids meeting for a pick-up game of basketball. Both are important, but the outcome is different. The outcome of play is invariably innovation. The outcome of a game is a winner and a loser. They serve different purposes, but play offers us the opportunity to co-create something new. In his BIF-9 talk, Carl Stormer talked about improvisation through play as the peaceful passing of power in service of creation and transformation.

I can’t imagine a more valuable process for EVERYONE to participate in.

 

Playspaces are inherently multi-generational. Kids don’t bring themselves to play spaces. They come with caregivers. Parents. Grandparents. Aunties. Nannies. Friends. I love that we design play spaces, and Martin’s park included, for inclusion. We’re designing for most of the right things: social/emotional, physical, sensory, cognitive, and communication needs of diverse children. And in doing so, we’re bringing diverse kids together.

AND

I do believe we’ve missed an opportunity to design for these needs across generations. Playspaces are as ubiquitous as the humans who occupy them.

Why not use this capacity to meet the same unmet needs of our increasingly lonely adult population?

How might play spaces become the civic spaces that bring diverse people together, encourage connection, and shared experiences? What might this mean for healing the loneliness epidemic that alienates us from ourselves?

At BIF, we see firsthand how innovation comes from #RCUS — the random collisions of unusual suspects. We know that magic happens when we get out of our swim lanes and bump into others. Stories are shared, dots are connected, innovation is inspired. We feel braver because we realize we’re not alone, that there are others out there who are hungry for the same things we are.

This is as true for our citizens as it is for our corporate leaders. For corporate leaders, BIF create spaces (i.e. Labs) for next practices and new model development. By design, they bring diverse people together to play with capabilities in new and different ways. How might play spaces become the equivalent for communities? How might conversations on the playground serve as a catalyst for transformation — at the individual, family, and community level?

I, for one, would like to explore what this looks like in the real world. Who is up to a play date?


The Affordable Housing Crisis

The United States is facing an affordable housing crisis in almost every county, and it is only getting worse. Attempts to remedy the problem are proving too narrow, which means it may be time to re-frame the issue. We believe it is critical that we seek more comprehensive solutions based on a systematic analysis of citizen experience, and to create new models for addressing this crisis better aligned to the realities and needs of those facing it.

As a recent CityLab article reports, “nationwide, only 21 units are available per 100 extremely low-income renter households (those earning below 30 percent of the area median income) without government assistance. With assistance, it’s 46.” The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that “families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.” Prioritizing any of these other necessities over housing could then leave them at imminent risk for homelessness.

Currently, there are:

·       An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households who spend more than 50% of their annual incomes on housing.

·       Over 1 million people served by HUD through emergency, transitional, and permanent housing programs a year.

·       About half a million citizens who experience homelessness in the US on any given night; a number that could rise as high as 2 million over the course of a year.

This is a crisis that directly impacts millions of US citizens, and indirectly affects millions more. But what is causing it?

A recent Urban Institute report attributes the affordable housing crisis to two factors — rising rent prices and rising demand for affordable housing since 2000, as a greater number of people seek to rent. The struggle to find an affordable place to live is gravest in urban areas, where levels of homelessness are consequently highest. In some cities, buildings offering affordable housing have waiting lists in the hundreds before construction is even complete.

There is a crisis to be found here, for sure, but are we framing its solution all wrong?

Many reports would lead us to believe that the housing crisis is merely a supply-side issue — that there is simply not enough affordable housing to go around. However, other statistics like rising rates of inequality and stagnant wages in the US suggest that there might be other factors at play. In forging solutions, it is vital to ask the individuals, couples and families affected by the crisis more about their experiences, as there is always more to their stories than siloed numbers and isolated stats. What institutional leaders aspiring to holistically address this crisis really need to do is to shift their perspectives for solving the problem, to view it not only through segmented data and reports, but across sectors and from the lens of those actually struggling to make ends meet and tasked with the ever-growing challenge of finding and maintaining a sustainably affordable place to live.

Here at the BIF, we work towards systems-level change because we know that point solutions, such as increasing the supply of housing, are not enough. Throwing more housing options at a low-income community facing an affordable housing shortage might seem like an easy fix, but it doesn’t get at the complexity of the problem — such as deeper-seeded factors that may limit income, to begin with, or pose barriers to access. It won’t tackle the root causes of the problem.

BIF's Design Methodology

In order to effect systems-level change, we need next practices and agile new business models that we can network together across silos and sectors in a way that can shift and adapt to ever-changing contexts. In our messy, volatile world, the conditions that lead to pressures on housing and other basic needs are ever evolving and we need networks of public service models that can also evolve and shift to continue meeting the changing needs of citizens, and the myriad challenges they face, over time.

We need flexibleadaptable, and agile public services, truly designed to meet citizens where they are and when they need them — whether confronting homelessness or any other calamity, ideally well before a crisis takes hold in a way similar to how the affordable housing shortage has imperiled American citizens nationwide.

Citizens in need are waiting, and we can surely do better if we take the time to co-create new models, based on human experience, together!


Before Social Impact Bonds: Build A Next Practice Lab

It is funny to feel old enough to say I am a veteran of anything. But in this case, it just might be true:

I am a veteran of the rise, growth, and scale of creative social finance tools. 

And I can say with good confidence that public service leaders shouldn’t be talking about social impact bonds unless they have a Next Practice Lab to (1) explore holistic solutions to issues, and (2) keep funded solutions current, desirable, and viable.  

First, A little History

Social finance refers to the tools that have been applied to how we finance the development, scale, and spread of business models that address social needs, e.g. food scarcity, electricity for the rural poor, early childhood development.

Social finance began with the early days of organized philanthropy and the emergence of foundations. This was just post-World War II, and funding from foundations served as the R&D arm for social services. Those services that proved successful would be adopted and scaled by the government.

Over time, this value chain got diluted. Foundations started generating their own theories of change; funded more than R&D — including organizational capacity and going to scale. Government funding for social services changed as well, often driven by changes in political power and support for public welfare. And of course, social services changed — both becoming more independent from government and often more systemic in nature — seeking to address the root of the issue in addition to presenting symptoms.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the emergence of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship catalyzed three changes to the landscape:

  1. A bias for transformative innovation — the belief, mindset, and entrepreneurial drive to solve problems in wholly different ways; and
  2. An emphasis on creative revenue models — primarily earned income — to enable flexibility, independence, and sustainability of this “innovation.”
  3. An imperative to “invest” in social change, and the corresponding emergence of a social financial ecosystem.

Firms, like Ashoka, grew to support early-stage ventures. Impact investors, like Acumen Fund, started putting “patient” capital into later stage ventures to help them scale. Social investors started divesting from traditional investments with a straightforward financial return, into portfolios, like State Street, that could measure/report on double, triple, and quadruple bottom lines. Crowdfunding platforms, like GlobalGiving, cropped up, creating new purposeful and lucrative relationships of donors and social change agents.

As the ecosystem developed, social impact bonds — or “pay for success” — emerged on the horizon, promising to replace antiquated models with less expensive, higher impact solutions; these new models would be financed by the savings realized by making the transition to a faster better model, i.e. the “bond.”

But before public service leaders go gaga over the promise of social impact bonds, it is important that they first establish a Next Practice Lab.

Here is why:

We Need Better Models

If you take any expensive, messy issue in the United States — from incarceration to affordable housing, you will find this commonality:

They are complex and interconnected.

Public service leaders struggle to work in this complexity. In their struggle, they silo and narrow problems, shrinking them into manageable “point” solutions or “tweaks.”

Hence, when we consider issuing a social impact bond to finance the scale of a less expensive solution to the status quo, we get scaled solutions that are only relative to how we currently understand the problem. Meaning, if you frame the problem as incarceration, you get a less expensive, more effective solution to dealing with people in the prison system.

However, there are opportunities when we work in the messiness of an issue, and when we can frame it in new and different ways.

For example, what if we had a framework for understanding the supply AND demand side of incarceration? What if we had a framework that helped us explore next practices for addressing systemic racism amongst police ranks or the impact of chronically homeless youth (forces of supply)? What if we had a framework that helped us explore next practices for addressing the “pull” of poverty that creates demand for prison systems in communities? What if we have a framework for exploring next practices that span both sides of the equation?

Human-centered design, the core of BIF’s methodology, helps leaders shift how they understand a problem, see interconnections, and better frame wholistic solutions. That is one benefit to a Next Practice Lab; it can generate more holistic models that can be scaled by social impact bonds, getting more bang for the taxpayer buck.

The Half-Life of Scalable Models is Getting Shorter

The other thing to consider is the problem with long-term financing of long-term solutions. Does this really work anymore?

The truth is that models don’t stay relevant for very long. The needs of the market (or the job that consumers, citizens, etc., need us to do) changes regularly. Public services that are committed to a single model fail to keep up with the changing needs of users, in fact, because they are too focused on executing their existing model. Further, they are at risk of being disrupted by organizations who can more nimbly and more flexibly address the dynamic needs of customers.

Solutions become antiquated very quickly. This is the challenge with “best” practices versus “next” practices. Because of the changing needs of users, we will always need a “next” model to implement and scale. Is issuing a bond to finance the scale of a solution that might be outdated in a few years worth it?

What if there was an “and”? Meaning, what if public leaders could scale a model, and allow it to get better on an ongoing basis? This is the second benefit of a Next Practice Lab; it can help inform models, develop learnings that kept them relevant and evolving, generating a better, longer-term ROI.

It’s not that I believe problems are too complex or too much of a moving target to address. It is that I believe public service leaders would have a better impact if they nest a Next Practice Lab alongside social impact bonds in order to inform, instruct, and adjust the portfolio of investments funded by social impact bonds.

Here’s why: 

Human-centered design helps leaders shift how they see and frame a problem — helping them design more holistic models for creating and delivering value while capturing better returns for the taxpayer. These are next practices, and a lab delivers the capacity to manage a portfolio of next practices on an ongoing basis. These next practices can help leaders identify new business models to scale through social impact bonds or they can be in service of a funded model — helping it develop new capabilities and adjust to changing environments.

The benefits to public service leaders are that (1) it reduces the risk of issuing a social impact bond and (2) it extends the shelf life and ROI of funded models.

The benefits to citizens? More holistic solutions to the problems we actually experience, at a lower cost, and longer timeframe. I’d sign up for that.

 


Transforming Communities from the Ground Up

“Everything grows from the ground up,” said Angela Blanchard, President and CEO of BakerRipley, in a recent Business Model Sandbox Podcast with our Chief Catalyst, Saul Kaplan.

As one of the largest community development corporations in Houston and the US, BakerRipley employs a human-centered approach to community transformation that today serves over half a million people. Angela emphasizes the need for “appreciative inquiry” and the holistic integration of services when it comes to community work, and isn’t going to wait until government figures out how to provide for communities before identifying what neighborhoods and their residents already have to work with.

BIF is delighted to welcome Angela to our Board of Directors, and thankful for the following insights shared during her recent interview with Saul. They resonate particularly well with us here in BIF’s Citizen Experience Lab, as they are truly demonstrative of what it means to be “citizen-centered” in the work that we do.

Everything Grows from the Ground Up

In the podcast, Angela revealed that she is an avid gardener and enjoys working in the soil. Like the plants she spends time cultivating, community work, she recognizes, won’t take off unless you start on the ground. You have to get to know the community with which you are working, the people that live there, and what their aspirations are before you can begin any sort of sustainable work in community transformation, and we feel similarly here at the BIF. That’s why the first stage of any human-centered work is the participatory analysis element, in which our designers, working with our clients, take some quality time to really get to know the users of the systems we seek to re-create. “Everything grows from the ground up” functions as an excellent reminder that our work must always be grounded in a strong intimacy with the community members, patients, students, and in the CXL, citizens that we seek to serve if we can reasonably expect those systems to grow and thrive.

Work with What You’ve Got – And Build

Angela recognizes that approaches to community development typically fixate on problems. Practitioners attempt to offer technical solutions to ‘broken neighborhoods,’ ‘broken communities,’ and ‘broken families’ that fall short of affecting any holistic change. This deficits approach to community development, she claims, is not working. Rather, BakerRipley engages communities through the lens of “appreciative inquiry” and “appreciative community building,” which draws upon existing community assets and provides for self-determined change. Here at BIF, we know it is important to consider and leverage the existing capabilities of any organization when seeking transformation through business model innovation — to identify and work with what you already have. Recognizing what you have to work with and moving forward with that is the first step towards change, and Angela is a person who doesn’t like to waste any time waiting around for government or “someone somewhere else to figure things out” to start making a difference. Like us, she operates with a bias for action.

Another good reminder from Angela is that you can’t help those who haven’t asked for help; this most often results in agenda-pushing, amounting to what she referred to as appropriation or even “colonization.” This is especially important when working with communities that have been marginalized or disenfranchised because otherwise, you’re just another group forcing your own agenda onto them. Angela recognizes that BakerRipley’s role in these neighborhoods is one of an ‘enabler.’ They enable change and transformation founded on the goals and aspirations they hear on the ground, using the strengths and assets of the community to build upon, and thus facilitate change by enabling the agency of the folks who have asked BakerRipley to assist them.

This is hugely important for not only community buy-in of projects, but to work on projects identified and driven by the very community they seek to help — because you can’t help people if you’re not giving them what they need or want. Only in this way can their work be truly community-centered, and the same is true of any work that aims to transform and improve the citizen experience in a genuinely human and user-centered way. The point could even be taken to considering our own BIF CXL clients — you can’t help a public service transform if its leaders aren’t open to trying a more human-centered approach. You can’t force innovation onto someone unless they’re already open to it.

Community First

By being rooted in the community experience, open to trying a variety of new and different models, and committed to community transformation that works for community members, BakerRipley is an example for what government social services could be. With a holistic, un-siloed approach to integrated services based upon what the communities in the neighborhoods where they work really want and need, BakerRipley delivers tremendous value to hundreds of thousands of people — succeeding at great scale. The work of the organization that Angela leads is rooted in the assets and aspirations of community members, which has proven extraordinarily effective. And its agile and bold ability to test, try, fail, and try again makes for ample learning and quicker success. The work of BakerRipley is truly a model for effective, human-centered transformation, and the organization has hundreds of thousands of success stories to share to back that up.