Feasting on Good

I had the pleasure of spending the day yesterday at The Feast. I love their manifesto:

Mankind is now more connected with the tools to engage millions and more potential than ever to build a brighter future.

Our role is to inspire the next generation of doers. To empower more folks to ask why the world works the way it does. To not stop at “because it’s always been done that way.

And boy, did it work. I was buzzing yesterday.

Pretty much from start to finish, I found myself completely engaged with the presentations on the main stage, and with the conversations during the breaks.  Day 1 of the Feast is a set of inspiring presentations & performances.  Day 2 is a series of workshops, focused around a set of challenges presented during day one.  Unfortunately I was only able to be there for day one, so I’ll look forward to hearing what comes out of today’s session.

Here is a quick run-through of my notes & takeaways.  This is straight from the notebook, so expect it to be rambling and scattered, but filled with goodies:

One of the first speakers was the project lead for the NASA curiosity rover. When asked about how they did it, he said two things that stood out:

Big problems don’t get solved in a single sitting.  You just have to keep moving forward.

That struck me as fundamental and profound.  Another great line was:

Great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset.

Also classic, and so relevant when you’re launching a spacecraft that will be in space for a year before landing on Mars, via a “sky crane”.  But relevant for any hard project, really.

John Sherry from Intel’s Vibrant Data project did a nice job explaining several abstract issues (digital trust, data literacy, platform openness) through a handful of individual stories (in this case focused on how the elderly engage with technology and data).  A major theme through the day was the effective use of personal stories to explain things and get ideas across.

Lucky Gunasekara, representing The Collaborative Chronic Care project and Lybba gave a really compelling look into the potential power — and also the perils — of unlocking and interconnecting our health data.  I hope the Feast videos come online because I would really like to see this again — but the gist of it is clear:  individuals are currently NOT empowered by their own health data (he used an example of a patient with Chron’s disease, a chronic and complex condition); the potential to improve the user health experience is tremendous; the power of liquid and interconnected data sets is tremendous; but there is potential to cross “the creepy line” very quickly.  So: how can we conceive of managing our health data such that individuals, providers and third parties (networks, research organizations, etc) all have the appropriate interest in and control over the data?  He has some specific ideas which I’ll follow up on in a separate post.  Hugely important, interesting, and hard topic.  Related: I downloaded the ginger.io app, a “behavioral analytics platform” that uses our activity data to help provide health insights.

Bre Pettis gave an awesome presentation about the meteoric rise of Makerbot.  My favorite line:

In 10 years, having a Makerbot will be like having a microwave.

Paul Farmer discussed how Partners in Health has created a lasting and powerful partnership with Arcade Fire.  Among other things, Arcade Fire links to pih.org on the back of every album, and also adds a $1 surcharge to every concert ticket that goes directly to PIH.  Pretty creative way to partner.  And to top it off, Arcade Fire was there, and did an acoustic performance of “Wake Up” which was pretty cool.

Next: I had never heard of Warby Parker before, but they are a really interesting company.  They’ve made a successful, profitable business selling beautiful eyewear.  And, they have a social mission baked into the core of the company: for every pair of glasses sold, a pair is donated to a partner company somewhere around the world, which re-sells them at low prices.  So they are a social enterprise that cultivates the development of other social enterprises.  They stressed that they approach the market with messages in the following priority order: 1) fashionable, awesome product 2) great experience and service and 3) social benefit.  This makes a lot of sense, as they need to be commercially successful to make everything else work. Not only have the reduced their retail cost to $95 (way less than comparable fashion prescription glasses) by working w/ suppliers and selling directly online, they also operate their call center out of a loft in SoHo, and are carbon neutral.  Pretty cool.  The great quote from Neil Blumenthal (CEO of WP) was:

people build relationships with brands the same way they do with people.

Then: Joshua Reich from Simple. I have been a huge huge fan of this brand since it launched a few years ago, and I just got my card in the mail a few weeks ago.  One of the great insights of Joshua’s talk (and of his business) was that — until simple — retail banking’s business model (fees) depended on user failure.  Having a business that depends on your users failing is problematic.  Simple has built their business from the ground up to be aligned with their users — to help them win at banking, and feel good about money.  I love it, and I love the product.

Then: we got into education.  I loved this video — titled “The Future Belongs to the Curious” from Skillshare :

I couldn’t agree more with that.  Giving curious minds things to grab onto, connect with, and make is awesome.

Thor Muller talked about Brightworks – an experimental, experiential school in SF that looks amazing. His great quote:

In order to create space for serendipity, we need structure.

Reminds me of something Andy would say.

Then: Story Pirates.  Wow.

In the past year, story pirates has collected 30,000 stories from kids in 250 schools.  Every one gets a comment back.  My favorite quote from Ben Salka, CEO, was:

All education is experiential.  Some of those experiences are flat, and some of them are great.

Story Pirates exists to create great, memorable, educational experiences.  They are so awesome.

Then — shift away from Education to Opportunity.  First up: Defy Ventures.

Defy Ventures is an entrepreneurship program for outgoing prison inmates.  It’s an amazing, amazing idea.  Think about it: gang leaders, drug ring leaders, are natural entrepreneurs.  As DV CEO Catherine Rohr put it — “they have crazy business skills, but are just weak on risk management, since they got caught.”  But in all seriousness: this is a program that is turning a “failure industry” into a generator of opportunity.  Here are the stats:

70% of prison inmates return to prison.  70% of their children go to prison.

Think about that.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program graduated 687 men — with a resulting 5% recidivism rate.

Think about that!

Defy Ventures takes the idea a step further, into multi-step program: “boot camp”, followed by a $100k business plan competition, followed by a business incubator program.

One of the most touching moments of the whole day was when two of the recent business plan competition winners — both former convicts in prison on drug charges — took the stage and described their stories and talked about the new businesses they were working on (one was a  painting and handyman services, another was a personal concierge).

In Catherine’s words:

the prison population is one of the most overlooked talent pools in America.

Pretty cool.

Then, on to cities: physicist and urban scholar Geoffrey West took the stage to describe the parallels his research has shown between how nature scales and how cities scale.  This has been written about previously but is super interesting.  Geoffrey’s money quote was:

It’s largely thought that cities are buildings. Not true.  Cities are people.

When we talk about cities, it’s easy to talk about them in terms of the physical infrastructure — roads, bridges, buildings, parks.  But all of that — all of it — is really just a medium for connecting the people who live there.  With that in mind, it’s much easier to conceive of cities as organisms — that therefore have common characteristics with other areas of biology — than as some other sort of foreign creation.  Without getting too far into it, Geoffrey presents a concern about the pace at which cities are scaling, changing — and what this means for sustainability.  In the end, he described himself as a pessimist.

But this event was about optimism, and as such, it closed with a great story: The Low Line

If you haven’t heard of this yet — it’s a project to convert the abandoned Williamsburg Trolley Terminal, which sits beneath Delancey Street at the end of the Williamsburg Bridge, into the world’s first underground urban park.  It would be a revitalization project to parallel the awesome and successful Highline project, and it would look like this:

… using nifty solar reflectors like this:

What a cool project, and what a great way to end the day.

So, that was a lot — and I didn’t touch on everything from the day.

But this was enough to get my wheels turning and to get inspired about my own work and all the exciting things people are working on.

Kudos to Jerri and the Feast staff.  Can’t wait til next year.

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