Lessons from Bold Fusion

May 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm

The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber embraced the YP concept several years ago in the wake of Richard Florida’s “creative class” discussion, which really hit home here because it crystallized the problem Cincinnati and other “uncool” cities face in stemming the brain drain of talented young people leaving to advance their careers elsewhere.

The Chamber created an array of programs to support local young professionals, an effort that certainly came at the behest of Procter & Gamble, Kroger, Macy’s and other corporate giants here that must recruit and retain the best and the brightest talent available. Bold Fusion has emerged as one of the Chamber’s highest profile efforts.

The sixth annual Bold Fusion conference was held Thursday afternoon at the Westin Hotel downtown, packing the ballroom to its 400-person capacity. It was one of the most interesting and inspiring afternoons I’d spent in a while.—-

David Pescovitz’s keynote remarks were the day’s highlight for many in the room, including me, but every presentation built on his theme of an emerging “maker” culture and its implications for future business and life in general.

I’ve known Pescovitz since he interned for me as a UC student in the early 1990s when I was editor at Everybody’s News, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper before I helped start CityBeat. He worked for me for a bit after graduating, but he soon headed west to attend grad school at Cal-Berkeley and to immerse himself in the new technology culture bubbling up in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Laura Baverman graciously allowed me to comment on Pescovitz’s career in her Bold Fusion preview article in The Enquirer, and I said he was the perfect keynote speaker for two main reasons: He left Cincinnati in his early twenties because he wanted to be where the action was, which wasn’t here, and he’s built a career that embodies the do-it-yourself ethic, from starting web sites to innovating within such existing structures as Wired magazine and Institute for the Future. So David was the simultaneous vision of Cincinnati's problem and solution, and I was proud of how well he explained those competing forces on Thursday.

[Check out a photo gallery from Bold Fusion here, including Pescovitz above.]

Here are some takeaways from the event:

* The current meta trend is toward self-guided and authentic goods and services. LPK Vice President Valerie Jacobs gave a presentation on recent social and business trends, leading to her conclusion that — with the worldwide economic meltdown and failures of large institutions and corporations — young people in particular are looking to forge a more grassroots, do-it-yourself future. Her buzz words for 2010 are “hacktivism” and “garage innovation.”

* Everything should be “open source” and collaborative. Pescovitz picked up on Jacobs’ trends analysis to suggest that future manufacturing, design, research & development and almost all forms of innovation will be collaborative. Up until now technology has enabled entrepreneurs to share ideas, but Pescovitz envisions that future collaboration will include micro-manufacturing, crowd-sourced problem solving and open hacking and customization of existing products.

Pescovitz says too many large consumer goods companies now treat their customers as the enemy, from canceling warranties if customers try to improve on or customize products to even threatening legal action against consumer hackers. (Yes, we’re talking about you, Apple.) In the “maker” world, if you can’t open it you don’t own it — once you buy a product, you should be able to tinker with it however you want … and smart companies will actually learn a thing or two from the resulting innovations.

* See the future at a Maker Faire. Make magazine, where Pescovitz serves as editor-at-large, hosts its fifth annual Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif., at the end of May and is taking the concept on the road to Detroit in July and New York City in September. Pescovitz describes the event as a combination nerd convention and county fair where people display and explain their homemade inventions; a big breakthrough came last year, however, when Microsoft sponsored a pavilion to host inventions and innovations from people hacking Microsoft products.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person at Bold Fusion conceptualizing a Cincinnati Maker Faire when Pescovitz was describing the concept. Anyone want to partner with CityBeat on one? Will P&G, Kroger or Macy’s join us to sponsor pavilions encouraging locals to hack their consumer products?

* Innovation happens everywhere. After Pescovitz’s remarks, a panel of local entrepreneurs took the stage to share their own attempts at innovation and collaboration, most of which remain works in progress. A good example of the changing culture was presented by Steve Burns, founder of AMP Electric Vehicles in Blue Ash, whose company basically hacks General Motors gas-guzzlers to turn them into all-electric cars (see our recent feature story on AMP here).

After their first successful conversation a few years ago, AMP posted a video of the car on YouTube, and the next day Burns took a call from the CEO of General Motors. Instead of getting yelled at or receiving a cease-and-desist order as he expected, Burns says the CEO wanted GM engineers to come down and check out AMP’s work. They did, and AMP has continued converting GM models, finally opening their own retail electric car dealership earlier this year.

Classic entrepreneurship will always be with us, Pescovitz says, as long as people have good ideas that serve the marketplace. But an emerging new dynamic will be large companies and organizations encouraging innovation from within and/or working collaboratively with “professional amateurs” outside the company walls — consumers or “makers” who are passionate about the company’s products and occasionally have better ideas than the company’s full-time R&D staff.

* Cincinnati is ripe for the “maker” culture. We can all argue endlessly about the pros and cons of trying to be an innovator in Greater Cincinnati, but Bold Fusion’s entrepreneur panelists repeated several encouraging themes: Some found ideas taking root in other cities that hadn’t been tried here yet, some connected with other innovators feeling lonely in a city that’s often unwelcoming to outsiders and some took advantage of Cincinnati’s out-of-the-way-ness to fly under the radar.

Dan McCabe, CityBeat’s marketing manager and head of the MidPoint Music Festival, has always argued that Cincinnati is the best place for creative people to locate because all the good ideas haven’t already been taken here and the barriers to creating something (costs, available infrastructure, taxes/fees) are pretty low. His reasoning was once again proven correct at Bold Fusion.

At the end of his remarks, Pescovitz told the Bold Fusion crowd not to trust anyone who says they can predict the future with any certainty. Repeating a line attributed to writer and management consultant Peter Drucker, he said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

NOTE: David Pescovitz handed out a printed “Future of Making” map at Bold Fusion, an excellent synthesis of his remarks prepared by Institute for the Future. You can download a PDF version of the map here. I highly recommend it.