Collaboration and a culture of innovation largely define what happens at a Big Ideas Fest (http://www.bigideasfest.org/home); the 2013 Conference was no exception. Before attending the conference I had already experienced a taste of the innovative potential of the ISKME Action Collabs at a professional development event sponsored by Multicultural Infusion Project at City College of San Francisco. I had no idea, however, how many ways that the people at ISKME could arrange to push us to the point of provocation. For three and a half days, participants at the BIF 2013 put their heads together to imagine the improbable and leave with an actionable plan. The conference also an opportunity for self-reflection and extending community, both of which serve to increase our abilities to transform society.
Among the many ways we were provoked, one of the most powerful had to be Nolan Bushnell’s address. What he said was edgy and smart, cutting and unapologetic, profound and commonsensical. He’s the kind of person who possibly sits alone on occasion. As someone who is often misunderstood because my offbeat sense of humor and outspokenness, I am grateful for my friends, who understand me—which is really good, because I had folks who wanted to sit with me during dinner. From what I saw, Nolan Bushnell intentionally inhabits the space of agent provocateur. With the suave self-confidence of a successful businessman, he seems to question everything and asks us to join him in dreaming up some impossible scenarios. I, for one, am still dreaming.
Bushnell forced us to think about the value of today’s college education when students are incurring a lifetime of debt with little earning potential in return. My own sensibility as an educator was challenged by the idea that college is nonessential. I was not alone. On the other hand, I could see it from his frame.Yes, if there’s an opportunity to experience success, why defer it for college? Well, possibly because urban, low-income youth of color don’t often have opportunities handed to them. Almost in response to my thoughts, Bushnell spoke directly to the participating high-school students, saying that they should be ashamed of themselves if they weren’t already entrepreneurs. They should be carving out their own destinies, envisioning and pursuing their ideals. I like that kind of expectation. It’s a high standard, blind to social issues, conditions and access—edgy. He totally ignores race and socioeconomic class. Why not? I didn’t think about or fear those things when I was 18. No one ever told me that my reality was limitless. But he did just that. He promotes knowledge, learning and education as good things, generally, but college only when it’s part of a larger plan. That’s when he said a few more controversial things about the value of certain majors. Controversy aside, one of the things that is really making me think about my own professional life trajectory is that he claims to hire people who possess the right attitude, most notably, “enthusiastic people.” He claims you can teach a person nearly anything, but they have to have the right personality to get a job from him. Our society also values youth, leading me to believe the combination of attitude and youth with the kinds of opportunities offered at Big Ideas Fest, could truly empower a young person to change the world.
Any one of the twenty teenagers could have walked over to Nolan Bushnell and convinced him to invest in their ideas. This is the power of the Big Ideas Fest: it’s creating opportunities for people who seem to live on different planets to communicate. That’s when I decided to talk to the man from Qatar in my work group. Maybe this all fits into the realm of identifying opportunities, which is what this conference is about. We have to dream big to even have a model for iteration. When we limit our dreams, then we don’t tap into our potential as co-creators. Big Ideas Fest is a place to step out of our shells.
Comfort doesn’t seem to be part of the fabric of innovation. From the power of what Rapid Fire presenter Michelle Fine calls “contact zones… where scale is deep and across,” allowing us to touch and transform society at the community level, to bridging the divides between us with what Nina Simon calls “Social Objects,” I learned that we have to learn to talk to each other and listen. Technology, Simon explained, can be a social object that frees us from restrictive fears. Maybe, as with the process in our Action Collabs, the social object is the project, the dream or a common vision. It becomes more important than our individualism and enough outside ourselves to reduce discomfort, potentially changing how we see others and ourselves.
Collaboration requires letting go of one’s agenda. This was a difficult lesson, one that I constantly returned to. To be fully present and listen, we have to be receptive. Co-ownership and partnership with people from all walks of life is a gift, one with challenges and enormous rewards. Finding inspiration in a teenager and learning to listen to different perspectives can affirm or alter our direction, part of the prototyping process. To be truly useful, it is the relationships that define the relevance of our ideas, but not our gifts as individuals. We get to be our authentic selves.
So basically, all it takes to launch a big idea is a dream and some friends. Well, it seems that those are things youth have in abundance: dreams and friends. Maybe Nolan is right. I find my imagination has been sparked by attending the Big Ideas Fest, my inner child awakened. I want to reinvent my classroom and reeducate myself. Mostly, I see that we are truly limitless if we embrace that perspective.