Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Temporary Autonomous Zones of Freespace and Meetup

San Francisco's SoMa yields unexpected life lessons for those of us who pay attention.  I had time before a meeting tonight to wander around Mission Street and I walked into the front door of Freespace.  It's a Hack for Change experiment to see what creative types will do with a few months' worth of unstructured communal effort.  Civic hacking is the kind of vibe that could only thrive in a big city, and could only be born in a place like San Francisco.  Come to think of it, there is no place like San Francisco.

The tour guide for my brief sojourn into civic hacking was as unstructured as his work space.  The dude showed me around various free-form art and recreation spaces where not much was getting done except by one lonesome painter with his oils.  The space outside was more productive, with a functioning garden and some shipping containers redesigned into classrooms.

Civic hacking has the potential to birth brand new ways of living and working, but IMHO the Freespace version looks too unstructured to be an effective laboratory.  Contrast this with hackathons where highly competent programmers and engineers design functioning software prototypes that fill market needs.  Hacking a system works best when qualified pros focus effort on a working product.  Maybe I caught Freespace on a night when the leadership team was out to dinner.  Let's see what projects they can complete before their lease runs out.

Freespace filled the white space in my calendar before my formal commitment of the evening.  I went across the street to Soma Grand for a Meetup on fixed-income investing.  The contrast in settings could not have been more stark.  Where Freespace was disorderly, Soma Grand was regimented.  Freespace mixed work and leisure areas freely; Soma Grand clearly delineated its boundaries.

The Meetup ran much like a Freespace arrangement.  The old hands ironed out rules and briefed the newcomers like me.  The resident expert regaled us with facts and principles for fixed-income investing.  Attendees were free to choose the tools they needed to solve problems.  The whole point was to find more effective ways of organizing capital for investment.  The similarities between civic hacking and financial hacking are there for anyone who chooses to see them.

Meetups and Freespace occupy temporary autonomous zones (TAZs) where normal social hierarchies are suspended just long enough for experiments to test hypotheses.  Anarchism may have inspired the TAZ philosophy but that doesn't invalidate its application to solving real problems.  Even the White House and Forbes recognize the value of civic hacking that makes social institutions more effective in addressing people's needs.  In the spirit of a true TAZ, hackathons always end, Meetup groups evolve or disband, and hackerspaces like Freespace relocate to other digs.  If the innovations they spawn work in the larger super-connected world outside then the TAZs fulfilled their missions.

It may not have occurred to anyone but me that Soma Grand probably could not exist without something like Freespace occurring in the distant past.  Dissatisfaction with the status quo spurs innovation.  Complex HVAC systems, steel-reinforced concrete, and LEED certification all sprang from the minds of human innovators who looked at shabby living arrangements and vowed to do better.  Some stoners at Freespace may be dreaming up the next big thing right now over a bag of nacho chips.  Hopefully they'll finish their prototype before they have to vacate the premises.