Friday, September 20, 2013

Innovation Culture, and what in the hell is a Chief Innovation Officer

Innovation, currently the 'buzziest' of buzz words has come to San Leandro, and it leaves a lot of people wondering what is this all about. Innovation has managed to even become main stream, with the word bandied about on national news shows and gaining momentum as a catchy phrase in government. But, what is innovation, not the dictionary word, but, what does it mean when people speak of 'innovation ecosystems' or 'innovation lifestyle'. For a city like San Leandro, that has not been a leader in the recent trends of technology or lifestyle, how does a focus on innovation manifest itself in our community. And just what is a Chief Innovation Officer, and why would we need, or even want one.

Some of this comes down to changes in the technology of our lives, the ability to communicate seamlessly and instantly, to institute broad efforts across vast spaces and to compress time in that manner. In terms of it's effect on culture, it has modified how we, as individuals and as groups are empowered, a single person can engage multiple entities, throughout the day, and as long as the technology holds up, that communication can occur over vast distances. People are more mobile than ever before, often working miles from the rest of their team, in some cases, with the team spread across continents. In my field, this manifested itself in the fact that some architects have an effective 24 hours office cycle, passing the same project across the globe, with fresh eyes picking up the work every few hours. Design and engineering seamlessly changing every minute of the day, what once took months was reduced to weeks.

The other thing that drives innovation is people, and what their expectations are from the life they live. I am one of the last of the Baby Boomers, the people who came of age in the late 1960's and early 1970's, who would change the social fabric by which society lived. Our parents believed in working hard, staying in place and building a future, many of my generation believed in a much more mobile society, more free in how their lives would be lead. This generation would ultimately become the generation that would recreate the 80 hour work week and spawn a technological revolution. Into this, walked the Gen-X and Millenials, the children of the technology revolution, and with them came a second cultural revolution, not social in it's inception, but, technological, in that they are far more connected, but, far more instant in how they view life. The old rules do not work with their new reality. And thus change.

And this is where innovation lifestyle comes to the fore, people with new definitions of family, work and experience. Who are seeking to leverage technology that was barely imagined in the time of their parents. Their ideals of what life is, or what work is, shaped by technology that has changed every aspect of our lives. And they are finding that the codes, and laws and traditional ways of governance are in the way. Cities are finding that to engage these new workforce ideals, they must become more agile, more open, or they will fall behind. Our cities are, by nature, cumbersome beasts, fed by caution and burdened by bureaucracy. Uniquely unsuited to thrive in a fast moving cultural change. And so, the Chief Innovation Officer.

San Francisco has one, San Leandro too, and many other cities are moving in this direction. A person, or small group, the special forces of the city government. A great CIO has a grasp of all of the equation, an understanding that the entire City must respond, at many levels, to the change that is occurring in the work force. A city such as San Leandro, where I live, has many disparate parts, and a lot of pluses, but, until recently, no clear path to using all of those pieces in a unified game plan to create opportunity and to understand what the City can and should become. In the case of San Leandro, a city that has neglected or mismanaged much of it's assets, this comes in the form of understanding that the change must be broad, across many parts of the cities culture. The work places, the social living places and the commercial spaces must all change, to keep the City vital.

If the City of San Leandro is to attract the businesses that will lead the next economy, then there must be places where the types of people who are going to create that economy can find food, housing, recreation, social interaction and safety, and that will be driven by the ability to focus on making innovating San Leandro and how it both is seen, and how it sees itself. Recent visits, triggered by our CIO, Deborah Acosta, has brought some of the leaders of the new guard into the City and to a person, these people have noted that San Leandro has 'the great bones' to be a center of growth. We can be the place that the next great business ideas incubate and grow organically. This is what innovation culture will ultimately be about, growing our own economy, not trying to attach our City's fate to some other economic engine.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

San Leandro Food Trucks

On Tuesday evening, San Leandro hosted it's first food truck event, sponsored by Food Truck Mafia, and located in the heart of downtown San Leandro. Although this site is eventually slated for use as a development, this location and this event, were to serve as the initial test of the idea that San Leandro could host an even such as this, and would set up future weekly visits of 8 to 10 food trucks to the downtown area. The obvious hope of an event such as this, beyond the excitement of the food, is that it offers a glimpse into the potential for a wider variety of food businesses in San Leandro, and if successful, illustrates that there is a demographic of people willing to support a broad selection of food options.

Present at this first event were trucks featuring a variety of foods, from sushi to burgers, hot dogs to ricotta lemon donuts and a lot of anything else you might want. I fear that I may have tasted something from every truck on site, something of a weakness, when I am presented with too many easy options. I hit the scene a little after 5:30 and this is what met me.

whoa, too many people

A solid crowd, to be sure, and it was good to see, despite my loathing of crowds, I wanted to see that
San Leandro would support this event, as I believe that when you create excitement in an urban core, with events such as this, you start to create an enduring sense of life in the space. One of the common complaints I hear, is that there are no good places to eat in San Leandro, and that people in this area do not want/support good food. While far from fine dining, food trucks are not cheap, and while this was novel for this location, many of the people I chatted with were familiar with at least a couple of these trucks, and were excited to be able to buy from them close to home. My interest, beyond what people thought, was how long would the crowd last. At 8:00 p.m. the crowd looked like this...

Still going strong

What of the food? Well, I am something of a food enthusiast, and I have a strong background in terms of cooking and eating. This is not elevated food, and to be sure, you can get more filling food for less money. So what is the 'thing' about what one of my neighbors referred to as 'fancy roach coaches', why have these trucks come to be so popular, and driven so much enthusiasm for a product that is neither a bargain, nor exceptional. They are a phenomenon, and something that I have yet to hear any solid ideas about, and that would include several contributions I have made to other articles about them. It is something of an oddity, many of these trucks are staffed with cook with real kitchen chops, some are producing exceptional street food, and in most cases, the food is quite creative, if sometimes kitschy. And yet, for a Tuesday night (death night in the restaurant trade), this really created buzz. Of course, going forward, over the next few weeks, will that be maintained, that is the real question.

In one way, I believe these trucks, and these types of events, appeal very heavily to the young Gen-X and Millennials, the plethora of options, the intense crowds and sense of being in the moment, I believe have a great attraction to people who have grown up in a time when technology and culture reward mobility and choice making. And to some degree, the idea that you can have it all. Looking at the crowd, there were many people with young children, and strollers, many families. In a very large sense, it appeals to people who are used to being 'on the move'. In much the same way that many of the great young minds who are becoming the new guard of our economy, people who are in love with the idea of a variety of experiences, cultures, places and times, see in these events the type of experience they seek. Not to sit down at one table for a leisurely dinner evening, but, to interact, touch and return, or move to the next group. In feeds on itself, making connections, eating fun food, turning the idea of dinner into it's own clubby feel, a shared moment. In the end, this is what our downtown needs to start providing, those moments that tie us to our City.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Community and Food

In my continuing interest about community vitalization, the idea of an innovation community and a focus on making San Leandro a center of what one might term 'New Economy' progress, the idea of where people who are drawn to our fair city will eat. There is often this sense that San Leandro is a desert (desert, not dessert) of good food options, and I will happily join in on these statements. But, with the coming of our first good truck event in just a day or so (San Leandro hosts Food Truck Mafia hits San Leandro tomorrow evening) I got to thinking about food resources in San Leandro. And I realized, there are some solid options in San Leandro, that we over look.

First off, my favorite haunt in the City, the Zocalo Coffeehouse, which my friends Tim and Mitch have run now for over 11 years, which will now be carried forward by Sara and Dan. While we will be temporarily be losing our home of great local coffee, the locally roasted beans will stay in San Leandro. I think a great city has to have it's own roasters, and Sara will continue to fill this niche. In the past, Sara and Mitch have brought us some great beans, the Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea and a few other standouts, which I hope will once again become options once the roaster in located in it's new home.

There is also another old business, the Santos Spice Company, that provides both bulk and smaller consumer sizes of Indian, Pakistani and other exotic spices, that I think often get overlooked due to their being off the beaten path. So many of the people I regularly communicate with bemoan that they must buy their bulk spices from mail order, and here we are, with exotic spices of high quality, right in the center of our city.

Drake's Barrel House, another place that I think often gets over looked as coming from San Leandro, a city that has supported and been at the center of the home brewing movement in the United States. Drake's makes some of the best IPA in the country, and it has rapidly become a staple in finer beer establishments around California. Beyond that, we have Brewmaster and Williams Brewing, two home brewing shops in one city. Once again, I think we have some great resources here, and this is something that can be built upon.

I think these businesses, and many others, form a basis, for which future food industry can begin to see that San Leandro has the potential to be a food center for the innovators of the New Economy. One of the things that has come to the fore, is that there is a significant interest in San Leandro, as a potential demonstration city for urban farming and small farm product marketing. Now, this is where a city could reach out and start to create opportunities in a "new-old" model of food creation. With it's central location, tradition of agriculture, availability of open land and open buildings, a marketplace of locally grown, urban farmed and small farm curated agriculture products could become a hallmark of food economy for the Bay Area. In many cases, the key to creation and innovation is space, and the ability to link space, technology and people in such a way, that creativity is fostered. We may be the best city in the Bay Area to move forward on these ideas.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Problem of Living Space

As anyone who has followed my past blogging will note, there has been a change in some of my posts, away from food and towards an interest in community. In truth, this is not really a change in direction, of my interests or passions, so much as my finally putting into words, my lifelong passion for the built environment that humans live in. For me, community is not just a place where I live, but, an over-arching construct of my professional and personal lives. I exist in a constant state of observation of the built environment, and for modern man, that means, the places and spaces where community is created and where it lives.

And in truth, where it lives is a problem for many. I am not talking poverty, homelessness or similar issues. But, how does a community provide for those, who are either starting out in life, find themselves down sizing, or are simply in need of a space to live, while working out other details of their lives. This proposes a very real problem, for many people, who are trying to find that career, or who are creating some of the new models of commerce or technology, the familiar models of apartments and houses simply do not work. The costs being too high, or the locations of the houses not being close enough to work, requiring even more assets for a car or commute. For some, the solution if Co-Living.

Far from the old model of simply Cooperative Housing, this new model encourages a live-work space that seeks to create an enriched space, in which business, intellect and creative response to problems is encouraged. One of the first, and certainly the most notable effort, is the "intentional community" of the Rainbow Mansion in Cupertino, California. This is something of a mind bending community, but, one that represents a "Alpha" model of what might be achieved in any community that is seeking to create and encourage innovation and grass-roots growth and community sustainability. Far from the co-ops of our 1960's youth, or from the ideas of fear, that it is just a bunch of people who can't get out of their own way, these houses function as incubators for the next generation of entrepreneurs and thinkers.

This is one way, that highly motivated and creative people can start to find ways to live in the communities that they ultimately want to see flourish, on their way to changing the world. For San Leandro, it might be a solution to losing our young mind trust, who often migrate to Oakland or San Francisco, looking for stimulation and experiences that they do not yet perceive to exist at home. Let's begin to think about creating spaces where home in San Leandro, means a dynamic, intellectually challenging and truly diverse experience. A salon for the innovation economy community.

Innovation and Workforce

Last night, I had the opportunity to hear Shannon Spanhake; the Deputy Innovation Officer for the City and County of San Francisco speak about what the City is doing, to create economic opportunities within their City. At the center of what she is doing, is working on innovation ecosystems to create job opportunities, create a better government/citizen experience and to improve the urban infrastructure of San Francisco. During her talk, she spoke about Living Innovation Zones, which address the fact that many of the codes and codices that we have adopted over the years, in the City planning and municipal management areas of cities are antithetical to innovation. The concept of LIZs, is that in specific zones of the City, these types of codes that can be a limitation to innovation and the associated risks of doing things that have not been done before, are either modified, or even removed, from the path of people who might have great ideas, but, not great capital.

Why would a community seek to removed these codes, which obviously have been placed to protect the fabric and structure of the City, just to enable people, who often have more ideas than capital, when we all tend to want to see our cities encouraging capital centric development. Isn't it appropriate for a City to seek economic development from those who have money, than from those who need it?

Not really. One of the hallmarks of large corporations, is that they are rarely good corporate citizens anymore. They are the driving force of the economy in that they seek to create wealth in a variety of channels, and many of us benefit from that. However, increasingly the case is, that research, development and design are not seen as avenues for profit within that structure. Further, these companies do not foster community sustainability. A truly sustainable community is founded in the ability to live, work and play within the community itself, and one facet of that is to develop economic stability as well as economic opportunity within the community. Shannon is doing this in San Francisco using tools such as Open Government, creation of Living Innovation Zones, finding new ways for government to act, or for people to interact with government.

As always, I find these dinners that I attend, as a guest of The Hub, and UIX Global, as well as the Berkeley Economic Development Agency to be stimulating and challenging to what I think I know about community and city. Much of what Shannon spoke about was pertinent to San Leandro, many of the challenges we face are different, in that we do not enjoy the visibility or reputation of San Francisco. However, we have our own opportunities and our own built in limitations, that ideas such as a LIZ, such as co-living and Open Government could begin to address.