As a culture identified with ‘disruptive tech’ innovation, startups today define the entrepreneurial spirit of the new global business class. The epitome of entrepreneurial, small business born in a dorm room or family garage, startups are partnered with, and dependent upon, investment culture for lifeblood and brand value. Whether bootstrapping your own destiny or becoming lucky enough to enter one of the many incubators sprinkled throughout the US and abroad, startup teams race against a clock of competition, refining prototypes and collecting user metrics in an effort to delight and corral investors. “Fail Often, Fail Fast” is the startup battle cry, pushing team grit, patience and the bank accounts to the limit as ironized in HBO’s Silicon Valley.
For agents of change within the creative sector, startup disruption is no stranger to arts and design particularly when one takes into account the history of guilds or the avant-garde. To be sure artists and designers, theater directors and composers, architects and urban designers have long been ardent makers and vociferous disrupters of creative culture, their ingenuity and cultural cachet have been tried and tested through each and every step of a business transaction. Were we to read histories of fine arts through the lens of startup culture, we would, in fact, be reading an account of “product innovation” and the degree to which that product transformed the broader culture of ideas, social class and lifestyle. This point is best exemplified by intellectual fashions of the 1980s, a time when followers of cultural critics like Bourdieu and Baudrillard, ironically seized on the socio-economic power attributed ‘gidgets and gadgets’ to create culture, class and move capital across townships and global borders.
Today the legacies of cultural criticism and its by-product ironic art (think Warhol and Koons) sit on museum floors and in warehouses, as a new global generation of artists and designers, raised on homeschooling, SIMS, the World of WarCraft and Friends the TV show, look to startups to redefine relations of creativity, collaboration, social engagement, world building and capital. In our new era of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, rather than swallow the “starve for your art” narrative, artist and design startups are paving their way to success, rewriting the story of artist-driven economies. AirBnB, Hot Studio, Call of Duty, Obscura — all have been developed by designers, artists, and theater directors who transformed business models based on creative iteration, artistic virtuosity and the currency of friendship. With the rise of the creative class, low rent urban centers like San Francisco’s Mission District or Austin’s downtown are transforming into new centers of creative venture and capital investment. Here in America’s resuscitated downtowns, entrepreneurs and fund analysts live, eat, sleep and perform social media network rituals at coffee shops, co-work spaces and yearly festivals.
Along with disrupted city centers, the human body system has become the site of intervention on the part of surging startup interest. As investments grow within the digital health sector, fresh entrepreneurial thinking arises out of design, tech and science collaboration. Witness the daily social media parade of inventions for clinical and at-home use — Social Robots, EEG headsets, VR and AR headsets tethered to 3D software and printers. Conferences like XtechExpo, Exponential Medicine and Serious Games create a space for networking between creatives, technologists along with those speculating economic ventures and possible patents. Yes patents, the secret sauce of ensuring culture change and market prowess at the hands of industrial and engineering design, now becomes the reason (or excuse) for holding late nite coding races to explore the human-machine interface. Game on!
With tech disruption touching all aspects of our lives, there comes the inevitable blowback of startup culture: Slow acceptance by mass culture; loss of brand value, false valuations of companies and funds drying up in investment circles. Any or all of these options brings with it a story for Fast Company or CrunchBase to tell. What then, should startup culture, originating out of creative class impulse, count on to thrive and contribute to the greater good?
I suggest three directives for social entrepreneurship already at work in the culture at large:
Startup for Social Good: Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman argues, social inclinations appear early evolutionary growth, our brains operating night and day to process social cues and inferences of cooperation and competition at home, work and in play. To follow, social good is measured by metrics of social impact on local and global culture with what Stewart Brand calls a “long now” play strategies to influence positive growth in mass and underdeveloped culture. Think Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker, Space X, Sun Edison. As Jean Case writes on Medium (2015), Jigar Shah of Sun Edison and ‘many other social entrepreneurs embody the ethos that even if the product isn’t perfect, or the market isn’t quite ready for it, a great, disruptive idea should have its time in the sun.’
Startup for Creative Currency: Creativity Currency speaks both to the rise of the creative class and to the trade value of startups who now risk building their inventions using blockchain or other platforms of machine learning. As in early days when creative currency bore the marks of technological and cultural change — remember Paris and the making of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon? — today, creatives use gamer and programming analytics to rethink epic challenges of creative workflow and output. Artists in co-work spaces now have the chance to partner hand in hand with system technologists, their projects fueled and funded through Kickstarter initiatives or perhaps direct venture sponsorship.
Startup for World Building: According to RotoLab colleague Alex McDowell, World Building thrives on narrative plays for the design of worlds, thereby setting the stage for stories to unfold intuitively and logically from a “well-designed core.” StartUps using world building recognize the need to witness and write stories of our time to reset the meter of creative culture change for good. As McDowell points out, ‘storytelling is a powerful system for the advancement of human capability due to its ability to allow the human imagination to precede the realization of thought. With the help of technology to realize the imagination, storytelling sets in motion the art sculpting new worlds, new possibilities.’
So, are you an Agent of Change in the Creative Sector? If so, a word to the intrepid: The yellow brick road to startup Oz begins with design research and World Building. While you are imagining the impossible to create new worlds and new products to meet the needs and urgencies of our contested future, develop a new creative currency that encourages team workflow and reward. And remember: Aim high to contribute to our Social Good
**Given our dedication to shaping the future of creative startups, RotoLab CTO Nels Long will weigh in on a two-part commentary addressing “Big Change Technologies and Future Trajectories.” Stay tuned!