Part Two of a Conversation with David Weinberger .
Welcome to the second half of The Pulse’s conversation with David Weinberger, Internet researcher and futurist who spoke at Chattanooga’s Startup Week, Mike Bradshaw, executive director of CoLab, and Nate Hill, assistant director of the Public Library.
We’re talking about the phenomenon of phase shifting, which happens in emergent systems when a series of simple actions leads to much more complex and unpredictable change in which the system jumps from apparent chaos to a higher level of order.
The Pulse: Mike, what marked the phase shift in Chattanooga’s startup culture?
Mike Bradshaw: I think by definition there isn’t [a marker]. What happens is you kind of look at it and go, “There it is.”
David Weinberger: It seems to me, mainly from personal experience, that there often is a moment looking backwards that stands for the phase shift.
MB: In the case of the startup community, I think the precipitating factor was Sheldon Grizzle and the CoLab. The fact that it was able to come into the context of Chattanooga four or five years ago and nucleate a lot of activities.
And at the same time you had the incredible power of the Lamp Post Group that injected into it and stabilized that structure. Then you had Benwood and the foundations that funded all of this, adding what I look at as the ambient energy: primary funding and the credibility that “Hey, this should be taken seriously, this is a valid experiment, we need to let it go.”
I would say the emergence of Lamp Post Group and CoLab was at that point in time where things emerged into a new structure.
TP: How did that work? Because they’re officially separate.
MB: These guys decided to work with each other rather than stake out their territories, and that was immensely helpful.
TP: [To Weinberger] Which is very typical of Chattanooga.
MB: [To Weinberger] We have “the Chattanooga way” here. That’s what they call it. And in a way it’s almost an open source model.
Nate Hill: I think it’s going to be really interesting to watch because the city is growing. Part of the Chattanooga way is interoperability and my ability to be like “Mike, what’s up. I’m working on this thing. You do this thing. You know this other guy who does something like this thing.”
We’re very good at connecting to each other in this way. How are we going to keep that real as it scales up? Once Chattanooga triples in size, what is the Chattanooga way going to look like?
DW: One of the ways you know the phase shift is occurring is that you begin fewer sentences with “What’s really important here is...” There’s a set of people that are ready to hear. As they make the transition to the new idea, it’s inevitable that you’re spending a lot of time dealing with near misunderstandings. They’re not an antagonist, but they keep wanting to misunderstand it in some crucial way and you just have to keep saying, “No, that’s right but what’s really important here is...”
MB: Part of what I had to do at CoLab is effectively engage these entities who operate by an entirely different dynamic than the one that we’re talking about here and still create an API [application programming interface, a tool that allows programmers to work with a piece of software] that could handle the non-Newtonian physics of somebody who actually operated by that principal by necessity. Because [organizations like funders and governments] had to stay organized, they had to be hierarchical in a certain way. They couldn’t exist without it.
DW: Government is one of the hardest entities to change, one of the last to be affected by this. You can see this not only in the fact that most have not, but where there is change, it’s positioned as peripheral. That it’s, “Don’t worry. We’re still doing the same old things”— we actually sort of wish they weren’t—”but here’s a website you can try.” And it’s the easiest and most incidental stuff that can be managed. Getting to the core, which in many cases is where we really want the reform, is going to take a long time. Governments are very proud of the peripheral experiments they are doing but very reluctant—for good and for bad reasons—to let this become core to how government works, so that we can have a network relationship to our governments, which is what many of us want.
Hierarchies and networks are different dimensions. It’s very difficult for hierarchical organizations to participate in networks.
MB: [Trying to build networks with hierarchical organizations,] what we found—I’m running into this now, and no ding on the organizations—is that the incentive systems of the hierarchy, which is what really controls the motion of their members, doesn’t reward them. And so that network takes an inordinate amount of energy to sustain.
You can read part one at chattanoogapulse.com and the entire conversation on CircleChattanooga.com