Toby and Joe each have their own studio, facing onto the garden, separated by a common area: neutral ground. Both lifelong artists, they’ve welcomed me into their home in Bernal Heights, San Francisco, turning over their garden cabin to me for the week. From my vantage point, sat with a coffee on the step in the sun, i can look down over the city, or back across the garden to the two studios, each the dedicated creative space of a different artist.
I met Joe and Toby through AirBnB, a California startup that allows anyone to rent out a room or a bed to travellers who crave the different, the interesting, the budget or simply the human touch. No hotel chains here: you’re staying in someone’s home, sometimes in their bed as they decamp to the sofa for a few nights. It’s an interesting model: as a first time AirBnB’er i was critically aware of my lack of ‘reputation‘, the fact that my profile showed a bare photo and no history. Indeed, the first question from Toby was ‘tell us a little about yourself‘, not a question i’ve been asked by Hilton or Starwood. Without reputation, your social status is uncertain: would you welcome a stranger into your house?
AirBnB is a business for the Social Age: subverting traditional business models by offering a service and a community.
It’s not that it’s cheap (you can rent luxury apartments, caravans or penthouses) but it’s certainly different and it’s certainly about community. You rate the places you stay and, in turn, are rated. Venues on AirBnB choose whether to take you as much as you choose whether to stay with them. It’s a facilitating technology, providing access to a service, but it’s also a community with reputation at it’s core. True to the Social Age, it introduces change in what was previously considered to be a stable business model. You used to have to build a hotel, pay for a receptionist, buy lots of cutlery to give people breakfast and make sure you put a little shampoo bottle in every room. Virtually the only innovation in Hotels in the last hundred years has been to add a small note asking whether you really need your towels washed everyday.
Chez Toby and Joe, no such dilemma: “there’s a pile of towels, use what you like, the washing machine is there when you need it“, was part of our 40 minute welcome and tour. The experience of staying away from home is redefined as a social experience as much as a utilitarian need for a bed. Yesterday morning we chatted for an hour about everything, from art to apartheid. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner at places they recommended and today i’m at Ritual Coffee on Valencia, their suggested best workspace. I’m buying a bed, a host and local knowledge, it’s access to a community and, whilst a retail experience, it’s very social. Very much a business model for the Social Age.
These relationships persist over time too: what may start transactional turns into community as Toby and Joe share stories, anecdotes, recommendations and memories from their network of nearly a hundred guests who’ve stayed with them and stayed in touch beyond. A growing and evolving body of co-created conversation and community.
This notion of access to communities is central to the value offered by AirBnB: today we build our understanding of the world around us through these spaces. My first visit to San Francisco and i turn to Wikipedia for the basics: my orientation. A community curated body of knowledge, i know i can rely on it for the fundamentals and an ability to delve ever deeper into the specifics. I can get an overview of the city, an understanding of the districts and sub communities and details about architecture, history and navigation. Again, it’s a way of taping into local knowledge and curated content.
Last night i walked around Mission, feeling the edgy interrelationship of hipster coffee culture and a barely concealed undertone of deprivation, homelessness and mental health issues. Heading down the street as dusk fell, i became increasingly aware of groups of men, furtive and staring, shuttered shopfronts and rubbish filled avenues. In a city that feels so wide open, welcoming and light, it was a noticeable change. I felt unwelcome: an interloper in a foreign space, a trespasser in a different community. I felt disenfranchised through my clothing, the colour of my skin, my accent, my unfamiliarity with the geography, the way i stood out as clearly adrift.
A man walked towards me, each step forward accompanied by an internal monologue, shuffling feet and a bouncing motion, staring wide eyed towards me. Whether through his own internal battles or the influence of drink or drugs, i skirted to the edge of the sidewalk, keen to distance myself from this unfamiliar social contact, unwilling to engage in conversation or eye contact. Whilst the perils of online life are familiar, in the real world, i’m all too aware of my own vulnerability in these urban spaces. Suddenly we feel unsettled, unwelcome.
Cities are man made spaces, connections of people, purpose, performance and collaboration, shaped and reshaped by us over time. Within that process, sometimes spaces become redundant, derelict, claimed by progressively less formal parts of society and tagged or reworked to serve their needs. It’s the nature of cities to create multiple spaces: building sites offering promises of the future, coffee shops providing space for collaboration, theatres and sports grounds giving their own unique performances, art studios acting as hubs for disparate creative communities.
On the drive into San Francisco i felt like a child, driving past places known to me only from books and magazines: Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, Cupertino, spiritual and physical home to so many of the innovative technologies and mindsets that have influenced and empowered me in my own work. The home of Apple, the birthplace of the humble computer mouse, it wasn’t long before i saw my first Google Maps car driving around Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s bulbous camera staring unblinking at me as it scooted past. Indeed, AirBnB is headquartered here along with Uber, the disruptive technology revolutionising taxi transport in dozens of cities around the world.
Does the space create the permission to question the status quo? Or does the willingness to question lead to the creation of innovative communities?
Is there a critical mass of change here that empowers and drives creativity? Something in the sunshine? Is it a new phenomenon or grounded in a hundred years of change?
It’s no coincidence that California has come to be seen as a centre of entrepreneurial and tech culture: a reputation that is self sustaining, but why is somewhere like San Francisco or Palo Alto so tuned into the Social Age? Is it the surf or the sun that triggers it? The quality of education or maybe the perpetual sense of vulnerability and impermanence triggered by regular earthquakes and the multiple times the city has burnt to the ground.
Just as they build giant rubber dampers into the foundations or poise huge water tanks on the roof of skyscrapers to reduce the sway, perhaps a resilient mindset is baked into the community? Or maybe it’s willingness to experiment, it’s liberal attitude and tolerance encourages difference, welcomes innovation.
Lunch was at Lori’s diner: filled with retro juke boxes and all the paraphernalia of an authentic American Diner, it was a weirdly fake space. Inauthentic, a parody of itself, a frozen relic of a bygone age. Whilst around us spaces were being repurposed, communities were evolving, Lori’s is forever stuck in the past, it’s purpose to remind us of what we have lost, of how the chromium and plastic that used to symbolise the new now becomes a token of the old.
It’s not alone in it’s historical references: just around the corner from where i spotted the Google Maps car is one of the three remaining historic Cable Car routes in the city. These trams (carrying seven million people a year) are pulled by an underground cable, which you hear rattling through it’s conduit under the street. It’s old technology, the car being manually connected to the cable through the operation of a heavy mechanical clutch, the cable itself being a matter of grease, steel and heat, contrasts strongly with the multitude iPhones and tables being wielded by the tourists hanging off the sides, snapping away with their devices making fake shutter noises as they take their pictures.
Maybe the cycle of redundancy is shortening? The desire for ever greater feature laden technology alongside a rapid evolution of our very habits of consumption and curation, the erosion of historic business models and values and the enhanced power and nature of communities, maybe all of this is driving us towards ever less permanence, more constant change and challenge. I think this lies at the heart of the Social Age: where change is constant and it’s our ability to surf it not avoid or deny it that counts.
Toby and Joe are in their late seventies, yet they are agile: Joe showing me his latest paintings on his iPhone, where he uses a small stylus to pick out the delicate features of a face with a few deft lines. They are champions of AirBnB (as well as wider technology) and rightly so: for them, the technology is facilitating, it’s enabled their already generous and sociable personalities to reach out ever further.
Many organisations could learn from this: agility is more state of mind than technology, although technology can facilitate state of mind.
Technology like Twitter connects us to ideas through hashtags: it’s a tool for amplification. AirBnB connects us to communities, on the one hand, it’s functional, but on the other very much about relationships. And Twitter (which, of course, lives in San Francisco) is another success story launched in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Created in a day long brainstorming session, free from the constraints of ‘what has been done before’, it was far from clear at first what had been created. A storytelling tool, microblogging platform or social platform? I like the term ‘information network’, because without others in your community, it has no power. It’s inherently about communities and the amplification of stories.
When San Francisco wanted to build a park, The Panhandle, the story (as recounted by my bus driver) was that they bought in the guy who created Central Park in New York. When he saw that it was all sand, he said it couldn’t be done, and they made him buy his own train ticket home again. is the story true? Like any good story, it’s done the rounds (two other tour operators i spoke to had heard or recounted it). Stories have legs and technology like Twitter gives them a long stride.
Is it any wonder that a city built on an earthquake fault-line, founded on impermanence, has been the space chosen as a hotbed of innovation?
You have to create disturbance to drive change: if you don’t rock the boat, nothing will change. Maybe when it’s the forces of nature doing the rocking you develop a more pragmatic attitude to change? Or maybe free thinking in one sector drives creativity in others by giving permission to challenge?
Perhaps the question is not why so much innovation has flowed out of this space, but rather why so much of the history is being held onto. Maybe because we crave stability as much as we love the thrill of the change.
Organisations like Google, Facebook and Twitter are all young, but have still managed to become embroiled in controversy and growing pains at times. it’s the fate of that which starts out counter culture to become the culture and to lose a certain amount of agility as a result. No longer can Twitter map out it’s future on a single sheet of paper in an afternoon.
Toby described part of her creative process to me yesterday, a process of experimentation and rework. She mentioned one image that she’s recreated at least 35 times. This willingness to create and recreate, to imagine and reimagine, sits at the heart of many success stories. It’s not about getting it right first time, it’s about iteration and perseverance, about working on your vision and finding out what you don’t want to do as much as what you do. Be it our individual creative expression or our corporate attitude to strategy, some lessons are common and many can be charted here in this place.
A city willing to rebuild itself time and again, holding onto some of the old, but willing to embrace the new: an environment that foster creativity, that welcomes innovation, that supports diversity and tolerates difference.
A city that evolves through gentrification as well as earthquake. That allows Google’s driverless cars to creep around it’s streets whilst supporting the innovative and disruptive approaches of Uber.
The wind blows into San Francisco straight from Alaska: a cold breeze that hits one side of the city carrying memories of distant wilderness. By the time it leaves, it’s tinged with dust from building sites, the smells of coffee and crabmeat, a trace of fumes from the few cars that aren’t hybrid or electric. It’s easy to look on California as just the home of surfers and legalised cannabis, but there’s more to it than that. This is a city of permission and expression, of creativity and disruption. It’s an environment that fosters and nurtures the artists of change.