Jan 9 2012

Say it with me: 2012 is the year

Happy New Year! I’ve been traveling since the start of the year. It’s been exciting that, everywhere I have been, there has been a palpable feeling that this is going to be a great year. I admit there is some selection bias going on, but it’s really energizing nevertheless.

Whatever industry you are in, if you’re working on changing “business as usual,” you probably feel it too. In everything from farming, to transportation, housing, finance, or education- from the East Coast to the West Coast and in between- in cities and in small towns- very many “alternative” ways of doing things seem poised to go mainstream in 2012. We’re at the convergence of many exciting tipping points all at once.

Why 2012? I think the Millenials just woke up to our shared values, collective buying power, and creativity. Strap yourself in.

The “Co” Generation

There is a common thread to these tipping points: the disarmingly-innocent, power-packed prefix “co.” Co-working, co-ops, co-ownership, co-learning, and co-living, oh my!

Those two tellingly circular little letters carry a wealth of meaning for our generation. They mean we understand we’re all in this together. They mean we like strong communities more than amassing personal wealth. They mean we like sharing good times and successes and failures. From my vantage point, those two little letters are the reason behind the sea changes all of these industries are experiencing.

Maybe up until this point we were helping out on an urban farm on the side, or choosing to ditch our cars, or getting into dangerous ideas like sustainability or social entrepreneurship. But whatever we did, if you were like me, you probably felt that these experiments were on the fringe of the mainstream, not the norm. And they were.

Then, overnight- as we reached the point in our lives where we are buying property, creating new companies, and investing in each other’s- we somehow became aware of each other’s little experiments. We took stock of our values and priorities and realized there are many things we share.

We had all been thinking these thoughts on our own- whispering our crazy ideas quietly to each other on the playground, passing notes discretely to our friends under our desks- but now that we have discovered we are not alone, we are putting our capital where our hearts are. Realizing our unity, we picked up a megaphone and shouted to whoever would listen:

The age of the Rugged Individualist is dead. He is not Us. That’s not our style. We like each other too much. We’re in this together!

If you are working in any of these industries, have you felt it? If you have been slogging away at bringing about these changes for the last 40 years and paving the way to make these changes possible now, thanks! We owe you and appreciate your foresight.


Out with the single family home in the ‘burbs. In with the community house, the shared backyard, the grange, and… the yurt?

The Doghouse in Brooklyn

There’s a reason college was one of the best times of our lives; we had community all around us, all the time. We remember that. We also remember suburbia; we experienced it at its height. We have weighed them both and made our decision: we have found the one acre and two-car garage in the ‘burbs wanting. We like to live together.

The McMansions baby boomers built with their accumulated wealth, and then didn’t need or couldn’t afford, are going for a steal. If you haven’t noticed yet, we’re buying them and turning them into networks of intentional communities we can live in through all stages of our lives so that, even though we are more mobile than past generations, wherever we go we will be living in stronger communities, sharing the burden of chores, sharing the responsibility for parenting, and getting more living space for our money.

Several married couples I know are living together in group houses. Three separate groups of friends are buying land and starting farming cooperatives together. New Leaf at Penn State is buying an old frat house and turning it into a community for students and professionals working on sustainability projects together. The Embassy Network is buying properties in major cities that will be converted into houses with co-working on the first floor, a short-term stay floor (the “hostel”) above that, and a floor for long-term residents at the top, with reciprocal membership between each “node” of the Network.


It’s amazing to watch the speed of change in this industry. Do you remember the world before Omnivore’s Dilemma? Do you remember when you hadn’t heard of a food co-op, before all of your neighbors were in one? Do you remember easy mac, frozen dinners, and our fast food diets?

If you work in industrial farming, start looking for another job. We don’t want your turkeys that are bred to never stand up. We don’t want the syrup of your mono-culture corn fields. We want to be get fresh veggies from the local co-ops our friends are starting. We want to get our meat from one of the hundreds of small, crop-rotating farms Joel Salatin has inspired, or from the restaurants like Chipotle that do. Farmers markets are exploding. Buying artisan food from your neighbor is back. Trading the extra tomatoes from my little garden for your extra squash is in.

In the short space of time since we left school, these things have gone from alternative to mainstream. In some places I visit, the old mainstream has become outright taboo. Try serving up McDonalds at the next birthday party in Charlottesville and see if the other moms ever accept an invitation for another play date.


Cubicle? Career for life? Maximize shareholder value? No thanks. We tried that. We like to work on lots of interesting projects that stretch us and challenge us and allow us to make a contribution to the world. We don’t care if we’re going to get the opportunity to do that from a corporation, a startup, or ourselves.

Many of us are showing up “at work” now at the many buzzing co-working spaces that are proliferating wherever we are, like Hub DC, the General Assembly, and Bull City Forward.

Spud Marshall @ New Leaf Initiative, hard at work

We shop at REI. We or our friends studied abroad and have seen the way other countries value family, vacation and balance. We realize that there are other options for how companies can work, and we don’t want to work for those that don’t get it. When we start our own companies, we’re not just forming corporations. We’re forming co-ops and B Corps. If you don’t know what those are, you’re late to the party. And the party’s not waiting for you.

We want to share leadership. We want workers to be co-owners of their own companies, fates, and daily decisions. I don’t know a company starting this year that isn’t working that deeply into their organizational structure.


You’re dreaming if you think we’re going to pay $160k to send our kids to listen to fours years of lectures by droning professors in giant auditoriums. We can’t get all of the knowledge we need to solve the world’s problems from the past and from experts. Realizing that, we’re getting better at practicing the art of co-creating our own educational experiences together, just like we’ll be expected to do in our work. This year, Khan Academy, Skillshare and Free Schools, MITx and a free Stanford Artificial Intelligence course with 130,000 students captured our imagination.

There’s no turning back now. Thanks to the growing acceptance of these types of peer education practices, both on and off campuses, our kids are going to have a lot more options than we ever did for getting an awesome education for less money. Lecture halls are already being converted. If you visit the new UVA Med School building, you will find, instead of lecture halls, a big circular room filled with teams of students working together on problem sets, with a coach instead of a lecturer in the middle, quizzing, and asking groups to share and explain their answers.


Collaborative consumption, co-ownership, and services are inOwning is out.

We’re getting our books on Kindle, our music from Pandora, and our mobility from Metros, Megabus, Bikeshare and Zipcars. We’re the first generation to think that texting is cooler than owning a car. (Is there any greater evidence that we love our communities?). Friends are selling shares of their cars to their friends and putting several names on their driver’s insurance.

“The recovery” is not going to be coming from Detroit or from the RIAA.


Private Banks are outNonprofit, community banking is in.

I’ll let Kyle Theirmann explain:

What Next?

The list above is only scratching the surface. There is so much more happening.

Mom, dad. You gave us good values. You gave us good skills. You taught us that winning isn’t everything. You taught us to share and to put things back like we found them. You taught us that we were capable of changing the world and, more importantly, endowed us with a sometimes arrogant belief that we could.

We also learned from you how to build our dreams into businesses, how to get things done. We’re going to start putting all of those things to work.


Dec 29 2011

Living Aboard Sinking Whales

It takes fifty to seventy-five years for a dead whale to sink to the bottom of the ocean. As it sinks, an entire ecosystem of tiny creatures descend with it and thrive on its decomposing carcass.

From where I sit I see an auxiliary sink, two coffee makers, and three holsters of knives. There are four sets of china.  The mess ware and the quarry ware and the copperstone ware and the fine china each have their home. There are four rooms for sunning and ten more for blocking out the sun. There are seats for 175 people within this single structure, including a leather couch that can comfortably seat ten people without the inconvenience of coming into contact with another human being (As a secondary defense, it comes equipped with six pillows the size of large children). I can walk for 5 minutes in this house and never cross my own path and never leave sight of a television.

For twenty-five people- our crew for the week- it is extravagant. For the fifteen maximum occupants it is designed, it is opulent. For the single nuclear family for which it was built, it is aristocratic; they are the modern day Sun King’s of the South, laden by possessions for which there could be no justification beyond stroking the ego of a self-made family. They can be reminded that they have made it every time they have to use their iPhones to call each other from the game room to the media room. If a nucleus is the right metaphor to describe them, then they are at the center of a middle-weight atom; not the heaviest perhaps- this is not, after all, the Sun King’s palace in Versailles; that has been quite unfashionable since the heads of that particular aristocracy were separated from their carriers- but they would be perhaps among the rubidium.

What will become of these whales of homes as they sink to the ocean floor? Will ecosystems of idealist hipster youth crowd like algae on the lumbering masses which the previous generation erected and could not keep up, like the group houses that have become of mansions in DC? Will three generations live together in these colossi, as in past generations? Will we keep them up or will we make whole new structures of their bones?

I don’t know. But we are twenty-five and for a week we will fill a space that is quite the right size for our mob.


Dec 6 2011

Washington, DC – Housing Innovation Capital

In my travels this Fall I noticed that some clever cities have been putting themselves on the map by picking one area of great social need that they desperately need to solve for themselves, going big, and then becoming a model for rest of the world to learn from.

The examples I highlighted in a separate post on Copenhagen and cycling, Lyon and lighting, Chicago and green roofs, etc. made me wonder; on what particular area of social innovation might my own city focus?

There are so many areas of pressing need here in DC, and also so many talented and passionate people who live here, that it can be hard to choose. But there is one area that could have large multiplier effects and which takes advantage of one of the coolest things the DC community already has going:

Washington DC should become a laboratory for housing innovation


While the primary stock of housing in most cities in the US still consists mostly of high-rise apartments, condos, and single-family homes- all designed for 1-3 residents or a nuclear family- there are many more options than that already available in DC.

For example, one of DC’s greatest assets is our strong culture of group house living for young professionals who move to the city to work for one of the many social sector organizations here, but who generally aren’t making much money in the process.

You will find many of these young, passionate people living in beautiful, century-old row houses that were originally built as small mansions in particular neighborhoods throughout the city, some of which have since been converted to group houses where 5-10 people in their twenties or thirties are now living together.

Building community in new ways in our 20-30′s

The city’s rich stock of row houses, which virtually none of us could have afforded to live in on our own, probably helped get the movement of group housing started in DC. But many of us are living in group houses as much out of a desire for community and for living with people who share our values, as for any other reason, like money. It’s not uncommon for these houses to have names (Rosemont, the Bike House, the Monday House…) and along with that, a sense of identity and history. For many of us, our housemates are like families.

Some of these houses are co-operatively owned, some are rented, but virtually all of these have cultures of sharing. Most make use of their beautiful homes as community spaces as often as possible. More than half of the art galleries and concerts I have been to in DC have been hosted at group houses. I have been to film screenings, study groups, organizational planning meetings, and fundraisers… all hosted at group houses. In fact, I typically work 2-3 days a week in a group house that becomes a co-working space during the day, the early predecessor to Hub DC.

Demographic trends and dealing with gentrification

It’s great that we have this option in DC, and a culture built around it, because of an important demographic trend in our generation; it is no longer the norm that all people now get married right after completing their education and move in with their spouses to start a family. Group houses give those of us who didn’t take that route yet in our twenties and thirties (a growing trend) a way to still have a sense of community and family that is comparable, if not better, to what we would have found in nuclear family homes, college dorms, or in the multigenerational homes that have been the norm in almost every culture of the world at some point.

I personally love group houses in DC and would love to see that option grow. There is so much more demand for group houses than the city has in supply. It is typical to have 50 people show up for an opening in a group house. Expanding the stock of group houses in DC could be an important strategy in helping keep the city affordable both for the droves of young people who move here early in their careers and for our invaluable long-term residents, who are in risk of being priced out of the market by the former, otherwise.

Building a local industry around housing innovation

But, like Copenhagen, Lyon, and Charlotte, we have so much more we could do. There are many other existing and new local models we can continue to expand alongside the group house option, from cooperative apartments to multi-socioeconomic row-houses with shared backyards.

With a concerted effort, DC could become a leader for demonstrating to the rest of the world what can be done when we make it a priority to implement intentional development strategies (remember Lyon’s lighting plan and Copenhagen’s cycling plan?) to help us better house our city’s amazingly diverse range of residents and to strengthen community across our huge range of socioeconomic groups and lifestyles.

Internationally-known partners with offices here, like Calvert Investments, Ashoka, the World Bank, Aspen Institute, and the World Resources Institute- not to mention the federal government- will all directly benefit from improving the diversity of housing options available for the passionate young transplants they hire, and they will all see network effects of cooperating in such an effort.

Like Charlotte and its energy efficiency initiative, new companies will emerge to meet the needs of the effort. And like Copenhagen and Lyon, other cities will want to learn from DC’s example.

In short, housing innovation could put DC on the map.