Strategies for Tough Times: Focus on the Micro-Entrepreneur

I recently gave a keynote lecture to the World Urban Congress in Riga, Latvia, on creative strategies for difficult economic times. The Congress provided a fantastic overview of what is taking place in urban development across the world, but what I saw and heard also left me a bit cold.

The reason is that largely, the old model is still at work – huge, expensive institutions are being built as vehicles for regeneration and as catalysts for the ‘creative economy’, but with very little attention being paid to the integration of these institutions into the creative fibre of the city or indeed to the business plans for the years to come. In short: a lot of hardware, and very little software. This isn’t a sustainable approach for the long-term, nor wise in the short-term in light of the global financial slowdown. So my approach, for both good times and bad, is to look in the opposite direction:

Focus on the Micro-Entrepreneur

Famed entrepreneur Mark Cuban said a very interesting thing when asked what his advice would be to President Elect Obama in steering the US out of its financial turmoil:

“Entrepreneurs that start and run small businesses will be the propellant in this economy. PE Obama needs to have the counsel of those who will take the real risk inherent in creating companies and jobs. Those who put their money and lives on the line with their business…Entrepreneurs will lead us out of this mess. Talk to them.”

The same principles apply to cities and their cultural and creative strategies. This isn’t the time to be investing in the urban macro, when the urban micro, specifically, the urban micro-entrepreneurs, are collectively a far more valid and adaptive force for change and revival in this climate. They are the software that’s needed to run the city’s hardware.

A prime example of how this hardware and software can combine to support the micro-entrepreneur is Sao Paulo’s Endossa.

Endossa is a collaborative store which caters to craftspeople, designers, independent musicians, inventors, foodmakers, and a wide cross-section of creatives “who devote their time to tactile ideas and need assistance to ‘publish’ them.” The principles of Endossa are as follows:

  • Rent empty shelf boxes to every micro-entrepreneur who wants some space to sell products, without asking for sales commission.
  • Any product can be sold in Endossa from bottles of chilies to handmade notebooks and its time on the shelf depends on demand: high sales means high visibility.
  • Create a micro-community of young entrepreneurs and curious people who visit Endossa to get fresh inspiration from the creative pieces inside the store.

In addition to its “real world” benefits, an interesting side effect of the store is its ability to cross-over with online culture.

As shown in A Cor do Brasil’s flickr photo above, people have begun to promote not only their work, but their physical positioning in Endossa online, promoting both their work and the store, and enabling a comments thread online that feeds back to the physical store. The integration with Web 2.0 philosophies is intentional, as Endossa explains:

“Endossa works more like blogger or digg than as a search engine. The store allows everyone to “publish” their products and then lets customers “sort and rank” them through sales… There´s an algorithm. We call it the ‘Every Purchase is an endorsement’ mechanism. Basically it compares the size and location of a rented space with its revenue, and decides if the space can be rented again by the same brand next month.”

Cementing Endossa as a model of a software sensibility within the Sao Paulo creative economy is the reality that within their retail system, “new modules are being added all the time, depending upon the necessities identified by the user.”

Endossa is an exceptional example of the Focus on the Micro-Entrepreneur strategy. Stay tuned or get in touch for more.

Chicago’s window into open design

I’m in Chicago as a guest lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and loving it. As many of you know, Chicago is an architectural feast, and being able to combine business and architectural sight seeing in such a city is a treat. I am of course biased, as a great number of Chicago’s landmark buildings and urban plans were designed by Daniel Burnham, but namesakes aside, it has been an honour to be part of this city even for a brief period of time.

One of the buildings that has really stood out for me is the iconic Marina City, designed by Bertrand Goldberg. Film buffs may remember the building as the site of the classic scene in the Steven McQueen film The Hunter, in which a car chase comes to an unexpected end as the car careens off the 10th floor of the underlying parking garage. This feet was repeated for an Allstate insurance add several years ago, so if anyone has a desire to launch a car out of a building in the downtown of a major city, this is your place.

The reason it stands out for me however, is the framework it provides for the residents to have a hand in the external design of the building. An unintentional aspect of the architecture perhaps, but as the top image shows, it is wonderful to be able to view the building from a distance and be able to read the colours, the collaborative spirit as lines of lights stretch across several units, and the chosen colours of those living inside. And it’s not even Christmas. As always, I find these moments to be examples of the potential which exists for people to have a more direct role in the external visuals of their buildings.

I’ll miss this city, and my lofty view of the Tribune building and plaza, but my talk in Riga awaits, and I am in hopes of more architectural treats there.

Magazine feature on “the anti-curator”

I’ve had a decent run in the media lately, which continues with a fairly lengthy article on me in the October issue of EnRoute magazine. It’s interesting that years ago articles were being written about me bringing street art into the gallery, and now the articles are about me bringing the gallery into the streets. I guess the circle is complete.

It’s a well-written piece which features, both in the magazine and online,  some nice images of Roadsworth and I hanging out while he does some new work (as seen above), and quotes from others and their observations on what I do. (Now I know.) While it’s rewarding to hear a critic comment that “Burnham creates opportunities to tell stories that aren’t being told in mainstream galleries,” I’m also left to ponder how I feel about being referred to as “a kind of anti-curator”; (though “irreverent”, I do like). So while I wrestle with those issues, make up your own mind and read the article here.

Urban Play in the media

We’re still compiling the fantastic amount of media coverage Urban Play and Experimenta Amsterdam has received over the past few days, but for now, I thought I’d share a very good video done by Dutch “Innovative Lifestyle” magazine Bright on the project. For those who want to see the Moving Forest, well, moving, or get a quick video-walkthrough of the Urban Play exhibition, this is a good start. The narrative is in Dutch, but the interviews with me and Sagmeister’s team are of course in English, and the overall video coverage is very good.

For those who would rather read than watch, an interview with me and an overview of Urban Play is on, with some great images from the street hits of Mark Jenkins and Windowzoo in addition to the design interventions.

Stefan Sagmeister installation removed by Amsterdam Police

After waking up a bit groggy from the festivities of the Urban Play opening party last night, I went for a walk around the installation sites to see how they had progressed after their first night in the public realm, and, well, I got a little more than I had expected when looking for Stefan Sagmeister’s piece: it was gone.

I had asked Stefan to create a new work for Urban Play, and his piece – a sentence designed using 250,000 Euro cent coins – blew me and everyone away each day as it progressed. I had expected a certain ebb and flow to take place within the piece, which is of course the point of the entire Urban Play project, but to have the entire thing completely disappear overnight was more than anyone had expected. After recovering from the shock, I did some research and discovered that the story behind its removal was stranger than anything I could have imagined.

It seems that the Amsterdam police were called by a resident of one of the overlooking buildings early Sunday morning to report that someone was “stealing an artwork”. As the story goes, people were pocketing a few of the coins, which was also expected, but things got a bit out of hand when a resident saw this happening. So the police responded, and, in a rather bizarre instance of police efficiency, they proceeded to “secure” the artwork, by sweeping up the entire installation.

The event is superbly captured on the flickr page of anjens, who lives in a flat overlooking the site. 

I will update with more info if and when I get any, but for now, I’d like to give my huge thanks to Sagmeister’s team of Joe Shouldice and Richard The, who along with an amazing team of volunteers worked for many days, literally from dawn to dusk, to install the piece. It was a beautiful addition to the Urban Play project, and will be sorely missed.

For now, let’s remember the way it was on Sagmeister’s page on the project.

UPDATE: So, the police say we can have the coins back. Anyone want to suggest what we do with them now?

Urban Play Amsterdam comes together

Apologies for the lack of recent posts, but the final touches are being put on Urban Play, so that’s where my time is going at the moment. I really couldn’t be more thrilled with what is taking place with the project right now. Case-in-point: “Fish in the Sky” by Nothing Design Group from Korea, above, which was just installed today (image below). In the background is Amsterdam’s Central Station.

Until I can find the time for some quality updates, you can take a look at my flickr photos of the preparations here.

Ikea Hacker: Using Ikea as a Gym

There has been a tremendous response to the Ikea Hacker contest and forthcoming exhibition I’m doing with Platform 21 in Amsterdam – some insanely good DIY Ikea innovations are coming in, and some completely unexpected Ikea Hacks, such as the one above from Daredo, where the Ikea store is turned into a workout area, its products being re-purposed into exercise equipment. Be sure to subscribe to see more as the final entries pour in.