How will you "redefine better" in 2012? Friday's TEDxBrooklyn conference focused on that theme by bringing together some of the biggest forces that have "bettered" the borough in recent years. Chad Dickerson, CEO of Brooklyn-based Etsy, told the crowd what his experience running hackathons means for the future of technological innovations; NPR's Farai Chideya made the case for the positive effects of gentrification in her Crown Heights neighborhood; Jack Walsh, executive producer of a hugely popular local concert series, talked about how a simple idea can revitalize a whole community. Even the venue itself fit the theme: Brooklyn Bowl not only hosts top concerts, bowling challenges and other events, it's also the first LEED-certified bowling alley in the country. So with that as the backdrop, what ideas worth considering while growing your business did TEDxBrooklyn illuminate?
1. We'll hack our way into the future.
Before he took over as CEO of Etsy, Dickerson launched the global Hack Day program at Yahoo. The experience of getting developers, designers, and techies in one place to hash out innovations in a short period of time taught him something crucial about creativity: rules often stand in the way.
"Let it be noisy, let it be messy," he said. "When you give people free space to do things, they'll actually do great things."
Even when working at the then 12,000-employee Yahoo, he found engineers benefited form unstructured free time.
"People in the company actually had a lot to offer," he said. "We just had to ask them to stand up and give them context.
Take for example a Hack Day in London a few years ago. Lightning struck the building during the event, which caused an unexpected fire suppression system to kick in that retracted the roof and let the rain in. Did the lack of electricity and the intrusive rain put the brakes on the day? Nope: the hackers picked up paper and kept going.
"When lighting struck, people started drawing," he said.
The concept of "hacking" has evolved into broader social implications: the ad-hoc, technology based gathering of protesters in Egypt, for example. And, by those definitions, anyone can be a hacker.
"Hacky your company, hack your country, hack your world," he said.
2. Crowdfunding is on the up and up.
Everyone knows you can use crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to raise money to record an album, open a store or complete an art project. But it's spreading into new disciplines. RocketHub co-founder and CEO Brain Meece revealed on Friday his company has been testing the platform in new directions: academia.
The company has been working with 49 scientists from different disciplines who have signed up to crowdfund research as part of the SciFund Challenge, which began November 1. The ventures include a $10,000 project to study ancient Roman DNA, a $5,000 plan to study "strange" dolphins with backward dorsal fins and a $2,500 effort to learn how yeast can be used to further cancer research.
The scientists are thanking their supporters with rewards too: anyone donating more than $20 to the yeast cancer project, for example, gets a mosaic of microscopic images taken from the research.
While artists have raised $100 million through RocketHub in the last three years, Meece said it was time to give academics their shot. The goal, he said, is to seed some scientific research that otherwise might not have gotten off the ground.
3. You'll say goodbye to the information age.
The "information age" is so last decade. Today, we're in the way-too-much-information age, as Rabin Yaghoubi, president of comparison engine Find the Best, said.
Digital content is exploding at an exponential rate, with more than double as much content today as there was this time last year. With 546 million websites (compared to 249 million last year), the information is becoming harder to handle and navigate. The future will involve a more careful curation of data—a role third party groups like Find the Best will step into.
Yaghoubi said just because some data that is supposed to be "open and available" does not mean it is discoverable and usable. Public information on Section 8 housing, for instance, is available online in an unstructured, messy format.
Structuring all that info will require scalable human curation that goes beyond just open source contributions, he said.
"You can't really get clean usable data unless you involve some level of human curation," he said.
4. You will cater to city people.
Paul Steely White, the executive director at Transportation Alternatives, said he is out to reclaim the city's streets for bicyclists and other pedestrians by taking cars out of the mix. But it's more than just an aesthetic crusade: People who walk are much better for the city's economy, he said.
Only 6 percent of New York City shoppers drive to stores while 69 percent walk—data Steely White hopes will discourage businesses from worrying about catering to drivers. It could be a big shift: more people now live in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history.
"Streets engineered for people are much better for business. Shoppers are walkers," he said. "Cars don't shop; people do."
As people continue to drift toward urban centers, businesses who understand this will be ahead of the game, he said.
"What they're seeing is this resurgence, this renaissance of the public sphere," he said. "It makes me very optimistic for the future."
5. Building community will be more important than ever.
Brooklyn Bowl was packed with creative, successful Brooklynites sharing their stories. The one underlining theme that united their successes was that they put community building on the same level as business development.
Viraj Puri, founder of the Gotham Greens, talked about how his rooftop farming idea started with the simple idea to bring fresh vegetables to New York City while also reducing agriculture's drain on resources. Since 2008, he's grown a 15,000 square-foot greenhouse that now produces 100 tons of produce and takes up 20 times less land than a conventional farm. Now that people in the city recognize the broader social impact of what he's doing, the food is sold in 20 restaurants and stores across the city including Whole Foods and Fresh Direct.
"There's nothing better than fresh-tasting vegetables," he said.
Jack Walsh said Celebrate Brooklyn began 30 years ago to help revitalize Brooklyn's troubled Prospect Park. It's now grown to attract 200,000 people every summer and recently partnered with a local restaurant to bring farm-to-table food to the events.
"In many ways it is about that common ethos and building community," he said. "We've created a community of artists throughout this time. It's become a place artists really want to play."
Sean Meenan opened Habana Outpost in the Fort Greene neighborhood in 2005 as a way to expand his restaurant business into Brooklyn. He quickly learned the neighborhood wanted not just an eatery but also a gathering place: he added solar panels to make it the first solar-powered eatery in New York City, started a "softly didactic" kids' environmental program and began partnering with local schools.
The big communal tables added to the appeal, and led to some big collaborations: the idea for Etsy was hatched in the Habana Outpost courtyard, and Meenan became its original investor.
"Etsy and Habana are about connecting people. You have to love something, you have to be about something, you have to want to make it better," he said. "There's never been a time in human history you have the whole world together in such close proximity. If you build your community and take care of your community than you can take care of the whole world."