Palomar5 (some impressions)
November 23, 2009 | By Peter Bihr |
Even though a few friends of mine have been directly involved in the project, I had been watching Palomar5 from a distance. (Mostly because I was literally, physically far away.)
I spent most of the day there and came away with a lot of impressions, and also pretty impressed. Let me share a few things I noticed during the day.
But first, to get an idea what Palomar5 is, let me quote from their website:
Palomar5 is looking for creative young minds all over the world to propose new working environments fit for the skills and needs of a digital generation. Palomar5 and affiliate curators are currently giving 30 residents the possibility to stay for six weeks in an Innovation Camp in Berlin. This is a chance for collaboration as well as self-expression. This is an opportunity to network with leaders from economy, science, culture and politics and to meet experts at the forefront of their fields. The residents are passionate, eager and full of ideas, Palomar5 is a 2000sqm incubation-space that’ll make them blossom. They’ve got the ideas, and we have a place for them to make them real.
Innovation has been increasingly popularized into becoming a trend and a commodity. There are numerous enterprises, think-tanks, and conferences solely devoted to the mass production of innovation. Unfortunately one can put wings on a shopping cart and sell it as Innovation at a high price. But when it comes to questioning and reforming prevailing paradigms there is too much talk and not enough action. Lot’s of coloured bubbles. Lot’s of profit. No real help. Palomar5 was established as a non-profit initiative seeking innovation outside of corporate structures. The founders of Palomar5 feel that “innovation” itself is in need of reformation.
The whole project is backed by Deutsche Telekom and a few smaller sponsors, and clearly those sponsors were serious about Palomar5. They rented an old industrial complex and refurbished the interior to house 30+ participants for six weeks, including some major workspace, today’s summit and to allow for the participants to prototype or build all kinds of stuff. It really all looked quite impressive and well done.
More than the location though I liked how clearly you could see the intense group dynamics going on between the Palomar5 folks. They had been locked up together for six weeks in this cool playground setting (that had the feel of some massive hacker space-meets-design school), and the effect was a group bonding that seemed to foster a lot of creativity, and it’s also clear that those 30 “youngsters” (as they are unfortunately called in the image trailer) will keep in touch with their fellow colleagues. No doubt, we’ll see some cool projects come out of these networks in the future.
To give you an idea of what kind of things the groups came up with (in completely random order): a massive hollow egg that serves as a room of peace and quite to retreat to in case of stress; an RFID-based set of screen and cards to transmit information in a haptic, physical way. And, what I personally found most intriguing, a network of 16 communications satellites that would provide broadband for rural areas all over the world – to be built under the premise that access to information is a human right.
The mindblowing part here: according to the team’s estimates this could be done with a mere 1.72 billion dollars. That’s quite a sum, but taking into account that the German cash-for-clunkers program (the so-called Abwrackprämie) is estimated to cost altogether $3.5b, while the US economic stimulus package was set at an even steeper $789b, it seems really doable. How awesome would that be?
There were, of course, a thing or two that weren’t perfect. For one, this project was clearly fueled by big money and a lot of adrenaline, both of which tend to burn quick and brief. How successful it really is will only become clear when we look back in six months or so and see how the projects and personal connections will have evolved.
And more concretely, almost every presentation given indicated that the young generation, the so-called digital natives, were smarter, better, and more in-the-know than the “old generation”. Everything was made to be the result of a generation gap, and that the “old corporations” would be losing this generation both as customers and employees. While the latter point certainly isn’t completely untrue, I don’t think at all that “getting” the web & digital culture with all their special characteristics like network effects, real-time communication and always-on culture is a matter of age or generation.
In fact, I believe that going down that path is a fairly dangerously wrong perception, it’s lying to yourself. I know many people (and I’m sure you do, too) who are way to old to fit the digital natives label, yet they really know their digital stuff. On the other hand, not everybody below 30 would fit that description either. So these labels are inaccurate and poorly stereotyped. What’s more, it’s arrogant, and that’s a danger in itself. (Not to mention that these 30 folks wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity without the older folks funding them because they do get it. By trying to erect that odd native/immigrant barrier no good is done to either side. (Which by the way goes for digital as well as other areas where this terminology is used.)
But be this as it may, while I don’t agree to this particular point in the arguments, what the organizers and the team of Palomar5 have put together here is a true feat, and something they can be proud of. It’s also a promising model for other corporations to get a bunch of good ideas while giving a hand full of young folks to gain experience. It’s a classical win/win. And I’m curious to hear more stories from inside the workshop over the next few weeks, once the participants are released back into the normal world…
ps. The Palomar5 Summit name badges are hands down the best I’ve ever seen at any conference. They are huge (roughly the size of my hands), well readable, and include all the information you’ll need at the conference: Participant’s name, company and URL and tags on the front. On the back you find program, floor map, hashtag, conference twitter account, wifi password, sponsor info and a reminder of the next day’s party. No more stupid flyers!