ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mayor Richard J. Berry is expecting big things from the Innovate ABQ development Downtown.
If the public bureaucracies leading the development can learn from Facebook, his expectations may well be realized. The trick will be to provide as little of what we traditionally call leadership as possible.
As Berry put it in his State of the City speech this week, Innovate ABQ is a joint city/UNM effort to turn the old First Baptist Church site at Central and Broadway and the surrounding three square miles into “a beehive of activity, connecting leading-edge research institutions like UNM and CNM with entrepreneurs, artists and other integral players for a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. The goal is to bring together those who research and invent with those who can bring the idea to market. This can only be achieved if we successfully create the collisions that only happen by proximity.”
You can’t guide, coax, coach, mandate or direct such collisions. That’s where Facebook offers a valuable lesson.
Facebook as a technology is fairly trivial. Any number of competent programmers could have built it, and there were similar technologies in use when Facebook got started. The genius of Facebook was in the way it found its market. Mark Zuckerberg, who created the basic Facebook software while a Harvard student, didn’t know what the product was. He simply built it, threw it out into the world, and let the users decide what the product was. That allowed the company to develop a business model built on what mattered to the users, which was connectivity. Facebook users connect to other users; businesses that pay the company’s bills connect to Facebook users.
Compare that to other marketing initiatives over time. In the early days of consumerism, when competition wasn’t so fierce, manufacturers dictated what customers could buy. Henry Ford once said his customers could choose any color they wanted for their cars, as long as it was black. IBM provided very expensive machines housed in isolated, climate-controlled rooms that were operated by something resembling a technological priesthood.
Market dictatorship gave way to market research. Companies began identifying customers by statistical characteristics, then crafting marketing efforts to appeal to them. A neighborhood full of young married couples forming new families might be targeted with advertising for washing machines.
Eventually, businesses began to ask people to help design the product. In my previous life as a computer product manager, I would often spend two weeks a month on the road asking potential customers to describe the product they wanted so I could write a specification the engineers could follow when they built it.
Creating a huge business like Facebook merely by throwing some software out there to see what people would do with it is a reflection of a new generation of businesspeople and consumers whose sense of markets, products, politics, information and power has been shaped by the Internet. The Web has taken power from traditional centralized institutions and given it to anyone with an Internet connection. In such a world traditional leadership roles are devalued, if they are not entirely meaningless.
It is precisely this newly empowered mass of users that Innovate ABQ hopes to reach.
The Internet has eliminated time and space as a constraint. You can buy just about anything you want from anywhere you want anytime you want. Anyone with a smartphone can provide information, perspective or propaganda to the world. You can be a valued employee without ever setting foot in the corporate office or even meeting your boss face to face. The Egyptian revolution was hijacked by the military, but it began as a leaderless mass of people connected by Internet technologies like Facebook and Twitter. The Chinese Communist Party’s No. 1 fear is a free and open Internet that would strip the party of power and transfer it to everyone.
New power-sharing business models are easy to find.
Stuart Rose put together an incubator called Fat Pipe ABQ, across Broadway from the Innovate ABQ site. Fat Pipe ABQ isn’t much more than a lot of comfortable chairs in some big, open, comfortable rooms equipped with good access to the Internet. Rose doesn’t know who will come by or what they will do when they get there. However, his first incubator, The BioScience Center on Indian School near San Pedro, filled up with emerging bioscience entrepreneurs in a matter of months and is beginning to spawn some promising new businesses.
Entrepreneurs and investors find each other at events sponsored by 1 Million Cups, a national Kauffman Foundation project with an Albuquerque presence. Not long ago, a firefighter from the Dulce area showed up with an idea to improve office-building fire hoses. By the time he left, several people who had dropped by had told him how he might get the product manufactured.
Power that once belonged to people like Henry Ford and William Randolph Hearst has been dispersed to the collective personality that forms Facebook, Tahrir Square in Cairo, or Innovate ABQ, provided both UNM and city government understand they can’t lead anyone anywhere in this new world.