• AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Innovation, Life Lessons

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    I was leaving work on Friday and someone asked me the question:  “Hey Erik, anything fun going on this weekend?”

    Almost instinctively, I responded with:  “nah…probably just going to lay low”

    I had lied.  I didn’t realize what I had signed myself up for over the weekend and once again I stretched my brain to new limits.  For those who haven’t been following along, I’ve had some busy weekends lately.  A whirlwind trip to Portland, a weekend in Omaha and KC Startup Weekend.  I was honestly ready to just “lay low” but had an opportunity to attend Kansas City’s “CityCamp” and couldn’t pass on it.

    CityCampKC is the KC region’s installment of the wildly popular global unconference series connecting civic doers, makers and hackers together with local government officials for a day of learning, discussing, imagining and building.

    – CityCamp KC

    “Unconference” was a new term by me, but I came to learn that it meant that the content of the day was largely driven by the participants (many of them the best and brightest in KC…I was surrounded by talented makers, skilled entrepreneurs and leaders from the area).  There was a general outline and theme for the day, but only a few speakers were “booked.”  Anyone who wanted to present could go post their topic on the wall, where participants could vote the topic up.  The sessions that gained in popularity were given large rooms and the others that didn’t float to the top were given smaller spaces, almost all were given a platform for conversation.

    I listened to speakers like Mayor Joe Reardon (KCK) and Mayor Sly James (KCMO) on the state of our cities, I sat in on a suburban city councilman who spoke about the suburban expansion of KC from 1893 to present, participated in a round-table session on corporations + entrepreneurial startups in our city and joined a small group of citizens to discuss the role of technology in public transit.

    At one point just past mid-day, the crowd gathered for one of only 3 scheduled events, “Ignite KC.”  I had read about Ignite talks in Brad Feld’s book “Startup Communities” but had never seen one in person.  Each speaker had 5 minutes and 20 slides to talk about a topic of their choice.  With only 15 seconds/slide (set to auto advance), the speakers produced some really amazing (often hilarious) results.

    The conference could have ended there and been phenomenal, but my favorite moment of the day came toward the end of the event.  Lesa Mitchell of the Kauffman Foundation got on stage to kick off a shared keynote address.  She spoke about the tools that have popped up over the past few years for people looking to tinker, experiment and build (TechShop,, MakeXYZ, etc…).  While these sites and organizations are doing amazing things, access to these tools is still limited to those with means.


    “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”

    – William Gibson


    Lesa introduced us to a librarian in Chicago by the name of Yolande Wilburn who is trying to fix all of that.  Yolande was adamant in preserving her title as a “Librarian” and quickly convinced me that all of her colleagues should be so proud as a Library is so much more than a place that holds books.  One of her first slides displayed the mission statement for the Chicago Public Library:

    Within the mission statement of the Chicago Public Libraries, Yolande pointed out that they have never been about books, but instead, lifelong learning and the idea of equal access to information.  As she talked about the procurement of things like sewing machines, vinyl cutters, CNC milling machines, laser cutters, 3D printers and even an XBOX Kinect transformed into a 3D scanner I was enthralled.  She is leading a fight to transform the Chicago Public Library into a place where patrons can TRULY read, learn AND discover.

    At once, everything I was hearing hit me like a ton of bricks.  I’ve been feeling guilty over the last few months for not “making” stuff, on a wild spree to re-learn design tools, dive back into learning code and focusing on this blog.  A lot of what I’ve valued in my educational and professional career up to this point has been centered around “theory.”  Because of the maker movement, there’s an entire generation of children who will grow up with the ability to put theory into practice with very little investment.

    When you consider my simple “innovation equation” (innovation = ideas + action), Chicago Public Library is enabling true innovation for the masses.  No longer should any idea trapped within the mind have any excuse, the necessary means for action are right there at the Harold Washington Library, the crossroads of the mass transit lines in Downtown Chicago.  The continued spread of this model is not just something nice to do for the patrons of a public library system, but game changing for the American economy.

    People like Yolande are doing wonderful things for the future of our country, giving people equal access to the tools of creation, putting not only the theory into their minds but also the tools to put it to use.  The children (and adults) of Chicago are very fortunate to have Yolande working so hard for them, I’m excited to see them return the favor.


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