Monday, October 08, 2012

Twist Lab

My first foray into Chicago Ideas Week was through the Twist Lab. This is a "small group" experience where we get to go hands-on with an idea/concept/process/etc. It was held in an independent coffeehouse/cafe in the East Village neighborhood (I think that's the neighborhood? South of Wicker Park). While I was checking out how to get there, I also checked out the cafe's menu. I discovered that Swim Cafe has not just delicious beverages but also delicious-sounding food and great reviews...and a whole board of vegetarian lunch choices! So naturally I headed down a bit early (the train schedule was on my side, as there wasn't a train that would get me there exactly on time) and had some lunch. The vegetarian "Philly Cheesesteak" made with seitan, their house-blend of peppers, and some cheddar sauce (which they replace with something else to make it vegan if you want), with a side of a ranch-based potato salad, was fantastic. I loved it! I followed it up with a vegan raspberry bar, which I should have taken a picture of but I was too busy eating it. :-)

Anyway, as I finished lunch people started trickling in. The Lab was sold out (which was a surprise to the organizers and the cafe, I think!), so just about every seat was taken as we gathered and started chatting with people we'd never met before. There was such great energy in the space, and everyone was talking and laughing and getting to know one another. (Afterward I even ended up sharing a cab, and insights, and contact information, with someone I met in line!) Our name badges asked us to write not just our names, but also Three Things That Inspire Me. love.

3:00 came and we got down to business--the business of the difference between and insight and an idea, and how to move forward from insight to idea to implementation. We started with some insights that came from a survey all the participants received about two weeks ago. I remember answering the two questions, but I don't remember exactly what the questions were. In any case, the compiled answers led to several insights about collaboration, creativity, and building community. In a nutshell: we want to collaborate, we want to fan the flames of both our own and others' creativity through working in common spaces (like coffee shops), we want to meet people and build community...but we're not exactly sure how to do that. There's a ton of creativity in the world, and a lot of it is probably sitting in any cafe or coffee shop at any given time, but we're all alone with our laptops--how can we come together and pool our "creative firepower" to change the world or create something awesome or just make new friends? (aside: and how true is this about spirituality too? there are in every place dozens of spiritual questions, hungers, and can we make connections that increase our spiritual depth and put our passions to work for the kingdom of God?)

So, starting from that place, we broke into groups to talk about ways we might make these connections, build relationships with local business, create opportunities, and bring the community into both virtual and physical reality. Each group worked with a member of the Twist Team to talk about our base insight and the seed idea, and then the conversations morphed those ideas around into all kinds of cool things. I was in the group that was contemplating the barriers to striking up a conversation in a cafe. How do you know if someone sitting near you is receptive to conversation or just wants to read a book? How do you know if someone might be a person who could be a sounding board, or challenge you to think differently, or even would just be willing to watch your stuff while you run to the bathroom? The seed idea we were given was something like laptop-clings--stickers to put on your laptop that would advertise that you're part of something currently being called the Chicago Caffeine Confederacy (C-cubed or C3--the idea being it's a sort of network of people who like to work in independent coffee shops). It's just an experimental idea right now, but our lab today was designed to find a way to get it off the ground. So anyway, this sticker on your laptop would let people know that you're open for conversation. Or it might even open up new conversations as people ask about it!

Our group took this idea and ran with it--lots of conversation going around about the potential for a smartphone app similar to Foursquare or Google Latitude, where you could login at a particular place and others could see that you're there, or you could check to see if there are potential collaborators at a particular cafe. In addition, the coffeeshop would have a supply of C3 flags, like the kind you get to display your table number at a restaurant, that you could put near you (rather than stick on your laptop) that would indicate you're open to conversation. This way the establishment keeps the flags, and you just pick it up/put it back, and we don't have to worry about distributing them to people. However, you might be able to buy a sticker or even a mug, so when you go someplace not in the network you can still be open for conversation.

(this is just the briefest overview of a 90 minute lab, so please know that a surprising amount of fleshing out of ideas took place in this time period, including sketches of the mug!)

Anyway: I was thinking about the challenge of churches reaching out to people who are mostly indifferent (at best) to religion. What if there was a way to let people know we're open to conversation? Sure, it wouldn't be obvious at first what it was about, but it might be a conversation-starter. "what's that symbol mean?" "it means I like to talk about spiritual stuff." "oh." "what nurtures your spirit?" maybe the person doesn't want to talk. maybe they do. but at least there's the possibility! And who knows, maybe a network like that would grow, and one day we'd see the sticker on someone else's laptop...exciting! It's like the hip version of those presbyterian-symbol-church-name stickers that are so popular in the South. I doubt many people start going to church because they see that symbol on a car window...but maybe the sticker on my laptop or my kindle cover would be enough of an in to generate at least a little bit of conversation. And if there was also an online component (a blog? a meetup group? a website where people could check in?), you might even find places where people like to gather and it could be the basis for a regular gathering.

And that's just the first idea I had as I was thinking about the potential of this. That doesn't even get into the actual process we used to get to this point, which also has great potential, I think. But this blog post is already too long, so that'll have to wait!

(obviously, it was a good day! tomorrow I'm headed to the talk "Storytellers: the power of perspective" with a ton of awesome writers. can't wait!)

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