Three weeks ago, I coined a new term in my attempt to understand and communicate some of the ideas under the surface of Toronto Transit Camp. I referred to Transit Camp and BarCamp as open creative communities. It was a vague notion founded on my intuitions about what I have been observing in places as diverse and apparently disconnected as BarCamp to CaseCamp to NewMindSpace to Burning Man.

So what do marketers and tech geeks have in common with half-naked neo-tribal bohemians in the desert?

Alive, originally uploaded by Thomas Hawk.

These are communities of interest, practice, proximity and values.

These communities live in a hybrid virtual- and place-based geography. They are hyper-creative and produce some phenomenal artifacts of human ingenuity and culture. They are open, in that the barrier to entry is not a membership fee or a geographic line in the sand or a common ethnicity. The barrier to entry is creative citizenship, and you are either a citizen and a participant or you are not, based on your individual relationship to that community’s interests, practices, proximity and values.

They are communities with both global and local dimensions. And they are self-organizing at an increasingly rapid rate, in the most unexpected places. (more after the jump)

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Creativity: the ability to create something new; the production by one or more people of ideas and inventions that are personal, original and meaningful

Innovation: a process that extends beyond the act of creativity towards some useful application; for something to be innovative it must be of some use to somebody

Community: a community is any group of individuals who interact and share some common characteristics; those characteristics may be geographic, ethnic or national; they may also include practices, interests, values and proximity;

Open: for a community to be open, it must be possible for new members to enter into the community without artificial or irrelevant barriers;

The Meaning of Openness.

Open is a critical differentiator of these kinds of communities, but it is important to understand what open means. Open community does not necessarily mean equal individuals. Unlike the concept of demos, an open self-organized community is much more rooted in actual human social behaviour, rather than idealized political philosophy.

Equality of opportunity is an important social norm of an open creative community, but one’s place within community has to do with one’s skills, abilities and willingness to engage with others and participate. Status exists, but it is freely given in a reputation economy where leadership authority is socially constructed and legitimated. Community members are encouraged to vote with their feet. A heavy-handed authority figure will quickly lose the social basis of their power because an open community offers no barrier to alternative leadership and few opportunities to close the gates for members to enter or exit.

Open is fluid and adaptable. Open is self-organizing.

David Crow has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the Toronto BarCamp community. He has been wrestling with openness, the nature of Community-driven leadership and the Wealth of BarCamp. He just posted an excellent piece on the question of community openness on the Future of Communities blog.

Open creative communities are not guilds, fraternities, clubs, member-based associations or formal organizational entities. You do not need a professional designation, a membership card or require the ownership of land or capital to enter one. An open creative community is not a network of isolated nodes, it is a cluster, a social agglomeration. It is inclusive of both professional and amateur, a space where hobbyists, theorists and practitioners can interact.


Bio-mimetic language is taking over. The laws of self-organizing biological systems are providing new insights to human social and technological evolution in an increasingly interconnected world. Social systems demonstrate emergent biological properties. By embracing new lenses and tools, we can harness the tremendous latent power of natural systems to solve our increasingly complex problems. This is the real power of social software tools and the social web.

The Search for Identity.

We are in search of ourselves, and we find possible answers to our search for self through our interaction in community with others, through both our similarities and our distinctiveness. We are increasingly aware of the complex and multidimensional nature of identity in the modern world. We are much more than the roles and demographic slices that our companies, families and mass media would want to trap us in. We belong to many tribes simultaneously.

We are multi-dimensional beings engaged in the process of becoming.

The Impact of Technology.

Technology, in particular social software tools, the social web and social media are changing our search for identity and the nature of communities. We have increasingly useful and easy to use tools for self-expression. We are able to express the many dimensions of our selves and find community through that expression.

We can increasingly harness low-cost open technology platforms as our tools for our search for self and community. The centrality of this eternal human search for self and community makes the issue of Net Neutrality all the more urgent.

A Meta-Innovation.

We are a civilization in need of meta-innovations: innovations that foster other innovation. This concept lies at the core of endogenous growth theory. Thomas Homer-Dixon calls our challenges of the future an Ingenuity Gap – a gap between the demands for ingenuity being made by increasingly complex and intractable problems and our ability to supply ingenuity in the form of solutions. Jane Jacobs warned of a Dark Age Ahead.

Researchers, teachers, thinkers, writers and practitioners like Richard Florida, Bruce Mau, Alexander Manu, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, Meric Gertler, Jon Hawkes, Roger Martin, Donald Tapscott and Anthony Williams, Charles Landry, Tim Jones, Daniel Pink, Sara Diamond, Glen Murray, and many others have been wrestling with these ideas of meta-innovation: the nature of creativity, the importance of place, the process of innovation, the peer production paradigm, creative industries and creative cities. Our politicians are paying keen attention.

In this global discourse, there has been a profound silence on the practical social and cultural methods to scale design thinking and creativity throughout our society. There has been some work on creative education and on cultural planning for cities, which usually incorporate top-down approaches to “engineering” creativity. Where is the dialogue on emergence? Governments and policy-makers need to be enablers and then get out of the way of what is a natural biological process. But enabling what, and how?

A Possible Future.

A new world is emerging, beneath the surface of the old. It is a world of open creative human communities that are both global and local; multidimensional and interconnected with one another. It is a world increasingly based on a reputation economy, where authority is earned and accumulated through social media along with other traditional avenues of social interaction. It is a world fueled by a peer production paradigm and a reputation economy that interacts with the industrial capital economy, a world where creative innovations will fuel future growth and human development.

I dream of a future that harnesses the power of self-organizing open creative communities to global innovation networks in order to solve the most difficult problems of our time – from technology and business problems to problems of collective action like climate change, social equity and cultural sustainability, migration and international conflict.

I dream of a future where every individual has the power and ability to discover his or her creative passions, and to resolve their multi-dimensional identities into a coherent whole through their interaction in open community with others. The holy grail is the unification of one’s practical needs with one’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. It is a universal desire, and it is the most powerful force in human civilization.

What is your community?