Three Things I Learned About Social Innovation Across America
By Jessica Meyer, D:hive BUILD Program Manager
August 29, 2014
Earlier this month I was selected to represent Detroit on the Millennial Trains Project
(MTP), a ten-day train trip across the country to explore how social innovation is changing cities across America. Everyone on the train had individually applied for this journey because we were frustrated with an issue in our communities and wanted to change it. Projects ranged from water conservation, racial healing, and small business to zombie disaster preparedness games. The train, complete with a 3D printer makerspace, acted as an informal incubator by inviting mentors to hop on with us and add different perspectives to our projects.
Traveling from Portland to New York, we stopped in seven cities and met with local leaders, innovators, creatives, and social entrepreneurs to see how these movers and shakers across the country are leading change in their communities. Here are a few projects to give you a taste of how millennials are innovating across America.
I met Mara Zepeda, founder of Switchboard
, over wine and cheese. This Portland-based startup began as a way for alumni of her alma mater to stay connected in a meaningful way. Describing their service as "community building classifieds," Switchboard allows groups ranging from colleges to neighborhoods to nonprofits to "ask what you need and offer what you have within a trusted community." Once the target community is decided, a point person or organization invites those that belong to that community to join. The format is simple – anyone can post an "ask" and anyone can post an offer. Mara saw an age gap among recent graduates and older generations at her university so she started Switchboard to help close it. After we agreed to partner to create the first Switchboard in Detroit, she ended the conversation with a recent success story. An elderly woman posted an offer of her entire collection of Virginia Woolf books. A current university student responded and then posted a success story a few weeks later sharing that he not only got a great collection of books, but spent a wonderful afternoon hearing about this woman’s life, a connection that wouldn’t have happened without Switchboard.
Milwaukee: Global Water Center
The Global Water Center
(GWC) does innovation right. The building is a research and business accelerator created by The Water Council to house "water-related research facilities for universities, existing water-related companies and accelerator space for new, emerging water-related companies." Nathan Conrad, a participant on the train, works out of GWC for his startup company STEMHERO, a technology that helps students to read their home water meter readers and compare their water usage with other kids in their classes, cities, and countries. He described GWC as a place that brings together all the parts you need to make innovation work. Each floor of the building houses a different sector related to water such as research, water technology businesses, legal services, investors, and startups. By bringing together all these people essential for impact and then providing common working spaces, a startup company can have a conversation about legal questions with a lawyer in the elevator and have a meeting with an investor the floor below. It’s no wonder Milwaukee is at the forefront of water conservation technology.
Washington DC: HillVets
After our trip officially ended in New York I made my way to DC for a final stop. I knew it was essential for my MTP project, 313exchange
, a knowledge and skillshare organization aimed at uncovering the hidden talents of veterans in Detroit. I met with Justin Brown, founder of HillVets
, which is an organization that helps veterans gain access to jobs on the Hill and empower vets through education, community activism, and networking. After returning from his service in the Navy, Justin caught a break in a job that led him on a trajectory of success in DC. However, he saw other servicemen and women not getting the same opportunities in the Capitol. He led and published a research study that surveyed government departments on the Hill to determine what percentage of employees are veterans. This allowed everyone equal access to the information and empowered and motivated these departments to actively change their hiring policy. In a place where change can seem impossible, Justin is making things happen by showing the facts, setting goals, and providing a service to help these departments reach them.
By the end of the journey every participant, mentor, and local innovator became dedicated to creating a network of collaboration and support to ensure meaningful change in the communities that matter to us. After all, if our individual projects succeed, then we all do.