Mesh2013: Socialstructing the Sharing Economy

Kicking off Mesh2013 at a niftty Airbnb rental in San Francisco. Credit: Kevin Krejci.

Imagine an event where every conversation is interesting, where everyone you meet wants to help you. That was Mesh2013. And because of this quality, it was a rare success as a social experience.

A two-day event held at the end of April, Mesh2013 did for the attendees what “mesh” used as a verb implies: It, to borrow a word from Marina Gorbis’ new book, The Nature of the Future, “socialstructed” a new community focused on accelerating the sharing economy.  

While there were incredible speakers -- including Seth Godin, Paul Hawken, Steven Berlin Johnson, Dale Dougherty, and Robin Chase -- it was the many interactions with other attendees and the artfully crafted social experiences that made Mesh2013 so useful, memorable, and bonding for me.

If the medium is the message, then this says a lot about the messenger, Lisa Gansky and her MeshLabs, who hosted the event. The gestalt of the event effused love, care, humor, and fun. This is a welcome difference from many events which can feel steely and impersonal, and leave you feeling depleted. I left uplifted. And a little overwhelmed with all the good!

Steven Johnson and Robin Chase share laughs at Mesh2013. Credit: Lisa Gansky.

Below are the themes that spoke to me at Mesh2013, and some reflections on how Lisa Gansky pulled off a tour de force of socialstructing:

What’s in a name? Everything, at least if you were at Mesh. All attendees agreed that there’s an important shift happening and that sharing and peer production are at the heart of it. As Nick Grossman wrote about Mesh2013, this change is “powered by us.” What attendees didn’t agree on is what to call this shift. (Sharing, peer, access, or collaborative economy? Take your pick.) People tended to use the sharing economy in discussion, but more as a placeholder. There were widespread doubts that "sharing economy" would play well in Kansas or Congress. People saw the lexical challenge as a practical barrier to such activities as advocacy and public awareness. This came up again and again in the plenary sessions, as well as the breakouts I was in. No solution emerged, but there was a consensus about the challenge.

Resilience thinking. As much as sharing saves resources, this trend wasn’t couched in terms of sustainability. It seems we’ve moved on. But to what? Resilience, defined as the ability to bounce back from crisis. This says a lot about the times we live in. First, the shift from sustainability to resilience thinking is smart because it’s pointless to strive for stasis as the word “sustain” can imply. All systems go through cycles of growth, decline, and reorganization. We need to design our lives, organizations, cities, and societies with this with this complex adaptive cycle in mind. The focus on resilience  at Mesh2013 and elsewhere tells me that systems thinking is penetrating more deeply into our consciousness.

Second, it says that we’ve truly grokked that we live in a time of profound crisis, and we’re actually identifying with it. The panel on resilience, and especially the presentation by Airbnb’s Molly Turner, showed how the sharing economy can increase the resilience of cities. She explained how Airbnb, their members, and New York City worked together to provide free housing for thousands of people left homeless by Hurricane Sandy. In this case, Airbnb leveraged the spare housing capacity at their fingertips to help people in need. It’s a fascinating model of resilience that could be duplicated in other areas of the sharing economy like ride- and car-sharing.

Scale and acceleration. The whole purpose of Mesh was to build a community to scale and accelerate the sharing economy. So, as you’d expect, keynotes focused on this. Steven Johnson talked about themes from his new book, Future Perfect. What stuck with me was what he’s researching now – how "translational medicine" accelerates the diffusion of medical innovations into society. He related that attendees where translational economists working to smuggle the sharing economy into the mainstream. Robin Chase gave a convincing, data-packed presentation that showed the deep trouble we’re in with global warming (even the conservative World Bank is worried) and how open sourcing the solution is the only way to meet the challenge. She quoted Banny Banerjee of Stanford’s d. school: “You can’t solve exponential problems with linear solutions.” She urged people to design solutions that leverage excess capacity, foster participation, and result in cooperative gain.

And how did Mesh pull off such a good job at socialstructing? The first step was the intention to create a community rather than merely host an event. Mesh curated an accomplished group of people for this.  They also did some thoughtful matchmaking. They brought together all the types of capital needed for innovation -- human, social, and financial. The people I met had substantial resources ready to be combined in useful ways with what others brought.

And Mesh kept it small, about 200 people, which is in line with the Dunbar number – the theoretical limit of a well-functioning face-to-face community. In addition, the organizers encouraged attendees to come as you are -- as people, not as roles. These basic ingredients set the stage for authentic connection.

Mesh built on this by creating many opportunities to socialize. The opening mixer was at an architect’s home on Portrero Hill in San Francisco rented from Airbnb. The informality of a house party, shareable-style, was a fitting way to start. After day one, there was a fabulous group dinner in a warehouse art gallery inspired by the Big Lunch with plenty of space and time to mingle.

The heart of each day was the breakout groups, also potent connectors. Everyone was pre-assigned to a session on a broad theme like power, which was my group. Skilled “docents” lead groups through two days of discussion on assigned themes. In my case, the theme presented the group a lot of ambiguity, which resulted in a more interesting discussion and better personal connections as people explored their positions together. In fact, I’d say that the personal connections trumped the impressive intellectual output, a surprising outcome for a conference breakout group.

My favorite socialstructing moment was when we each sewed a panel for a kimono in an example of flow state learning. There I was with Lisa Gansky, Robin Chase, and Mark Dwight (CEO of Rickshaw Bagworks) sewing a kimono together, bloodying my finger tips, and admiring the creativity of my peers. It was strange, refreshing, and memorable. And there’s nothing like making something together to bond people, whether it’s a kimono or a movement.

Check out the day one and two videos of Mesh2013:

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