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  1. Google I/O talk: Geekcon & Unstructured Innovation

    Geekcon is a three-day “Makers” event where you build stuff that has no practical purpose. Geekcon has transformed from a friends gathering into an annual gathering of 180 makers, artists, architects, designers and code monkeys that fly into Israel from the UK, Germany, India, Singapore and the United States to come together just to build something… out of nothing. This is our story.

    You have probably heard of Google I/O.  Unless you are an Israeli “Maker” like me, you probably have not heard of Geekcon. So why was I invited to give a talk at the Google I/O conference about Geekcon? And why should you care?

    swing hummus


    What is Geekcon? Geekcon is a three-day “Makers” event held on a seaside Kibbutz that I started with a few friends 10 years ago. Geekcon started humbly, a 36-hour event where we left our spouses, significant others and jobs and just went to build stuff that had no practical purpose. That “stuff” could be held together with chewing gum and popsicle sticks and only (at best) work during the demo time, but it was the ultimate shackle-free, creative hack where “art met hardware met software met engineers.” Israel, which is a 66 year old start up itself, is home to an incredible makers community (we made a home out of a desert)  and a melting pot of people who solve problems unconventionally.  That is why Israel is home to the strategic design centers for Autodesk’s 3D Printing, Intel’s latest chips, eBay’s social innovation & General Motors cyber protection for cars.

    Making is also my personal passion. It gives an adrenaline kick just like a start up where you create something out of nothing. People talk a lot about luck in creating successful startups. However, what I learned from Geekcon is that “making” is not chance or luck. In fact, there are ways and methods to help people outperform themselves. I came to Google I/O to summarize my Geekcon learnings and convey the methodologies so that others around the world could host their own Geekcons and learn from our lessons here in Israel.

    Today, Geekcon is a 72 hour event which is true to its original mission: gather very serious creative people to create 100% useless creations. By gathering all of this potential, geekcon gives our friends a way to play and work on creative projects outside of their everyday work-life. Over the last 10 years, Geekcon birthed many useless projects including:

      • The Laughing Swing: What happens in a useless interaction between a simple regular swing and a person? When you sit on it, it chuckles. As you swing, it laughs, and the higher you go, the harder it laughs. It is a virtuous interactive cycle: the person, by swinging, makes the swing laugh, and this laughter causes the person to laugh back.
      • The Trampoline Password: A very creative and acrobatic team switched the Windows password manager to use your silhouette as your password. When you jumped on the trampoline it recorded your silouhette and logged you in. If you want to login to your PC again, you will need to jump exactly that same way a second time.
      • A Robot Hummus Machine that wipes the perfect hummus onto your pita: In Israel we are very serious about our Hummus. In fact, there is a hummus day. We need our Hummus rituals to be perfect. Hence, the robot hacks the pita into 4 perfect quarters, hovers over a rapidly rotating plate of hummus and wipes the perfect amount of this high-protein food onto your pita to make it ready for eating.
    • In 2013, Geekcon received a project submission for a Cellphone roller-coaster: “We are planning to build a small (but not too small) roller coaster to give a great ride to mobile phones. The lucky mobile phone would run custom software to record a short video of the ride and scream with the owners voice when the mobile adrenaline is rising. A small Mobile Phone Bungee Jump setup would be created to test the software before boarding the roller coaster.”. Immediately accepted.

    As our team prepares for the next Geekcon in September, here are six things I’ve learned about creating the type of environment that makes this event so unique:

    • No project = no entry: Never-mind what pedigree a person has or their track record. The only way to get in is via a project that they will build during the conference.
    • Your project must be completely useless: To engender uber creativity, people can’t feel that they will be judged or that what they make needs to have a business model or a go-to-market strategy. It just needs to provoke an emotional reaction. The Geekcon creativity zone lets a software engineer find their inner designer and 3D print something and enables a designer to discover their inner engineer and code for an Arduino.
    • We target a 66% failure rate. That means, we want 66% of the teams NOT to succeed in building their projects. From our perspective, Geekcon 2013 was a failure because we had a 50% success rate. Why is that a failure? Because a high success rate of 50%  means that we didn’t take enough risk when we selected the project proposals. Geekcon is a lot like my day job in venture capital. You need to take sufficient risk to get a big payoff. Optionality drives both creativity and VC returns.
    • We needed a process for project selection: Even if Geekcon is a free-wheeling, anything goes event, we needed to provide a framework to take project-selection to the next level. Therefore, this year we now have 2 pre-cons before Geekcon. In the first Pre-con meeting, people pitch their ideas so they can form teams and talk to experts in their project areas. This helps us vet the projects and helps the teams iterate. In the second Pre-con meetup, we will be introducing them to subject matter experts to enable the teams to envision bigger & riskier projects based on their core idea. We hope to get more failures – because it’s more fun to stretch and learn that way.
    • You Must Rub Elbows in a Confined Space and Confined time: Geekcon is only 3 days on a small seaside kibbutz and in a small space. Since everyone keeps working in a far away location, they are not temped to drive home at night. We run the even in a small space so participants are forced to interact with each other. Everyone expects someone to shout “does anyone have a 10k capacitor?” at 1am – and we expect more than one person to scream an answer. Booze helps as well :)
    • Infuse Creativity at Every Opportunity: We intentionally structure events that force inter-group interaction. For example, on Friday night we do a User Generated Dinner replete with geek dishes such as creme brûlée done with a 30-foot flamethrower or a quadcopter supplying air to a BBQ. There are also Werewolf games throughout the nights. Of course, hosting Geekcon in the open Mediterranean Sea air of  Kibbutz Sdot Yam certainly helps.

    The constraints (yes, constraints are important to provoke creativity) I described above have created the forcing functions that create the framework that enables creative people to build these crazy projects. As a result, Geekcon has transformed over the years into an annual gathering of 180 makers, artists, architects, designers and code monkeys that fly into Israel from the UK, Germany, India, Singapore and the United States to come together just to build something… out of nothing.

    My goal at Google I/O was to evangelize building more Geekcons around the world. Do you want to run another instance of Geekcon? Ping me. I’d love to share the Geekcon howto and bring the Israeli maker spirit to your city or country.

    Or just join us in Israel along the beautiful mediterranean shore. This year, Geekcon is September 18th-20th. If you’d like to propose a project, do so here.

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