What is a Superhero Space?

 

I am launching a new non-profit called Superhero Spaces.

Superhero Spaces is a not-for-profit organisation which illuminates and strengthens a global network of “superhero spaces”.

Excuse me? What’s that? What’s a superhero space?

Futurist and Writer Venessa Miemis suggests the following;

“superhero school. center for disruptive innovation. continuous learning zone. collective intelligence. live/work startup incubator. community center. hackerspace. makerlab. autonomous zone. permaculture and sustainable food production. cooperatively owned communications infrastructure. resilience. r&d lab. a place for creative troublemakers.”

To me this quote says it all. When I read it first early last year, it was the start of a narrative. My call to this adventure. To most people however, Venessa’s quote is an incomprehensible mess of academic terms and jargon.

In another blog over here I will from now try to explain what superhero spaces are, how they started, why they exist, what drives them forward and how we can support them. Because these spaces have been one of my main hopes for the future during the last couple of years.

But let’s start with the story so far; the history of my new non-profit organisation Superhero Spaces.

There are two parts to this. One is a couple of emerging memes or phenomena. The other one is the story about me. I’ll start with the emerging memes: The planetary citizen and the superhero spaces they frequent.

***

The planetary citizen

This meme has been around for a while. There’s even an organisation called Planetary Citizens. According to their site, the term was coined in 1982 by Donald Keys:

“To cross over the threshold and enter into a world of new and exciting promise requires us to fulfil the tasks immediately before us: first, to become aware; second, to accept responsibility for the human situation; third, to acquire skills; and fourth, to act wisely and well, consciously and continuously on behalf of… a better future for humanity.”

The planetary citizen calls the whole planet home.  As John Steinbeck said;

“I have many homes, some that I have not seen yet. Maybe that is why I am restless; I have not yet known all of my homes”

The planetary citizen feels at home at many places and seems to be on the move constantly. Many of them are restless. They are modern wanderers, nomads, pilgrims and explorers. Explorers of the edge. Explorers of the future.

We can also imagine the planetary citizen as a sort of metaphorical superhero who is here to save the planet. A person who strongly feels that things are wrong, but doesn’t know how to tackle all the overwhelming challenges that the planet faces. Sometimes they have an idea how to change things; a social enterprise start-up, a dream project at work, a film, a book, a game, or a grand vision for a thriving planet. Some planetary citizens are outsiders. Some are on the inside.

I’m not going to write about the planetary citizen. These superheroes have many things in common. Ambition to change, expansive thinking and compassion are some. But the one commonality we focus on here is that they understand that they cannot change the world alone – they need other superheroes.

And that’s why they start to frequent superhero spaces.

Superhero Spaces

Venessa Miemis’ quote above is from a brilliant 2012 blog post titled 93+ Superhero Schools, Collaboratories, Incubators, Accelerators & Hubs for Social & Tech Innovation.

At the time I was working on 10plus10 Labs – a learning lab for “unreasonable” entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs working on social and environmental initiatives. It was modelled on Kaos Pilots, Impact Hub, IBM Corporate Service Corps and other programs, schools and coworking initiatives, but too complex to sell to anyone who had money to pay for it. I failed and “hibernated” the idea.

I’ve always been fascinated with Esalen, Black Mountain College, Andy Warhol’s Factory and other creative communities on the edge of societies. Initiatives, which attracted visionaries, outsiders, artists and other people who came together to create the future. These spaces are naturally seen with scepticism by most people, since society as any system responds negatively to outside change. So these centres are often shut down or fall apart. And maybe that’s the point too; maybe they must be transient and temporary to thrive and be useful.

At the same time I was doing research at university on collaborative innovation, strategic foresight, the power of pull, creativity, wisdom and what Brian Eno calls scenius. I looked at initiatives like Xerox PARC, Ricardo Semler’s maverick organisation Semco and Gary Hamel’s attempts to transform management in his MIX project. Initiatives to fight the war on unused creativity in organisations.

The Economist and other reasonable voices thought it was all a fad but it stuck with me. As Hamel says;

“Every day we meet people who write blogs, experiment with new recipes, mix up dance tunes, or customize their cars. As human beings, we are amazingly adaptable and creative, yet most of us work for companies that are not. In other words, we work for organizations that aren’t very human.”

My “office” during this time was very human though. I was based at the coworking space Hub Melbourne in Australia. I was astounded by the impact this superhero space had on people – including myself. A true edge community, where everybody from lawyers, artists, consultants and scrum masters to yoga instructors, silicon valley funded start-ups, clowns and futurists work.

In April 2012 I registered the site superherospaces.com as I thought the idea had to live on. A friend helped me build a prototype of a site, but no one I showed it to understood what I wanted to do.

Nor did I.

But like Venessa and many of my friends who have written and spoken about this phenomenon, I see an emerging network of superhero spaces.

And the work of my new non-profit organisation Superhero Spaces aims to highlight and strengthen this network.

***

A version of this post appears at the Superhero Spaces blog.

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