Core77 is headed to Design Indaba in South Africa, where we'll be on-hand to cover the international debut of the social innovators from COMMON. Here's our guide to everything you need to know about the next big thing and "doing shit that matters."
So what exactly is COMMON?
COMMON is a "creative community for accelerating social change...under a unified and collaborative brand." According to co-founder John Bielenberg, whom we last heard speak at ABWBD, the original idea was to provide a more engaging platform to help social entrepreneurs pursue their projects. Instead of merely incubating these rising stars, the platform would take a page out of the Virgin Group's book and "create a global brand called COMMON" as an umbrella for all of these separate ventures. COMMON takes the idea of a corporation and turns it on its head. "Corporations rival nations in power," says Bielenberg, "So what if you embedded good core values into capitalism? This could drive positive change, not just accumulate value."
Who's behind COMMON?
Well, there's John Bielenberg, who is best known as the tour-de-force behind "thinking wrong" and Project M, which puts young designers and creatives into under-served communities to create change. There's also husband and wife duo Alex and Ana Bogusky who, along with friend Rob Schuham, founded the FearLess Revolution (and Cottage) in Boulder, CO, which serves as home base for COMMON.
OK, that all sounds great, but what does COMMON actually do?
Two things, mainly: Maniacal Business Attacks (MBAs) and COMMON Pitches. MBAs bring together the best innovators in a certain industry—designers, engineers, do-it-yourself-ers - for intense brainstorming and prototyping sessions to develop a product and business model. Think of these ventures as the core businesses, like the Virgin Music branch of the Virgin Group. So far we've seen Coffee Common, Common Cycles, and Common Hoops.
COMMON Pitches are American Idol meets VC pitches, although maybe a little more Steven Tyler than Peter Thiel. "We're trying to make it cool to be a social entrepreneur," says Bielenberg. This means taking what might be a stodgy start-up pitch event and throwing in rock music, celebrity judges (e.g. Stefan Sagmeister), and crazy cash prizes.
First off, the purview of the entrepreneurs is completely different. "Many of them are from Africa," says Bielenberg, "so the nature of the enterprises differs from Boulder or Brooklyn."
Second, the more COMMON spreads out into the world, the more it generates namebrand trust and proponents of the movement. "Until COMMON has market value, we've seen a reluctance to take on that name," says Bielenberg. Yet there is a lot of potential in this "overlap between positive change and enterprise." Where nonprofits and cash-strapped organizations have failed, perhaps capitalism, in conjunction with social entrepreneurship, can succeed at actually improving the world's issues. "This kind of work should have the highest compensation, not the lowest, as it has the greatest effect on the world," observes Bielenberg.
Points of entry:
Sign up to take part in the upcoming COMMON online community.
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.