The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship Part 04: The System

The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship is a design project that lays the groundwork for a system that aspires to heroically take the place of mankind in entrepreneurial practice. The system is a parallel being, a mimicry, and a representation, of the thoughts and values of an individual that starts things. It dehumanizes entrepreneurial spirit by leveraging it’s capability to create the bridge between our existing condition and our past experience. It creates these bridges by identifying a problem, and authoring the knowledge required to design a solution.

Of course this project, The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship, cannot simply begin with an abrupt abandonment of the practice’s current human-driven methodologies. Instead, to begin working towards systematizing the process of innovation, I created a series of games and workshops that are designed to strike a balance between mediated decision making, and free-will. These initial projects range from workshops on defiant innovation at the Occupy camp in Downtown Los Angeles to card games that generate business plans. The human-centered research component, as developed in these workshops, is brought to a formal conclusion through the development of a final workshop, the Serendipitous Business Plan Generator, which took place in the city of Merced, California on November 11, 2011.

Fig 04. Presenting the game mechanics, and introducing the workshop designed specifically for the community of Merced to take full advantage of.

The City of Merced, known as the “Gateway to Yosemite,” is home to a population of nearly 80,000 individuals, about 30% of which are currently living below the poverty line. Homes at the median level in Merced saw a dramatic loss in value, 62%, the biggest drop anywhere in the country, according to data from Forbes. According to Zillow, by the end of 2009, house prices in Merced had returned to the levels seen over a decade earlier. This crisis has established a strong community of individuals and organizations that are actively seeking rich new ways of thinking about commerce and innovation, in order to transform the community into a rich space for survival, ingenuity, and break through.

Several organizations within Merced decided to take action on these aspirations by developing a town-hall meeting of sorts to bring leading voices from around the nation to lead the community into new modes of thinking. I was fortunate enough to have been approached to develop a workshop for the community of Merced at this gathering. The attendees of the gathering were a richly diverse audience of about 100 individuals that collectively represented the community of Merced. From farmers to students, all cultures and professions within the community were accounted for, making it a rich space to design a workshop that was very specific to the context and histories of Merced. In this space, I piloted a version of my Serendipitous Business Plan Generator (SBPG) that was designed specifically for this gathering. The SBPG works by juxtaposing three components: Scenario, Opportunity, and Modify Element.

Scenario: The situation (i.e. Growth, Collapse, etc.) in which the participant is starting their business. This element is designed to give insight into the resources they will be able to leverage for their business plan.

Opportunity: The emerging opportunity (i.e. Augmented Reality, Cyborgs, etc.) that the participant can take advantage of and consider when conceptualizing their business plan.

Modify Element: The specific space, industry, product, or service (i.e. Coffee Shop, Lamp, etc.) your business plan is in conversation with, adapting, or transforming.

While the Scenario and Opportunity decks were only slightly developed from earlier iterations, the Modify Element deck was completely re-visited to speak to this specific community. For the Modify Element deck, students from UC Merced were prompted to explore the community, and take photographs of spaces that illustrated both an essence of the community, and prominent issues at hand in the county. By getting the students (residents of Merced) involved in this preliminary aspect of the experience, the system became specifically designed for the City of Merced as a way to tease out ideas and concerns unique to this community.

These images were placed on 10 different roundtables around the community center, and participants were prompted to select their seat based on the space depicted in the photograph, assuming that the participants would select based on some kind of prior experience or emotional connection with the imagery depicted in the photo. Shortly after, the additional two cards (opportunity and scenario) were administered to the participants along with a business plan template, and full instructions for the exercise.

Fig 05. Each table housed a diverse group of Merced community members, working together to strategize their business proposal for the community of Merced, using the Serendipitous Business Plan Generator (left). Throughout the the activity, I spent time at each table to work with the participants on their ideas, and clarify any issues or concerns centered around the system itself (right).

In 30 minutes, the participants were prompted to develop a concept for a business that would exist in Merced that considered all three of the generated components as restrictions in the making process. In order to foster a bit of friendly competition amongst the groups, the community was informed half way through the exercise that some tables were given the same opportunities to capitalize on, thus creating direct competition between the groups in order to push the ideas beyond the top-level, initial, concepts.

After 30 minutes of rapid business generation, each group delivered a pitch to the audience as a whole, presenting the details of their business plans while their ideas were noted on a series of posters. After each presentation, the posters were pinned to the walls of the community center, and the community was asked to vote on the venture that would best benefit the community at large.

Fig 06. A participant pitches their group’s idea to the community (left). The participants as a whole vote on the business they wish to see come to life in the community of Merced (right).

After the Merced Project, I realized that all of the experiences designed thus far could be categorized as a kind of performance art, in the sense that my own presence is required in the administration and facilitation of each activity. What would happen if I remove myself from the process entirely? This iteration of the Serendipitous Business Plan Generator steps closer towards an automated system in order to explore the kinds of business plans an entrepreneurial machine could be capable of writing. 1,000 Businesses is a compilation of 1,000 algorithmically generated executive summaries that are written by the Serendipitous Executive Summary Generator, a semi-autonomous web app I developed that pulls from a series of word lists and sentence structures in order to generate an Executive Summary, the basis of all business plans, and entrepreneurial endeavor.

Fig 07. The Serendipitous Executive Summary Generator in action. Each exported statement is placed in one of one thousand folders to be archived in preparation for the development of 350 Business Plans.

The prototype works like this:

  1. The algorithm begins with a sentence structure that has certain words differentiated from the rest of the sentence through the use of {brackets}.
  2. The words within the {brackets}, and the sentence structures themselves, are randomized by pulling from a list of options for words and sentence formations that I provided in a database.
  3. Every time the user clicks “GIVE ME ANOTHER BUSINESS MODEL,” the page is refreshed, and a new statement with randomized key words, and an alternative sentence structure, is generated.

Fig 08. Data input process. Opportunity: The Cloud. (left) Demographic: 18-30 year olds. (right)

After generating 1,000 of these summaries, a series of key-terms are extracted from each executive summary (i.e. opportunity, demographic, etc.), forming a database of words to pull from for each plan. These terms are then manually inputed into the designated space(s) within 350 business plans, as dictated by the business plan algorithm I wrote by averaging business plan templates found online. The system has produced a range of businesses that begin to go beyond the first-level “silly,” and more into the believable, yet strange, realm. The algorithm that produces each of the 350 plans revealed a critical dimension that questions the same-ness of business plans, the “templatization” of innovation, and the seemingly automated nature of the field of entrepreneurship.

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