The CityHacker Manifesto

Author's note: This post is longer than most on this blog. I consider it an MVP (minimum viable product in startup "speak") at this stage. So, please forgive any poor writing or clarity issues cause it's a 1.0!)

The Problem

If you're not rich, making change for the better in a city is very difficult. Higher literacy rates? Better parks? Thriving performing arts scenes? Good luck.

You can run for office, but that's a grind at best or an exercise in futility at worst. Plus, government isn't a place for action. That's entirely frustrating for people who like to get things done.

You can become an activist in local politics. You lobby local officials, testify at committees and hold public demonstrations. You can stage a protest. When it's over, everyone goes back home to their suburban homes and most times nothing happens. Expecting the government to lead change gets, well, government-level results.

Eventually, you try and burn out. After years of beating one's head against the wall with little success at top-down change, you throw in the towel. The world is full of people who cared and eventually just had enough. Many join the Shouting Class and exercise their frustration by expressing outrage on social media.

Or, you see the situation as impossible and never even try to change things. You stay home and except for sending a few hundred dollars or so a year to your favorite charity, do little to make your community better. Perhaps you vote, but even that feels like a waste of time given overall voter apathy.

Sad, really.

Introducing the CityHacker

I've witnessed a new type of person working on city change. They've given up on activism and conventional philanthropy.

They actually get to make a difference and usually have fun doing it. It doesn't cost much money. These people can't solve every problem but they are making a difference.

It's especially happened here in San Antonio. These people have changed the game regarding city building. I call this person a CityHacker.

CityHackers are people who want to change their city for the better but do it using "Hacker" methods, philosophy and ethos.

Some CityHackers are poor. Some are rich. Some are in the middle of the wealth spectrum. But, all seem to operate under new, different ideas for city building.

What is a Hacker?

Hackers in the technology world are people who short-circuit systems to achieve goals. While the media misuses the work "hacker" to mean someone who is evil, it's actually an older term than that. A hacker gets to know a system so well that they can manipulate it to do what they want.

They also build systems that are clever and elegant in the way they achieve goals. A hacker might combine their home treadmill to recharge their phone, for example.

A hacker is good. They aren't evil. They have good intentions. They just don't like following the path system designers create for them.

Over time, hackers also developed their own core values and perspectives on the world. I won't detail those here but many have found their way into the CityHacker views.

If the world has created a system where an individual citizen can't effect much change, CityHackers hack their city to make it better but they do it outside of the normal paths for change.

What a hacker is to a computer system, a CityHacker is to a city.

CityHacker Core Beliefs

CityHackers look at making change differently. They build systems to make change. They do it with a different set of rules.

  • CityHacker initiatives all have sustainable business models. The prospect of begging for donors to give them anything but startup capital seems terrible. CityHackers want to start something and watch it grow without begging for donor money. They plant seeds that someday can be big oak trees. That happens because there is a business model. Someone pays and someone benefits.

  • CityHackers think lasting change is bottom up. Bottom-up change is done person by person, block by block. Bottom-up change is rewarding because you get little wins all the time. Top-down change is led by government and that's a sure path to frustration because it's slow and with a high failure rate.

  • The government can support the CityHacker aims, but can't be counted upon to lead change. If the government could have fixed a city's problems, they would have already done it. Government can enable and support. It just has trouble leading on the types of problems CityHackers work on.

  • CityHackers see top-down change is the fastest way to get burnt out. On the other hand, the most motivating thing is to have lots of little wins that come from bottom-up change.

  • CityHackers operate in a lean manner. Because it's bottom-up, their initiatives can be started for little money. But, because they have a business model and are self-sustaining, their initiatives still can grow.

  • CityHacker solutions are creatively designed for highest leverage. CityHackers realize time, money and effort are finite resources. Their initiatives focus on activities that often create more positive change.

  • Exclusivity is a necessary evil. CityHackers know that things including places, events, restaurants -- anything -- can't be great and appeal to everyone. This doesn't mean CityHackers are exclusionary. Everyone should have excellence available to them. Just my excellent is likely a different excellent than yours. That's OK.

  • Dysfunctional organizations can be ignored. Some organizations are great. Others have become infected by the Institutional Imperative or are just plain broken. CityHackers realize those organizations are hugely frustrating to work with so they just write them off. That's OK.

  • CityHackers play a long game. We know the world continues to become more instant. CityHackers realize change takes time. Rome wasn't built in a day, oceans can't be boiled quickly and large, complex structures like a city can't be fixed in even a few years. CityHackers think in decades.

  • CityHackers stay positive. They don't complain unless they are willing to do something about a problem. They also stay positive because they see little wins from bottom-up change.

  • CityHackers are never "you do" people. "You do" people show up and ask others to do things. They are "I got this" people. They may ask for a little help, but they're doing the heavy lifting.

    Examples of City Hacking

    Here are three examples of City hacking. One done by people of modest means, another by people of slightly greater means and another done by a wealthy person. No matter the wealth level, it can be done by anyone.

    The Awesome Foundation. This organization is based around a simple idea: Ten people meet once a month. They each chip in $100 and give it to a startup charity of their choice. It's a national organization now with chapters everywhere. It checks the boxes including being high-leverage. One example is when they funded the local Earn-a-Bike Co-op where kids learn to fix bikes and then those bikes are sold to pay for more kids to learn to fix bikes.

    Geekdom. Geekdom is nominally a co-working space in downtown San Antonio. What it truly does is exist as a lightning rod to transform San Antonio into a startup community. Where the amount of money government would have invested to start something like Geekdom is large, the money required to privately underwrite Geekdom is tiny in comparison. It also has a sustainable business model as tenants pay rent to be there. The genius is Geekdom is a venture that spawns new ventures naturally. Entrepreneurs meet there and work on new ventures together. While it was started by a wealthy person, it was a high-leverage, high ROI approach to changing a city from the bottom-up.

    San Antonio Angel Network. Until 2016, San Antonio was the only city in Texas larger than 50,000 people without an angel network. An angel network is a "club" of angel investors who work together to invest in new, growing companies. Myself and a handful of other people decided to fix it. We loaned the network a small amount of money to startup and hired an executive director. That executive director went to recruit members who paid dues to pay his salary. We got our money back, it's at 75 members and our city now has another way for new ventures to get funding.

    How You Can Be a CityHacker

    Here's the steps to become one:

    1. Look for something that bothers you. This is anything that makes you emotionally frustrated in your community.

    2. See if it's solvable by CityHacker methods. If it is, great! You have a project. If it can't be solved, then go back to step #1 and find something else that bothers you.

    3. Envision a repeatable way to solve it. This is key: it needs to be repeatable and have a model for funding. If you can't do this step, go back to #1 and look for a new problem.

    4. Recruit others to your mission. Find other people to buy-in and potentially help if you need it. If you can't succeed at this step, go back to #1.

    5. Make it happen. This is the hardest step. You have to work to make things happen.

  • Michael Girdley