Innovating for Community

You are probably reading this on a screen. You may be procrastinating at work or out with friends or even distracting yourself from another screen. You probably saw this on social media during the three or more hours you will spend on those platforms today. That is three fewer hours that you will experience real, human connection and build relationships in the real world, and that is exactly what entrepreneurs are now trying to change.

At New York Ideas last week, hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, dozens of entrepreneurs spoke of their various visions and challenges, but all the speakers highlighted community as key to their company's mission and success. Not the kind of community that comes from having 1,000+ friends on Facebook, connections on LinkedIn or followers on Twitter; they were talking about real, interpersonal connections IRL.

Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, founders of SoulCycle, attributed the success of their fitness business to the sense of community it brought to its members, saying it was less about "cult" and more about the friendships, connections and relationships members built in the classes. When Tough Mudder founder Will Dean was asked about the inspiration for his intense fitness challenge, he said he wanted to create an athletic challenge that encouraged helping one another, team work and camaraderie and got people off of their smartphones. Even innovators whose professional lives center on technology stressed the importance of offline connections. Andrew McAfee, Associate Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, said that real world human connection sparks innovation, and that there is no substitute for that kind of interaction, after singing the praises of all that technology can do. Perhaps most shocking was Dennis Crowley, co-founder and CEO of FourSquare, who despite depending on our obsession with technology for his living, said that data and technology should be used to enhance the real world for people, rather than replace it.

Before, innovation focused on creating technology to address our problems, needs and desires, and improving the status quo. There was a push to connect everyone and globalize the world through the Internet and get people online. While technology has certainly been empowering in several ways, it has made us more distant in others by giving us a false sense of connection. We have more apps than we know what to do with and more social networks than we can keep up with. It is not a rare sighting to see a group of friends out at dinner and all on their phones rather than engaged in conversation with one another. As the viral video Look Up (which, ironically, was made popular through social media) painfully and powerfully points out, it is now possible to have hundreds of friends and be completely alone. As the entrepreneurs of New York Ideas point to community as the source of their success, it is apparent that we are missing something. In some cases, that something has translated into movements, some movements to bring us back to reality by turning off our technology. For example, Penn Disconnects at the University of Pennsylvania hosts a full week of programming annually to challenge students to get offline and connect in real life. We now put a premium value on deeper, more "real" connections than a "like" or a friend request and have the urge to leave it all behind.

So where do we go from here? Are we doomed to be a lonely, technology-obsessed generation forever glued to our phones? In my opinion, the answer is no. We just need a moment to step back, take stock of what matters, and innovate for community. It doesn't need to be disruptive or groundbreaking; it just needs to bring us back together. As Deep Nishar, SVP of Products and User Experience at LinkedIn said, it is up to us to construct the right problems for technology to solve, so let's solve this distance and bring some of that connection back offline.