Upswell Labs – San Francisco

On Tuesday, June 4, 2018, I participated in the Upswell Lab in San Francisco, hosted by Independent Sector, Northern California Grantmakers, and Fetzer Institute. If it was a more typical convening, I would have likely passed on writing about it beyond a few tweets. Sure, it’s always good to catch up with acquaintances and colleagues, and nice to meet a couple of new people, all while listening to some presenter passing on good knowledge. But the Upswell Lab is fundamentally different.

It’s more like going on a field trip to an interactive museum with a group of people who desire to make a positive social impact. After a relatively brief introduction, which included an opening meditation, we were invited to go as we pleased to any one of the areas, each of which was focused on a different activity or demonstration. I started with a small group collaborative challenge (imagining and designing the perfect global institute for changemakers); chatted with a foundation staff member while on the putting green (!); moved on to a very cool virtual reality (VR) exhibit/demonstration; then went to a learning lab on communications with empathy; and finally, watched two inspiring presentations by young college students of their scientific/engineering achievements (artificial leaf, mechanical glove to help improvement with hand movements and grip for people with Parkinson’s and other conditions that cause tremors).

Dan Cardinali, CEO of Independent Sector, closed the formal part of the event (which was followed by a 3 pm Happy Hour) by soliciting feedback from the participants. There was an uncertain excitement I felt in the air, judging from the responses. The balance of structure and unstructured freedom wasn’t quite on point, but it was remarkable to see this level of choice. The uniform 20-minute cycle for moving on to other areas didn’t always match up with the particular activity/demonstration, but that’s something I foresee changing for the national Upswell event to be held in Los Angeles November 14-16 and expected to attract 1,500 participants.

I was informed that this was the first time Upswell tested the “public square,” a play area that included various games and coloring, which will be an important part of the national event.

The public square is at the very heart of civil society. It’s where we build community, test ideas, and make change. It’s where creativity, innovation, science, spirituality, and strategy collide in fantastic ways. And it’s where the future is always born anew.

For someone who struggles with networking in a venue filled with a large number of strangers, I welcome the public square concept where you can simply start on something yourself and soon be joined by others. The conversations feel more organic and not so forced, which is more conducive where the goal is social change rather than business development.

I’ll be attending Upswell in Los Angeles and welcome Independent Sector’s bold change from its more traditional annual conference. I know, given the opportunity and support, it will be an event that will evolve rapidly over the next few years. And while it may be a little bumpy at the start, it’s exciting and visionary. Hope to see some of you there.

For more about the San Francisco Upswell Lab, check out this page on the Upswell blog.