Re-Thinking Innovation: The Art Effect at Remix NYC

Back in March, several colleagues and I attended Remix NYC, thanks to generous support from the Wave Farm Foundation.

What a wonderful time we had at the Remix NYC Summit on Culture, Creativity and Technology! Two days packed full of thought-provoking speakers, stimulating conversations with colleagues old and new, and some of the coolest venue spaces NYC has to offer.

Both days were attended by The Art Effect’s Director of Education and Experience (aka me) and our Spark Studios Program Coordinator Paul Thompson. Joining us on Thursday was Experience Program Assistant and Teaching Artist Sarah Taylor, and rounding out the team on Friday was our Media/Art/Design Lab coordinator David Wong.

Despite our varying job titles and workloads, every single one of us found invaluable insights and solid strategies to take away for innovating and improving on our own programs. In particular, several recurring themes from across the conference struck us and stuck with us.

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During her presentation, Julia Kaganskiy, Director of New Inc (New Museum’s art & tech incubator) mentioned the phrase “constant beta,” and it really resonated. Being in a state of constant beta means approaching your work as being in development, existing in a constant state of testing things out and evaluating how well implementation went with an eye towards making changes for improvement next time. In an age of constant change where technology evolves on a daily basis, such flexibility and adaptability is crucial to keeping competitive. Using the same business model year in, year out will no longer hold the same promise of security. Instead, embracing “constant beta” means entering a mutually beneficial adaptive relationship with customers or clients, where supply changes in response to demand.  So much is changing and being re-shaped, we have to embrace being in constant beta in order to survive and thrive.

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Another recurring theme was the idea of “creative disruption,” or the idea that in order to truly innovate, you need to stop your habits (or years-old strategies) and insert some totally new method, idea, or approach into things, in order to break free of the confines of routine and find views and vantage points you just couldn’t see while you were keeping your head down.

The Art Effect endeavors to be as innovative as possible, but innovation means change and evolution, so if there are things we’ve been doing the same old way for years and years, if we want to be innovative, we’ve got to rethink things and disrupt ourselves to see how innovations would help us improve.

We witnessed dozens of examples of truly innovative work, some of which is being done by The Lowline, an organization using NASA technology to harness the power of the sun and bring rays of sunshine underground to create parks out of abandoned subterranean spaces.

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Another issue repeatedly addressed by speakers and conference-goers alike? The centrality of storytelling to all creative enterprises, whether they be commercial or non-profit. People aren’t drawn to facts and figures, we learned, so much as they are drawn to stories. And within the stories, if an entrepreneur is truly listening, one can discover new opportunities by paying attention to “pain points.” For example, this is Winston:

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Winston lives near the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, and heard dozens of concert-goers describe how inconvenient and annoying it was that Barclay required paper printouts of tickets to scan. For someone visiting from out of town, this requirement could mean doubling back and re-traveling miles and miles to find a printer. Hearing about this “pain point” over and over, it occurred to Winston that there was an opportunity there. He began bringing a portable printer and standing near the admissions line at Barclay, offering to print people’s tickets out for them… for a price. It’s this kind of responsiveness to people’s stories, this method of really listening and identifying the parts of the story involving inconvenience and annoyance, that enables people like Winston to capitalize on opportunities others may not see.

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Ultimately, The Art Effect staff came away from Remix NYC with a renewed sense of optimism about our own work, how to invigorate our staff and inspire our students while integrating truly innovative forms of creative entrepreneurship into all of our programs, as well as the importance of grasping the story of our work and why our work matters. Emily Best of Seed & Spark told an anecdote during her presentation on Thursday about her moment of revelation when she told her father all about the exciting work she was doing, only to hear her father respond “so you’re changing the world… so what? Who cares?” The line got a hearty laugh from the audience, possibly become the room was full of folks so close to the cutting edge that the meaning or mission of their work isn’t always immediately apparent or accessible, or at the very least difficult to communicate to the average person. And that was Emily Best’s point exactly: while we’re doing all of this incredible work, if we want our messages to reach people it’s extremely important to parlay our innovations into terms and stories easily understood by those we’re trying to reach. We have to understand what we actually mean when we say we’re doing good work and changing the world, and we’ve got to be ready to respond in case someone asks us “so what?”

For The Art Effect, the “so what?” should be straightforward–particularly after attending Remix NYC. Arts empower communities, and we help facilitate that growth and transformation. Our programs offer youth skills practice, arts exploration, and college/career opportunities they otherwise may not have gotten, and to the students we serve, it makes all the difference in the world. And while we were so glad and grateful we got to be a part of such an incredible few days, innovation is not something that is attained once and then permanently possessed, like trophy on a shelf. Innovation is a CONSTANT process, and we’ve got to keep fueling those fires on a daily basis. The past few months have seen several innovative initiatives being put into place, as well as shown several “pain point” places where we are in urgent need of creative disruption.

What are those initiatives and pain points? Well, that’s a post for another day.

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