Creative Currency Project Tackles Urban Problems With Technology

Can technology help solve longstanding urban problems? It’s one thing to build a hot app. Tackling poverty is another thing entirely.

Poverty, nutrition, health, unemployment, housing and hygiene are social problems typically thought of as separate from high technology innovation in Silicon Valley.

But Creative Currency, a collaboration of technology and public sector groups, organized a social enterprise incubator for new startups aiming to solve such problems and design new ways of creating economic growth, specifically in the Mid-Market area of San Francisco. The project to “reimagine our systems of exchange” was cosponsored by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, Hub San Francisco, the City and County of San Francisco and American Express.

The program, which held its demo day this week in San Francsico, was designed to bring technology people and entrepreneurs together with socially minded “new economy” thinkers. Unlike other incubator programs, Creative Currency started off with an in-depth two month research program in February to analyze problems in the San Francisco neighborhood, interviewing 16 local organizations and about 150 individuals. After putting that research together with other economic development and community organizations’ reports, the group held a hackathon over a weekend in April to bring people from different fields together. Those groups then applied to be part of Creative Currency’s program and those that were accepted received $4,000 to get the project started.

Unlike with other social enterprise incubators such as the Hub Ventures, which I covered here (and uses the same space as Creative Currency), the Creative Currency projects were purposely not required to be for-profit. Because they were very early stage (earlier than those in Hub Ventures), some hadn’t decided which model would work best for them–and most of them are trying to make that decision now.

“All the groups are at the point of deciding,” says Jonathan Axtell, co-organizer of Creative Currency and a producer of the Social Capital Markets conference. “They don’t necessarily have to be for-profit to live on. What’s become evident to me looking at sustainability factors related to social enterprise is it depends on the impact you’re hoping to make…. If two of (the four projects) are ongoing long term projects next year, that’s well worth effort. Others are out there (and can be) built on by another organization.”

In addition, some of the projects were organized by people who wanted to do this full-time, while others such as SQFT were started by people working full-time already at another job.

Gray Area for the Arts has previously held hackathons on urban issues, but saw the Creative Currency project as a way to make a longer lasting impact. “The broadest critique is that (hackathons) drop off and the impact is minimal at the end of the day,” says Jake Levitas, research director at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. “We focused on what it would look like if we pulled that out and continued connecting with people over a longer time period.”

Creative Currency hopes to continue in the future, possibly expanding the program to other cities. Here are the four companies that presented at the demo day:

SQFT: (“My Square Foot”) is a platform for renting out temporary spaces. The company connects landlords with new or small businesses that want to set up temporary “pop up” businesses. On the other side, it also helps entrepreneurs find space as well as local labor who could work in the spaces. SQFT tested the idea on August 1, in the Mid-Market area of San Francisco, setting up five separate “pop up” businesses or activities, including a sidewalk library, a clothing store, free bike repair, a chess club, games night and yoga class.

In addition to helping small businesses, SQFT could help cities that have areas like Mid-Market which have are struggling with poverty and want new businesses or other organizations to move in. Those urban spaces often have boarded up building or storefronts and a lack of activity on the streets which can result in less interest from outside groups or businesses. These SQFT temporary businesses could in theory result in revitalization in neighborhoods such as Mid-Market, bringing more activity and eventually other businesses. The SQFT idea is flexible enough that it could also be used at a restaurant during off hours when it is not being used.

RefreshSF is a project aimed at helping people access fresh water, which is a critical need for homeless people. They’re proposing public water stations for bathing, washing clothes, laundry and the like. The idea is to use unused or underused urban spaces. The group hopes to get the project funded through crowd sourcing with a public awareness campaign. They are thinking of using a mobile system for citizens to donate small amounts of money to the project.

RefreshSF tried a simple version of its idea in San Francisco, setting up temporary wash basins with a water hose. The feedback was positive, organizers say. They found out that many of the people who used the service were not homeless. They also found that people used department stores, the Ferry Building, hotels, and a local church to find water. RefreshSF plans two more test projects.

TrustScore is a service that provides an alternative risk analysis of customers applying for financial accounts, loans and the like. The idea is to provide an alternative to the traditional credit score. This could be used for everything from loan applications to new websites or mobile services like Airbnb, TaskRabbit or RelayRides. Instead of creating a score based on traditional credit, TrustScore aims to provide a score based on recommendations from others such as friends, employers or organizations that a person works with. “This could be someone in Mid-Market who might not have the longest history of work. By providing tools to measure we can create opportunity for people,” the founders said.

TrustScore is testing out its service by working with Kiva Zip, a unit if non-profit micro-lending website Kiva.

Bridge is a technology service that aggregates a range of information in real-time for poor and homeless people. The service is designed to gather information about food, shelter, financial management, health and jobs. People would be able to access their own information and provide it to social service agencies. They would also be able to get real-time information about social services such as beds available, meals, jobs and the like, then “reserve” a service or item in real-time. Typically this information can be difficult to access and is done manually or on paper. The group hopes to make this information available through kiosks at strategic locations throughout the Mid-Market area.