entrepreneurship, innovation, start up

shaun abramhanson: on changing cities, 500 startups at a time.

“I think curiosity, empathy and resilience are a potent combination, so how can you encourage others to develop these attributes?”

I’d like to thank the International Startup Festival team for letting me help at this year’s amazing event, which allowed me to bring you this interview. 
photo credit: Muhammed Muheisen, AP photo

For all the talk about cities, and how the world is becoming one big connected network, the tech industry is driving a change an increasing amount of cities are trying to catch up with – for more information here’s a good read by the American Think Tank Brookings institution. It’s not everyday that I get to combine my first love – urban planning – and my current interests in the startup world. Both worlds got to happily collide at this year’s city themed StartUp Fest, a 3 day international event with the latest startups rubbing shoulders with Silicon Valley veterans. One of the amazing people I got to meet and talk with was Shaun Abramhanson.

An MIT grad with an MBA in Creative Leadership, he’s a self professed swimmer, but is rather known as an author, entrepreneur and advisor. Interested in how we better design together, he has written about crowdstorming as a way to leverage collective intelligence and blogs notably for the Huffington Post. Last year he founded Urban.Us, a network of investors, advisors and city reps that strives to support startups addressing urban challenges.
Their goal? Help close to 500 companies, with the hopes that 50 of them will have a significant impact in addressing urban challenges by 2020.

If you want to know more about Urban.us, read up on Smart City Startups 2015, next year’s two day event in Miami or check out videos from this year’s event  and some of the themes that were discussed.

I was lucky to catch him while he came to talk at the StartUp Fest, and he was kind enough to respond to my Q&A:

1. Your full name, age and occupation
Shaun Abrahamson, 40, Swimmer

2. What was your dream job as a kid?
I was always sure that I wanted to build, so architecture and engineering came up a lot.

“Friends have always been great sources of encouragement through the ups and downs of startupland”

3. Where do you get your support or motivation from?
My family. And I have a great group of friends from living in different places and attending school on 3 continents :)

Family is most interesting because having kids really forced me to think about what the world will be like for them. Friends have always been great sources of encouragement through the ups and downs of startupland.

4. What sparked your motivation or need to start your own thing?
I’ve never thought about doing my own thing. It sort of materialized out of thinking about different approaches to reaching a goal. I’ve become used to moving quickly and testing ideas and failing a lot. Most existing organizations didn’t have room for this kind of behaviour, though that’s been changing. After working in startups for more than 15 years, its harder to see how to fit into a larger organization.

“Is there a way to test 5,000 high potential ideas? And if a small percent succeed, can we change the viability of cities?”

5. What were you the most excited about when you started off?
For urban.us its always been about the potential impact. Is there a way to test 5,000 high potential ideas? And if a small percent succeed, can we change the viability of cities? My sense is that we need to rethink our entire social and economic system if we dont figure this out. So I am excited about having a tiny role in helping bringing this change about.

6. What did you wish you knew before starting all this?
Oh, lots of things! It takes time and money to learn, but it’s a difficult question because would I have known some things, maybe I wouldn’t have started :)

7. Describe a day in your life as you’d like it to be in 3 years.
I love what I do now. I think I’d do it for free. I think there are always going to be less fun or inspiring or interesting parts to a day, but getting to work with founders who are solving complex, hard problems is perhaps the best way to spend a day. The only downside is the constant struggle to make enough time to do great work and spend quality time with family. I dont know that I will ever get this balance right.

8. What would you like to know about other innovators who answer this survey?
I love to know what motivates people and how they find ways to be great at work and at home.

9. What would be the one thing you’d like your eulogy to say?
If you have read this far, you are quite curious. This is fantastic news. You are also probably empathetic. This excellent too. And you also waded through some other not so good material, so you are resilient. Wonderful. I think curiosity, empathy and resilience are a potent combination, so how can you encourage others to develop these attributes?

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