Spotlight: Patrick Keenan, SQFT

Posted by on October 12th, 2012

*This response is a part of our SOCAP12 Spotlight Blog Series in which participants answer the question, “Why does meaning matter?”

I’ve been on a bit of a mythology binge these last weeks searching for the deeper answers about who I am, who we are. From Joseph Campbell, to Carl Sagan, to even recent talks at Fort Mason from the Long Now Foundation, we’re creating new meaning but always in the context of a much longer track of progress.

To get to the point, meaning matters because it is one of the only assets that increases in value over time. When we look at the really innovative endeavors out there you’ll see that they’re working in a relatively mundane space but creating a new story around their offering. Payment cards become a way to connect with local businesses and your community(square). An extra couch becomes an outlet for people to explore and connect to worldly travelers(airbnb). Status updates become a platform for global conversation and coordination(twitter). A photo filter app becomes the way you capture and recollect your most cherished experiences(path). And so, with our project, empty retail spaces will become hubs of experimentation and vibrancy right here in San Francisco(SQFT).

All of the examples above have 2 key, yet often opposing forces:
1. A transactional utility
2. An aspirational mythology

In most cases when you buy a commodity, say a toaster, you don’t think about a larger purpose. Bread that melts the butter you spread is what you’re looking for, this is a known and expected outcome. What you might not be looking for, but something we all long for, is a great a story. The toaster visionaries may not have crack that nut yet, but I’ve certainly come across bakeries and bakers who make you think big about the importance of a fresh loaf. What they’re doing is putting meaning and utility together. They’re offering us what we expect, and layering on a story about who we are.

Mythology without Utility
There are countless good ideas out there, and even more good intentions. However, nothing works unless it works for people. We can talk about how our values align, but action, and behavior change are central to creating meaning. Talking about meaning is like dancing about architecture. Meaning is created on top of something you need to do every day. Think: buying eggs, getting to work, planning dinners, or calling home.

Utility without Mythology
Why was Apple able to commercialize countless inventions that actually came from Xerox? Why did Toyota surpass GM as the largest car manufacturer in the world? Why is there a Starbucks on every corner when Dunkin’ Donuts is cheaper? These organizations are may be selling computers, cars, and coffee, but they’re telling us a story that we can be a part of. Xerox, GM, and Dunkin’, they make stuff. Apple, Toyota, and Starbucks, they make meaning.

The best part about meaning is that we all have a say. We can look at a boring industry and see a new story that can be told. From cereal bars to financial bonds, to photo voltaics, these are not inherently very meaningful. But the thread mythology has been spun, and I look forward to more meaningful stories ahead in October.