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Impact Hub’s Max Harper: ‘DC struggles with creativity’ [Exit Interview]

Impact Hub DC's outgoing managing director has some thoughts on what could make the local tech scene more principled — and vibrant.

Max Harper, the founding managing director of Impact Hub DC, is leaving D.C. this fall. (Photo courtesy of Max Harper)

We learned earlier this month that Max Harper, the founding managing director of Impact Hub DC, was ceding his position to Beth Flores, a former Pentagon manager.
Though Harper told DC he is moving due to personal reasons — his girlfriend is moving to study urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — he also indicated a certain disillusionment with D.C.’s tech scene. Here are some of his parting thoughts.
“I think D.C. struggles with creativity,” said Harper. “And I don’t mean finger-paint creativity, I mean real, raw creation; the spirit of collaboration and co-creation. The commitment to that spirit and the investment in what you’re building together.”
For Harper, what’s holding D.C. tech back is a lack of communal thinking.
“Collaboration means more than just networking,” he said. It “means really weaving your life and your trust and your creative power into a path with other people.”
Harper, 33, moved to D.C. in 2008 “on the Obama wave,” to work as a video producer and media strategist on the presidential transition team.
He hasn’t lost the inspirational vocab and wide-eyed idealism — but he realized that he wanted to move outside of government to effect change.
Harper was eventually offered the position of director of new media at the Department of Health and Human Services, he said. But he turned it down in favor of “the social entrepreneurial path” and cofounded Groundswell, an environmental advocacy startup.
He took over the reigns of Impact Hub DC in 2012 — while it was still a “caterpillar,” he said. (A plan to open a local outpost of the global incubator network had been floating since 2009.) The space opened in “beta or proto mode” last February, expanding to a total 15,000 square feet located at 419 7th St. NW.
“Impact Hub in D.C. is now entering the butterfly phase,” said Harper. He hopes it will become a base for local technologists to work on issues like structural racism, affordable housing and education — and not just to for the glory.
The “entrepreneurial startup approach is interesting,” he said, “but it doesn’t necessarily address the complexity” of these matters.
Because it is the center of political power, he continued, D.C. is particularly prone to letting the opportunity gap slip into the tech space.
Technology is “something of the people much in the way that paint and art supplies were part of the Renaissance,” said Harper. It “amplifies power.”
That’s why, he added, “We have to be extremely thoughtful with our applications of technology. … [It] can be appropriated because it’s not owned by this community in D.C.”
To counter this, “there should be lots of money thrown in [to develop technical education] at the high school and college level, and they should be inventing what we don’t even know what it looks like,” he said. Otherwise, “Our relationship to technology is just something that we buy and sits in our pocket.”
Harper will be sticking around through the end of the summer to help guide the launch of Social Innovation Labs, a sort of intentional community for civic technologists. After he moves in the fall, he will remain on the board and remain a “super extra committed member” of the global incubator network.
Once in Massachusetts, he hopes to get involved in MIT’s Media Lab and CoLab, and take the time to ponder deep problems like, “what’s the future of humanity in a robot-laden age?”

Companies: Impact Hub DC
People: Max Harper
Projects: Exit Interview

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