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Take Note: Spud Marshall on his new book 'Designing Creative Communities' and the State College community-building work it's based on

WPSU Take Note Spud Marshall

On this episode we're talking with Spud Marshall. Marshall is the co-founder of the State College art and innovation Hub 3 Dots Downtown. Before that, he cofounded the co.space student living project, the New Leaf coworking space, and numerous other community projects in central Pennsylvania. His new book, "Designing Creative Communities," was released in September. It outlines his experiences cultivating creative and innovative communities while also providing readers a framework to pursue creative ideas in their towns.

Here's that interview:

Spud Marshall 
Thanks for having me excited to get out here.

John Weber 
Your book really breaks down how long these projects sometimes take to build and sometimes take to get approval? How do you stick with it, in those certain projects, when it's taking months or years to happen?

Spud Marshall 

Yeah, sometimes, right. The the easy narrative to just put out there is like, oh, this new idea emerged. And suddenly it gets all this PR attention or, you know, interest in the community. And it seems like that was the germination point. When oftentimes, many of these ideas, these community spaces in particular, they take years and years of cultivation. I think one of the stories or experiences that really resonates for me was 3 Dots has been this really successful space over the past three years. We've been really grateful for the community support. But prior to that, the actual like, evolution of where 3 Dots came from was at potlucks in my living room. And in the year 2018, my wife and I realized we've got this house where it's just the two of us, and we've got a lot of empty space. We'd love to be able to use this in a more intentional way for the community. And so without any like, intentional plan, of you know, we wanted to create this formal, facilitated process. We just simply opened our door and said, "Hey, in January, if anybody wants to come in, and help brainstorm ways to make the town a better place, we'd love to have a conversation with folks over a meal." Right, it was really simple. And we did that in January, and then everybody that attended that first session, they're like, we want to do this again, let's meet up again in a couple weeks, and so February rolled around. And at that point, then we're like, maybe we should actually call this something right, and actually package it and make it seem like an official thing. So we started to call it potluck brainstorms. And for the entire year, we had you know, more than 400 people come through our home. And every month, we would facilitate a brainstorm session, while people met over a potluck. And we had some of the most rich conversations. Again, it's these really like spontaneous, like it was out of my bonfire, it was down in my basement, right. Those were the moments where people are having these really important conversations around what does the future of our town look like? And how can we be a contributor to that? And one of the biggest threads that emerged out of that whole session, and at the end of the year, we kind of like, reflected it back to the group. And we said, "Hey, what we're hearing is that folks are really craving a third space that exists in between where they live, and where they work." Right, people wanted this space where they could just kind of like organically meet up and pursue anything in this arts, innovation, cultural space. And that's where 3 Dots, before we even knew the name, or the purpose, or like the physical bones of what it looked like. That's really where the idea germinated from. And there was this like, rallying call of community members that were like, "I'm willing to get behind that, when that thing actually comes to fruition." That's often the part of the story that I think a lot of people skip over or don't actually have a chance to hear because it's not something that you can typically package up into a newspaper article or anything like that. It's just happening in people's homes, right. And I think one of the pieces that the book is trying to really address is, let's shine a light on the importance of those type of moments in this kind of creative community building work.

John Weber 
Your book feels very transparent, the failed projects are just as important as the successful ones.

Spud Marshall 
That is definitely true.

John Weber 
What keeps you motivated to try again?

Spud Marshall 
One of the reasons actually, why I've chosen to live here in State College is because it is such a welcoming space for trying again. So anytime you've got an idea, i've tried to launch ideas in big cities and all kinds of different contexts....And there's something different about being in State College. Where it's like, you can try an idea. It can flop. It can fail spectacularly, which many have in my last decade or so here. And yet it's a very forgiving, welcoming, encouraging community. And so, so there's something about the place that I'm based in that lets me feel like it's okay to take a risk and not be afraid of the failure of it. So, yeah, it's been I think, a lot of why I continue to take the risks....are largely informed by this place State College.

John Weber 
Do you find that sometimes communities are more susceptive to creative change? Or when you mentioned State College being so open to your failures, do you think you'd find success in other places if you had set down roots for so long?

Spud Marshall 
It's been interesting. One of the pieces that I really appreciate about my work is that I get to work in many different contexts. So very, very small, tiny, little rural communities to big cities on the coasts. And I think oftentimes when we talk about innovation, there's this myth, or this perception that innovation comes from the coasts, right? It comes from San Francisco, and D.C. and New York. And we don't think about all those small little communities that oftentimes get overlooked. And I think that actually, those are the places where innovation and creativity has the most fertile ground to take root. We just kind of get swamped over with all of these typical narratives of, "well, innovation comes from the Silicon Valley." So I really actually appreciate getting to work in a place like State College because there's this hunger to want to do something different. And there's a reasonable scale to work with, right. So it's not this massive canvas. It's actually fairly manageable, right? You can meet the people you need to meet, you can find the resources and the tools to actually get something off the ground compared to a bigger city, or maybe even like a really small place that doesn't have the resources. State College is in this perfect sweet spot.

John Weber 
I know that casual conversation is another theme throughout your book, whether it's a conversation in a taxi, or in an elevator. Why do you think these conversations, face to face in very casual settings, produce such great ideas?

Spud Marshall 
Yeah, one of the questions that I think kept me up for a long time was thinking about, you know, what are the moments in your life, the conversations that have the most significant impact on you. And we can all think of those conversations. If you think of an individual you talked with, or a conversation that you had, and it just changed the way you thought about the world in some capacity. When you actually peel beneath the surface, and you ask where do those conversations take place, they always happen in really random locations, right? It never happens in a conference room. It never happens in oftentimes a classroom or any of these like formal settings. And yet the majority of our life are in these very, like coordinated, orchestrated kind of sterile spaces that are sort of planned for us. And yet, the really powerful moments always happen in the opposite of that. And the really spontaneous, kind of, in very spontaneous and organic spaces. You know, when I'm going out to get breakfast with a friend I haven't seen in a while, those are the moments that matter. And so a lot of the work that I do around how do you build creative communities is informed by that. So how do you create those spaces in a more intentional way, rather than just let them you know, organically happen at a fireplace, which is magical in and of itself? But how can you actually curate a space where that is more likely to happen for someone. And so I think the impetus behind 3 Dots and co.space and New Leaf and a lot of these spaces here in town has been...how do you create that really spontaneous, organic moment for somebody to have a really powerful conversation?

John Weber 
There's a line in your book where you wrote, "too often we think about our communities only in terms of what we get from them." How do you tend to approach that perspective and shift that way of thinking?

Spud Marshall 
I think this is a trap that especially a lot of young folks fall into here in State College. It's a town where you come for four years, you get your degree, and then you POOF, you're off, right? Sometimes you can describe it as like a vacation town, without the beach.

John Weber 
(Laughter)

Spud Marshall 
It's like this is a place that people like transiently come to and then they they pop away. And so there's not really this like rootedness that I think happens when you're simply seeing the place that you call home as a place that you can kind of absorb resources and connections and mentors, and then take them off to the next place. And I think in a very similar way, right, we're living through a time of everybody's in this online virtual space. Many of us have probably been on Zoom calls where we passively sit behind our computer screen, and just consume whatever is being shared at us. And we all know that those moments don't feel as rich as the ones where we're actively contributing, right? So this difference between a very like passive consumption driven model versus like an active contributor model. And so I think the same thing happens in our towns, right? Like, we can actually be active contributors to the places that we call home, the places where we live, work, learn play, rather than just passively consuming, right. So if we just zoom in on like, arts and culture, which is one of the pieces that 3 Dots in particular cares about, right. It's much more meaningful for someone to actively be a contributor to the arts and culture scene of State College, rather than just passively sitting in the audience. And that's one of the things we try to do with 3 Dots often is, "don't just sit here and absorb what we're showing you, right, actually jump up on the stage", right? There's open mics, there's constant opportunities for people to be a contributor. And I think that is this really, really subtle difference. But when you can, like embrace an entire community around that narrative, suddenly you don't have a population of people who are just transiently passing through and grabbing up whatever resources they can. They're actually actively contributing to the place that they call home.

John Weber 
As you're working on these new projects, going through all these steps, do you feel that sometimes you have to show people what it could be? Or how that evolution could go to really get that support? Or is it just I want to get behind that no matter how vague or uncertain, it seems right now?

Spud Marshall 
Yeah, there's one of the pieces I talked about in the book is this framework called the diffusion of innovation. Diffusion of innovation is all about how does an idea something new novel spread through a community of people. Really simply, it tends to break down into like, three camps. So you've got your early adopters, and those are the people that all you have to do is give them like the rough idea of a vision of what's possible and they're the first ones to get behind you. Right. They're like holding onto your shoulders ini the conga line. So that's the first kind of sixth of a population. Then about a third of your population is really focused on the majority. And these are the folks that are, you know, once they've seen an idea start to actually get some traction, and they see other people getting behind it, then they're willing to kind of lend their support. And then there's another group, which is like the tail end, which are called the laggards. And laggards don't often get behind an idea. And one of the really simple ways of breaking these three like segments of a community down... is that the early adopters, you simply have to show them, the majority, you have to like help them. And then the laggards are people that you have to make. And right. So show me, help me, make me. And that's like a really simple way, I think to help figure out how does an idea spread. Obviously, in the beginning of an idea, you shouldn't be investing your energy towards the laggards in a community. And we're all laggards in different capacities, right? I'm a laggard, when it comes to cooking. I hate thinking about a recipe that I've got to cook like, that's just not where my energy goes. But I'm very much on the tail end of that spectrum. Whereas when it comes to something like fog machines, like I'm on the front end of that. I'm an early adopter, like I'm the first one to go out there and teach you how fog machine works and all those pieces, right. So we all in different parts of our lives, play the role of early adopter, or a majority, or a laggard. And so when you're thinking of getting a new idea off the ground is like, how do you identify roughly a sixth of your population falls into that early adopter camp? And I think that's really important when trying to get something from the ground to that first step, right. And once you've got that crowd, then the rest of the community kind of like rallies around. With the potluck brainstorms, we were simply trying to find our early adopters, right. And so we had 400 people come through our home, and somebody do the math for me, but about a sixth of them probably were our early adopters, and that we actually had kind of rally around three dots in the first month or two,

John Weber 
As I can validate, there's a lot of mentions of fog machines in your book.

Spud Marshall 
(Laughter) That's true.

John Weber 
But there's also a lot of other projects that you've been involved with that some people might consider to be a little like out there, you know, a little bit too creative for me or something along those lines. You know, some of these projects include, like the plastic beehive and the co.space, you know, transparent beehive. An adventurous RV interviewing trip across the country. And a do-it-yourself spaceship dance party at 3 Dots downtown in the early days of your project. And the list goes on and on and on. Ball pits and the like. Why have such quirky aspects to these projects really been a part of your brand?

Spud Marshall 
Yeah. So one of the pieces I talked about, and a value that has been really important to me, is how do you actually create a sense of wonder in the world around you? Whimsy is like a value that really matters to me. And when I look back on like previous years, and every November, December, I kind of do like a pause moment. And I look back and say, "What are the moments? What are the experiences that I had in the past 10,11,12 months, that really like lit me up?" And the ones that have this element of whimsy, as part of them, always come to the top of that list. And so for whatever reason, that's been really important to me. And I think as a community builder, part of your goal of being able to create a sense of wonder for folks is like, here's the vision of what's possible for our community, right. And you have to have this really creative, playful spirit to it. I mean, really simply last weekend, I was hanging out on top of a parking deck downtown with a snow machine, and just projecting snow all over the sidewalk downtown. And to see people walk by and right, they had this moment of pause where they're like, "This is different than the norm." And then sort of there's this moment of like possibility of like, what would it look like if it snowed in the middle of the summer, right? And then this moment of participation is like, I want to go hang out there. I want to participate in that. And so we're hanging out on top of 3 Dots in the parking garage, just snowing down on people. But there's this really element of like levity and laughter that I think is really, really critical when you're doing community building work. Because at the end of the day, it's like it's pretty taxing and exhausting work sometimes. Like you're working with lots of different personalities and dynamics. And so if you don't bring an element of laughter into it, then you're just going to burn yourself out in the long run.

John Weber 
If you're just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm John Weber. And today we are talking with community builder and innovator, Spud Marshall, about his new book "Designing Creative Communities." Spud, you tell a story in your book about being invited to a NASA workshop a few years ago. At the workshop, there are industry professionals from big companies like Walmart and Nike. And scientists, obviously from NASA. That seemed to be a turning point for you and your work, despite feeling a little out of place at the time. Could you talk a little bit more about that experience and how it validated your work?

Spud Marshall 
Backing up a little bit. So this happened, right around early 2013, which is when we were starting co.space. And at this point, I've been intentionally doing this community building work in town since 2010. And so 2013, we're starting to get like noticed locally here in State College. There was still some confusion, right? Who are these young guys trying to do something different in our town, right? So we were dealing with that narrative. And for whatever reason, and I remember I was down in Florida, I was at Disney at the time. I got this email from an astronaut at NASA. And he reached out and said, "Hey, I heard about this thing that you're doing co.space, I'd love to get behind it and support you in some capacity." We had no idea how he found out about us, like it was totally out of the blue. And I remember just like getting this email and starring it and saying, "Okay, I'm gonna have to come back to that one in a day or two." And so what eventually, like transpired from it was this astronaut invited us out to Pasadena. And there is this innovation conference that was happening. And really simply, they brought all kinds of industry leaders in to support a select group of entrepreneurs and creatives...get whatever their idea was off the ground. And perhaps I glanced over it, but I sort of just assumed that I would fall into the creative entrepreneur category because that's typically where I fell. And then I got there. And I realized, they put me in the industry expert camp. Which, at that point, I couldn't even describe what industry I was in to my mother, right.

John Weber 
Right.

Spud Marshall 
Let alone a whole room of people. So I felt completely out of place. And the conference went on for probably three or four days. And each day, they would sit one of these creatives in front of us. And then all of us, experts in the room were supposed to lend whatever resources we had right. Money and contacts to supply chains. And, you know...China...and all this like stuff that I had no access to. And so every time someone came by, the person to my right would be like writing a check for $100,000. And the person to my left is like, "here's my design team at Nike, you can have access to all of them." And I'd offer to like, change the color of their logo, right. I had like nothing to offer. At least that's how it felt. And so I sat there for a couple days, just feeling completely inadequate, completely out of place. And fast forward through the conference a little bit. The final day comes. And as we're sitting there, my friend the astronaut...he gets up on stage and starts to share some of the projects that he was really excited about moving forward. He starts going through the websites of these different projects that he got really, really excited by. And he wanted to give people an idea of here's what's possible in the future. And I sat there realizing that he really was excited about co.space, and thought that that might be a project worth sharing. And so I like quickly in my seat checked whether the site was okay. And to my shock, we had been hacked by an outside group in incredibly inappropriate ways. And our website was not what it was supposed to be. I frantically SOS messaged my business partner. I was like, "You got to fix this." And so fortunately, in like the five minutes that I was sitting there, feeling very out of place, very inadequate, and not where I I should have been, we got the website fixed. And he shared it up on the screen and everything went fine. And, and I just remember feeling like, "I've just got to get out of this room, right? Like I am in over my head." And in the very last checkout of this event, the organizer stepped up to me and he said, "Spud, I'd love for you to offer your perspective, because we've so appreciated having you in the room, because you think differently. And you don't come from industries. And you don't come from all these, like siloed typical ways of thinking and offering resources." And so here, this whole process, I felt like I was just completely out of my own, right. I did not belong in this crowd. And yet, that's what people really appreciated about my perspective. And so coming back from that event, I really felt empowered to, you know, own the fact that I don't fit in a typical career box. I don't think like a typical employee or community member, right. I see things differently. And that's a perspective that other people cherish. And I should actually be proud of that rather than feeling like that's an inadequate piece of what I was bringing to the table. So it was a pretty empowering moment. It also could have been like a sink or swim moment for our company had the website actually been inappropriately shared up on screen. So fortunately, that did not happen. So a failure that we skirted very quickly.

John Weber 
Yeah, quick on your feet there. I'd say.

Spud Marshall 
Well, my business partner was quick on his feet. So kudos to him. (laughing)

John Weber 
Thank you for the team there.

Spud Marshall 
(laughing) Yeah.

Spud Marshall 
What's a big dream or vision for a future project that you'd still like to see? Maybe one that you haven't shared before, you know, maybe so far out there that it doesn't seem possible as yet.

Spud Marshall 
That's always a dangerous question to ask me because I'm constantly thinking up new pieces. I will say one of the things that and actually, as I was driving over here, to do this interview, a friend texted me a link to an RV that she was sharing and trying to sell. And I have always had this dream of having kind of an Innovation studio on wheels for Pennsylvania, and or the Mid Atlantic region more broadly. Where you could put a team of young creatives that are just hungry to like do something outside the norm when it comes to thinking of a normal career path. Put them in this RV and then send them out to communities around the country, around our region, that are hungry for doing things differently. And I think one of the motivations for this was, I had the privilege to do work up in Blossburg in Southern Tioga, which is a couple hours north of here. And it was such an encouraging space to work with. It was working in this community that oftentimes gets overlooked. And I don't think people appreciate the resources and skill sets and creativity that exists in this town. And I helped with their school district. And we are like, renovating these libraries and this really crazy project. But while I was there, one of the big things that kind of emerged for me was, you know, they said, "We've got these crazy creative ideas, but it feels so out in left field for our community, that all we need is like someone else to come in and help validate them for a little bit. And give us just like a couple weeks, a couple months of like encouragement and building and capacity support." And you could so easily do that with a team of RVs that traveled across this region, kind of empowering these smaller communities that have the good ideas and have the resources. Everything exists there. They just need a little nudge of encouragement and validation. And I've seen that in my own work here in State College. And I think I'd love to see something like that happen in the coming year. So that's, that's on my whiteboard at the moment.

John Weber 
How has working with children? How's that changed? And how is it different from working with adults when it comes to creative ideas?

Spud Marshall 
So kids don't know what they shouldn't know already. And I think adults are really good at like just putting these assumptions that we blindly follow into the middle of the room. And we never question them. One of my favorite examples comes from this community up in Southern Tioga. And we were renovating one of their libraries...or two of their libraries into these innovation studios. So you can think of Extreme Home Makeover, but with a library and a school building. And all the kids and the students, they were the ones that were building things. They were tearing the bookshelves down. I mean it was completely student and kid driven. And as we were in sort of the brainstorming phase, and we were sort, we're in the process where we were mocking up what this could look like...I remember, all of the students consistently got really excited about this one idea. They wanted a slide in their library. And it didn't matter how many times I tried to dodge it, like they constantly came back. And they're like, "Spud, if we're going to totally transform our library, we want to slide in here." And I would skirt it and I'd dodge it and I'd move on to a different idea. And finally, I was like, "Alright, I've just got to like zoom in on this." It's like, "what is it about a slide that you all so passionately care about?" Right? And I think a lot of adults, the assumption that we bring into the room is, well kids like slides, like, of course, they're gonna pick the pictures and the images and the design ideas that have a slide involved. And when we actually paused and asked the kids, "what is it about a slide that really motivates you?" They gave these incredibly profound answers, right. They shared, "hey, if this is a space where we're supposed to be thinking differently, and creatively, it would be awesome if we could actually like, step up, physically climb up something and be able to look down on the chaos of the ideas beneath us." Or "if we're expected to think differently, it'd be great if there was something in the room that didn't belong there that reminded us that our crazy ideas that may not belong elsewhere, actually belong in this innovation library studio that we were making." And so they gave all these like amazing answers. And so I heard them out. And then I did what a typical adult does and says, "Well, that sounds great...But..." And I'd give the BUT answer. And I was like, "well, we don't have the resources. We don't have the budget to build a slide. We don't want to settle for a really cheap plastic one from Walmart, we want to do this properly, right? We would want to build like a custom fabricated slide. And we only have a week and we only have x number of dollars, right? So there's no way we can do that." And I'll never forget this girl in the back just raises her hand and really just calmly and she's like, "so I just texted my dad and he likes to build custom fabricated slides for friends on the weekends for free. And I was wondering if he could just build us one for free this weekend." And in that moment, these kids went from like this really playful, creative energy to suddenly they had sourced materials, they sourced labor, right. They came up with like this whole action plan to actually bring one of their creative ideas to life. And it just reminded me of like, kids have such a valuable asset and perspective to bring into a room that adults so quickly just brush over... and "but we can't do it right but...dot dot dot... And by actually stepping back and say, "no, you guys take the lead and see where this goes" was incredibly empowering. So it ended up raining the whole weekend. We weren't able to actually like build the slide, but they ended up like repackaging all the design ideas of what the slide represented to them into the design of the library. And so all of their bookshelves, now they can climb on, there's these like reading nooks that hang out, like up on top of bookshelves. And they can move things around and spin on stuff. So it was really cool to see kids actually have this like really creative energy that, you know, we need to tap into. And I think oftentimes, when we're building communities, we forget to like, look at the resources of the human capital that we have in our existing town, right. You don't need outside wisdom and expertise and all of that. It's like, it exists here in your own community, you just got to actually involve them and ask them to be an active participant in it.

John Weber 
What do you hope people will learn from your new book? And what do you hope that they'll do after reading the book?

Spud Marshall 
Hmm, the DO part is so important. One of the reasons I wrote the book was I kept traveling to communities that they recognize there were all kinds of emerging leaders and people with good ideas in their community that just didn't have the confidence...or the really rough structure or framework to be able to take that next step. And so the book is a combination of storytelling, as well as like a practical how-to guide of how do you get creative ideas off the ground. And so my hope is people read it, and they walk away feeling inspired, that it's like these stories actually could happen in my own life, right? I could be, you know, the architect of meaningful experiences and moments in my community. Whether it's really small, just like building a better relationship with your neighbors. Or on a much broader scale like, "no, I want to like completely overhaul like my region or the county, right. And I want to launch innovation studios and all these other creative pieces." Like regardless where your idea falls on that scale of like really small and personal to really large and systemic. I hope the book inspires people to realize like those two are connected, and that we all have the gifts and the resources and support already in our networks, to be able to take the next steps. You just need that like external nudge and validation from someone. So I hope the book if nothing else, just gives a little bit of validation and it acts like a permission slip to people to say, "Here you go, this is your permission slip, to go get involved in your community and do something about it to make it a better place."

John Weber 
Build a slide in your library if you see it fit.

Spud Marshall 
Absolutely right. (laughing)

John Weber 
Spud Marshall, thank you for talking with us today.

Spud Marshall 
Thanks so much for having me. Excited to be here.

John Weber 
Spud Marshall is the co-founder of the creative community space 3 Dots Downtown in State College and many other projects in central Pennsylvania. His new book "Designing Creative Communities" teaches any group how to become more innovative, collaborative, and creative. For more information on Spud Marshalls work and other Take Note interviews visit wpsu.org/takenote.

Spud Marshall's new projects and upcoming events can be found here.