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Hackers, con artists and slum dwellers might not be the first people you’d think to turn to for inspiration in business.

But best-selling author Alexa Clay says they share one major quality with the tycoons of Silicon Valley: innovation.

Alexa, co-author of best-selling The Misfit Economy, gave an enthralling talk at the Small is Beautiful 2016 conference in Edinburgh, supported by Skills Development Scotland.

She conjured up historic pirates, her own Amish alter ego Rebecca and Latino gangs to show how those on the fringes of society are creating ingenious business methods we can apply to our own lives.

Her research looks at how subcultures often operating in the black and grey economies can offer lessons in creativity and entrepreneurship.

“The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.”
Jung

Alexa explores the pioneering ways these groups are using the power of connections, building networks and working with peers to create new economic realities – or DIY capitalism. She says: “We don’t have to be isolated lone wolves if we choose to leave the main culture.”

Alexa dubs herself “chief misfit”. Her mother investigated “experiencers” of UFO abductions and her father spent time in the Amazon rainforest working with indigenous groups and building sustainable markets for smallholders.

She says: “You could say that growing up I was always surrounded by misfits, exploring new frontiers of consciousness and commerce.”

"Had I not created my whole world, I would certainly have died in other people’s."
Anais Nin

Culture hackers

Alexa says she found herself working with huge companies in the corporate “heart of darkness”. There she discovered a lost tribe of cultural hackers, or intrapraneurs, trying to bring change from within.

She explains: “They were in a factory culture and trying to introduce alternatives in the shadows of the ghosts of John Ford and Adam Smith.

“Looking at misfits within the system, you have to camouflage yourself and navigate the politics of the organisation.”

But she found some people do not thrive in these big institutions and she “started to look at people with more marginal influence but who created a ripple effect”.

She urges us to be myth-busters, talk to people that make us uncomfortable and to realise that reality is up for grabs.

“Question rationality as a basis of our existence. Question the structure of our economy, the myths we have created around industrial capitalism.”
Alexa Clay

What we can learn from six subcultures

Hackers

Hackers are often driven by cultural and social concerns to push against industrial encroachments. Alexa argues they are people movitated by wanting a different society. She says hackers such as Anonymous have a more egalitarian view of the world and a much more decentralised idea of management.

Historic pirate cultures

Historic pirate cultures are a symbol of insurgency and the underdog spirit, she says. They were one of the first groups to create constitutions, democratic charters and look at equal pay and the division of wealth.

The Amish

The Amish can teach us about collaborative approaches to entrepreneurship. Solo entrepreneurship is not the only path. The Amish community-based entrepreneurship includes a slow introduction of technology eg mobile phones with simple texts only.

Enspiral

Enspiral provides an example of how we build ways to mutualise resources, Alexa says. Web developers and other entrepreneurs in New Zealand share office space, lawyers, bank accounts and software. This freelance/entrepreneurial drive is combined with an Occupy culture and is built on a decentralised model. A portion of their pay goes back into the community.

Festivals

Festivals can show us elaborate ways of handling logistics. Burning Man bought land in Nevada to build a permanent structure. The power of temporary experience can be life-changing, Alexa says.

Hermits

Hermits are a radical DIY culture grounded in their own experiences but even they see the value of connections and have their own e-newsletters offering a different narrative when it comes to news.

Five recipes for misfit living

What are the rules? Anything you want. To bring in income we need to diversify, listen to our gut, follow the rabbit hole and have less premium on the originality of ideas. Alexa says tighter situations make us more innovative and we can tolerate risk by having an entourage of people to support us.

 She advises:

  1. Unlock resources, hustle and stay determined
  2. “Hack” systems in need of change
  3. Build on what is – copy and remix
  4. Prove alternatives, question myths
  5. Don’t be afraid to pivot.
“Things can be repurposed. The new economy has more democratised forms of ownership.”
Alexa Clay

Learn lessons from the inside...

Alexa has spoken with King Tone, the former leader of the Latin Kings to find out what it is like to run an underground organisation. She says: “The prison system is full of entrepreneurs, with skills they learned on the black market. They are not so good at risk management. How do we invite prisoners into our world?”

Be inspired by small towns...

“In a big city you’re just a consumer, in a local town you can see what you’re doing. Hack the system and become producers of place. Why do you have to leave where you’re from to have value in the world?”

Bring new realities to life...

Live action role playing taps into the idea of identity hacking. Players often say the characters they play seep into their personality. This can help them access hidden powers to become better public speakers or more extrovert, for example. Creating a fictional world or cultivating alter egos allows people to let it out, to create prototypes for new worlds. 

Alexa came up with Rebecca, an Amish Futurist, who “looks at the impact that technology is having on our minds, emotions, relationships, sense of place and purpose”. Through her Alexa says she can explore different ways of looking at technology and the impact it is having on our world.

Honour your elasticity...

We are programmed about how we behave, Alexa says. She urges a “small insurgency to push back” against these demands. “Fight against the pressures of commodification,” she says.

Neotribalism, she adds, is creating emerging models of community and cultures of collaboration.

“What new tribes will govern our public and private lives?” she asks. And how can we use their models to create best practice in our own work and personal worlds?

What's next?

Find out more at alexaclay.com and Neotribes.co

And find out what other inspiring speakers talked about at Small is Beautiful.

Read more about the Small is Beautiful Breakthrough Fellowships for Creative Graduate Startups funded by Skills Development Scotland.

Learn more about the character, reach and scale of Scotland’s Creative Industries by taking a look at the Skills Investment Plan.

Find out more about what Skills Development Scotland is currently supporting in this key sector.

Learn more about the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design 2016, including a toolkit to help businesses promote themselves.