By Alisha Dalvi
When we think about our socio-economic future, endless possibilities come to mind. You may be concerned about the changing climate or advancements in technology or how various social groups interact with each other. Or maybe you’re thinking on a smaller scale, interested in how your community will be affected. Ilana Lipsett explores all of these facets. As a senior program manager at Institute for the Future, a non-profit encouraging individuals and organizations to plan for the long-term, Lipsett looks at the world-to-come through a collaborative lens. But her dedication to innovative futures transcends her office. As a judge and mentor of the Big Ideas Contest, housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, Lipsett has become a key piece of the program and an exemplar for students who too hope to redesign how we approach forthcoming generations.
Lipsett is a Bay Area native, born and raised in the East Bay, and frequented UC Berkeley for summer school growing up. She attended college across the state at UC San Diego, studying History, French Literature, and Music. Her unique educational focuses led her down a long and windy road of various disciplines: She started off in Washington, D.C. at the intersection of labor and politics, working on everything from political campaigns to advocacy work for displaced workers. Ten years later, she returned to the Bay Area to get her M.B.A. in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School. During and after grad school, Lipsett worked for the City of San Francisco at the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. This kickstarted her work in urban development with an emphasis in community engagement; her advocacy for creating accessible and inclusive public spaces and public-facing activities translated across different domains: from the City of San Francisco, to a private real estate developer, to her own business, and even at an international scale, supporting community spaces in refugee camps.
Now, Lipsett advances her brand of public engagement and participatory design at the Institute for the Future (IFTF). Her work has a civic-futures focus, entwining sustainable community solutions into everything from political systems to real estate. One of her many ongoing projects works to expand a predominantly POC housing co-op in San Francisco by creating an accessible STEM center and Performing Arts Center in unoccupied buildings. But Lipsett also values impact through education. At IFTF, Lipsett teaches public classes to an international audience on design futures and foresight essentials. “I really want to give people the tools to think about how the future can be different,” she says. “Then encourage them to get creative and make the changes so they can move towards their preferred future.” Lipsett certainly practices what she preaches: As a singer and songwriter for “The Seastars,” a girl band that uses music to advocate for a climate sustainable future, Lipsett taps into her creative side to encourage others to change their behavior in favor of our environment.
When she is not busy changing the future and using music to empower the world, Lipsett carries teams to victory in the annual Big Ideas competition. Lipsett first heard about Big Ideas in 2018 through her friend, Dani Bicknell, a program manager for Big Ideas at the time. Bicknell told her about the competition and asked if she wanted to be a part of it. “I always love to be involved in the local community, but Big Ideas especially felt like a great fit with the skills I have to offer and how I want to be connecting with others,” Lipsett says. So, on whim, she said yes, but just as a one-time commitment. But that one time, where she served as both a judge and a mentor to a team, was such an incredible experience that she immediately knew that it wouldn’t be her last. “It was such an amazing opportunity to see students see potential in something new,” she says.
As a judge, Lipsett reads and judges student entrants’ social innovations’ pre-proposals based on a specific scorecard, deciding whether it should move on to the final round. There are four factors on which pre-proposals are measured: viability, originality, team, and quality. “Saying no is probably the hardest part,” she admits. “Every proposal is so interesting and creative.” After the finalists have been determined, Lipsett is matched with a team of students to act as their mentor. Lipsett highlights how perfectly aligned she was with teams she was matched with. For example, one project she mentored, Doin’ Good, aimed to provide vocational education to Syrian refugees in Lebanon by creating mobile maker spaces and education centers out of a van. Conveniently, Lipsett had just come back from Bangladesh, creating maker spaces at refugee camps there. And Lipsett’s expertise certainly paid off — Doin’ Good won first in the Workforce Development track in 2019 and was a Grand Prize finalist!
As a mentor, Lipsett meets with her mentees every week, setting a timeline of work to be done and anticipating and preemptively addressing potential challenges or gaps. From providing connections to people working in the field to helping with the budget, Lipsett was the go-to person whenever her team was stuck. But Lipsett believes it’s the students’ drive that allows the project to flourish. One team Lipsett mentored, Send Help, proposed an AI chatbot that connects citizens with police alternatives during non-emergencies. Essentially, they wanted to make calling non-police first responders as easy as calling 911. Lipsett suggested to the team that the proposal needed an endorsement from public officials, and the next thing she knew, the team had met with the Berkeley City Council and got letters of approval from policymakers.
Lipsett is certainly not short of accolades in her own endeavors for innovative change. In 2013, the White House awarded the Champion of Change Award to her and her team for creating [freespace], a movement dedicated to activating vacant spaces as temporary community, cultural, and art hubs. [freespace] (written with the brackets) was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, created by the Obama White House, encouraging everyday citizens to get involved in addressing civic issues in their neighborhood. Lipsett, with her team, came up with an idea: “What if we create a community space as a platform instead of focusing on one specific issue?” So, they found a 14,000-square-foot warehouse on the market for $25,000 a month and convinced the landlord to rent it to them for $1. This was the birth of [freespace]. The project had two rules: everything had to be free, and everything had to be participatory.
“It opened up as an experiment, we didn’t have goals or expectations, we didn’t know where it would go,” Lipsett recalls. But the success was hard to believe. “People would come for one thing and stay for another.” There were paella cooking lessons while artists were making sculptures during a class for programming LED Lights. At one workshop, facilitators encouraged kids from the local Boys and Girls Club to create their own superheroes. Then, costume designers turned their visions into reality, working with the kids to create personalized superhero costumes. This likely would not have happened if not for the random human collision which [freespace] cultivated; the workshop idea came to the costume designers after spending time in [freespace], often surrounded by children. Seeing the benefits of giving the community a space with an open invitation to do and create anything inspired a whole [freespace] movement: While the space in San Francisco was always meant to be temporary, 26 different locations opened across 18 countries around the world.
This year, Lipsett mentored yet another Big Ideas team. She values investing time to enhance and encourage students’ social innovations. And while she has decades of experience and serves as a mentor, Lipsett still feels she has a lot to learn from others, whether it’s kids with superhero dreams or grad students providing safer alternatives to police calls. “Working with such determined students is so energizing, the whole process is definitely mutually beneficial,” she says.