Kamel Magour credits growing up in the immigrant ghettos of suburban Paris with teaching him to be an empathetic problem solver. “In a place where an entire community has nothing, you find creative ways to meet your own needs, and you become quick to perceive the needs of others. These were basic survival skills for me growing up.”
Kamel’s creativity and curiosity fuelled a lifelong interest in the roots of creativity, and the intersection between creativity and struggle. “I went to University in Manchester – a city which had slid into economic decline with deindustrialisation then blossomed into a centre of creativity. How many brilliant bands, artists and entrepreneurs have come out of there? Why does it have six fashion schools and a night life that’s as vibrant as London’s?” After completing his education and working in government long enough to know it wasn’t for him, he founded a series of start-ups. One of them, the House of Geeks, epitomises his mission.
It started out, literally, as a house. “I was looking for software engineers to hire, but couldn’t afford the prices in London. So I went to Morocco, where there were these incredibly bright and skilled engineers. The tragedy of course is that few of them stay in Morocco – and you can hardly blame them – they get sent to good schools by families who sacrifice expecting economic return, which is more often to be found in London, New York or Beijing. But I had an idea that if I caught them early, and could bring some of those Chinese and American and European contracts to them, there might be a win-win situation there. Starting out, we couldn’t afford to pay our first interns, but we had a place they could stay. So we fixed it up, brought graffiti artists in to bring up the energy level, created a learning environment that offered training, put a makers lab in, a game room — we were prototyping a very different kind of development house. And I thought something I could bring to them in terms of their own education was a spirit of entrepreneurship. For the most part, these guys were products of a school system that taught them to follow orders rather than break rules. So I started to think about how I could create an environment that would actually turn technicians into self-starting leaders.”
Like any prototype, it took a few iterations to get it right. Class 0 failed when his intern’s families pulled them out — this wasn’t the high-paying job with a big-name company that was expected to launch their career path.
“It was more like a kibbutz,” Kamel says, and while it was eventually one where people did get paid, it was always going to be about more than just getting paid. With the help of the THNK Creative Leadership Program, Kamel realised he was building a resource not just for customers wanting digital products but a community resource for Morocco and a cocoon of higher values.
The recruitment website for House of Geeks doesn’t look like your average software engineer recruitment page. It sports a beautifully designed values mandala with fun at the centre, orbited by transparency, integrity, passion, subversion and risk-taking. There are images of wisdom-questing rabbits. It talks about helping to develop emotional intelligence alongside hard skills. Of software engineers as artists, and it embeds its search for talent in a cultural context and mission that has a sweep far beyond building cool apps and websites. The House of Geeks doesn’t just want engineers, it wants “technological problem solvers who will help emerging countries build their resilience toward climate change and the challenges of the 21st century.”
Soon the House of Geeks was attracting not only some of the best technical talent in Morocco, but some great contracts as well. What wasn’t keeping up were the administrative and contract management infrastructure, which were practically non-existent. Kamel learned that neither his eye for talent, nor his creative skills, nor the brilliant software engineering skills of his partner, filled the gap of project management or process design. Which is when House of Geeks and Kamel’s “dream agency,” Geeksters, decided it was time to teach an artificial intelligence, or AI, the art of project management. They automated every process they could automate, including on-boarding clients and handling their daily communication. They named their creation Samantha, inspired by the fictional operating system in the film “Her.” She was added to the staff list with the title of “Project Manager.” They’re teaching her to speak.
“We were the first agency to have managed its own digital transition. And when I say digital transition I don’t mean tweaking processes to marginally increase your productivity… we’re talking about the total disruption of an AI completely taking over a once-exclusively human task.”
Kamel sees the House of Geeks as an incubator for change, an agency that’s hacking the code of what it means to be an agency. It’s a fractal reflection of a larger process by which the rapid development of artificial intelligence will require us to hack the code of the social contract.
”We’re in the big bang days of AI, and the social implications are going to be profound. In the US, one of the most common jobs in 47 out of 52 states is the truck driver. But we already have AI’s that can do that job. And we’re developing AIs that will replace millions of middle management jobs.” By some estimates, more than half of today’s jobs might be automated by AI within the next 20 years. Kamel believes that without some serious collective thinking and exploration of ideas like guaranteed basic income, the social upheaval will be massive.
“But it can also be liberating. It can make space for people to be their best selves. To be more self reliant and more useful to others. I want to help make that happen. I want a highly distributed revolution.”
To Kamel’s thinking, a revolution that truly serves humanity and creates a better future will be hastened not by incremental activism, but by helping individuals become more conscious: by training people in the intelligence of the heart. He sees the impact of trying to shape the future through policy or the work of NGOs or confrontational activism as one with a mixed record – one that’s all about convincing people and institutions to do the right thing. “When you raise someone’s consciousness, you don’t need to convince them. They see it. I spent so much time working on big issues until I realised I was trying to boil the ocean. The real challenge, and in my view the silver bullet, is to help people have a more intelligent heart, to detox not just their body, but their mind and spirit. That began for me with hacking my own code, finding my own triggers, figuring out my larger mission. It continues by helping the people around you to hack their own operating systems, and widening the circle of people you can reach, help, and be helped by.”
Kamel thanks THNK for creating a safe space where he could nurture some of his embryonic thinking about the House of Geeks and Geeksters. Introduced by Rand Hindi, Kamel saw the cardinal values of THNK as very similar to his own, and he relished the creative pressure cooker it provided for peer consultation, for coaching, and for exploring the ideas of like-minded people who want to impact the world.
Kamel incubated the Geekster Manifesto while at THNK. It helped him find focus among all the threads he was pulling at. “Without a set of framing values, the threads tangle into a messy ball of string. You pull at one and it tangles the others, creates dissonance. But if you align all your decisions with your mission and values they resonate and respond to each other. By being consistent you concentrate the signal. The threads become a single cloth. This was one of the insights I got from THNK, hacking the code of myself and the universe in a very humble way.”
Asked what kind of people Kamel would encourage to join THNK’s Creative Leadership Program, he observes that THNK is incredibly diverse across many cultural and political axes, but fairly homogenous in the economic origins of its students. “Some of the highest potential individuals I’ve ever met were not the ones who were captains of industry or firebrand entrepreneurs or speakers at conferences: they were the people I grew up with in the Parisian ghetto. They had everything it takes except the access to opportunity. And we’re living in a world now where both income disparity and that gap between people who have access to opportunity and those who don’t is widening. I’d say reaching those kinds of people would be a brilliant expansion.”
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