Martin Hollinetz founded OTELO to develop the creativity, responsiveness, and entrepreneurial quality of citizens across Austria.
The New Idea
Martin is building an empowered and vitalized citizen base to create a new quality of life for rural Austrians. He is the founder of OTELO, a network of open technology laboratories, spaces designed for and by people of all ages to experiment, collaborate, communicate, and exchange with community members about topics they want to take action on or simply learn more about. OTELO fosters creativity, principles of sharing, and action based on shared passion in rural parts of Austria previously isolated and devoid of creative spirit. OTELO encourages people to build ideas together in a wide-range of fields including creative economy, media, education, agriculture, robotics, and innovation in corporations.
The OTELO network is replacing the isolation of rural life with participation in regional development. Martin’s systems-changing innovation works at the personal level, group level, and regional level: first OTELO asks what people want and provides the structure to connect those previously not connected (i.e. companies, citizens and politicians). OTELO enables ideas to come to life once a group of five individuals reach consensus together, test their idea, and open it up to the public. OTELO taps into the natural human instinct to share passions, creating the structure to find out what these passions are through self-discovery.
OTELO has become a model for how to promote community, creativity, and collective action among citizens in rural areas, and it is using its success to challenge conventional notions about the role of the rural citizens in regional development. Founded in 2010 OTELO has since opened seven locations throughout upper Austria, with plans to launch an additional 20 locations in the next three years. Since launching OTELO, Martin has received requests to expand to South Africa, India, and Germany. Two German OTELOs are currently in the startup stage. Martin is developing a franchise model to spread beyond German-speaking countries, as well as into urban areas.
OTELO addresses the lack of citizen inclusion in regional development in rural Austria. Regional development programs in Austria do not develop, capture, or inspire creativity in rural areas, but instead rely on outdated top-down approaches governed by party politics. Strong social and historical patterns reinforce this institutional dysfunction and a reliance on the state. After World War II, European states invested significant resources into building safe and strong structures. Rural areas today, however, lack open spaces and flexible structures that promote creativity—in companies, local communities, industries, and the education system. As a result, citizens lack the supporting structure to experiment, exchange ideas, and act in new ways. More importantly, they also do not feel entitled to this type of personal questioning and may lack the self-permission to change normative structures. In search of acceptance of differences, flexibility, and a creative culture, people often migrate to urban areas, where jobs, stimulation, and a sense of belonging abound.
The powerful and relatively inflexible state structures have contributed to a more systemic problem of people not knowing what they want to change. People, especially in rural areas, fear personal questioning. The only open spaces that exist in Austria today for these purposes are restricted to specific fields or population subgroups—such as computer “geeks” or young people. People of all ages and interests however, seek a work and life balance that begins with self-development. Without personal development and creativity, citizens do not feel entitled or interested in envisioning and acting on the changes society needs.
The traditional economic, agricultural and institutional systems of Austria are not strong, flexible, or independent enough to sustain themselves and be competitive without creative minds to guide them. Historically a model for agriculture, Austria’s current agricultural presence in rural areas is dwindling. Fewer people are interested and involved in this field than in past generations. The industrial sector in Austria is also less competitive than in the past and there is very limited skilled labor in rural areas. The school system is not harnessing creative and independent thinking and students must often travel long distances to attend. Companies rarely expand to rural areas. Without creative minds, these patterns of deteriorating systems will persist and break down the communities of rural Austria.
OTELO is an abbreviation for open technology lab. Martin believes in the importance of a name that people can easily understand and identify with, as the process of personal discovery that OTELO fosters is key for change in rural areas. In order for an OTELO to launch, there must be (i) community with interest (ii) empty rooms and (iii) an agreement from local authorities to subsidize the cost of the rooms and a fast Internet connection.
Every OTELO consists of a number of meeting spaces, such as a kitchen to cook and share meals together, an open area for idea exchange, open labs for textiles, mechanics, and other skill sets, and rooms called NODES. In order to receive a room at OTELO, at least five people must come together to create a NODE-5. They must also be able to describe the idea they would like to pursue together in five clear sentences. The room they then receive is entirely empty and subject to NODE-5’s creativity to design. The NODE-5 becomes part of the OTELO network, accessing its community of people, companies, politicians, and ideas. Every NODE-5 must also ensure community participation in their idea; through other NODES or broader outreach.
OTELO delineates three distinct phases for every NODE: the Think NODE phase receives support from OTELO in forming their idea. OTELO brings them together with scientists, politicians, or other contacts that are relevant to their subject matter. In the Think NODE phase, the NODE-5 may or may not need actual physical space. Once the idea becomes clear, the NODE progresses into the Game NODE phase. This phase is unique because it is the time distinct for “playing” with the idea. There are no goals required and the NODE does not have to report back every week to OTELO. The only requirement of the NODE-5 during this time is that they share, give feedback and include the community. Martin refers to this the phase as the “time when the heart can grow.” When the idea is ready for the next phase, it progresses into the Goal NODE phase, where action and implementation becomes the focus.
Martin has created an organizational structure that allows people to ask themselves what they want to do. He creates space for this process to materialize, and creates the network for it to flow into society. Martin does this in a non-threatening way that allows all age groups to join. Georg, for example, is a 30-year-old man who had an idea for a silicon chip that enables transmission of content into community radios. He craved time and a simple lifestyle from his corporate life, so he quit his job in search of something more fulfilling. He discovered OTELO, joined a NODE-5 to advance his idea, and received support from OTELO to convert it into a product. Georg is now involved in many other NODES and has his own radio station that broadcasts content throughout Upper Austria. In this process he created a new balance in his life, and in turn so has his community who now can access the radio. Today many people like Georg seek more simple lifestyles. OTELO provides them with the open, yet structured solution to advance their ideas to build a quality of life for themselves and their communities.
The OTELO organizational structure is powerful because it has multiple entry points and is open to anyone who expresses interest. This organizational structure is tied to its impact on people. There are no requirements to participate or be involved except being prepared to share. OTELO allows people to articulate their interests at a higher level, which can shift how money is spent from the bottom-up. In fact, companies have sought out OTELO on many occasions as a way to foster personal development and retention of their employees. Companies have several different capacities for involvement with OTELO—as supporting members, project partners, or by providing staff to conduct a workshop at OTELO or join OTELO. The result is a revived sense of creativity and innovation in the companies’ employees, which manifests in the corporation’s culture and products. In addition to linking with companies, OTELO links with schools by building small OTELOS in empty school rooms. This space allows parents to foster an exchange, in a place where kids can participate. Parents may make presentations and workshops, which are based on what they really want to share. They are not restricted by the curriculum and can think freely and openly, which trickles up to the school curriculum and administration. Finally, the OTELO organizational structure enables political participation: OTELO provides opportunities for people to meet at OTELO to discuss a variety of topics, especially political. For example, an OTELO member recently hosted a discussion about the economic power of conscience, incorporating both citizens and politicians. OTELO is a safe, free space where politicians and citizens can discuss matters together, at the same level. Over time, OTELO’s structure unleashes a more flexible, responsive, and interconnected society.
At the age of 10, Martin wrote his first manifesto about the restrictions in the educational system in Austria. Today this manifesto continues to be a subject of conversation between Martin and his father, a school director. Martin’s father has always challenged him to discover how the educational system can provide broad education beyond specific occupational training. Or how, if at all, it is possible to merge professional work with personal development. These questions represent a common thread throughout Martin’s life and a process of reflection that was first sparked as a child.
During university studies in electronics, Martin’s academic advisor resigned and he saw this as an opportunity to organize his own curriculum. Martin developed his interests and strengths within a supervised curriculum framework that he created. By his second apprenticeship year, Martin had become the production manager in an electronics company. Martin’s unique interdisciplinary education taught him the value of a structured and supportive environment for free talent development and creativity. Soon after ending his studies, he founded a company working with information technology and knowledge management, where he began to experiment with uncommon working spaces, such as shared workplaces. He employed 40 people, but eventually left it to pursue work with a social focus. Instead of managing a growing company, he sought out the topic of organic, sustainable growth and new forms of work.
Soon after, Martin became a regional manager for the ESF in Upper Austria. The fund provides each country with a budget to implement, but the implementation does not hinge on citizen participation because it is the regional managers who execute programs. Martin drafted numerous applications for EU-funded rural development projects and quickly learned that the capacity for innovation in regional development agencies is relatively low due to political dependencies. He also conducted various studies on demographic transition out of rural areas, built a network that serves him well in his OTELO work, and developed the first ideas for the OTELO concept.
Martin received a request from the parents of a 12-year-old boy. The boy had created a highly complex computer game on the floor of his bathroom, but lacked sufficient space, time, and people to support him. He needed expert advice to build his idea beyond his bathroom floor; his schoolteachers and others he discussed his idea with did not appreciate it. The boy’s parents contacted the regional management and asked if there was someone who could help their son, or a place he could meet other young people to further his idea. Through a long series of connections Martin put the boy in touch with the science center network: Martin contacted schools, mayors, companies, universities, and finally the Minister of Science, who knew someone who knew someone to help the boy. The boy eventually won a small budget of €500 (US$684) to develop the game. He went on to win awards and tour throughout Austria sharing his idea. Martin recognized that his parents were quite remarkable to find a soft spot in the system. Yet Martin also recognized that not every parent or child can be so resourceful. At that moment, Martin felt drawn to this need for a network of interconnectedness and support that not only enables people to pursue ideas, but that creates an environment and context that actually encourages ideas to exist and spread. With OTELO, the 12-year-old boy no longer needs his bathroom floor to create his computer game, but can connect with OTELO’s network, and even build his idea alongside other inspired people, adults and kids alike.
Martin believes in the power of new types of interaction to drive inspiration, creativity, community, and ideas. He believes that when used in a structured yet open way, space can entirely change the quality of ideas and the inspiration to implement them. Martin created OTELO to foster a citizen base that is not victim to government authorities saying, “This is what you are going to do,” but instead empowered to respond: “This is what we need.”