A refusal to sit still and watch the problem’s of the world go unsolved. A desire to reimagine and redesign realities, to disrupt stagnant patterns. Mike Zuckerman, a self-described culture hacker and urban development specialist, seems to have an innate ability to see around obstacles or perhaps, even use them as stepping stones for creative solutions — in community, civic innovation, and humanitarianism.

How Culture Hacking Can Change the World

By Mike Zuckerman
Sep 12, 2017

“The whole point is getting people to know that the humanitarian sector is not handling things properly … We need everybody. We need hoteliers and diners and business people and artists and everybody. It’s like trying to get everyone to consider themselves a humanitarian. That’s the purpose.” – Mike Zuckerman

A refusal to sit still and watch the problem’s of the world go unsolved. A desire to reimagine and redesign realities, to disrupt stagnant patterns. Mike Zuckerman, a self-described culture hacker and urban development specialist, seems to have an innate ability to see around obstacles or perhaps, even use them as stepping stones for creative solutions — in community, civic innovation, and humanitarianism.

The number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world has topped 65 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is the single biggest humanitarian crisis of our time, and as numbers increase every day, so does human suffering all around the world. While nations, to this day, refuse to acknowledge this issue as a global crises, members of our community such as Mike have taken matters into their own hands.

Back in 2013, Mike launched the worldwide [freespace] movement, inspired by the National Day of Civic Hacking when a building was gifted to the community for just $1. The radically low barrier to entry and open door policy lead to a hugely diverse range of people from different backgrounds connecting and creating projects together. Drawing on lessons learned over the years, Mike has taken huge steps towards expanding this movement and using it as a catalyst to lessen suffering in today’s abysmal refugee crisis.

Mike has been on the ground in the world’s oldest refugee settlement—the Nakivale settlement in South Western Uganda—where he participated in a 5K race with members of the first ever refugee Olympic team from Rio and has been implementing this culture hacking ethos in migrant camps and bringing hope to the future of migrant populations. Together with Habitas, Mike spearheaded the Rise initiative as a call to action for the entire hospitality industry to think past the concept of giving back and think more about working with, inspiring, and connecting with those whom they interact with. We have chosen Uganda as our first project, a country suffering one of the worst refugee problems in the world.

We see an opportunity to shift the situation from one of survival to one of thriving and becoming the solution. The goal? To establish culture hack infrastructure for the world to play and learn in.

We sat with Mike to learn about the developments with his work in Nakivale as well as to gather deeper understanding to help tackle the refugee crisis.

When did you begin working in Uganda? What made you shift your path towards that rather than other areas?

Well, I came here seven years ago for the World Cup in South Africa. And I showed the World Cup games for free in the slums, so I developed a relationship with people here. There’s also the conflict in South Sudan, which is the largest human migration issue right now. Nakivale is one of the oldest camps in the world, and they’re at 170,000 people. There’s like 1.2 million refugees in Uganda right now, and that’s expected to hit two million, maybe, by the end of the year. I came here because it’s more of a crisis.

You are a self described culture-hacker. What exactly does that mean to you? What is a culture hacker?

The concept is to use culture to bring people together. Once they’re together, ask them what they want. And then start to help them make that happen. It’s convening people, and then asking them what they want. That’s not the traditional way the humanitarian sector works, they usually come in and do what they want.

What are some of the problems that you identify right now, in the traditional humanitarian model?

It’s expensive, and it’s top-down. It’s inefficient. So many things. It’s not designed to handle the complexity of the current situation. And it’s also under-funded. That’s why I’m trying to create alternatives.

Are you planning on staying concentrated in Uganda? Do you think Uganda is really dealing with the majority of the problem right now?

It’s one of the places. Once you figure out how to have site control, how to have reach in a place, things become more manageable. Uganda is actually pretty good place to start because for example, in Greece, bureaucracy disrupts development. There’s a lot of regulations and taxes, and all sorts of stuff. So it’s difficult to make progress. So now the focus is Uganda, but definitely there’s the intention to expand to many other places.

What does community mean to you?

It’s people coming together through culture. It can be food, music, sports. And then having shared experiences to build relationships, and talking about what issues are affecting their local community; and take some steps to help each other in their locale: service to themselves.

Was that the strategy you used in Uganda?

Seven years ago I did the work-up. I brought with me a screen, and showed the World Cup to a lot of people. At half-time, we’d ask people what they wanted to do. And it’s the same methodology I’ve been using for the last seven years.

This is the key: having the ability to be there, and see it for yourself, and relate on a one-to-one level, rather than working with organizations that are not necessarily on the ground.

Yes. Being on the ground, creating gatherings where people that hang out, and going from there. And allowing them to be emergent. That’s the other thing. Instead of having a set plan going in, it’s being flexible and adaptive, and making sure we do what they want.

You have mentioned that you think hospitality brands could have a big influence in helping to increase awareness around humanitarian issues. Besides supporting with donations and visits, do you think there are other things hospitality brands should do to be more responsible, more cooperative?

They have to start developing new types of communities for people to live in, inside of refugee camps.

On a personal level, what are some things that people can do to help tackle the refugee crisis?

Well, the essential thing is to have people come visit the camps. But, in the meantime, I want to spread awareness of the failings of the humanitarian system and start a few fundraise campaigns. The whole point is getting people to know that the humanitarian sector is not handling it properly … We need everybody. We need hoteliers and diners and business people and artists and everybody. It’s like trying to get everyone to consider themselves a humanitarian. That’s the purpose. To free up a place that people can contribute to, and it will go directly to people, instead of an agency. And that’s kind of the whole point of getting land; so that there’s a place where we can give directly.