27 Jan 2018
New York City
Can cryptocurrency empower next-generation designers?
Sndbox's co-founder Kirk Finkel thinks so.
"As designers we create so many iterations and only a fraction of that work gets to be the final product, while the majority of the process goes to waste and has no monetary value to the designer or the client."
Kirk Finkel is a designer with a focus on architectural, environmental and socially collaborative projects. He earned a Master’s in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University and holds a Bachelor’s in Architecture from Cornell University.
He is the co-founder of Sndbox, a multimedia incubator that utilizes blockchain technology to empower impactful and creative projects worldwide. Before founding his own company, he worked for Cooper Robertson in New York City, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia, and is a co-founder of the design collective Hither Yon.
Kirk, tell us a little bit about your background, and how you first got interested in the field of design?
With respect to design, I have always been a very visual person. I grew up in Philadelphia, a place with rich culture and a long history that captured my curiosity as a child. At the same time, I belonged to a very observant and creative family. My mother is a writer and my father, who also explored architecture, is now a University professor in the field of history and liberal arts. Observing and creating things was a big theme in my family; my dad always says “seeing is good, but knowing makes it even richer.” It is worth sharing, that I was extremely shy as a child. So from early on, my parents gave me a box of markers, and I would draw things I saw around me that interest me. In a way, from a young age, I learned to be observant of the world around me and began to figure things out through drawing.
We heard you recently left an established architectural firm to start the world’s first cryptocurrency funded design cooperative called Sndbox. Can you tell us a little more about what this really means?
Sndbox is an incubator. We help creatives- artists, writers, architects, musicians, illustrators to earn cryptocurrency and fund their respective projects. People can apply to Sndbox with a project idea and we help them navigate the blockchain ecosystem to raise Steem, a cryptocurrency similar to Bitcoin. The revolutionary aspect of Steem, and the central premise of our incubator, is that content creators get rewarded for the work they publish on the Steem blockchain. Participants are rewarded with equity in the very platform they contribute to, and held to build. This is something that has been deeply missing from traditional creative practices; as designers we create so many iterations and only a fraction of that work gets to be the final product, while the majority of the process goes to waste and has no monetary value to the designer or the client. Sndbox wants to add value to the creative process and celebrate all the energy that goes into making things!
You have been involved with some pretty amazing projects; from art, to architecture and urban design. What inspired you to co-found Sandbox?
Sndbox felt like a natural progression from what I have done in the past. In 2011 I co-founded the Hither Yon art collective with three other architects. At the time, we were living and working in Berlin, using our architecture skills to do experimental art projects with and exploring the local East Berlin community. I loved the energy of the collaborative environment and while working as an architect in New York I craved a more interdisciplinary conversation. Within the design world, technology constantly offers new opportunities, and while I am not an expert, I have always been curious about that. And that is how Sndbox was born; out of a belief that merging cryptocurrency with the design world can empower individuals to create physical projects.
"Within the design world, technology constantly offers new opportunities, you don't have to be an expert, but you should challenge yourself to be perceptive and curious."
What excites you most about the possibilities and opportunities of the cooperative you started?
Sndbox allows designers like myself to connect with the growing cryptocurrency community that is now exploring a new territory. It is empowering to connect to people and places I would otherwise not have access to. At Sndbox we now count more than 100 members from 20 different countries. You can imagine it is quite an explorative scene and the conversations are highly stimulating.
"We like to think about Sndbox like a campus; we are a diverse group of people with completely different skillsets, experiences, aesthetics, learning from each other and facilitating networks that could not exist in any other way."
"Can we leverage a global audience to fund local projects that communities need?"
How would you compare this virtual creative community to the more conventional design community?
We like to think about Sndbox like a campus; we are a diverse group of people with completely different skillsets, experiences, aesthetics, learning from each other and facilitating networks that could not exist in any other way. Our members are content creators, often collaborating with people from different regions. Most importantly, it is the process of collaboration that gets rewarded with cryptocurrency, empowering exploration, trial and error, even failure and not just the delivery of end products. It is liberating, fun and offers the ground for true innovation.
Tell us a few words about Steem Park, Sndbox’s latest project.
Steem Park is an art installation and a community garden in Brooklyn New York, funded solely with Steem, a cryptocurrency that was crowdfunded by Sndbox. The goal was simple; can we leverage a global audience to fund local projects that communities need? When we approached the local park conservancy in Bed Stuy we found that while the local community values open space, they do did not have funding, and they have not had adequate funding to do a public art program for twenty years. The nature of the project was very experimental but the response from the Steem and broader cryptocurrency community was overwhelming; we shared every step of the process with the public and managed to raise enough funds. It was obvious to us that both online and offline crowds are looking for places to put their energy and add value to. Steem Park proves that Sndbox can facilitate a grassroots, bottom-up urban project.
"Overall, we are trying to have fun and learn from it! It’s maddeningly exhausting and turbulent work, but we have a blast doing what we do everyday."
We understand that you have a business partner. Can you tell us about your relationship and how does the creative exchange work between you?
Michael Lee and I met in architecture school and have known each other since 2006. Prior to Sndbox, we co-founded with two other friends the Hither Yon art collective and knew that we made a strong team. In this new endeavor we continue to play off each other’s strengths; I am leading the creative direction of the platform and Michael is in charge of business development and does most of the outreach. Overall, we are trying to have fun and learn from it! It’s maddeningly exhausting and turbulent work, but we have a blast doing what we do everyday. This experimental business model can empower designers and allows for innovation; and this is what keeps us going!
What has your biggest challenge been as you grow the business? What did you encounter that was unforeseen, or a surprise to you?
When you are in charge of your business and as the team grows, managing time becomes exceptionally important. Don’t forget that Sndbox has a global audience and hence, it is a 24/7 community. Managing time has been a valuable learning process for us. We are constantly monitoring what works for our business and where to focus our energy most impactfully.
What is the best advice that you can give to someone who is also thinking of starting their own business?
When you are starting a business do not just look at people of your trade, look at people from diverse backgrounds. So often people isolate themselves in networks with same-minded individuals leading in endless loops of affirmation. I know it is hard to be challenged, but it forces you to grow and keep the business relevant. So I feel it is increasingly important to reach outside one’s professional expertise and trust in the knowledge of others.
Thank you Kirk for your interesting insights into the potential of cryptocurrency and how it has impacted the design landscape. For more information on Sndbox, please see the company's website here.
If you would like to read more stories about other designers and creatives at the forefront of their industry, visit our conversations page for monthly updates.
Text edited by Katie Kasabalis, Photography and layout by Darius Woo