Putting innovation on track: The millennials’ train to somewhere

September 5, 2013


The Trains Project was a cross-country journey and an awakening of ideas for 24 millennials. (Esha Chhabra)

In August, I rode with 24 “millennials” for 10 days across the United States in vintage 1950s trains with limited WiFi and cellphone coverage.

And it was bliss.

We were encapsulated in beautifully preserved Pullman and California Zephyr cars — a world from a bygone era.  It was the classiest, most inventive use of technology to drive social change in recent times.  And I learned that millennials are as folksy as they are futuristic, fascinated with old-school technologies and small-town America as much as Bay Area disruption and innovation.

This was more than a sightseeing journey (though we did gawk at the amazing scenery through the glass-encased dining car).  Patrick Dowd, a D.C. native and Georgetown graduate, concocted the Millennial Trains Project to drive social change.

He picked trains — vintage cars, in particular — because of their ability to transport, to create a “third space,” as he likes to say.  Lost in a different world, between cities, we built a unique community.

The idea for MTP stemmed from a similar voyage through India that Dowd joined as a Fulbright fellow. While he wanted to bring the concept of the cross-country Jagriti Yatra to the United States, he was keen on developing an environment that would allow for new ideas, collaboration and innovation.  “It should be comfortable enough that your mind can wander, think — in peace.”  For me, it certainly was.

MTP is hard to define.  It’s not a tech incubator.  Nor is it a platform for start-ups to pitch ideas, or to refine business plans.  It’s not a straightforward conference.  It’s a mish-mash of traveling, soul searching, innovation, mentorship and impromptu song-and-dance.  And that’s its selling point.

The millennials aboard pursued projects that were not always in sync with their professional lives.  These were passion projects — learning, for the sake of learning.  A novel idea in today’s time.

Cameron Hardesty reintroduced poetry to public spaces, like the Red Rocks of Denver.  In Salt Lake City, Travis Korte realized that Ancestry.com had pioneered “big data” before it became a buzzword.  Matthew Stepp connected with the country’s many energy innovators; now, he’s developing a State Energy Innovation Tracker to map out all the innovators he met across America.  Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan connected with relegated South Asian immigrants to understand their daily challenge to access health care and earn a fair wage.  Because the projects varied significantly, they created a kaleidoscopic view of the country.

The 24 mIllennials who signed up were true pioneers.  The details for the trip were still fuzzy — even when we arrived in San Francisco, a mere 48 hours before we boarded the train. So, this was a risk-taking group, seeking adventure, indicative of a generation that is increasingly abandoning cubicles for the open road.

With two more journeys scheduled for March and August 2014, along different transcontinental routes, the MTP team will have the challenge of recreating this pioneering team again.

How do you ensure diversity?  Dowd did it through crowd-funding.  All the participants had to raise $5,000 to participate.  No one could just “buy” their way on board.

So what’s the take-away from this cross-country trip?

Millennials, like everyone else, crave community — a real one, not a virtual one.  They are not just tech nerds. They are just as intrigued, if not more, by the small- and medium-sized cities of America than the New Yorks and San Franciscos.  They are fascinated by vintage ideas as much as vintage fashion.  They are doers, not just thinkers.

“It washed away my D.C. cynicism and boosted my internal idealism,” Stepp reflected at a dinner hosted by National Geographic after the train arrived in Washington.

“It made me want to explore America more, discover the globalism of America,” said Ann Yang, a Georgetown student who celebrated her 20th birthday on the train.

This was music to Malcolm Kenton’s ears.  He was one of the MTP participants, who also happens to be the Outreach Coordinator for the National Association of Railway Passengers.  Kenton was the Rick Steves of our journey: a human encyclopedia on train travel, passionate about a technology far beyond his years.

Kenton’s mission is to reignite a passion for rail travel in America. Back in D.C., now, he will be lobbying for more train tracks than highways.  Trains, he says, are the ideal millennial transport: gentle to the earth, cost-effective and allowing for smart use of time.

Dowd agrees.  Trains are the “new” smart technology — to move, to think, to collaborate, to travel with purpose.

Esha Chhabra reports on business, technology and social impact. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Economist, Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle. She wrote this article for Innovations.

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