Two weeks ago, Smart Growth America held an event called “Tech in the City” in Washington, D.C. Now, D.C. may seem like an unlikely place for Sarasota to look for inspiration, but cities both big and small have one thing in common: They are all challenging Silicon Valley’s dominance of tech and finance.
Figuring out how to grow a local tech industry seems like an industry all of its own. Branding is a big part of this: New York has become "Silicon Alley," Kansas City is "Silicon Prairie" and Santa Monica is now "Silicon Beach." Beyond branding---what are these cities doing?
Tech in the City did a good job highlighting themes:
The start-up ecosystem matters – Peter Corbett of iStrategyLabs has been building D.C.’s ecosystem, which includes MeetUps, events, a social media week, videos and blogging. He was honest: The ecosystem, vision and momentum on the East Coast belong to New York City. Perhaps as finance capital of the world, they got a leg up. But Mayor Bloomberg basically made a tech city a priority, using hack-a-thons, specialized maps, contests and hookups to get the right people together.
Philadelphia is also chasing the tech capital title, and mentor Mike Krupit uses the four-legged stool analogy:
1. Desire for Impact – the ultimate ecosystem has to be on everyone’s radar
2. Big Companies that hire and spin off talent
3. Universities that play better in the ecosystem
4. City Infrastructure
Affordability – Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s Head of Planning, reminded the audience that more and more talent is leaving college (and mid-career training) with crushing debt. Cost of living seems like a “well, duh,” but aren't big cities such as San Francisco, New York and D.C. expensive? This is where the big cities are doubling down to drive down costs. First, there is transportation. Even if you spend $1,000 a year on bus fare, ditching a car is like an $8,000 a year raise, according to AAA. Then there is workspace. D.C. is now negotiating shared workspace in new site plans. The old model of requiring retail in every ground-floor space is not working. We miss the fact that the goal is not retail, but activity. Vacant retail in this overbuilt environment does more harm than good. On the other hand, active tech space enlivens the street scene. The other thing about tech space is an attention to bare-bones workspaces that can later be converted to other active uses. The building materials for tech space are sold in office supply stores: Post-it notes, white boards, routers.Density – To quote Peter Corbett again, “Density is D.C.’s X-factor.” Density is how D.C. competes with the sprawling campuses in Silicon Valley. But density is really everyone’s X-factor. In fact, Silicon Valley’s giants like Google have to provide shuttles to and from San Francisco, because that is where the workers want to live. I previously highlighted how Tony Hsieh of Zappos wants to transform Las Vegas not with a catchy new name but a total package, including urban planning. More people in meaningful settings means more activity, collisions and idea-sharing.
The end game, however, is not density per se or even shifting the local job base to tech. The end game is creating great places and understanding your local strengths in a global economy where some jobs can go anywhere but many service jobs can’t. This is where a start-up mentality helps. Many start-ups are disrupters that challenge ossified thinking and routine. Start-ups also have a great tolerance for failed experiments where a prototype ultimately leads to the next, better version of a solution. Start-ups are lean, which helps in today’s environment. Finally, start-ups are obsessed with combining people, mainly through face-to-face encounters. Social media is great; social settings are greater.
With this in mind, what is Sarasota’s X-factor for building tech into the local economy?