Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Tech dreams become reality"

In today's article "Tech dreams become reality" the Advertiser initiates a series on the local economy with a piece that touts technology as the basis for future growth—and portray's Lafayette as having a leg up on most communities.

The story focuses on LONI, LITE, and the Fiber To The Home projects. The first two of those made significant progress during '06. LONI, the Louisiana Optical Networking Intitiative, links projects in Louisiana to each other and to the next generation internet. That project became a substantial reality this year. LITE, the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise, opened for business this year and its advanced visualization resources promise a wealth of spin-off projects.

UL's role in the technological life of Lafayette is underplayed—in this story and more generally—while ZEKE, the new supercomputer, is mentioned in the sidebar and as one more valuable tech resource, the really valuable resource the university offers is simply the intellectual center that any university represents. Lafayette's tech nexus offers advanced computation, networking, and modeling resources. But for those to be valuable they must be used. And for them to be valuable to Lafayette in a substantial way they need to be used by people in Lafayette. By far the largest body of folks eager to apply cutting edge tools to their life's work lies in academia. We need to make better use of that more generalized resource. (see "background remarks" below)

Unlike LITE and LONI Lafayette's Fiber to the Home Project (LaFTTH?), hung up in lawsuits designed to delay it, didn't make significant progress in 2006. The current lawsuit is in its final appeal in the Louisiana Supreme Court. If Lafayette can get what it wants out of this decision there is nothing else to stop the bond sale and subsequent construction of the system. From Keith Thibodeaux, Lafayette CIO:
"We're at the point now where there's going to be a decision. It's hard to get excited about something when it's hung up in the courts for months and months. But certainly a lot of people have not lost the fire and the desire for what it could mean," he said.
and
Thibodeaux said fiber-to-the-home is the last link needed to make the city's technology future really take off.
I'd go considerably further than that....the project is the real differentiator and the real powerhouse for Lafayette's hopes of a technology-driven future. We must find a way to implement what the community has voted in. Neither LONI, nor LITE, nor the university are unique in and of themselves. In combination they are formidable but, frankly, benefit only a segment of the community and are not enough of a differentiator in and of themselves to remake our future. Fiber to the home, done right, will make a difference on every block in the city and potentially every street in the parish. It could put full access to LITE (and similar institutions around the world) and a 100 megs or more of connectivity to next generation internet through LONI or our own direct connects into every garage startup in Lafayette. At prices real people, not just big corporations, could afford. The value of any technology, and especially any communication technology, lies in its widespread use and the things people learn to do with it that its originators didn't imagine. (The internet is considerably more than a nuclear-hardened communications system for controlling NORAD....or even passing bits of academic research back and forth.)

Fiber to the home and what Lafayette's people are encouraged and allowed to do with it are the true key to a tech future for Lafayette. Everything else represents valuable but temporary buisines advantages. FTTH is a permanent structural difference. Eyes on the prize folks.


[timeout for background remarks]
I've talked with enough folks here in Lafayette to know that in tech business circles there is a feeling that innovation arises in business and that academics, with a special emphasis on UL's academics, are dubious partners. That is simply not true and the attitude gets in the way of the sorts of collaboration that are possible--and I think crucial to the tech business community's own success. With apologies to the business community, academics are much more likely to pursue new tools than are the business community. Researchers are rewarded for simple risk-taking if the endeavor doesn't fail obviously and dramatically and appears to have some downstream hope of success. Business folk are looking for immediate payoffs and are punished unmercifully for deferring immediate success for dubious long term payoffs. This structural difference between business people and academics make university people the canary in the mine for business--they are able to take risks and experience failures that more risk-averse businessman simply cannot afford. Lafayette business ignores and excludes its academic resources at a terrible risk to itself.

It is true that academics are hard to understand and do not necessarily act in predictable ways...or at least not in ways the business community finds easy to predict. Truth is they simply do not care much about the sorts of motivations that drive business people. Success is measured differently in the intellectual community and while academics generally understand the difference (being in the minority in our larger culture) business people generally do not and tend to be unwilling to respect what their academic "partners" do to become successful in the university world. The usual business solution is to ally solely with those in the university whose motivations are most "entrepreneurial." This is a mistake in that it forfeits much of the value making alliances with academics.

Long story short: Encouraging academics to make creative use of these resources for their research and service projects is the quickest path to both full usage of the resources and the development of models of technology use that work for Lafayette. I'm not sure that Lafayette's tech business community gets it.

[/background remarks]

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