Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Dreaming: How To: Tech and Economic Development

Want to really understand how to start a new high tech business sector in your hometown? It has nothing to do with a new office park and everything to do with community.

I've talked to a number of people in Lafayette who would like to get a high tech arts and entertainment sector going in our city. Ideas for getting it started have ranged from video gaming, to video editing schools, to film production studios, and school curricula. They don't seem to have gained much traction.

Part of the problem with that strategy is that it is putting the cart before the horse. Building institutional tools to support a community is crucial. But first you have to have at least the start of a solid community to breath life into the institutions. That's seldom recognized --even by those doing the crucial work of developing that community.

That's why someone ought to applaud the work of Mae Chapman-Jason who started the Lafayette Film/TV and Music Industry meetup group described in an article in today's Advertiser.

She probably thought she was just helping herself and few friends get together to talk and help find work. But it sounds as though she is actually building community. She probably does not think that she is doing economic development work. She may not have a firm idea of what the phrase means.

But that is what she is doing. She is building a community and that is the crucial development work at this moment.

The meetup technology provides a nice, easy-to-manage way to arrange a meetup between folks who might not otherwise know each other, at least not directly. So technology helps even at this stage. But a successful group like this is the seed of a wide-ranging community of people who will, in pursuing their own interests, find the unique tools Lafayette has to offer and do something with it. They are the horse that will pull the cart of new institutions and programs.

Our economic development cadre is admirable but they should make it as much a part of their job to help create such community as to build or bring in businesses. The "creative class" that development theory seems enamored of recently is developed in local communities--and is understandably very resistant to leaving the communities that have fostered their talents. That's why folks go to L.A. or New York. And why they resist going to most places in the "sticks," no matter how attractive it might be otherwise.

Here's a thought: AOC would make the nucleus of a very nice community arts center focused on the range of creative endeavors from animation to video games to film-making and TV shows. There is considerable overlap in the technologies used in generating these new forms. They are fairly costly and a center would help beginners in that regard but even more they are tools that are mastered by communities and not individuals. There is simply too much to do and know. They are hard to learn and teaching each other is the only practical way for a community in a city like ours to build itself up.

It'd be the best economic development dollars ever spent.

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