Friday, September 14, 2007

Public-Private-University: The Reality & the Potential

A report from the Advertiser presents an overview of the speakers on "technology and knowledge economy" at a Chamber breakfast at the Petroleum Club (a location redolent of the old rather than the new economy). The Advertiser's Bob Moser leads with the money qoute:
Lafayette has put itself in a great position to lead the future "technology and knowledge economy," a Mississippi economic leader told a local business crowd on Thursday.
Randall Goldsmith, head of the Mississippi Technology Alliance, was the leadoff in a session that also featured Lafayette's Ramesh Kolluru, Keith Thibodeaux, and Doug Menefee.

The Reality
I was pleased to see some positive discussion of the essential role of the University in any hope Lafayette business might have of riding the technology wave. Not mincing words: I am often appalled at the dismissive attitude that I find pervasive in the Lafayette business community regarding the role of ULL as the engine of tech growth. Put plainly, without ULL there would be not tech be a sector in Lafayette. There is no hope of staying ahead of the curve without the academics. They are the essential players. It really is that simple and a Chamber breakfast that seems to treat that as a given is a great relief.

LONI and LITE were apparently the focus of discussion and both, of course, are academic ventures. (Again: without ULL neither could exist—and more pointedly neither would have even been conceived.) LITE will need careful, tolerant, encouragement from the local community. It is a new concept and is a tool rather than a product to boot; as such it so will take time to develop its niche. (Impatient parties should review the rocky early history of Baton Rouge's Pennington Biomedical Center and consider what the consequence would have been if Baton Rouge's business leaders had demanded immediate, local payback in terms of focusing on fostering old-style local private medical practices and hospitals in Greater Baton Rouge. —It would have destroyed what has become an outstanding world-class asset.) In a similar vein LONI—and its connections to Internet2/LamdaRail, are all fundamentally academic interconnects. It is a creature which, will benefit a larger community but not something that would exist as an asset for Louisiana or Lafayette if it hadn't been created by the Universities.

It goes without saying, or should, that without the private and governmental sectors actively and passionately involved the possibilities that ULL offers the community cannot be realized. They, too, are essential. But no one should mistake the reality: while a strong business community and a wise government are central to Lafayette's growth they could not create the resource that is represented by ULL; they could, however, fail to take advantage of it.

Oddly in my view, the
"technology and knowledge economy" event did not include a focus on the most significant (academic or non-academic) initiative in the city—and arguably the very one that will have the greatest immediate impact on the ability of Chamber members to compete from a position on the high ground with their national and international opposition: the LUS Fiber project. That project will provide a ground-breaking 100 or more megs of intranet connection to every citizen who signs on—and that could easily be 50 or more percent of the market. Young and old, poor and rich, white and black, Creole, Cajun, French, and Americain. It will be coupled with a state-of the art wireless network that will actually work. It will all be available in the least expensive parts of the city to large, small, tiny entrepreneurs and regular folks who, if they so chose to grasp it, will have bandwidth previously available only in to mega corps and university campuses. What will we do with all that? Who knows? But rest assured that the vacuum will be filled. Why no mention? What's up with that sort of blind spot?...The really interesting discussion would have been of how to leverage this uniquely Lafayette convergence of the muscle of private initiative, municipal community-mindedness, and the restless exploratory energy of Academia to benefit the community.

The Potential
It would be pretty easy to imagine a research project that encourages ULL professors to develop an expertise in the popular use of really large bandwidth. It would involve both social and technical research and would draw in artists, playwrights, and mulitmedia folks of all strips in testing content. It's the sort of research project with tentacles into every department that a first-rank research 1 University would salivate over. But none of them have the essential resource. Consider: Lafayette will shortly have more bandwidth in the hands of a larger number of people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and incomes than any place in the country. It is going to be the richest feedbed of data imaginable for next generation theorizing and practice in disciplines ranging from networking to interface design; from multimedia art to interactive theater. Properly designed and funded such a program would attract top-notch, ground-breaking young scholars to ULL in numbers sufficient to make the university a national center in a field of interdisciplinary studies it, and Lafayette, could create.

An element in making such a push credible to an outside world that sees Louisiana through the lens of the White Citizens Council and the Jena 6 would be a real digital divide initiative and a strong, community-backed program to encourage every citizen to make the fullest possible use of the potential of the new network. With public, private, and university backing Lafayette could find itself among the Austins' and Research Triangles' of the US: places where people come and want to stay in order to build something special that they could build nowhere else. Dell Computer is an engine in Austin (and the US) becaue a student wanted to earn some extra cash and explore what he'd learned in school and for very little other substantial reason. That Hollywood is all but synonymous with riches worldwide is not due to any natural advantage but to an accident of history.

We could create such an accident here.

The real potential of such an open collaboration between the public, private, and university sectors would be in the spin-offs, the Dells, the Steve Jobs—the companies marketing the "inconsequential" by-products of new fields in the form of new services offered by drop-outs and folks who don't want to leave but have gained new, almost unique skills and put them to productive use. Texas poured its oil revenues into academics and, along the way, into a "far-out" and esoteric "computer science" department back in the days when the internet was a gleam in a researchers eye. An orthodonist's kid who showed up intending to become a doctor got hooked, got his hands dirty, and decided to drop out to really do this stuff. Dell Computer and a high-tech industry in dusty then-backwater Austin was the payback. That sector alone will return its investment many times long after the last oil is pumped from the sands beneath Texas.

If that strikes you as worthy thing to hope for there are few things you could do. You could support the university and especially its research arms in doing the "far out," esoteric things they are supposed to do. Hang around and hire the dropouts. Be tolerant of the oddities of those you don't fully understand. Feed 'em and share the music. Celebrate Mardi Gras. You could support a local survey of Lafayette's needs to provide all those future researchers a baseline from which to work. You could support LUS fully, regardless of any previous leanings—and say so. You could work to close the digital divide and to bring everyone in our community into full use of the technology we will own.

You could decide the future is worth working for.

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